As the 2021-22 season approaches, Predators set to reach a critical juncture

The direction of the franchise is on the verge of being determined, one way or another.

As we endure the slog of September and await the re-ignition of NHL hockey, it’s a good chance to reflect on the direction of the Nashville Predators, particularly given the team’s activity during the offseason. After three years of declining, underwhelming results, David Poile finally relinquished (willingly and unwillingly) key pieces of the 2016-17 roster in Ryan Ellis, Viktor Arvidsson, and Pekka Rinne. The team’s abstention from bringing back UFAs Erik Haula and Brad Richardson also indicates a recognition that the Preds are no longer in a place where paying warm bodies is going to be helpful, not that it was before.

Yet Poile still insists that the team is engaged in a “competitive rebuild,” wishing to reload the roster with the upcoming wave of young talent. The core he’s hoping to build the next great Nashville team around probably won’t include names like Mikael Granlund or even Filip Forsberg, yet the organization extended the former and wishes to extend the latter. Does this half-in, half-out approach project to work?

In the opinion of yours truly, the Predators should always be planning the fastest, most plausible path to winning a championship. Remaining competitive, while good in the short term, will likely get in the way of accomplishing the ultimate goal of every GM and player. After essentially putting things off for half a decade and refusing to commit to a direction, the team’s status heading into the 2021-22 season appears to be that of a boulder resting on a mountain’s peak. One way or another, a decision will be made.

If the Predators are competitive, there’s a decent chance that Filip Forsberg signs an extension, the team remains on the Western Conference playoff bubble, and Nashville eventually regains status as one of the better mid-tier contenders in the Central Division behind new faces like Phil Tomasino, Eeli Tolvanen, and Yaroslav Askarov. If the team is mediocre or worse, Preds fans will be staring down the barrel of the closest thing the franchise has had to a homegrown star player heading for greener pastures. If the Nashville Predators are not poised to take a step forward this year (a likely outcome), Filip Forsberg’s only encouraging factors to remain in Nashville are the promise of a massive contract and his personal loyalties to the organization. Neither of those seem plausible in the face of the opportunity to win a championship.

So, the helmsman of this ship stands at a crossroads. Will the Predators attempt to once again build gradually and through depth, or will these plans come tumbling down and lead the team into a dark age? Either outcome appears equally possible. Should the latter occur, however, it might actually be preferable to the former.

When evaluating the teams that have won the Stanley Cup or at least had a prolonged period of contention in the salary cap era, two commonalities emerge: these teams made repeat appearances in either the Stanley Cup Final or won multiple championships (the only exceptions being the Capitals, Blues, and San Jose Sharks), and they were all built upon a core of drafted, elite talent, usually built via the first and second rounds. The Predators have never picked higher than second overall in their history, with their highest draft selection in recent memory being Seth Jones at fourth overall in the 2013 Entry Draft. The team also has a well-known historic aversion to scoring. Correlation does not equivocate to causation, but the fact that these two phenomena have simultaneously existed for the majority of the franchise’s history.

If Nashville falls apart and ends up with a top draft pick, the team will once again reach a point of crucial decision. Will they embrace being terrible in an attempt to finally grasp elite scoring talent, or continue to claw their way back to winning in the near future? Either direction will largely dictate the next five or so years of Predators hockey, for better or worse. We could witness the gradual assembly of a great roster, or simply watch the team take another avenue towards eventual winning. The bottom line is that the choices made based upon this year will have reverberating effects.

Regardless of which of these paths the Preds end up following, it’s clear that the 2021-22 season will be one of immense consequence. What those consequences will be is entirely in the hands of David Poile, his players, and their coaches. Strap in; it’s gonna be a ride.