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Operation Rebuild: Thoughts after Day 1 of Free Agency

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“Competitive” or not, it’s becoming clear that Nashville is taking the rebuild more seriously than before.

Nashville Predators vs Calgary Flames Set Number: X163203 TK1

The lack of “splash” during Day 1 is by design - and a good thing

Nashville Predators Twitter - as always - has a wide variety of thoughts about the first day of free agency, but one recurring opinion keeps popping up: other teams are making big signings - why not Nashville?

The sarcastic side of me wants to simply point at the last few offseasons and say, “and how did that work out?” However, there are a few points to make in defense of Nashville’s relative (in)action - despite making seven signings yesterday:

Goaltender and apparent Saros backup David Rittich was a necessity - the organization is flush with goaltenders in their development pipeline, but there’s a distinct lack of a veteran presence. Aside from Juuse Saros and now Rittich, none of the other Nashville goaltenders have a single NHL start. With goaltender Connor Ingram missing a large portion of last season, throwing him into the backup role to start this upcoming NHL season would likely be a mistake. It’s not only a question of if he is ready - sitting on the bench behind Saros is a less desirable option than him getting starts for the Milwaukee Admirals. Plus, Rittich’s deal is cost-effective enough that bringing Ingram to Nashville if Rittich struggles is an easy option.

Forwards Anthony Richard, Michael McCarron and Matt Luff and defenseman Matt Tennyson were low-cost signings meant mostly to bolster the roster in Milwaukee. Richard has been called up to Nashville on several occasions, and while he’s been mostly a non-factor at the NHL level, he and McCarron are call-up options that have some NHL experience and can fill a 4th line role if necessary.

The other two signings were Mikael Granlund and 2021 draft pick Zachary L’Heureux - the latter getting his entry level contract done and the former marking a more permanent return to the Predators. Many people have scoffed at Granlund’s contract - 4 years, $20 million isn’t insignificant - but it’s a cost worth taking on to retain a player who has thrived under coach John Hynes and led the team in goals last season.

So why is it a good thing Nashville didn’t walk away with any of the highly-targeted free agents? Two reasons stand out to me. First, it’s obvious that Nashville is trying to avoid a possible salary cap crunch. They shed a significant portion of their cap hit with the trades of Viktor Arvidsson and Ryan Ellis, as well as Calle Järnkrok’s cap hit with his selection by the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft. With the rumors continuing to fly regarding the status of forwards Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene, it seems clear that general manager David Poile is very interested in offloading at least one of the $8 million AAV deals, but can’t find a willing suitor. In fact, not finding a trade partner for Johansen or Duchene brings up my second point: the front office isn’t willing to overpay assets necessary for the rebuild in order to make moves.

Despite my personal desire for Nashville to acquire defender and now New Jersey Devil Dougie Hamilton, the type of contracts handed out to players like Hamilton, Gabriel Landeskog and eventually Jack Eichel will undo the work that Nashville has done to clear space so far. Contracts aren’t the only reason that Nashville has likely stood pat during the free agent frenzy - trades to move high-priced players (or acquire them) will likely be very expensive for the Predators. Plus, with deals like the Washington Capitals reacquiring their expansion draft loss and the “Marc-André Fleury free giveaway” to the Chicago Blackhawks, the market set by other NHL general managers just seems, well, bizarre.

There are still moves to be made, but I’m not upset with how Nashville’s done so far in the early stages of free agency. Most signings make sense and have a clear-cut purpose for Nashville’s future, plus they still have over $20 million in cap space (per CapFriendly) to work with going forward.


Unfinished Business - Nashville’s restricted free agents still on the table

There are still several players left to sign now the free agency has opened. Nashville had qualifying offers given to players and the majority have not signed yet. Defender Jeremy Davies was signed earlier this week and hopefully will see time in both Milwaukee and Nashville - I still believe Davies will be a valuable piece in the new Nashville defense corps. As mentioned above, forward Anthony Richard was brought back at a low price and is likely remaining an Admirals mainstay. However, there are still some pretty important pieces still out there:

The elephant in the room remains the deal for goaltender Juuse Saros. Saros has finally assumed the starter’s net for good in Nashville, and the days of seeing a 60/40 goaltender split are over, as Saros will likely approach the 60-start mark this season. I don’t think there’s anyone out there who would argue that a raise over his previous $1.5 million deal is in order, but there are questions abound about just how much Nashville is willing to offer. Saros shone at 5 on 5 last season, and emerged as one of the NHL’s best goaltenders at even strength, despite his rocky start.

Breakdown of Juuse Saros at 5 on 5 - save percentages by shot location and angle
Data via Evolving Hockey | Viz by Bryan Bastin

However, there is reason for pause before handing out a deal worth more than say $6 million per year. First, the well-documented struggles to start the season are something that has followed Saros each of the last few seasons. Second - and possibly more damning - is how Juuse Saros’s penalty kill production was nearly a polar opposite of his even-strength performance:

Breakdown of Juuse Saros shorthanded - save percentages by shot location and angle
Data via Evolving Hockey | Viz by Bryan Bastin

Saros was one of the NHL’s worst last season on the penalty kill. While it’s widely known that Nashville’s penalty kill overall most closely resembles a tire fire, even a struggling Pekka Rinne performed better on the PK last season than Saros. I’d imagine that Nashville’s front office is using this as a sticking point in their negotiations. I don’t expect that contract negotiations should take much longer, but that’s yet to be seen.

