Yesterday was the first day of training camp for the NHL, meaning that the new season is officially beginning and the failures of last season are behind us. With new faces and a couple of prospects who could challenge for roster spots, the Predators’ training camp this season should be more exciting than those in seasons past—arguably the most intriguing camp since the Predators acquired P.K. Subban.
Now, Subban is gone. Matt Duchene is finally a Predator. Juuse Saros continues to improve, and prospects Eeli Tolvanen, Dante Fabbro, and Rem Pitlick all look like they could win positions in the starting lineup.
After such a disappointing exit from the playoffs last season, do not expect many spots in the lineup to be safe. General manager David Poile shook up the core and head coach Peter Laviolette needs to take the Predators deep in the playoffs to cool the somewhat hot seat he now sits on. Finally, with everyone in one rink practicing again, what three storylines in training camp are the most intriguing?
What Is Happening with Kyle Turris?
There’s no real way to sugar-coat it: Kyle Turris was a disappointment last season. Starting as the second-line center, Turris only put up 23 points in 55 games for the Predators. In addition, he did not seem to elevate the play of those around him, a task that centers are perhaps unfairly responsible for. He looked bad, and he was accordingly demoted to the fourth line and even scratched a few times near the season’s end.
However, it is important to remember that he was injured for much of last season. Additionally, during the IIHF World Championships, news broke that Kyle Turris had been playing through that nagging pain from his injury for the majority of the spring. Trying to tough it out through the pain and then opting to play in the World Championships instead of getting rest speaks volumes about how dedicated Kyle Turris actually is to winning. This was really a season where everything that could have gone wrong for the Predators did go wrong, and the same goes for Kyle Turris.
At the World Championships. Turris was named captain of Team Canada, a surprise to many fans but, if one considers his perseverance playing through injuries and pain, it makes more sense. Turris returned the favor and thrived. In ten games, Turris scored at a point-per-game clip and led Team Canada to a silver medal.
There could not have been a better antidote for Turris. Just as the great 80’s cult classic film Better Off Dead offers the great advice “You just need a taste of your own success,” Turris needed a boost to his confidence and to do it himself. The former Wisconsin Badger scored seven goals all season, but found the net four times in the tournament. His ten points were good for third on the team behind Mark Stone and Turris’ linemate Anthony Mantha. Seeing such a strong scoring touch from Turris was in every way an unexpected and surprising turn of events.
Now, entering training camp, Turris’ role on the Predators is undecided. After the Predators acquired Matt Duchene in free agency, the likely landing spot for Kyle Turris is to be the third line center. Paying $6m for any third line player is a hard pill to swallow, especially when it means that your now-fourth line center, Nick Bonino, is carrying an AAV of $4.1m this season.
This has led to some speculation that Turris could potentially be moved from center to a wing, which makes a little sense. Craig Smith, while a deserving second-line winger, has shown that he can move up and down the lineup. Additionally, if the Predators want to have a tough Sissons-Bonino combo on the third line, Smith would compliment them while still bringing his own style. I have a lot of doubts about Kyle Turris fitting in well on the third line as a winger, but such an outcome is not out of the realm of possibility.
The worst outcome from training camp would be if Laviolette relegated Kyle Turris to the fourth line. If $6m for a third line center is bad, paying that much for a fourth line center is so much worse. Additionally, Kyle Turris is better than a fourth-line NHL player, regardless of where the Predators put him. It would be an abysmal situation not only for the Predators, but also for Turris himself.
Finally, who will Turris play with? Unfortunately, that’s a question deserving of its own category.
Who Are the Bottom-Six Wingers?
Assuming that Kyle Turris and Nick Bonino will be centering the final two lines, there are eight players competing for four spots along their wings. Those eight players are Calle Jarnkrok, Austin Watson, Rocco Grimaldi, Miikka Salomaki, Eeli Tolvanen, Colton Sissons, Rem Pitlick, and Frederick Gaudreau. Additionally, what if Kyle Turris moves to wing and either he or Craig Smith play minutes in the third line right wing position?
The only two players that seem safe from that list are Calle Jarnkrok and Colton Sissons, while Watson, Grimaldi, Salomaki, and Gaudreau all are in danger of losing their spots. Jarnkrok is an extremely versatile player who can slot in anywhere in the lineup, and the same goes for Colton Sissons, who also has a slight scoring touch.
Watson, Grimaldi, Salomaki, and Gaudreau all have their flaws. Austin Watson, once considered a penalty killing machine, lost that touch and was instead a liability on the penalty kill last season, meaning there’s nothing special he really brings to the lineup. Salomaki’s stock has steadily declined due to his injury issues, and Gaudreau never took the next step from the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals to become a new Gabriel Bourque.
Meanwhile, the Predators have two thrilling prospects in Eeli Tolvanen and Rem Pitlick. Similarly to how the Washington Capitals dismissed Filip Forsberg when he was their prospect, Tolvanen’s stock seemed to drop because he failed to immediately make an impact in the NHL. However, like Forsberg, Tolvanen may have just needed a little time in the AHL with the Milwaukee Admirals to grow into his own. While not lighting the world on fire, he was learning how to play hockey in a way that could translate to NHL success. As our own Eric Dunay said in his prospect rankings, “Tolvanen was less reliant on power play scoring and was able to diversify his scoring locations due to a growing understanding of time and space on North American rinks.” That’s exactly what the Predators coaching staff is looking for from Tolvanen. Everyone knows his shot is already elite, it’s just about everything else coming together.
Often shooters like Tolvanen need players to open up space on the ice for them, and the former Golden Gopher Rem Pitlick did just that. I had the chance to watch Pitlick a few times last season in his games against Ohio State, where he displayed incredible speed and poise with the puck. He is undersized and could have some trouble taking hits, but he does an excellent job of protecting the puck, doing so much better than Tolvanen. The two exhibited great chemistry together in the recent prospects tournament largely because Pitlick was able to absorb pressure and draw opponents in, thus freeing Tolvanen. Let’s be honest, putting Tolvanen on a fourth line with Gaudreau and Watson was never going to work because neither of those players can create space and time like Pitlick. He and Tolvanen compliment each other very well, so do not be surprised if these two make the opening roster over some fourth line players from last season. I think that putting them on the wings of Kyle Turris could create a very exciting, offensive, and just plain old fun line to watch.
Who is Dante Fabbro’s Defensive Partner?
By now it seems all but certain that Dante Fabbro will feature on the Predators’ second defensive pairing. The question is, with whom will he play?
Before Shea Weber was traded, he played with Roman Josi while Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm were the other pairing. Both Josi and Ekholm shoot left, while Ellis and Weber shoot right. When P.K. Subban, another right handed shot, arrived, he slotted in with Josi to preserve the chemistry that Ellis and Ekholm had together. Obviously, that did not last, as Josi and Subban never seemed to be on the same page, bringing Laviolette to split up both pairings and place Josi and Ellis together with Subban and Ekholm becoming a dominant shut-down pairing.
Now, with Subban out and Fabbro, another right-handed shot, coming in, it will be interesting to see who ends up playing together. Conventional wisdom would say that Fabbro slots in next to Ekholm so that only one defensive pairing has to develop chemistry. However, the pairing of Josi and Ellis seems to have lost a little bit of its effectiveness and their defensive zone play has suffered. Additionally, Ekholm and Ellis already have a history of playing together. If Fabbro and Ekholm don’t find a lot of immediate chemistry, keep an eye on Laviolette to mix up the top defensive pairings.