The new September ice may be cold, but it’s still thin ice for some.
As the season draws near and training camps open, lineup battles rage across teams, and the Nashville Predators are no exception. Some players work all summer to crack a lineup, others try to make the top line, and some strive to become a starting goaltender. There is a wide variety of competition and a wider spectrum of desperation for some players.
Here are the five Nashville Predators most in need of an excellent training camp performance.
For the better part of two years, Tony Bitetto has played the role of “fan favorite who never plays.” Last season he was the 8th-choice defenseman, with Head Coach Peter Laviolette preferring some combination of Matt Irwin, Alexei Emelin, and Yannick Weber for the Predators’ third defensive pairing. Nonetheless, Laviolette opted to carry eight defenseman on the roster all of last season, so he must value Bitetto and his positive locker room presence.
However, the realities of Bitetto’s contract situation have to be acknowledged. Currently, Bitetto is a 28-year-old who will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. His contract was due to expire at the end of last season, but General Manager David Poile extended him another season back in January. It would be foolish to believe Poile would do the same again.
Bitetto is not a prospect, but rather a mid-aged NHL player who had 3 points in 32 games last season. He did not dress for a single playoff game last season. If he wants to retain a future in the NHL, he must have an excellent training camp.
After having an excellent training camp last year that impressed Coach Laviolette, Miikka Salomäki wasted his full-time spot on the Predators’ roster. He scored 8 points in 58 games and, although he was expected to bring the hard-hitting style that earned him the nickname “the Finnish wrecking ball,” he mostly just took bad penalties. Salomäki was a liability in the Predators’ defensive zone, turning over the puck on breakouts and often choosing the wrong passing lane to interrupt. He managed to do even less in the offensive zone, unable to make smart decisions while simultaneously lacking the skill to do anything on his own with the puck.
Now, to make the opening day lineup, Salomäki has to outperform Ryan Hartman, Colton Sissons, Zac Rinaldo, and rookie sensation Eeli Tolvanen. Salomäki will be given his chance, but it looks like the team’s depth will push him out of the picture if he does not perform in training camp.
One of the Predators’ best pure-scoring prospects in franchise history, Eeli Tolvanen has already shown on the world stage that he has elite skill. The only question that remains is if it can translate to the NHL.
After joining the Nashville Predators last season, Tolvanen only played in three games. This was generally considered to be a disappointment. People looked at how he tore up KHL rookie scoring records for Helsinki Jokerit and his performances for Team Finland in the World Juniors and Winter Olympics, wondering how he failed to crack the Predators’ roster. Tolvanen was supposed to be a trade deadline acquisition from within. Instead, he was an empty space in the locker room.
Much of that disappointment can be chalked up to Tolvanen traveling over 57,706 miles last season before landing in Nashville, crossing 50 time zones and playing on three teams on three continents. It was more than acceptable for Tolvanen to feel a little fatigued upon arriving in Nashville last season. However, this season he has to break into the roster. He clearly has the talent to play at the NHL level, he just has to earn his spot.
Unlike everyone else on this list, Fiala’s spot on the opening night roster is secure. The only reason he would ever play in Milwaukee again would be on a conditioning assignment after injury.
Why is he on this list then?
There’s no mistake that Kevin Fiala has more raw skill than any Predator forward save for Filip Forsberg. However, Fiala was benched in the playoffs last season. Whatever the reason for this was, it looked fairly grim, as Scott Hartnell was chosen to play on the second line over Fiala. This was in spite of Fiala scoring the game-winning goal in game two of the series.
Fiala will be a restricted free agent at the end of this season, so if he wants a payday, he must tighten up his defensive presence so that he does not become expendable on the second line.
Speaking of the second line, if Eeli Tolvanen proves his worth in training camp, there is a good chance that one winger is going to get moved down the depth chart. Fiala, who is the least established winger in the Predators’ top six, may be the easiest to move down the roster. This would be detrimental to Fiala’s game. He is a player who needs to be surrounded by great passers to find him in open space, something that Nick Bonino simply will not do to great enough effect on the third line. Tolvanen also uses a lot of space on the ice, and there are valid concerns about whether he and Fiala could prosper on a line together. If Fiala has a great training camp, then he will make it much harder for Laviolette to move him out of the top six.
Time is running out for fan favorite Frédérick Gaudreau. After becoming an overnight sensation for the Nashville Predators in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, Gaudreau played 20 games last season and had 3 assists. He spent most of the season with the Milwaukee Admirals, scoring 43 points in 54 games. Gaudreau is 25 years old now and is no longer a prospect. If he wants to stick to the NHL, he needs to make an impact now.
The undrafted forward has always had the cards stacked against him, but once again Gaudreau has to take matters into his own hands. As if competing with Ryan Hartman, Colton Sissons, Zac Rinaldo, and Miikka Salomäki for a lineup spot wasn’t hard enough, there will also be one fewer spot if Eeli Tolvanen makes the team. Gaudreau could not ask for a harder time to try and establish himself.
Every fan in Nashville wants Frédérick Gaudreau to make the roster. The likely scenario is that, even with a good camp, Gaudreau will start the season with Milwaukee. However, if he can really turn some heads in camp, he will earn his shot with Nashville sooner rather than later.