The Nashville Predators’ season is over. In many ways, that fact seems merciful.
In many ways, their Game 4 overtime loss to the Arizona Coyotes on Friday was a microcosm of the Preds’ entire year. The late rally, courtesy of Filip Forsberg’s tying goal with just 32 seconds left, simply wasn’t enough to erase the team’s earlier struggles. The Coyotes won in overtime, unceremoniously ending a Predators season that seemed steeped in potential, but was ultimately doomed from the start.
The Predators will of course sing Arizona’s praises. They’ll give kudos to Darcy Kuemper’s elite performance in goal. They’ll focus on the onslaught of offensive chances. They’ll remind us “they played well enough to win, but just couldn’t finish.”
There’s truth to that, sure. But the fact remains that — for the second year in a row — the Predators were eliminated in their first playoff series by a team that they should have beaten.
And now the focus turns to the offseason, where General Manager David Poile will lead the hunt for those “one or two missing pieces” that are going to lead Nashville to the Stanley Cup.
Those are the same missing pieces that Nashville lacked after the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals. Sure, the loss to Pittsburgh hurt. But that series only heightened our excitement for the future. The Predators had a good mix of veterans in their prime and a young core that seemed poised to take their game to the next level. The fact that the Predators got to the Finals was living proof that they were on the cusp of success. They just needed one or two more pieces to get them there.
Then 2018 happened. The Winnipeg Jets came into town and out-Preds’d the Preds, knocking Nashville out in the second round. But hey, upsets happen. A second-round loss to a tough division rival could be forgiven once. After all, the Predators were President’s Trophy winners — the best team in the league. They had a good mix of veterans in their prime and a young core that seemed poised to take their game to the next level. They were on the right track... They just needed one or two more pieces.
Then we got to 2019, maybe the worst all-around effort we saw from the Predators in a playoff series in years. The Dallas Stars, a wild card team, outplayed Nashville in virtually every aspect on the ice. As a result, the Preds went out with a whimper in the first round. But even then, it’s not like Nashville was a bad team. They were, after all, division champions in a tough division. (And hey, just look at Tampa Bay!) After all, they had a good mix of veterans in their prime and a young core that seemed poised to take their game to the next level. They were ready for a breakthrough... They just needed one or two more pieces.
Now we’re in 2020. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
In many ways, this year’s Predators roster was an all-in play from Poile. P.K. Subban, one year removed from a Norris nomination, was jettisoned for the cap space needed to bring in Matt Duchene, the most expensive free agent in team history. It was another instance of Poile parlaying the Preds’ heralded defensive depth into shoring up the team’s top two forward lines.
But it didn’t work, not this year at least. Duchene finished with just 42 points his first season with the team. That’s the same amount scored by St. Louis’s Robert Thomas, a player who earned $7 million LESS than Duchene this year.
The problem now is that Poile has built himself into a corner. Since 2016, he’s invested $240 million in contracts, two first-round picks, and a number of prized prospects into his forward corps — who remain one of the lowest-scoring groups in the league. Filip Forsberg led all Preds forwards with 46 points, tied for 76th in the league. Add the fact that the Predators are short on cap space, and have a sizable number of expensive long-term contracts, and there’s not much more room for error.
And unlike years past, the Preds don’t have the luxury of reaching into their defensive surplus to solve that problem up front. Beyond Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis, the Predators struggled with consistency on the blue line. Mattias Ekholm suffered from a down season, perhaps partially due to his partner Dante Fabbro’s up-and-down rookie season. The bottom pair was a source of frustration beyond the year. From veterans Dan Hamhuis and Yannick Weber to new blood like Jarred Tinordi and Korbinian Holzer, the Predators failed to get any sort of significant contribution from any combination on the bottom pair. In some cases, the mistakes by that group actively cost the Predators games.
By no means is the roster a complete disaster. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The aforementioned Josi and Ellis may very well be the best two-way defensive pair in the NHL right now, and another summer’s worth of growth from Fabbro will certainly help the top four. And despite the chaos up front, the postseason performance of the JoFA line — Ryan Joahnsen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson — has restored faith that the Predators have a true number one line to build around.
The question, one neither Poile, head coach John Hynes, nor former bench boss Peter Laviolette have been able to solve, is how to give all that talent their best chance to succeed. Past attempts have failed, and before the Predators can have freedom to make new attempts, significant sacrifices will have to be made.
One of those sacrifices might be Craig Smith. The Smashville fan favorite is about to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career. Smith has found his niche as a high-energy middle-six winger capable of scoring 20 goals a year on a consistent basis, and alongside Nick Bonino and Rocco Grimaldi formed perhaps Nashville’s most consistently effective line this season.
