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Why going all in on Taylor Hall doesn’t make sense for the Predators

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Rumors are swirling about the reason behind David Poile’s sudden rush to clear cap space—or real salary—or both.

NHL: Arizona Coyotes at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, the Nashville Predators traded a package of picks and Nick Bonino (one more year at $4.1M) for Luke Kunin (RFA) and a later pick, and put Kyle Turris (four more years at $6M) on unconditional waivers for a buyout (eight more years at $2M).

These moves clear both salary cap and—potentially—hard cash.

With the NHL schedule for 2020-21 uncertain and sure to be impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 situation, many individual teams are probably finding themselves in uncertain financial waters as well. There are no ticket sales, in-arena advertising, or concessions to bring revenue to teams. Not only that, but many teams are owned by people who have taken a blow to their portfolios due to the pandemic.

I don’t intend to speculate on whether the Predators needed to make these moves to fit with a new internal cap or not, and we likely won’t ever know unless they either successfully sign free agents with the cleared cap space or tell us that they’re now working with an internal cap lower than the league’s. David Poile did say yesterday in answer to a question from the Athletic’s Adam Vingan that he does not have an internal cap, but that’s not a thing you’d expect a GM to admit to. (The Predators not signing big won’t mean anything, if it happens, since it could just as easily be that they tried to get in on a blockbuster free agent—or offer sheet someone like Brayden Point—and missed out.)

The Bonino trade could have been because the team’s scouts were very high on Kunin, but the Turris buyout is, frankly, awful asset management in a vacuum. Turris isn’t worse than no player at all, and buying him out now leaves his $2M buyout cap hit on the books for another eight years, one of the longest buyout terms in NHL history. Even just one more year of Turris on the Preds’ roster—or even in Milwaukee—would have cut that dead-cap timespan down. That they’re preparing to buy him out now suggests urgency.

It’s already been reported both that Mikael Granlund and Craig Smith are going to be testing the market and that the Predators are looking to get younger, so it seems unlikely to be only about keeping current players. It’s possible, especially if the player they’re trying to keep is Smith, but the Bonino trade and Turris buyout ($8.1M), as well as Smith’s expiring contract ($4.25M), leave $12.35M just to re-sign Smith and Kunin—not even getting into the money from Granlund’s inevitable departure.

They don’t need that kind of money just for that. If they don’t have another player in mind as a target, it must be a cash concern; if it isn’t either, then it’s just plain foolish.

Normally, it might be reasonable to suspect that a team that’s talked about going younger and developing new players, and which has had gotten less far in the postseason with each of the past four years (2017: Stanley Cup Final; 2018: second round; 2019: first round; 2020: missed), might be settling into a rebuild. Cap space is a good thing to have when you’re rebuilding, both to leverage in the short term to get assets from other teams and to keep in the long term so that promising young players can get paid after their ELCs are up.

However, both Elliotte Friedman and Pierre LeBrun are reporting that the Nashville Predators are among the teams pursuing Taylor Hall, whose agent has confirmed that he will not be re-signing with the Arizona Coyotes. The former Hart trophy winner (with the New Jersey Devils) and long-time lottery specialist (with the Devils and the Edmonton Oilers) will turn 29 before the NHL season starts, but he’s still an impactful offensive player capable of producing at close to a point per game pace—probably.

Red and positive numbers in the offensive zone (top row) are good; blue and negative numbers in the defensive zone (bottom row) are bad.
Micah Blake McCurdy/@IneffectiveMath, hockeyviz.com

Last season, something went wrong for Hall, who missed more than half of 2018-19 due to a knee injury that required surgery. These may be unrelated. The change in systems as the Devils switched coaches from John Hynes to Alain Nasreddine, and then Hall was traded to the Coyotes and began work with his third head coach of the season (Rick Tocchet), may have affected things, or he might just have had a bad couple of months. Some of the people hoping for Hall-to-Nashville point out the success he enjoyed under Hynes in New Jersey, so maybe even if the firing had helped the Devils it didn’t help Hall.

Still, it’s worth noting that after 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons where he helped the Devils control play for a full 200 feet, Hall’s offensive and defensive effectiveness have both been declining every year—as has his real production.

In 2017-18, the season he won the Hart, he was scoring at a rate of 1.28 points per twenty minutes at all strengths. In 2018-19, that dropped to 1.14 points/20. In 2019-20 with the Devils, he had 0.87 points/20; and after being traded to the Coyotes, 0.81 points/20. (I’ve used points per 20 instead of points per 60 because that’s roughly equivalent to “per game” for a top-line forward.) Hall’s 19-20 was erratic; his usually-poor shooting percentage cratered at the start of the season, and although it improved in Arizona, his new teammates struggled to convert on his passes, leaving him with a much lower assist rate. It might smooth out in the wash, but in combination with that sharply declining defensive ability, and with the fact that most NHLers do not maintain peak production into their 30s, it’s something to keep an eye on.

However, ultimately the question here isn’t “is Taylor Hall a good addition in free agency?” (yet). The question is, “is Taylor Hall a good addition for the Nashville Predators in free agency?” and I think, looking at where the team is now, that the answer has to be “No.”

If David Poile wants to get younger and give the existing prospects a chance to shine—which is, let’s be real, code for “rebuild” or “soft rebuild”—he doesn’t need to be spending huge money on an aging free agent. More than that, it’s not fair to the prospects, whether or not there’s a rebuild going on.

After yesterday, the Predators’ third-line center is presumably Philip Tomasino. Would Matt Duchene get Eeli Tolvanen with Hall on the second line? Who does that leave Tomasino with, the Preds’ “Swedish army knife” Calle Järnkrok and...Rocco Grimaldi? Rem Pitlick? Is this really the line the Predators want to put a high-ceiling offensive creator like Tomasino on? If they’d kept Craig Smith it might have worked better, but they haven’t made that a priority. Or do the Predators start Tomasino at wing, leaving Järnkrok or Colton Sissons as the 3C—and if so, is it Tomasino or Tolvanen who has to play in the bottom six so Hall can play in the top six? It just doesn’t make sense.

Taylor Hall might be a tempting target, but the Predators don’t have the roster to use him to best advantage. His window is right now, and it looks like the Predators’ has closed for the moment. The team doesn’t need to spend a fortune now to get the biggest name in the market, especially when their track record with big forward acquisitions (Ryan Johansen, Kyle Turris, Mikael Granlund, Matt Duchene...) has been so underwhelming. Instead, they need to look toward the future, be prepared not to contend for a little bit, stockpile draft picks, and make higher-reward choices next draft.


Statistics and analysis from hockeyviz.com, naturalstattrick.com, and Corey Sznajder. Contract information from capfriendly.com.