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2018-19 Nashville Predators Position Preview: Role Players

Which players will make up this year’s bottom six?

Winnipeg Jets v Nashville Predators Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

We’ve covered the centers and the established top-six wingers, as well as the defense (twice) and the goaltenders. Today, we’re going to look at the rest of the veteran forwards, before wrapping the series up with a quick look at some up-and-coming young players (yes, this will include Eeli Tolvanen).

Position Strengths:

For the most part, the players we might hope to see filling out the bottom six are fine defensively and occasionally show up in the offensive zone as well. They’re not going to light the world on fire, but they’re solid.

This team has the forward depth to ice zero bad lines when everyone is healthy, which is exciting. Middle-six forwards like Calle Järnkrok and Ryan Hartman or Craig Smith add potential to the third line and leave a perfectly respectable fourth line.

Position Weaknesses:

Unfortunately, “not bad” might not be good enough. A lot of teams are shifting towards a top-nine/fourth-line kind of roster, where all three lines getting the most icetime are threats to score. Right now, that isn’t something the Predators really have the depth to manage. There’s not enough offense in the bottom six, which leaves the team very dependent on a handful of streaky scorers in the top six.

Also, Zac Rinaldo has still not been cut from the roster.

Catalyst of the Group:

Calle Järnkrok, the team’s “Swedish army knife,” has been asked to play every position except goalie for the Preds over the last few seasons, and I’m not entirely sure they couldn’t strap a spare set of Juuse Saros’s pads on him if they had to. He was given a chance as 1C for a little bit before the Ryan Johansen trade, as a top-line winger after the Johansen trade, and as 2C in the spring of 2017. At one point last season he even got switched to top-four defense in the middle of a game, when a combination of injuries and penalties left the team too short to send out two pairings.

Having a healthy Järnkrok who’s playing well gives Peter Laviolette and his staff options. They will plug him in wherever they feel they need to and adjust the rest of the team around him. In order for that to work, he needs to be at his best.

Breakout Player:

I think I’m betting on Rocco Grimaldi to surprise us, if he makes it through to opening night. Grimaldi is listed at 5’6” and hasn’t been able to stick with any NHL team so far, but he’s looked good this preseason and he’s had some promising flashes for his previous teams.

If all he’s been missing is opportunity to show what he can do, he could add some talent to the bottom six. I don’t think he’s going to be pushing for a spot on Johansen’s wing anytime soon, but even having another player who’d make an okay third-liner would be a great start for rounding out the team’s depth.

Calle Järnkrok

Nashville Predators v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

2017-18 Breakdown:

Järnkrok was in the middle of a career-best offensive season, scoring goals and making plays at an unprecedented rate, when he was injured in a game against the Winnipeg Jets. He finished his season in March with career highs in assists (19) and points (35), as well as tying his career high in goals (16).

However, he finished below even in shot share for the first time in his career. The Predators took only 48% of the shots with Järnkrok on the ice at even strength. It was a weird and bad season for him defensively—he usually helps the Preds give up fewer shots overall, and fewer shots from good locations in particular. He also struggled on the penalty kill, but that was more typical for him.

What he adds to the mix:

Laviolette has praised Järnkrok’s versatility, effort, and hockey IQ often, so we know he’s a comfort to the coaching staff to have around. However, the role he actually thrives in is one where he’s not relied on to produce offense. He does much better as a bottom-six forward than a top-six forward.

Expectations for the season:

I would be pleasantly surprised if Järnkrok found himself chasing forty points again. I think we see him looking at closer to thirty this season, if that. I do think he will probably be on the third line again, as he was last year, but I’m not sure he can repeat last year’s offensive success. I would be surprised if he struggled again in his own zone, unless that was an effect of playing with Nick Bonino—if it was, I’d like to see Laviolette change up the lines.

Frédérick Gaudreau

Nashville Predators v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

2017-18 Breakdown:

Freddy Gaudreau won a lot of hearts during the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, but his 2017-18 season didn’t live up to our hopes. He played in 20 games and had just 3 assists, while helping the Predators give up a lot more shots than they took—they had just 47% of the shots while Gaudreau was on the ice. Gaudreau’s lines also struggled with shot quality, giving up dangerous shots but not taking any of their own.

