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How to fix the Predators: a manifesto

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It’s time that this franchise embarked in a new direction.

Finland v Sweden: Quarterfinals - 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

The Nashville Predators are a flawed franchise. This is a fact I’ve been forced to reconcile myself with over my two years covering the team, and this year has only proven my concerns correct (something I had hoped would never happen). It seems the bottom of the David Poile regime has finally fallen out, so it’s a good time to step back and evaluate where this organization stands and what the future holds. In short? It’s not good, folks!

The Predators have a number of failures that have led us to this point that could fill another article by themselves (hey, I think our very own Nick Morgan is doing something like that), but I’m not here to dwell on that today. Instead, I’m offering the team a path forward. Should they listen to me? Probably not, seeing as I’ve never been in a hockey ops department, but nonetheless I feel that the following “manifesto” is a good plan to follow in pursuit of finally winning this franchise a championship. Keep in mind that much of this is not realistic change that the team will implement, but rather an idealized method that I’ve conceived.

The Ten Commandments

There are a number of off-ice decisions that will be key to rebuilding and revitalizing this team, but chief among them is the retirement of David Poile. I’ve already accepted that the team will have Brian Poile as its next GM, so I’m not even going to attempt to predict another hire in this imaginary scenario, as it would be a waste of time and energy. Philosophically, our new GM ought to follow the plan below:

1.) Sell assets for draft picks and weaponize your cap space while the league salary cap is fixed. The current team is not a piece or two away from contending, so the path this team should take is a full-scale rebuild. Years of simply being “competitive” are no longer enough. Put out the “we’re gonna suck” letter to the fans and get good returns for players who you can sell.

The main trade chips for positive assets will be Granlund, Ekholm, Arvidsson and (if you really want to get extreme) Ellis. All of the above are cost-managed players who could easily net hefty compensation, especially if Nashville is willing to take on expiring contracts and provide cap relief to desperate teams after shedding even further salary. The Predators are seventh in the league in cap space and could easily free up additional room. If the Vancouver Canucks want to swap Ekholm for Jay Beagle and a first-round pick plus more, I’d take that deal; these are the kinds of tough but necessary decisions that need to be made in the near future.

2.) Attempt to pawn Ryan Johansen off on Seattle in exchange for some of your acquired draft picks.

Nashville Predators v Florida Panthers
Ryan Johansen’s contract has to be shed from the payroll, however possible.
Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images

Johansen is very much a Patrick Marleau-esque situation, but on a much greater scale; that contract is completely immovable unless you’re paying a hefty price to another team to take it. Trading players will help soften the blow that this would deal to the future prospect pool, and the resulting freed up cap space could be used to try and recoup anything lost. It’s a difficult move to pull off, but it cannot be emphasized enough that Johansen’s cap hit and term will hamper any kind of rebuild that the team attempts. I would suggest doing the same for Matt Duchene at some point, but I think he’s much easier to move and worth keeping for at least another year.

3.) Suck for a year or two, but not because you’re going the Sabres avenue. The team should look to get a top-three selection in the 2022 and 2023 drafts so they can add a true game-changer to the prospect pool. At the moment it looks like Nashville will be picking at the top of the 2021 draft, but the lottery and additional uncertainty of a murky top five this year make it a risky draft to bank on; the only forward who seems like a lock to be a stud is Matthew Beniers, who may well go first overall. 2022 offers a superstar trio at the top (Shane Wright, Brad Lambert, Matthew Savoie) and 2023 features at least one incredibly promising center prospect (Connor Bedard) to build a franchise around.

Kingston Frontenacs v Oshawa Generals
Shane Wright and other franchise-altering talents are available in the 2022 and 2023 drafts.
Photo by Chris Tanouye/Getty Images

In the meantime, the team shouldn’t be actively trying to suck; instead, this is an opportunity to play the youth that’s ready for the NHL while minimizing cap spending. Guys like Alexandre Carrier, Rem Pitlick, Eeli Tolvanen, Frédéric Allard and (hopefully) Connor Ingram deserve playing time in 2021, so it’s not ludicrous to say that they should have full-time spots on the NHL team in 2022. If Philip Tomasino continues to dominate the AHL, he should see the big leagues as well. Keeping Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, Matt Duchene and Filip Forsberg gives this group a bit of support in their development, and hopefully Dante Fabbro takes a step forward as well in this timeframe.

4.) Keep John Hynes until the end of 2021, then cut him loose and engage in a thorough coaching search.

NHL: FEB 13 Red Wings at Predators
John Hynes has already proven once in his career that he wasn’t the right man to run a rebuild, but he shouldn’t be axed tomorrow.
Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The biggest gripe I had with the Peter Laviolette firing last year was that the Predators conducted it at the worst possible time last year and then followed it up with what felt like a hasty coaching hire. If I’m running the team, I don’t make the same mistake twice. Go into the offseason, let Hynes go in respectable fashion, and search for a head coach with traits that make sense for the rebuild (good with young players, has a proven track record of player development, modern offensive gameplan, and an openness to using whatever resources are available to improve the team). When you find somebody fitting that bill, be it Karl Taylor or whoever, sign them to a four-year deal and commit to the vision of having them take you through the entire rebuild.

5.) The rebuild should last from the end of 2021 until 2025. If it takes much longer than that, something is wrong. Looking at the most successful rebuilds in the NHL over recent years, I found that almost all of them took place over the course of four or five seasons. Teams that take longer than that usually have poor management, awful coaching or terrible drafting; the New Jersey Devils are a perfect example of this limbo-like hell. If ownership looks at this team in year four and isn’t seeing any tangible results, it’s time to shift things around again.

