The 2021-22 campaign for the Nashville Predators ended early in the postseason, and the fanbase has every right to be upset with the outcome. Although the Colorado Avalanche are a juggernaut (and are proving it with the fashion they’re beating the opponents they’ve been playing), there is something about ending a season full of franchise-bests on the first sweep in franchise history.
Now that the postseason begins to wind down, with the Avalanche punching their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final along with the Tampa Bay Lightning, it’s time for teams that have been eliminated or didn’t qualify to look even harder at their to-do lists. Whether it’s figuring out which players to target at the NHL Draft or re-signing players whose contracts are up, it’s time to get down to business.
Filip Forsberg’s contract negotiations are still ongoing, and a deal has not been reached, so while that’s going down, the focus moves to the other players in need of new deals. The first name came off the board when David Poile inked trade deadline acquisition Jeremy Lauzon to a 4-year deal worth a total of $8 million ($2 million AAV). While there are differing opinions on this deal depending on who you speak to in the fanbase, the front office and head coach John Hynes clearly have him in the club’s future. Now, the question is, which player’s should or shouldn’t be next?
The Restricted Free Agents
I’ll start this section by listing out the players who are the bigger name RFA’s that the Predators have the option of retaining. There is a spattering of other, younger players that will get cheap deals to play in the AHL, but as far as NHL impact goes (good or bad), these are the names you should be looking for when the time comes to re-sign them. Listed with them is their previous year’s salary.
Yakov Trenin - $725,000
Matt Luff - $750,000
Luke Kunin - $2.3 million
I’ll start with one of three members of The Herd Line in Trenin. If he doesn’t end up back in the navy and gold in 2022-23, I would be extremely surprised. Not only did his line play a crucial role for the Predators in almost every situation, but he stepped up in the scoring department as well. Trenin sat 6th on the Predators with 17 goals, which was far and away the best in his short NHL career up to this point. Additionally, he scored three goals in four playoff games, which for the Predators, was huge considering there wasn’t much of that going on.
The best news of all for the Predators is that Trenin won’t take up too much cap space. He will get a raise without a doubt, but I don’t think anyone needs to worry about him holding the team back in the financial department. A player that has proven himself to be useful in almost every scenario will be brought back for cheap, and that’s important for a team dealing with a bigger fish needing a new deal like the Predators.
Luff is an interesting piece of the puzzle. He had 6 points (3G, 3A) in 23 games in 2021-22, and along with Michael McCarron and Philip Tomasino, showed some promise that he could be a useful fourth-line player. Although Tomasino will most likely be elevated in the lineup come next season, I don’t think it would hurt to bring him back on a short league-minimum deal. He played well defensively according to publicly available analytics, and although he wasn’t being used for it, he provided a hint of hard-nosed offense too.
The last RFA is the most controversial one by far. After trading Nick Bonino and the 37th and 70th overall picks (Marat Khusnutdinov and Eemil Viro) in the 2020 NHL Draft for Kunin and the 101st overall pick (Adam Wilsby), people expected a fair amount from the young forward. He had a solid first year with the Predators, putting up 19 points in 38 games of a 56-game season. But after Viktor Arvidsson was traded away to the Los Angeles Kings and a spot opened up in the top-six, he was promoted, and subsequently stopped producing. In 2021-22, Kunin put up 22 points in 82 games with most of his time coming on the first line.
The Predators, if they want to re-sign Kunin, have to give him at least $2.3 million. To put it simply, Kunin is not worth that much, especially if he’s being put in a top-six role. Now, there is certainly an argument that he could be of value in a bottom-six role, maybe not worth the contract value he’s going to get, but more value than he showed last season.
There’s not much to justify bringing Kunin back into the fold at the price tag that he is going to have. Yes, he threw hits and forechecked hard, but he couldn’t score with some of the best players on the team next to him, and there were plenty of times where he got into penalty trouble and ultimately hurt the team.
Whether or not Hynes has a specific plan for Kunin is unknown, and no one is sure how the lineup is going to shape up for next season. But, if Poile does believe that this was an off-year for the 24-year-old and that there is more to his play than the box score and analytics showed last season, I could certainly see him coming back.
The Unrestricted Free Agents
Now that the RFA’s have been covered, it’s time to delve into the longer list full of more interesting players. Reminder that the dollar figures next to the names are the previous year’s salary.
Filip Forsberg - $6 million
Nick Cousins - $1.5 million
Matt Benning - $1 million
Ben Harpur - $700,000
David Rittich - $1.25 million
Forsberg is obviously the big fish here, and he should be brought back. The amount of money is still something that can be debated, but if he doesn’t end up back in Nashville, there should be serious “fire Poile” consideration and the consideration of the rebuild idea. The outlook for Forsberg staying in Music City continues to look optimistic, but free agency is a wild time. Last offseason, it looked as if Mikael Granlund was leaving, and then he signed a semi-long term extension. You just never know, but luckily for Predators fans everywhere, the desire to get a deal completed appears to be mutual.
Cousins is a player that brings an intriguing skill set to the table. Not only does he enjoy getting under the skin of opponents, but he can play solid defensively and occasionally chip in on the offensive side of the puck as well. He’s not a player that should be on the second power play unit like he was in 2021-22, but nonetheless, he can still be of use. It’s hard to project whether or not he will come back, but in order to bring in some new blood from the Admirals, I think it’s very possible that he doesn’t make a return to Nashville.
The hate towards Benning flying everywhere around Predators social media is baffling to me. He made himself extremely useful in the defensive end, shutting down high-danger opportunities better than all Predators defensemen by Evolving-Hockey’s expected goals against per 60 minutes (xGA/60), and while he did make some costly mistakes at point throughout the season, he was a valuable asset to the third pair. As of now, it doesn’t look like the Predators have any itch to bring him back into the fold, but the numbers suggest that could be a costly decision, especially if the newly-signed Lauzon will be taking his place in an area that hasn’t been the strongest for the Predators.
For Harpur, there’s only one word that describes the feelings shared by most, if not all Predators faithful at the prospect of bringing him back: no.
Rittich was given the short end of the stick in 2021-22, starting only 12 games and appearing in 17 total. He ended the season with a 6-3-4 record with a 3.57 goals against average and .886 save percentage. It was almost universally known that the 29-year-old wouldn’t be playing that much behind a Vezina-caliber goaltender in Juuse Saros, but many, including myself, thought it would be more than just 12 games. He was the goalie in net when the Calgary Flames won in overtime after scoring to tie the game at the third period buzzer. He gave up five goals to the Colorado Avalanche in game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. While he did have his rough moments, it’s hard to entirely fault him. When you only play 12 games over an eight month span, playing at the top of your game at the NHL level is extremely difficult.
Rittich won’t be back next season as Connor Ingram most likely takes his place, and though there are certainly sour moments in his short tenure as the backup goalie, it’s hard to not imagine things going differently if his workload was even just slightly more consistent.
Who stays and who goes?
So the question remains, when the dust settles and the 2022-23 season begins, who stays and who was let go? If I were predicting what the front office decides to do, the list would look somewhat like
The front office letting Cousins and Benning go allows them to commit salary cap room elsewhere, and although I and many others would disagree with the prospect of bringing back Kunin, it’s most likely going to happen. The good thing is that it’s not as if he can’t be useful. The problem lies with the price tag.
This offseason is huge for Poile and the Predators front office. If mistakes are made, there could be some repercussions down the road that prevent the team from becoming a true contender for even longer. The fragility of the team is at an all-time high. Only time will tell if it will get worse.