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A Tale of Two Overpaid Centers: Navigating the most pressing issue of the 2021 offseason

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Duchene or Johansen—who should the Predators keep around for the long haul?

NHL: Western Conference Qualifications-Arizona Coyotes vs Nashville Predators Handout Photo-USA TODAY Sports

It is almost time to release the Kraken. With the 2021 Expansion Draft quickly approaching, Nashville Predators General Manager David Poile will need to decide on who to leave available for the new Seattle franchise to poach this summer. After the season was put to rest by a six-game series loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round, the speculation on Nashville’s protection list instantaneously began. Two of the players most thrown around in discussions are also the two highest-paid forwards: Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen.

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The two centers drew the ire of fans this season as they were unable to generate points on a team that seemed allergic to goals at times; neither Duchene nor Johansen finished in the top ten on the Predators in goals (Johansen slid into the eighth spot for points by the skin of his teeth). Some fans might even want both players out of Nashville—not an unjustified take after this years’ campaign—but it is incredibly unlikely that Seattle would be interested in taking on either player worth $8 million in cap space for a combined point total that would not land in the top ninety players this year; not a good way to unleash the Kraken.

So who should Nashville leave exposed? Disregarding any possible trades that Nashville General Manager David Poile might find necessary to get through the expansion draft, would it make more sense for the Predators to send off Duchene or Johansen? Let’s try to find out.

The Case for Johansen

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Carolina Hurricanes at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Johansen was one of the last pieces to be added before the Predators’ Stanley Cup run in 2017. Traded in January of 2016 for Seth Jones, Johansen broke onto the scene with a filthy half-pipe goal in Colorado that I remember like it was yesterday. Unsurprisingly, his best year as a Predator was in 2016-17, when he notched 61 points to tie Viktor Arvidsson for the team leader in points while holding the title of assists leader all to himself. Unfortunately, an injury in the Western Conference Finals against Ryan Kesler and the Anaheim Ducks kept Joey out of the Cup Final—you know how this story ends. Thinking about what could have been if Johansen was healthy against Pittsburgh keeps me up at night.

Since that season, Johansen has slowly regressed from the “1C” that Preds fans were so happy that they had finally acquired back in 2016. The subsequent two years for the Vancouver native were nothing to scoff at, including a 64-point resurgence in 2018-19, but these past two years have been clearly subpar. According to Evolving Hockey, his expected goals +/- dropped into the negatives in back-to-back seasons, the first two of his career, and his points have plummeted. I am not going to completely trash a playmaking center for not scoring goals, which he hasn’t done, but I will take issue with his lack of assists that still stands out even when you adjust the totals for the abbreviated seasons.

Expected Goals +- for Ryan Johansen Over the Years

Year Expected Goals +-
Year Expected Goals +-
2016-17 8.45
2017-18 2.22
2018-19 5.78
2019-20 -3.21
2020-21 -0.72

So, what benefits would keeping Johansen yield Nashville? The biggest one is experience; despite being two years younger than Duchene, he has played in over twice as many playoff games. In a best-case scenario world where Nashville is back to contending for a cup in three to four years, a veteran presence like Johansen from the ‘17 team could be a massive plus for Nashville’s locker room. The downsides of keeping Joey are all on-ice related. If his regression over the last two seasons continues, Johansen may not even be a playable piece by the time the Predators are ready to make another run.

The Case for Duchene

When it was announced that former Predators defender P.K. Subban was being sent off to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for prospects and picks, the opening of cap space seemed quite intentional. It was, as it turns out, because Matt Duchene would be announced as the big signing of the summer of 2019 just weeks later.

The signing of Duchene signaled the final checkmark for the transition into a true “hockey town” Nashville had been making for nearly a decade: a star player in the league WANTED to be a Predator. It was reported that the center from Haliburton, Ontario, was offered more money by the Canadiens, but chose to take less to play in Music City. For a team that has struggled to prove itself as a legitimate destination for the NHL’s best, this is significant.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Carolina Hurricanes at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The honeymoon period after this signing ended quickly, though. Duchene’s 42-point opening season was the third-lowest output of his career, and the lowest since the 2016-17 season. He had his lowest goal count of his career with 13, a number that only gets raised to about 16 if you adjust his goals for a full season; 16 would still be his career low.

Despite the lack of presence on the scoreboard, advanced metrics told a slightly different story; once again according to Evolving Hockey, his expected goals for percentage was the highest of his career since the 2013-14 season. He was playing well, it seemed, so he should be able to return to his old ways in the following year, right?

That did not happen.

Duchene scrounged up a mere 13 points, six goals, and seven assists in yet another season full of criticism thrown at #95 on social media. Once again, though, his advanced stats did not reflect the results on the ice.

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Evolving Hockey shows that his expected goals-for percentage remained nearly the same, scoring a 53.29 in 2020 and 52.33 in 2021, as did his shots-for percentage and corsi-for percentage (53.74 to 51.82 and 54.51 to 52.65, respectively.) The one thing that changed? His actual goals-for percentage dropped to the lowest it had been since his ‘17 season at 41.42.

With all of this in mind, how do we assess him? I can’t stand folks justifying the lack of goals on the ice with advanced stats as much as anyone, but Duchene may have just truly had one of the unluckiest seasons I can remember. Furthermore, he did score an incredible game-winning goal in game three of the series against Carolina, so there’s that.

Final Verdict

Now that we have fully looked over both players as much as one possibly can within a single piece, what is the correct decision?

I think you have to protect Duchene, and here’s why.

For salary purposes, the players are near-equal; both players hold an eight-million-dollar cap hit each season, and Duchene’s contract is a single year longer than Johansen’s. What it truly comes down to is on-ice production, and messaging. Although Duchene has not had good seasons the past two years, the advanced stats behind his play show that the gears are still going for him, whether or not we ever actually see it, I firmly believe there is a version of Matt Duchene that can play for Nashville and be a solid-to-good center. Regarding Johansen, I’m not sure there is any room for growth that we haven’t already seen.

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Furthermore, like I mentioned earlier, Duchene wanted to be a Predator; that is why Poile cannot get rid of him just yet. Nashville has worked too damn long to become a town that high-level hockey players seek out as a place to go win games, and sending the first player to pull the trigger on that idea to Seattle just doesn’t make any sense at all.