What he adds to the mix:

He’s looked okay this preseason, especially with newcomer Rocco Grimaldi. He doesn’t take many penalties, which is definitely something the Preds could use more of. And he’s still something of a fan favorite, which means it’ll be great if he can produce this year.

Expectations for the season:

I think we’ll probably see Gaudreau play in roughly 25-30 games, unless he’s either much better or much worse than I think he will be. I wouldn’t expect him to put up more than five points in that stretch.

Rocco Grimaldi

Vegas Golden Knights v Colorado Avalanche Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

2017-18 Breakdown:

Rocco Grimaldi spent most of 2017-18 with the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage, where he scored 31 points (15 goals/16 assists) in 49 games. He had three points (a goal and two assists) in the six games he spent with the Colorado Avalanche.

What he adds to the mix:

Grimaldi, who is 25 years old and no longer a prospect, is a little bit tricky to analyze. He’s played ten games with the Avs and another 27 with the Florida Panthers. Looking at shot rates and locations, he wasn’t great offensively or defensively as a fourth-line rookie in Florida, but he’s managed to be productive in the NHL time he’s gotten. He draws penalties and doesn’t take them. But he has also played less than half a full season in the NHL, spread out over multiple teams and coaches, and it’s difficult to say for sure what he brings.

That said, he’s gotten himself on the right side of the puck this preseason, which is a good start:

Left: the Predators’ preseason shot rates, with Grimaldi highlighted. Right: the NHL’s preseason shot rates, with Grimaldi highlighted.
Viz: Sean Tierney/@ChartingHockey. Data: @NatStatTrick,

Expectations for the season:

If he sticks on the roster, I think Grimaldi could make something good happen on the fourth line. It’s a pretty big “if,” though. There will be a lot of competition for the last two roster spots, and we could easily see Grimaldi get cut.

Miikka Salomäki

Minnesota Wild v Nashville Predators Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

2017-18 Breakdown:

After a triumphant 2017 preseason, Salomäki struggled with injuries throughout the season and still doesn’t seem to have recovered. He scored two goals and added six assists for eight points in the 56 games he played. He also took some penalties, much like way too many of his teammates.

In terms of shot share, he was good defensively and bad offensively—the Predators about broke even with Salomäki on the ice, and it’s worth noting that he seems to have helped keep the netfront area clear better than a lot of other players on the team last season.

Blue means fewer shots than league average were taken from that area, and red means more shots than average were. Salomäki might have the best-looking netfront area I’ve seen on any Pred’s 2017-18 heatmap, and though that right circle isn’t great he seems to have played LW more than RW.
Micah Blake McCurdy/@IneffectiveMath,

What he adds to the mix:

Before his injuries, Salomäki was a tenacious penalty-killer and a physical force in all situations. He also had a very underrated transition game, which could have helped make the fourth line something to reckon with.

Now, I’m not sure. He has not looked good in a while. Even if you think there are still good aspects to his game on paper, I think he’s running out of time to prove that.

Expectations for the season:

This time last year I thought he was going to have an amazing 2017-18, and I was excited. I’ve lowered my expectations a lot. I am not sure we see him in Nashville much if at all, as long as everyone else stays healthy.

Zac Rinaldo

Arizona Coyotes v San Jose Sharks Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

2017-18 Breakdown:

Last year, Rinaldo scored five goals and added two assists for the Arizona Coyotes. He also received his fifth NHL suspension, sitting six games for sucker-punching Avalanche defender Samuel Girard. During the time that the Coyotes were unfortunate enough to have Rinaldo available to them, he made the team much worse both offensively and defensively while he was on the ice, putting up a much-improved (!) 43% shot share.

What he adds to the mix:

Cheap, bad, dangerous penalties, because I guess someone decided the Predators didn’t spend enough time shorthanded as it was.

Rinaldo has 34 career NHL points and has been suspended a total of 25 NHL games. In 2016, he was suspended in the AHL while serving a suspension from the NHL. Rinaldo isn’t a fighter; this isn’t a question of whether enforcers work or whether teams should have them. His penalties and suspensions are for ugly and unsportsmanlike play which endangers the people he’s competing against.

Expectations for the season:

I expect Rinaldo to be dressed for multiple NHL games. He may score a few goals if he’s given enough games. At some point he will probably do something to get himself suspended again, and I hope the other player involved in that incident will be okay.