Then there’s Mikael Granlund, the Predators’ other major unrestricted free agent. While he never came close to the level of production he enjoyed in Minnesota, Granlund’s level of play skyrocketed after John Hynes took over. His 11 goals in Hynes’s 28 games behind the bench were most among Preds forwards.
But it seems destined the Predators will lose — at LEAST — one of those forwards. Smith made $4.25 million last year while Granlund made $5.75 million. Sure, one can argue both had down seasons, and as a result, could probably expect a cut from their prior deals. But this is NHL free agency; a time when general managers hand out $6 million dollar-a-year deals to middle-six forwards like fun-sized Snickers on Halloween. With just over $9 million to play with this offseason, it’ll be hard for Poile to justify a bidding war to keep both (or perhaps, either) of his free agent forwards.
Then there’s the curious case of Kyle Turris, a complex situation of the Predators’ own making. Turris was just one year into his six-year, $36 million dollar deal when he was rumored to be on the trade block. This past season, he found himself bouncing between fourth line center and perennial healthy scratch as rumors of a rift with Peter Laviolette spread like wildfire throughout the league. Sure, Turris’s year improved — not surprisingly — after the coaching change, and he showed flashes of being the valuable contributor Nashville expected when they acquired him nearly three years ago.
It’s no secret Turris’s name has been mentioned in trade rumors for the better part of two calendar years, but actually finding a trade partner is proving to be a monumental task. There aren’t many teams willing to part with significant assets for a player still owed $24 million when said player has now mostly underwhelmed in three consecutive seasons. Any trade involving Turris will likely require Poile to “sweeten the pot” — either through an extra draft pick or prospect, or by taking on an equally burdensome contract.
There’s the option of simply buying out the remainder of Turris’s contract, but even that won’t be a pain-free task. A buyout would save the Preds $4 million in cap space over the next four seasons. But after that, the Preds would still be on the hook for a $2 million cap hit every year until 2028. Considering the Preds already have $38 million committed for the 2024-2025 season (which doesn’t include potential new deals for Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, Mattias Ekholm, or Juuse Saros), that could only add to a potential cap crunch.
Speaking of the future, where will the “new blood” come from? There’s a solid chance we’ll see Philip Tomasino, the Predators’ first round pick in the 2019 draft, get every opportunity to make the team’s opening night roster. The 19-year-old asserted himself as a genuine, blue-chip offensive prospect after a 100-point season in the OHL. Apart from Tomasino, there will be plenty of other up-and-coming forward talents vying for full-time NHL spots, like 2017 first rounder Eeli Tolvanen, Rem Pitlick, and Yakov Trenin, the latter of whom already impressed in his 21-game stint with the Predators this year.
With Dan Hamhuis, Yannick Weber, and Korbinian Holzer’s likely exits looming, there will also be plenty of opportunities for new additions on the blue line. Jérémy Davies, whom the Predators acquired in the P.K. Subban trade, will get a chance to compete for a third-pair role in camp after a solid first pro season in Milwaukee. The same goes for Alexandre Carrier, who may have very well the Admirals’ best defender in 2020.
The other question will be how Poile utilizes the free agent market. It’s unlikely Poile will swing for the fences like he did with Matt Duchene (the top names will probably be well out of the Preds’ desired price range anyway). It’s more likely he goes bargain shopping, looking for one or two players who can bridge the gap between now and the time the aforementioned next wave of players are ready to take on starring roles. Players like Dylan DeMelo or Nathan Beaulieu could be relatively inexpensive short-term options to shore up the bottom defensive pair.
Up front, there’s not a ton of scoring depth in this year’s free agency class, which means proven top-nine talent won’t be cheap. But someone like Erik Haula — a shutdown center with a 29-goal season under his belt — could be an intriguing option. He’s had trouble with injuries in recent years, but that also makes him a likely candidate for a low-risk, high-reward “prove it” deal.
But that once again leads us back to the heart of the Predators’ conundrum. Are a few rising prospects and veterans on stop-gap deals going to be enough to get the Preds back towards contender status?
Maybe... maybe not... But we’re probably going to spend this season finding out.
As frustrating as the early playoff exits have been, it also seems too early to hit the nuclear option with the roster.
There will be more chances for the players to display their full potential in Hynes’s system, and find their niches on the team. Likewise, Hynes will have a full offseason to work with Poile on their shared vision for the Predators’ roster, time unhindered by a high-pressure playoff chase. For players like Ryan Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson, Matt Duchene, and Mattias Ekholm, there will be another opportunity to prove their down years were one-time products of bad luck and circumstance, and NOT a sign of dwindling potential in the Music City.
But these next chances may very well be the last chances for this Predators roster. After another early playoff exit, this team is short on excuses, and the fans are short on patience. This team cannot afford another disappointing season, nor one filled with players performing below their potential. If that happens, 2021 may be the swan song for this collection of Nashville Predators.