Breakout seasons by rookies Eeli Tolvanen and Tanner Jeannot mean I would be very surprised if both aren’t re-signed relatively quickly. Tolvanen has been one of Nashville’s star pieces in their development pipeline, and he made a smooth transition to the NHL last season. Yes, he didn’t produce the Ovechkin-like goal numbers that everyone seems to pencil him down for, but I’d argue what is more impressive is how well he’s played in all phases of the game in the NHL. Jeannot was the surprise breakout star of the season last year - while he only had five goals and seven points, he wasn’t expected to be a strong point of the Nashville roster and will likely be a cheap contract to sign. I don’t expect either player’s camp to push the negotiation process for much longer.

Rem Pitlick has been a rising star in the Nashville development system for some time, and I doubt Nashville is willing to let a player who could step into regular NHL playing time walk away. I expect that he signs with Nashville and spends some time in Milwaukee while being one of the top call-up options at forward for the Predators.

I don’t know what to expect for Mathieu Olivier - his role is to be big, something GM David Poile has placed an emphasis on this offseason (for better or worse).

2020-21 RAPM for Mathieu Oliver
Evolving Hockey

Olivier was better than most (myself included) predicted defensively last year - and with the loss of two-way forward Calle Järnkrok, Nashville finds themselves in need of defensive forwards to anchor the fourth line. My guess is that he gets a league-minimum deal from Nashville, but losing Olivier wouldn’t be a back-breaking loss if it happens.

As for Dante Fabbro, well, let’s talk about him in the next section.


All Eyes on Dante Fabbro

Aside from Saros and Tolvanen, the biggest name on the free agent list for the Predators is defender Dante Fabbro. Fabbro has long been touted as the centerpiece of Nashville’s future defense corps, and I don’t see Nashville being willing to walk away from the young player this season. The important question remains - how much will Nashville offer Fabbro on his first non-ELC deal?

Nashville extended a qualifying offer to Dante Fabbro, and per CapFriendly, that offer starts at $874,125 - a value that is both less than his entry level deal, and something Fabbro’s agent would be completely incompetent to tell Dante to accept. Evolving Hockey’s contract projections currently predict a 3 year, $2.86 million AAV deal for Fabbro, which seems entirely reasonable. But with just $20 million in cap space, plus necessary deals for Saros, Tolvanen, and possibly Jeannot, Nashville is rapidly approaching the cap ceiling and saving money anywhere is important (let’s not talk about the looming spectre of Shea Weber’s injury - you can read more about that here).

So what will Nashville do? Fabbro has had his struggles in his NHL transition - he’s only just finished his sophomore season and development takes time - but I’m sure the Predators and Nashville fans both had higher hopes for his performance.

3 Year RAPM (2018-21) for Dante Fabbro
Evolving Hockey

Fabbro has performed better than average defensively over the last three seasons, but he doesn’t quite fit the Nashville mold of an attacking defender that can generate offense. While this may not have been a huge issue previously, the loss of Ryan Ellis means only Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm have showed any signs of being able to quarterback the Nashville offense.

While we may never know how negotiations go, I’d expect that Nashville has extended a deal worth around $2 million to Fabbro (negotiations always start low, of course). I think Evolving Hockey’s projected 3 year, $2.86 million deal is definitely reasonable and not expensive, but if the front office argues that his performance hasn’t met that level of compensation, things might grind to a halt soon.

My educated guess is that if Fabbro isn’t signed sometime this week, the defender may seek to go to arbitration to argue his case. Again, I don’t expect Fabbro and Nashville to part ways at all, but his re-signing might take the longest of any of the remaining free agents. Still, I would be surprised if Dante isn’t starting game 1 of next season.


Wild guesses - free agents that seem like Nashville guys, for better or for worse

Let me preface this by stating this: I have no basis for any of these. I’m barely even taking performance into account here - this is just a kind of fun exercise of “guess who Nashville signs out of nowhere that doesn’t seem to fit their plans”. So without further ado:

D Zdeno Chára - David Poile made it quite clear in his media availability following the release of Nashville’s protection list that size on defense will be an important factor going forward. And who better embodies the mix of size and “veteran presence” that Poile seems to value than Yakov Trenin punching bag Chára. It’s a deal that I wouldn’t hate for the right price, and I don’t see him getting a deal worth much more than his 35+ contract last season with the Washington Capitals worth $1.5 million.

F Bobby Ryan - Credit my colleague Rachel for bringing this one to my attention. Ryan played on a $1 million, one-year deal with Detroit last season and scored seven goals and 14 points in 33 games last year. A new deal would likely be along the same lines as last year, especially given his injury history and age (born in 1987? he’s so old - just don’t ask when I was born, ok?). The move also makes sense for a bigger reason - Ryan has trained in Nashville with Nashville native and Connecticut Whale player Allie Lacombe. That connection came up because Ryan’s so-called “retirement home” is in Franklin, so it’s an easy move that makes sense, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Ryan’s camp has at least reached out to Nashville.

D Sami Vatanen - The former New Jersey Devils defenseman is likely very familiar with current Nashville head coach John Hynes, and usually “knowing a guy” is enough to get hired in the National Hockey League. The 30-year-old defender stands at 5’10”, and had decent results last season in both New Jersey and the Dallas Stars:

2020-21 RAPM for Sami Vatanen
Evolving Hockey

The sticking point would likely be the price tag: Evolving Hockey projects a 3 year, $3.8 million deal for Vatanen, and I can’t imagine that’s a price Nashville is willing to pay.

F Kevin Fiala - There’s one thing I like more than a smart player acquisition in the NHL, and that’s pure chaos. Extending an offer sheet to RFA Fiala is costly, doesn’t make a ton of sense in the grand scheme of rebuilding, and his deal is likely going to be pretty expensive. But oh boy would it be entertaining. Also, let me say this one more time - all of these are based on absolutely nothing and should not be treated as a “rumor”. But it would be hilarious, and after all, isn’t that what truly matters?