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OTF Mailbag: Admirals, Wingers, and the Cup Window

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The OTF mailbag returns!

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve dusted off the mailbag again! Every few weeks we’ll put out a call for questions about the Predators or the NHL/hockey in general, and then do our best to answer them. If you have questions before then, you can send them to us via Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, or comments here on the site.

This week most of our questions are from Twitter, and our answers come from Kate, Laura (welcome back, Laura!), Chris Brooks, and Rachel.

Kate: I think Eeli Tolvanen is a more likely top-six candidate than Ryan Hartman. Tolvanen looks like the best prospect in the organization right now, while Hartman is a more seasoned player with a fairly defined and less shiny role. A lot of player deployment seems to be based on reputation, and right now Tolvanen’s reputation is “Goalvanen” while Hartman isn’t known for his scoring. Also, though it’s a separate question, I think that Tolvanen is less likely to be successful in a bottom-six role than Hartman is.

Laura: I guess we are assuming that Tolvanen makes the team out of camp. It could be he’d benefit from some time in Milwaukee before coming up. Remember Filip Forsberg’s first year? That said, if Tolvanen does make the team out of camp he will spend more time in the top six than Ryan Hartman.

(For new fans: the Preds acquired Forsberg at the 2013 trade deadline, and he spent all but a few games of the 2013-14 season—his first full season with the Preds—playing in Milwaukee and getting used to the US and the North American ice. Forsberg’s AHL time was in the pre-Laviolette era, but Kevin Fiala has also spent some time in Milwaukee. Tolvanen’s situation and contract are a little different than theirs, but it’s a definite possibility.)

Rachel: Ryan Hartman is sort of a versatile 3rd or 4th line guy. His job is to annoy and pester opponents and draw penalties with his gritty style of play. His role is really already defined and Eeli Tolvanen is not the type of player Hartman is. I’d like to see Tolvanen take a crack at the second line. He needs space to create from a center like Kyle Turris and a speedy linemate like Craig Smith. There are plenty of wingers who can mentor the young Finn up and down the lineup—he might even benefit from time with Filip Forsberg. We’ve seen flashes of Tolvanen’s brilliance, especially recently in the rookie tournament. With more snipes like those, I’d fully expect Tolvanen to stay in the top six.

Chris: Tolvanen should not only get the first crack at it, he should get more time there. Hartman’s role will likely remain as a bottom-six forward for the time being. That’s not to say he won’t get a shot—Peter Laviolette has a penchant for line tinkering even if something is working (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing), so he’ll get a chance at a top-six slot at some point. But Tolvanen’s skill set is more suited to a top-six role, and perhaps he earns it early this season. We’ll see.

Chris: What on earth did Frédérick Gaudreau do to deserve this banishment? Well, the short answer is he didn’t do enough to keep from getting banished. All I keep seeing is “free Freddy,” but the question that needs to be asked is, who gets left out if you do free Freddy? Gaudreau had a magical Stanley Cup Final, but he simply couldn’t take advantage of that momentum and grab a spot in the lineup on a regular basis. Honestly, I’d like to see him get another shot, but if he plays in 1/4 of the games this season and can’t stick, then perhaps we should just remember the good times and let them be.

Kate: Gaudreau played in 20 games with the Predators last season and if I’d had to guess I would have guessed he played in maybe half as many. He had as many total NHL points last season as he had goals in the Stanley Cup Final in 2017. I think Colin Wilson made a lot of us a little skeptical.

Laura: He had a good year last year in Milwaukee and played a surprising number of NHL games. I was hoping that he would get the nod this year, but the Miikka Salomäki re-signing and the assumption that Eeli Tolvanen makes the team likely mean he’s just a call-up again this year.

Rachel: Truth be told, I’d like to see Frédérick Gaudreau get a solid shot at the lineup this season. Miikka Salomäki can throw his body around, but we’ve seen flashes of Gaudreau’s skill and he deserves a look at the fourth line this season. Gaudreau put up some solid numbers in the AHL last season after being sent back down: 22 goals and 21 assists. There was even a stretch of games early in 2018 where he scored five goals in three games.

With 8 defensemen on the Preds’ roster, will we ride again with 1 forward and 2 defensemen through the season (assuming everybody is healthy)? Or will we see some defenseman getting waived? If the latter, who would be the likeliest candidate?

