With momentum seemingly building towards hockey returning in mid-January, a flurry of NHL player movement is likely forthcoming. A handful of teams mired in cap hell will need to unload significant contracts, while a plethora of high-profile free agents remain on the market.
Right in the middle of the chaos, seemingly, is the Nashville Predators. The team’s name has popped up as a “possible landing spot” for many high-profile names reportedly available. Those include both trade targets, like Jonathan Marchessault and Alex Killorn, and free agents, like Mike Hoffman and (former Pred) Mikael Granlund.
It’s important to remember we have to take any offseason rumors with a grain of salt. The Predators’ link to certain players could simply be a reporter’s conjecture: a “the Predators have cap space and need a forward, and hey look, this is a forward” situation.
But where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire. And the fact that the Predators are attached to so many rumors is a strong hint that David Poile is probably out there kicking tires around the hockey universe.
If Poile is indeed targeting another top-six forward, it makes sense. Depth scoring has been an Achilles heel for Nashville over the past three seasons, and the departures of the aforementioned Granlund, Craig Smith, and Kyle Turris only heighten concerns.
At the same time, Poile has also found himself in a prime position. The Predators are sitting on a mound of cap space. They also have the core of their team locked up for the next handful of seasons. They’re one of the few top-level teams not facing the possibility of a cap crunch or a major free agent exodus in the next few years. Poile has flexibility—something he touted in early October after his initial offseason moves—and no shortage of options on the table to give the Preds a boost.
Among the options on the table? Doing nothing.
I know, playing the waiting game isn’t the sexy move. Preds fans are likely chomping at the bit for that one big addition they’ve grown accustomed to over the past handful of seasons. But as we’ve seen in the past, all it takes is one ill-fated roster move to back your team into a corner.
Let’s play Devil’s advocate and say the Predators do decide to take advantage of another team’s cap misfortune. Say they try to pry William Karlsson or Jonathan Marchessault from the Vegas Golden Knights, or, as The Athletic’s Adam Vingan pitched this week, lay down a rare offer sheet for Tampa Bay’s Anthony Cirelli. The consensus is that these teams are so desperate to shed salary, the Preds could, for lack of a better term, take advantage of them, and acquire a prime player for next to nothing.
The thing to remember, however, is that if those players ARE on the block, the Predators probably won’t be the only teams that come calling. Yes, a team like Vegas is going to be desperate to move a big contract, but it’s not like they’re trying to move dead weight either. Karlsson and Marchessault are perennial high-scoring, top-line forwards who haven’t hit the age of 30 yet. Vegas will likely get multiple offers, and they’ll have the ability to choose the best one.
Two questions pop up for the Predators in this scenario: How sure are you that one of these guys is the answer to your second-line woes? And how much of a bidding war do you want to get into in order to move them to Nashville?
The other part of that equation, whomever comes in via trade, is the cap implication. The contracts involved are the main reason these players are on the block to begin with. Marchessault has four years, including next season, left on his deal at $5 million AAV, while Karlsson has 7 years left at $5.9 million AAV. Yes, the Predators currently have the cap room for one of those deals, and will still likely have some space for another big “something” down the line. But that’s still a significant commitment. And if those players don’t wind up being a fit, the Preds are backed into the same corner they were with Turris.
It’s the same situation with a potential offer sheet, the most intriguing option on the table. Cirelli, as Vingan reported this week, is projected to receive a six-year deal worth just over $5.8 AAV. But to make it a deal Tampa Bay absolutely could not justify matching, the Preds would need to overpay to an extent, likely somewhere in the $7 million to $8 million range.
Now Cirelli has flashed hints of becoming a force in the NHL. He may very well develop into a superstar someday. But again, is that a gamble Poile is willing to take? Not only would that Cirelli deal eat up a big chunk of cap space (probably for at least six or seven years), but the Preds would also be forced to surrender precious draft capital. In this case, it would potentially cost a first-, second-, and third-round pick. That’s a hefty price for a team trying to refill their relatively shallow prospect pool.
The Predators’ best option might lie within the remaining free agent market. Hoffman, who scored 29 goals last season, has indicated he’d be willing to take a one-year “prove it” deal (Anthony Duclair is another guy who could fall into this category). This type of deal would be a prime low-risk, high-reward scenario.
But again, that’s not a deal Poile has to make. In fact, if there’s not a fit—style- or salary-wise—his best fit may to be sit back and work with what he has.
This is the closest the Predators have had to a “clean slate” in the forward corps since the Ryan Johansen trade. Gone are Turris and Granlund, two high-profile additions that simply weren’t a fit. So too are Craig Smith, Nick Bonino, and Austin Watson, all guys who played a significant number of games.
The clean slate works two-fold. First, it opens the door for—as Poile put it in September—promotion from within. Eeli Tolvanen, the Preds’ 2018 first-rounder, will get the best shot of his career to earn a permanent spot on the team, following his best season in North America. Philip Tomasino, currently representing Canada at the World Junior Championships, is another youngster who could earn a roster spot by opening night. There’s also ample opportunity for current Preds, like Colton Sissons, Yakov Trenin, and the newly-acquired Luke Kunin, to prove they can handle a more prominent role with more offensive responsibility.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, it gives Poile a focused look at the players already part of his core. Which linemates work best with Matt Duchene? What playing style best suits Ryan Johansen? How do you maximize Filip Forsberg?
There’s been such a focus on the “new blood” over the past few seasons that the guys above have seemingly suffered. Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson trudged through difficult seasons while skating with a smorgasbord of line combinations. Forsberg and Duchene had better years, statistically, but also underwent the same issue of continually popping up on different lines for the sake of “trying to get [whichever player was slumping at the time] going.” With the current roster, there’s a clear focus on the main four forwards, and a better opportunity to determine what maximizes their talents in Nashville.
There’s a notion that the Predators have to make one more move: another top six forward to offset the losses. But if there’s just no one available that’s a fit, then why force something? Too many times we’ve seen NHL teams throw money at players for no reason other than “they’re the best available” and “they fill a need.” The Predators have unfortunately fallen victim to this trap over the past handful of seasons, and quite frankly, they can’t afford another move like this.
This isn’t a preemptive take declaring any future acquisition a bad move. If there’s a deal that makes sense for the Predators, I’m all for Poile pulling the trigger. My point is that he doesn’t have to.
Between the flat cap situation and the upcoming expansion draft, the next 12 months are going to be a hectic period for player movement. More high-end players will find themselves on the block. We’re also looking at the possibility of another deep free agent class this coming summer, with the likes of Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and—again—Taylor Hall potentially on the market.
This is why I’m content with the #Preds sitting on excess cap space this offseason. No, not everyone on this list is going to be in play. But it is a reminder there’s going to be a ton of player movement over the next year, and the Preds are in a prime spot to be aggressive https://t.co/00OD0Ac6oU— Nick Morgan (@_nsmorgan) December 2, 2020
As far as the present, doing nothing may not be the popular move, but it just may be the right one for the Preds right now.