6.) Invest in an analytics department that’s good at working with traditionalist hockey minds. The chief job of your analytics department should be to work in conjunction with your pro scouts to find players across the league that are undervalued; this way you can supplement your core prospects without having to make the enormous monetary commitments that should only be thrown around by a championship contender. Rather than chucking $10 million per year for seven years at Taylor Hall and potentially anchoring a young team with a costly, underproducing veteran, look for the Carter Verhaeghes and Colin Blackwells of the world to surround your youth.

NHL: FEB 15 Panthers at Lightning
Carter Verhaeghe posted spectacular underlying numbers with the Lightning in a limited sample size, but had few takers in free agency; the Florida forward has 12 points in 13 games as a Panther along with one of the league’s best analytical profiles, all on a two-year deal worth $1 million AAV.
Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

You want guys who can play quality NHL hockey on the cheap, and acquiring a department to help you find these “diamonds in the rough” while working with your scouts will allow the rebuild to progress smoothly and improve your chances at continually supplementing your core with plus talent (like the Blackhawks dynasty did with Saad, Hjalmarsson and Crawford). The chief issue a lot of analytics people seem to encounter in the NHL is a lack of understanding from coaches, traditional scouts and even the GM; this is where having people who are capable of speaking both languages is a priority, and that’s the model the Predators should be attempting to achieve (something like the Carolina Hurricanes).

7.) Hire player development personnel and scouts with a proven track record of success with forwards. The biggest problem that this franchise has suffered from is the inability to produce a legitimately stellar forward from the farm system aside from Filip Forsberg. I have no doubt that Nashville will continue their success with goalies and defenders, but this last wart needs to be erased before they can truly have a shot at winning a Stanley Cup. It’s childish to continue to embrace the mentality of “all it takes is a hot goalie” as the primary avenue to the Cup when teams like Tampa, Chicago, LA, and Boston have all proven that the primary objective any contender should have is to build around elite forwards who can carry a team in repeated attempts at a championship.

NHL: FEB 13 Bruins at Islanders
For all the narratives about the defense and grit of the Bruins, they’ve been a great team for a decade because of a core of legendary players supplemented by young pieces.
Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If the goal is to manufacture a team with the maximum amount of deep runs in the playoffs possible (like Tampa Bay), you can’t rely on something as variable as a single goalie to make that happen. Hire the best people possible to revamp the player development and scouting process around forwards, and start looking to get undervalued prospects in the system; the analytics department can help here, too.

8.) Stay the course. Don’t jump the gun and throw money around at UFAs when the core isn’t truly proven or ready, don’t half-rebuild and try to contend at the same time, and don’t play veterans with a low proven ceiling over youth that could be more cost-effective, talented and overall impactful. The above are all common mistakes that rebuilders make, and they are terrible.

The Flyers spent years in limbo because they refused to fully tear the team down, the Coyotes went all-in on a completely unproven group of players, and the Canucks slung money around in free agency when they needed to keep salary to pay their young pieces and key contributors. Wait until you’re absolutely certain it’s the time to push the chips to the center of the table before going all-in; failing to do so could easily result in a situation like what Arizona is dealing with.

9.) Once it’s go time, it’s go time. Don’t be afraid to make big moves or sell long-term assets to enrich the chances of your newly constructed core winning a championship. Identify what your team is lacking and make tweaks to supplement it.

If you’re reaching the end of your established window of peak contention (let’s say Shane Wright needs a hefty contract extension and your team will have significantly less space to acquire players), don’t go after the “last piece” and instead sell weaker assets that aren’t part of the contending core to replenish the team’s farm system; if the player development department and scouts have done a good job, you’ll have cheap youth to replace whatever you might be losing. The objective here is to build a team that can truly be considered a Cup threat for a decade, because chances are that in ten quality attempts you’ll eventually hit the lottery.

10.) Draft for talent above all else. I’m not saying that you should be taking guys with questionable character all the time, because that’s stupid, but the chief concern of your war room on draft day should be taking BPA (best player available) with any given pick. Drafting for need and taking the safe player is how travesties like Austin Watson going ahead of Evgeny Kuznetsov happen, or how David Pastrnak falls to pick 25 despite clearly having the most electrifying offensive profile of anyone in his class not named Leon Draisaitl.

2012 World Junior Hockey Championships - Quarterfinal - Russia v Czech Republic
A young Nikita Kucherov fell to the 58th overall pick despite clearly being a great talent. Why? Largely because he was small.
Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

This organization has long been held back by a refusal to take big risks on forwards; they’re already quite progressive in the goaltending and defense department (Ellis and Saros) but need to step into the modern age with the scouting approach concerning scorers. Never again should this team pass over an obviously talented player like Nikita Kucherov for Miikka Salomäki because the former “lacks size” or “lacks grit.” Never draft for need unless you’re looking at a player who puts you over the top for an immediate cup window.

Conclusion

The Predators need to change the way they’ve been doing things, and rapidly. While the method of establishing the franchise as a legitimate attraction within Nashville was genius, the foundation stands long-finished. The fanbase is secured and won’t walk away at a moment’s notice to spend their time elsewhere, so it’s time to actually build a team looking to win championships/become a dynasty, rather than simply looking to make the postseason as often as possible. The initial chapter of Predators hockey should end here, but a new one will just be beginning.