We kick off the 2021 season previews, as usual, with a quick look at the Nashville Predators’ depth down the center.
The Helicopter Team (No Wings)
Bryan’s piece previewing the wingers is coming this afternoon, and the two of us looked at each other—virtually—in some consternation during Sunday’s scrimmage. Shaun, who was reporting from Bridgestone, said the same conversation was happening among media there, even as the scrimmage—the final one of camp—continued.
Obviously Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene were going to be playing at center; obviously Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson were going to be playing at wing. But, as Bryan pointed out, only three forwards on the Preds’ roster are not listed as centers on CapFriendly (Forsberg, Arvidsson, and Rocco Grimaldi), and the Preds have a lot fewer lines than ten.
It’s looked from what Shaun and Bryan have seen in the rink like Colton Sissons might be centering the third line, and like Brad Richardson might be the one for the fourth, but we truly don’t know, and head coach John Hynes is playing his cards close to his chest. There is no good way to look at this roster and say with any certainty that Forward X will be in Role Y this season, and things could easily change as the season goes on. We don’t even know for sure who will be on the roster, instead of the taxi squad.
Still, in the interests of neither Bryan nor me having to write about ten forwards while the other covers just a couple, we’ve estimated that Sissons, Richardson, and Erik Haula all might see some time at center this season.
It’s been just a few days over five years since Ryan Johansen was traded from the Columbus Blue Jackets to the Nashville Predators. We’ve written a lot over those five years about Johansen’s production, his drop-off in Nashville, his potential...
We’re not going to rehash that now.
For better or for worse, Johansen has changed his game so that he’s almost certainly never going to be a thirty-goal scorer again, even in a full 82-game season. He’s focused on becoming a playmaker, a poor man’s Joe Thornton. With wingers like Forsberg and Arvidsson—when he has them—that’s not such a bad thing.
My own bigger concern with Johansen’s play has been that over the last several years, backed up by the data tracked first by Ryan Stimson and then by Corey Sznajder, the shape of Johansen’s playmaking has changed. For whatever reason, as he settled into the role, he gradually started making fewer high-danger passes around the net while emphasizing shots up to the point. It’s possible that some of that is because Roman Josi is a lot more fun to pass to than Jack Johnson (I’ve never #PlayedTheGame, but I’m fairly confident in this assessment).
It’s also possible that some of that is because of former head coach Peter Laviolette’s game style. Laviolette favored safe, volume-based offense, but sacrificed high-danger plays in the process. As I wrote a little over a year ago, forwards like Kyle Turris and Mikael Granlund who arrived with a threatening passing game struggled, and expressed frustration, with the Preds’ system. Granlund seemed to have a renaissance when Hynes arrived; it’s possible that new coaching might bring back some of Johansen’s old around-the-net skills.
Many Preds fans also find something to be enthusiastic about in the reports that Hynes and Johansen have been talking about mental toughness, and that Johansen is approaching this season with a new attitude.
One way or another, especially given his long-established chemistry with Forsberg and Arvidsson, Johansen is most likely this team’s de facto 1C for the upcoming season. If he can do well, so will the team.
Duchene’s first season in Nashville, after four and a half years of rumors linking him to the Predators, ended in a pandemic and a missed playoff berth. Neither of these is his responsibility, in spite of his growing reputation as an albatross, but both of them are facts: it wasn’t the season Preds fans were hoping for now that the team had finally gotten him.
Given how the fanbase has soured on other high-skill forward acquisitions, it’s not surprising that there’s already frustration with Duchene out there. Still, unless you actually believe in curses, it’s not much more fair to hold him responsible for the missed playoff berth than for the pandemic. There were nineteen other players dressed in gold for every game Duchene played, after all; why choose a single scapegoat, especially a skater?
We all know NHL GMs talk to each other, and even help each other out from time to time—if nothing else, the gentlemen’s agreement against offer sheets underscores that. If Duchene were radioactively disastrous in the locker room, and were to blame for the 2016-17 Avalanche’s and 2017-18 Senators’ death spirals simply by making all his teammates terrible at their jobs, Jarmo Kekäläinen probably wouldn’t have traded for him, and David Poile certainly could have avoided signing him to a big contract.