CGBrules

Laura: I’m not sure I understand why, but Peter Laviolette seems to be most comfortable keeping two extra defensemen and one extra forward, so I’m guessing that is the initial plan. That said, an additional forward could make a case in camp for waiving or trading the eighth defenseman to give him a spot instead. My guess would be Anthony Bitetto if so. I do think we’ll go with eight and thirteen though. (Another impact, maybe at the deadline, could be losing the eighth defenseman to make a permanent home for Dante Fabbro or another prospect.)

Kate: If I had to guess why Laviolette is so fond of the extra defenseman, it’s because if two forwards aren’t available you can basically roll three lines without too much disruption (or, depending on who the forwards are, curl up and cry), but if two defensemen aren’t available then you might end up with a three-forward penalty kill or worse. That actually happened last year—Calle Järnkrok had to finish a game playing defense. Keeping two spare defensemen around gives Laviolette a little more flexibility in setting lines if one of the regulars isn’t good to go, even though it can’t help with in-game injuries or penalties. That said, if anyone does get waived, I think it’s Tony Bitetto.

Chris: Expect that, get used to it and believe in it. The good news is that in that group of eight, there is no Alexei Emelin. Unless a forward from Milwaukee comes up to challenge for a roster spot (could be Freddy G, could be someone else), I think eight defensemen will be the norm and not the exception. I also don’t think anyone gets waived, but if someone does, it’s Anthony Bitetto. He’s in a contract year and is only on the books for a $650K cap hit, so he’s the cheapest out if they choose to cut bait. Side note: this is the final year the Preds have to deal with Viktor Stalberg’s cap hit ($1,666,667), so that’s extra room coming back for next season.

Rachel: I see Miikka Salomäki as Nashville’s 13th forward. He will likely cycle in and out with Gaudreau. With the addition of Dan Hamhuis, two of Matt Irwin, Yannick Weber, or Anthony Bitetto will be sitting each evening. Once training camp opens, we will have a better idea of who Hamhuis will play with. My guess is that he will play with Weber. Bitetto and Irwin will be the scratches enjoying the game from the press box. The team will most likely carry 8 defensemen and 13 forwards. Finally, I don’t see Anthony Bitetto staying on with Nashville after this season. His contract will be due for an extension next summer and he’s basically been an extra d-man for his entire tenure with the team. While we love “Uncle Tone,” he might have a better future on another team with less defensive depth.

Chris: I don’t see it as one window, but two—one with Pekka Rinne as the starter and one with Juuse Saros as the starter. The reason I don’t put them together is that it will take Saros a bit to adjust to a starter’s role once he gets it (whether it’s through Rinne’s retirement or a natural “changing of the guard,” so to speak). One to two more years with Rinne, one year for Saros to adjust to the increased workload, and 2-3 more years in front of Saros. The core group is mostly locked in for the next 3-4 years. There are questions, such as Saros’ backup (does Rinne want to be that guy at 37 or 38?) and the pipeline from Milwaukee (a grave concern), but as contenders, even in the brutal West, they’ve got a few more years to battle for it.

Rachel: I’d give the Preds another 3-4 years as legitimate contenders before age becomes a concern. The lack of a defined backup to Saros is also concerning. Will Dante Fabbro be a boom or a bust? Who will he replace? I guess the main issue I see with Nashville remaining contenders has to do with the fact that we have few legitimate NHL prospects, and nearly none on the “elite” level that can replace our current scoring wingers. Note: it breaks my heart to think that Nashville could win a Cup without Pekka Rinne.

Laura: I’m not as confident in the 3-4 years as I would like to be. A lot depends on the Rinne–Saros situation (because if one of them goes down who is next?) and finding some more scoring threats (looking at you, Johansen and Turris). If the goaltending holds up and we trade one of the Horsemen before we lose him in expansion, I’ll say four years.

Kate: I’m concerned that it might already be starting to close. The core defensemen are aging out of their prime, the Preds’ best forwards are either peaking now or already on the downslope, and Rinne can only stop time for so long. The prospect pool isn’t looking great, either. Who backs up Saros? Who steps in on defense? Where are the forwards? I hope we get some concrete answers to those questions, but until we do I don’t think time is on the Preds’ side. Pencil me down for maybe three more years as well, but I can’t shake the feeling thatI’m going to be regretting the outcome of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final for longer than I’d like.