Accepting Reality: The Predators have to address their center depth if they want to win anything
....and chances are, it'll hurt a little.
We're 20 games through the season, and that is long enough to start seeing the patterns and capabilities with each NHL team. We're seeing some teams sink to the bottom, some teams fighting through injuries, some teams performing very well, and some teams that were supposed to tank but didn't get the memo. (Looking at you, Arizona)
The Nashville Predators, version 2015-16, are a flawed team. They have decent depth on the wings, they have an outstanding corps of defensemen, a great starting goaltender, and a coach that's very well respected. That's all reality, and those are the positives. Soak them in. And those alone will likely carry Nashville into the playoffs, barring some catastrophic injury.
The other side of the battery is that this team struggles to score at times and at generating high-danger chances. And the offense Nashville does have relies on two centers with a combined age of over 70 to do the heavy lifting.
Nashville ranks 16th in the league at generating scoring chances, per War-On-Ice.com. Having a high ranking in this metric isn't the greatest title to hold, because it could mean your team is just conceding possession and playing straight-up defense. Why else would Buffalo, Toronto, and Carolina rank so high in generating chances and allowing fewer? (A: Those teams actually hold onto the puck well, and have defenses that can skate and/or hold their shape well). It should be noted that only one team has a better +/- than the Preds when it comes to scoring chances for/against: the Kings. That's good company to be in.
As of now, the Preds are 14th in even strength goal production (2.3 goals per 60 minutes played) That's... okay. And there were plenty of years when our reaction would've been "GREAT?!? THEY'RE MIDDLE OF THE PACK?!? YESSSS!!!!" This shouldn't be one of those years.
Of the 13 teams above them, here are the teams with a positive goal ratio (generating more goals than allowing while even strength) and a positive shot ratio: Canadiens, Capitals, Bruins, Blues, Stars, Sharks. That's pretty good, right? As teams go, those are most of your elite teams this year. What do they all have in common that Nashville doesn't have?
The answer is center depth. The Habs are getting great play from Tomas Plekanec (better than I expected; going into this year I called him Mike Fisher wearing a turtleneck.... sorry Tomas), Galchenyuk, and Eller. The Caps have a full stable, the Bruins have Bergeron and Krejci, and the Blues have one of the best trios of top 9 centers when Ken Hitchcock wants to be adventurous. Let's avoid talking about how great the Stars are this year; it hurts too much. And hey look, the Sharks are good again.
And taking a look at last year, here are the teams that were in the top half of goals per 60 minutes played, positive shot ratio, and positive goal ratio (51% or higher): Lightning, Islanders, Predators, Rangers, Blues, Ducks, Wild, Kings, Blackhawks, Jets, Penguins, and Capitals. Nashville is the only one of those teams who doesn't have a true number one center. Even the Jets have Bryan Little and Mark Scheifele (who is eventually going to be their 1C).
Go ahead, look at the teams who have won a Cup over the last 10 years.
Nashville has the goal-scoring to keep them in the race, but truly elite teams have elite centers. This isn't news. We have beaten this drum for well over the past year. And many others have too.
So having said all that.... how does Nashville get that guy?
A trade that will seem painful for both sides.
Will that even work? Those guys aren't traded too often.
Um, Dallas has two of them. Traded for both of them within the last 3 years.
Trades can happen, and there are plenty of teams seeking defensive help. Nashville is literally in the exact opposite position. Throwing all the draft picks they can at the problem is a smart move, but none of those players will be ripe by the time Rinne's window closes. If Nashville wants to make a run with Pekka Rinne in his prime or close to it, that trade needs to be sooner rather than later.
They should wait until the summer and pounce in free agency.
Some eternal optimists will point at free agency as the window to address Nashville's issue. The reality is that free agency points right back at Nashville and laughs, because the options this next summer might just be an out-of-warranty Eric Staal or David Backes... and that's it. Both of them are over 30, and past their prime but still going to land a check that will make any banker cringe. Like most, I believe Steven Stamkos and Anze Kopitar are going to re-sign where they already are. Neither team has a Plan B to replace them, and it's hard to believe two elite teams would let their key cog walk away.
Yes, that sucks. But that's reality.
David Poile has done an excellent job constructing this defense, and there's a good young core of forwards to build around, but the roster is sitting like a Christmas tree with nothing at the top of it. The top pairing on the defense likely isn't going anywhere. The team needs Shea Weber and Roman Josi, and they've had a very good start to the year.
With all of that said, here's an option I'm ready to accept:
If they're trying to win this year and beyond, the Predators would be best served by trading Seth Jones for a player like Ryan Johansen.
It hurts to say that. Really. Seth Jones is a fine young player that's done what's been expected of him. This is no shot at Jones at all. In fact, it's the opposite. He's been allowed to flourish and grow unlike so many other young defensemen who are thrusted into the lineup too quickly (Hi, Ryan Murray). Because Jones has began to show his amazing potential that reminds hockey fans of Drew Doughty and Roman Josi... his value should be enough to land a player that this franchise has needed since... well, day one (Hi, David Legwand).
Again, this isn't a Seth Jones hate piece. We all like Seth Jones. And we fell in love with Seth Jones the player when he walked off that stage at the draft with vengeance on his mind. But Nashville already has a loaded defense, and can build a package around Jones to land the players needed to fill his role as a third pairing defenseman as well as a #1 centerman. That's how good Jones is, and could be. Seth Jones is a lot of things... "sucks" isn't one of them.
(I made sure to dedicate two paragraphs to praising Jones, so when you see people angry at this article and commenting that I hate Seth Jones, you'll know they didn't read it)
This premise of this is easy: Nashville should look into swapping a second/third pairing defenseman for a top line centerman that's comparable in age and potential.
But what about Weber?
I'd be okay with trading Weber instead of Jones during the summer, but between Weber's deal already being signed and Weber's style being better suited to Roman Josi... Weber may be a better fit right now. And if we're all honest... David Poile is less likely to trade Shea Weber than he is Seth Jones. Jones is coming up on a contract year, and will likely be making "Weber Money" before too long. That's a few years away, but if Nashville wants to better arm themselves to win a Cup within the next three years and beyond... it's a center that they need.
Those are all fine points. But how about a compromise... a rental for the spring?
A rental? Like the obligatory Eric Staal trade that GMDP has been planning for 2 years now? Depends on the cost. And even with that move, what happens in the summer? There's no guarantee that Staal will stay nor is there a guarantee that he'll be affordable or be worthy of an expensive deal. Then Nashville is back in the same spot, but with less prospects.
These options all suck.
Good hockey trades do that. A good trade leaves both sides feeling uneasy. But this is trading a surplus item for a needed one. And landing a player this franchise has been starving for since its inception should be priority one, especially when no team has won a Cup without a franchise top line center since the 2004-05 lockout. That's a long time, and during that period Nashville has had several playoff worthy rosters that have all fell to teams in the playoffs with superior center depth (exception: the infamous Coyotes series even though Martin Hanzal was very good during that one). It's about time this team learned a thing or two, and addressed their most glaring need. Nashville has the makings of a very good roster with depth scoring and good two-way forwards, with James Neal and Filip Forsberg at the top of the lineup. Getting the right piece to play between them might make the difference between banners and no banners (again).
It'll hurt, but it's for the best that it happens. Unless they actually move Forsberg to center and it works.