I don’t know whether Matt Duchene is ever going to be the guy who managed to make the Canadian Olympic roster again—or, rather, I know he won’t, since he’s also never going to be 23 again. But he has the ability to be a good, effective NHL player, even if he isn’t the gamebreaker so many people hoped he would be.
When he’s playing well, Duchene is a skilled passer with a good shot, capable of being a solid and effective piece of a contending top six. His white-hot start to the 2019-20 NHL season showed that much, though it was always unsustainable; the man can’t be blamed for not actually being the second coming of Wayne Gretzky, either.
When he’s not playing well, Duchene generally just...vanishes. It’s better than making sloppy mistakes or taking awful revenge penalties, but it’s frustrating to see in a center making a lot of money to have a positive impact. I’d like to see him become a little more aware of the concept of “offside,” but we’re not still mad at Filip Forsberg for a much higher-stakes offside play, so it is what it is, and I’ll take questionable awareness at the blueline over own goals or throwing a late lead away to punch someone any day of the week.
In sum, like Johansen, Duchene has the ability to show us he’s more than we’ve consistently seen. He seems to have gotten off to a good start at training camp. If he can keep that up, the Predators are in great shape.
Sissons is the latest—but likely not the last—Preds player to get signed for a lot of years at not a lot of money. Whether you think signing a bottom-six player to a seven-year deal at any price (Sissons’s is a little under $3M AAV) is smart or not depends on your attitude towards NHL contracts.
In his first season of the new deal, Sissons had nine goals and six assists for a total of 15 points, which is at least a partial drop-off in production from the last two years even given the shortened season. Still, he was solid defensively, and there sure was a lot of roster shuffling going on.
Sissons is 27 years old and has never approached a 20-goal season, though he did come close to a 20-assist season three years ago. It seems likely that what we see is what we get: a player who’s increasingly reliable defensively, but doesn’t shoot or pass much and needs or relies on a linemate to get the puck up the ice. Sissons could fit in very well in a shutdown role, but I’m not sure we should expect him to be much of a scoring threat.
Haula, late of the Carolina Hurricanes, was signed to a one-year deal in late December. With his low-cost, short-term deal and the fact that he hasn’t been in the Central—let alone Nashville—for years (he was claimed from the Minnesota Wild by the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017 expansion draft), there aren’t a ton of obvious narratives this season for us to hope he either lives up to or disproves.
Like Sissons, he’ll most likely need to rely on his wingers for help moving through the neutral zone (he’s not any better at getting it out of the defensive zone than into the offensive zone):
He had a weird season in Carolina with regards to forechecking—in Minnesota, he was effective; in Las Vegas, a little less so; in Carolina...yikes.
Hopefully that was just an anomaly, or a weird year, or a coaching misfit, and Hynes is able to get a little more out of him. Once in the offensive zone with the puck, though, Haula is a decent—though not exceptional—passer, and won’t hurt his linemates there. I could see him getting some consistent bottom-six icetime and doing okay with it, as long as someone is keeping an eye on his defense.
If you completely forgot that the Predators even signed Brad Richardson, you’re not alone. The former Arizona Coyotes center was one of their early acquisitions of free agency, several decades ago in early October.
Richardson brings a faceoff-winning percentage of 54% to the table and, well, not much else, other than veteran NHL experience (this will be his 16th NHL season; he turns 36 in February). He had just 11 points last season, and although he had 19 goals the season before that it was on a full-season career-high shooting percentage that I wouldn’t expect him to be able to replicate.
Given his age, there’s reason to be concerned that the former Selke candidate (also in 2018-19) is not going to be able to bear up under the heavy load of defensive zone starts that he’s seen for the second half of his career.
In his time with the Coyotes this year, Richardson’s experience with the defensive zone was much like the proverbial Hotel California: you can check in any time you like, but you can never leave.
Not great. Similarly, as a playmaker he was really nothing to write home about:
He didn’t shoot much, either.
At a guess, the Predators’ plan for Richardson is a lot like their plan for Paul Gaustad: use him to win faceoffs, and then—hopefully—get him out. We’ll see whether his experience contributes to the new locker room culture Hynes is working to build. Hopefully it will.