The sweet sounds of hockey once again fill our ears today. The Nashville Predators will hit the ice for their first formal practice of training camp, officially kicking off the 2021-22 season.
There’s a lot of intrigue surrounding the Preds this season. Several familiar faces are gone with others potentially set to follow. At the same time, a new crop of young, up-and-coming players are set to take the reins. Oh yeah, and there’s that whole “competitive rebuild” thing.
With that in mind, we’re checking out the five biggest storylines we’re watching during the Preds’ training camp.
1. How will Juuse handle being “The Guy?”
For the 12th time in the past 13 years, the Predators will enter training camp with zero questions about their starting goaltender job. The one difference? This will be the first time in those 13 years that Pekka Rinne isn’t part of that equation.
Pekka is off to greener pastures, retiring as easily the best player in franchise history. Juuse Saros, his heir apparent for the past five years, will officially take the reins as “franchise goaltender.” The timing couldn’t have been more perfect; Saros is fresh off a career season that saw him single-handedly will the Predators into a postseason they had no business being in (arguably for the second season in a row). That netted him a well-earned $20 million contract.
And yet, no matter how unfair, there’s still a shred of doubt. Saros has yet to go through an entire 82-game season as “the guy.” You could even argue he hasn’t even gone through one of the past two shortened seasons as “the guy” since he and Rinne spent the first half of the season in a 1A-1B situation.
That’s no knock on Saros’s abilities. We’ve all seen the guy turn into a brick wall when he’s on, and the fact he was able to keep up that form consistently for the last two months of the season is a great sign. Now his challenge will be to play that well 60-65 times a year... year-in/year out.
2. Can Tomasino crack the roster?
If it wasn’t for all the uncertainty surround COVID, taxi squads, and chaos amongst the juniors and minor leagues, there’s a strong chance Philip Tomasino would have been on the Preds’ roster last season. The 2019 first round pick has impressed at every level he’s played. Last season may have been his most impressive yet; Tomasino scored 32 points in 29 games as a 19-year-old rookie in the AHL, and added 6 points for Canada in the World Junior Championships.
Entering camp, it appears the Preds are giving Tomasino every opportunity to make the opening night roster. With guys like Viktor Arvidsson and Erik Haula gone, there’s not only open spots up for grabs, there’s a desperate need for dynamic scoring, something Tomasino can provide.
In a perfect world, Tomasino will slot into a scoring line role (with significant power play minutes) and make an immediate impact. But it’s important not to rush him into that role before he’s ready. If it’s looking like he’ll be more of a depth guy or an extra forward to start the season, the Preds may be better off starting Tomasino in Milwaukee, where he can get top-line minutes.
3. How well will the new-look defense gel?
Josi: “Everybody's happy that it's a little more back to normal, and we're excited for it.” pic.twitter.com/JTT5eBnu1Q— Nashville Predators (@PredsNHL) September 23, 2021
Usually, it’s weird to call a defensive corps a “new-look defense” when only one guy left the team. But when that one guy is Ryan Ellis, it becomes a little more fair to question how the Preds’ blueline will shape up this year.
The biggest question will be who skates alongside Roman Josi on the top pair. New addition Philippe Myers, one of the guys who arrived in Nashville thanks to the Ellis trade, could be a fit. Myers is a big guy (6’5” 210 pounds) who skates incredibly well for a defender his size. He hasn’t hit his stride offensively yet, but he’s defensively responsible enough to play big minutes against other teams’ top guys, and his style complements Josi’s free-wheeling playmaking well.
Dante Fabbro is another option. He’s had an up-and-down start to his NHL tenure, but Fabbro improved as last season progressed and has shown himself to have some solid chemistry with Josi in the past.
As for Mattias Ekholm’s partner, Alexandre Carrier’s an intriguing option. The 24-year-old was one of the Preds’ best surprises of last season. He played really well with Ekholm in their brief time together last season, has proven he can play reliable top-four minutes, and quarterbacked the offensive breakouts when asked.
Whatever the combos wind up being, chemistry is key. There’s plenty of talent on the blueline. It just comes down to which guys play best together.
4. Will the “big guns” rebound?
Duchene: “I know we're all excited, and we've obviously got a little younger team this year, and that can bring a lot of energy, especially out of the gate." pic.twitter.com/dlkhpn1k7J— Nashville Predators (@PredsNHL) September 23, 2021
It was just a few years ago that, on paper, the Predators had one of the most dynamic rosters in the entire NHL. Now, ironically, many of the marquee names that made Nashville such a feared opponent are primary reasons why the team is stuck in “competitive rebuild” limbo.
Matt Duchene had an abysmal 2021 season; Ryan Johansen, for the second year in a row, fell well below expectations. Both $8 million men found themselves exposed on the Preds’ expansion list, and the fact that Seattle quickly passed on both centers was a damning statement about how the rest of the league values their current level of play. Even Filip Forsberg, by far the crown jewel of the Preds forward corps, has been a bit of a downward slide the past couple of seasons.
What’s frustrating is the fact that we KNOW these guys can produce. Just two years ago, Forsberg and Johansen were part of a line that generated offense at a comparable pace to Nikita Kucherov’s line during his 128-point season. Duchene had a career-best season the year before he came to Nashville. That’s why there’s still — maybe against all form of judgment — a shred of hope that maybe... MAYBE... these three guys can find their form. If they do, then suddenly Nashville’s entire outlook on their future changes.
This season is probably their last chance to turn things around. With Forsberg set to become a free agent and the roster trending younger and cheaper, it’s not far-fetched to think this is the last time we’ll see these three together if the Preds underwhelm this season.
5. Who will emerge from a crowded bottom six?
While the top of the lineup remains a question mark for the Preds, the bottom of the forward corps looks like it will once again be a strength for the team this year. Thanks to the expanded roster situation, last year saw the likes of Tanner Jeannot, Yakov Trenin, and Mathieu Olivier step up and earn consistent roles. That’s in addition to Nick Cousins and Colton Sissons playing solid hockey throughout the entirety of the season, and Rocco Grimaldi adding some unexpected offensive punch.
The pro to that is the Predators have a lot of talent to choose from. The con is there are a limited number of everyday spots for all that talent.
It’s probably probably safe to assume Cousins, Sissons, and newcomer Cody Glass are locks for bottom-six roles. And if Tomasino makes the roster, likely pushing either himself, Luke Kunin, or Eeli Tolvanen into the third line, that likely leaves a handful of guys fighting for two primary spots.
Trenin, Jeannot, and Olivier all had excellent chemistry in various stints on the fourth line. Grimaldi seemed to be the odd man out for much of the season, but he’s proven he can excel in the right situation. You also can’t count out guys like Rem Pitlick or Matt Luff making a case with a strong preseason showing.