Predators use trade deadline to usher in new era and finally leave the NHL’s dreaded middle class

Nashville sells assets to set up brighter future.

Heading into last week’s deadline, the Nashville Predators finally admitted it: This team is going nowhere.

Gone are the likes of Mattias Ekholm, Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund and Tanner Jeannot. In return, Nashville welcomed an influx of draft picks and prospects as it looks to compete again in the future instead of trying to gear up for another, albeit unlikely, playoff push.

The Predators hitting the reset button comes on the heels of longtime general manager David Poile’s impending retirement and the ushering in of the Barry Trotz era in the front office. But the next era of Predators hockey also arrives after years of Nashville seemingly doing its best to be as mediocre as possible.

Heading into this season, the Predators hadn’t finished above fourth place in their division in the last three years, a trend that will most likely continue this year. Between the 2019-20 and the 2021-22 seasons, the Predators were 16th in point percentage, 14th in CF% at five on five and 16th in xGF%, per Natural Stat Trick. Not good enough to regularly outplay their competition (especially against the heavyweights of the NHL), but also not bad enough to miss the playoffs and potentially win big in the lottery. This brand of mediocrity was punctuated with a loss in the qualifying round in the bubble in 2020 and then consecutive eliminations in the first round after sneaking into the postseason.

This season offered more of the same from the Predators. Natural Stat Trick has them at 23rd in the league at five-on-five in CF% and 22nd in xGF%, so it’s not as if they’re regularly dominating games or getting pummeled on a nightly basis. Heading into last week’s trade deadline, the Nashville Predators just existed.

Until the trade-deadline chaos kicked in, at least. A Nashville front office that was afraid of the dreaded R-word — you can choose between “rebuild” and “re-tool,” whichever one makes you feel better — finally decided to leave the no-man’s land the team had been trapped in since end of the 2018-19 season.

Since the 2020-21 season, the Predators had amassed a nucleus of Matt Duchene, Filip Forsberg, Roman Josi and not much else outside of Juuse Saros standing on his head more often than not. Below shows how players who have played at least 1,000 minutes and for the Predators in that span have fared by Evolving Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement metric heading into last week’s trading frenzy.

Three of the Predators’ top players by GAR — Niederreiter, Ekholm and Viktor Arvidsson — are gone. The remaining three are Josi, Forsberg and Duchene. Regardless of if it was through trades, signings or draft picks, Nashville failed to surround its top players with talent that rose above the league average.

Also, Nashville hasn’t gone out of its way to acquire truly terrible players, either. Generally speaking, teams shouldn’t do that, but it’s also hard for a team like Nashville to truly bottom out if the lineup is filled out with quality depth. Sure, the Predators have iced the likes of Jeremy Lauzon, Ben Harpur and Erik Gudbranson in that span, but the latter two didn’t spend much time in Nashville, especially Gudbranson.

Every rebuilding/re-tooling team is likely using Colorado as a model for a quick turnaround: draft superstars, take advantage of their cheap cap space while they’re young (or luck out on one of them having the worst year of their career in a contract year like Nathan MacKinnon did) and use free agency and trades to pick up talent along the way. Here’s that same chart, but for Colorado.

Generally speaking, the only ways to acquire that kind of talent are either through the draft (read: pick in the top five) or fork over significant assets. At no point since the 2019-20 season have the Preds been good enough to reach the point where the latter made sense, and there was too much talent on the roster to have the best shot at the top young talent in the draft.

That last part is still somewhat true this year. The Predators are 16th in the lottery standings on Tankathon at the time of this writing, giving them a miniscule chance at landing wunderkind Connor Bedard. Barring a Chernobyl-esque meltdown in Edmonton (which, to be fair, isn’t exactly impossible for that franchise), Nashville’s Bedard hopes will end there.

While a Preds team without the likes of Ekholm and Niederreiter is unlikely to match the points pace of pre-deadline Nashville, it’s important to note that the bottom of the league got worse as well, as expected. It’s difficult to see the Predators reach the futility of the Timo Meier-less Sharks, the Jakob Chychrun-less Coyotes or the Patrick Kane-less Chicago Blackhawks down the stretch.

But what Nashville has done is assembled a fairly impressive stockpile of picks for this year’s stacked draft class and beyond. The Predators have 10 picks in the first four rounds this year and potentially 16 picks in the first three rounds between this year and 2025, including five in the first round — the first-round pick acquired from Tampa Bay for Jeannot in 2025 is top-10 protected. And with Nashville admitting that it isn’t aiming to contend in the playoffs, it gives the Preds free reign to hand their prospects, like 2020 second-round pick Luke Evangelista, all kinds of opportunities in the NHL.

Draft picks can be a difficult lottery ticket to hit. But it’s a solid first step for Nashville toward leaving mediocrity behind and building another contending team.