Nashville Predators 2021 Previews: The Wingers
The offense is, once again, the Preds’ big question.
We’re less than 48 hours away from the start of the NHL season, and while the roster has been trimmed down for practice Tuesday morning, the outlook for the Nashville Predators’ forward group is still very much in the air. As Kate said earlier today in her center previews, we are going to assume Ryan Johansen, Matt Duchene, and Colton Sissons will primarily play center this season and not include them here. The remainder of the forwards can be separated into several groups, which I think presents a picture of the roles certain players will fill. Young players like Philip Tomasino and Eeli Tolvanen will be covered in another upcoming piece.
The Cornerstone: Filip Forsberg
I went into a lot of detail regarding the play of Forsberg last season. After a self-described “down year” for the Swedish forward, the role he plays on this team may be the most important of all the forwards. The JOFA line reuniting for opening night is all but certain, as they have played together almost exclusively since practices began. However, if the lines do change this season and Forsberg reunites with Duchene, expect to think of the “first line” of this team being simply whichever line Filip Forsberg is playing on.
As I’ve written before, Filip Forsberg may be the only forward on the team that drives play on his own and can lift his linemates, no matter who they are, and Coach John Hynes agreed after Tuesday’s practice:
Coach John Hynes on how vital Filip Forsberg is to the group of forwards and how his play elevates others, even when the lineup is mixed up@OnTheForecheck pic.twitter.com/eNHHfRGPFU— Bryan Bastin (@BryanBastin) January 12, 2021
The bottom line: Filip Forsberg will be the most vital forward on the ice for Nashville almost every night. I expect to see him with Johansen and Arvidsson to start the year for some time, but no matter who he plays with, his line will likely be the top offensive threat on the team. Only health issues will keep Forsberg off the ice this season.
Needs a bounce-back season in the top six: Viktor Arvidsson
Eamon wrote a fantastic piece on Arvidsson’s play last season and his struggles prior to his injury. He started to improve at the end of the season, and Nashville hopes he can come back at the same pace. While Arvidsson left practice on Tuesday—getting “nicked up and evaluated” per Coach Hynes—I fully expect him to start the season on the top line and in the power play as we’re used to seeing. He and Johansen had some struggles when Järnkrok filled in last season in place of Forsberg, but slowly started to stabilize as time went on. Still, the franchise’s leader in single-season goals needs to have a very solid year this season while staying healthy to prove that he belongs on the top line of this team.
The bottom line: Arvidsson closed last season out strong, and he will need to continue to elevate his play to prove that he belongs with the top line. If he cannot produce this season, look to see Forsberg move to a line with Duchene and Granlund, and Arvidsson start getting second-line minutes.
Logjam in the middle six: Erik Haula, Luke Kunin and Mikael Granlund
If one thing is certain in the forward group outside of the JOFA line, it is Duchene centering the second unit—a group that needs to be a top scoring threat with the departure of two-thirds of last season’s best line that included Nick Bonino and Craig Smith.
Many people were surprised to see Mikael Granlund returning to Nashville this season after publicly deciding to test the free agent market, but once he has cleared immigration hurdles and has had time to quarantine and practice, I don’t see an outcome that doesn’t result in Granlund once again playing on Duchene’s wing. Granlund and Duchene were effective together last season, even more so with Filip Forsberg, and I don’t expect that to change.
Until Granlund returns, however, we have seen Duchene centering newcomers Erik Haula and Luke Kunin in practice this week. I expect this group to start as the second line in the first week or two of games, and they may struggle a bit to find the chemistry that would normally be built in an extended training camp.
Haula is a few seasons removed from his high-scoring season in Vegas where he scored 29 goals, and that type of production is unlikely, but he should be an effective depth player with offensive upside to start the season and brings a veteran presence to compliment Duchene. Defensively, Haula has been up and down, with last season being one of his worst, and may be the reason we see the former Golden Knight and Hurricane move down the lineup when Granlund returns.
On the other side is Luke Kunin, who was acquired in the trade with Minnesota for Nick Bonino. Whereas Bonino was a known factor and veteran presence, Kunin represents a younger player with high upside that has NHL experience. While he’s not nearly as dynamic offensively, it is a role we are familiar with seeing—Kevin Fiala spent a couple years as a player with a ton of potential that could play regular NHL minutes now. Kunin is extremely versatile, and the team has mentioned his ability to play center as a strong selling point, but if Coach Hynes is going to play Kunin on the wing, I’d be surprised to see him anywhere else than alongside Matt Duchene.
The bottom line: These two players provide strong middle-six talent, and the team shouldn’t suffer much with both playing alongside Duchene. When the roster starts turning over and players are called up, both players are versatile enough to immediately step in and play important roles up and down the lineup.
Shutdown checking line or high-scoring threat: Rocco Grimaldi and Nick Cousins
The third line in practice Tuesday saw Colton Sissons centering both Grimaldi and Cousins, and the more I watch, the more I’m convinced that this line may see a ton of action together all season. Sissons is a very good middle-six player with a good two-way game—he’s one of the best defensive forwards on the team—which will be good to compliment Rocco Grimaldi. But his skillset fits perfectly with these two, and that’s where I expect them to be.
Grimaldi was one of the only Predators besides Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis to have career years last season, and the surprising dominance of the third line was highlighted by Grimaldi’s quick skating, excellent transition game and aggressiveness chasing the puck. His defensive downsides are always something to watch for, but I see Sissons filling a very similar role defensively as Nick Bonino, so Grimaldi should still be free to aggressively push the puck into the opponents’ defensive zone.
Nick Cousins is a free agent acquisition that many saw as not much more than replacing the “tough guy” role vacated by Austin Watson. However, Cousins has had one of the strongest training camps of any of the forwards, scoring multiple goals in the two scrimmages, and being solid on both ends of the ice. Sure, we’ll see him probably deliver a lot of big hits and he’s probably going to actually win a few fights, but Cousins plays with exactly the style the organization wants on the third line. While he’s not going to be a 20+ goal scorer, he’s capable of producing miles more than Watson did in the last couple of years, so what was at first a simple role-player acquisition looks to turn into a production upgrade and a solid depth player.
The bottom line: This line isn’t going to replicate last year’s third line—but that’s okay. Cousins and Grimaldi will provide enough of an offensive threat to keep opponents on their toes, and this group will probably be trusted with some pretty tough minutes as the season moves on.
The Swiss Army knife: Calle Järnkrok
Järnkrok flew under the radar last season, despite being one of the top goal-scorers on the team. His career year saw him playing on almost every line, including a long stretch on the top unit with Johansen and Arvidsson. He’s developing into a solid offensive player with a fairly strong defensive game, and both coaching staffs (former head coach Peter Laviolette and current head coach John Hynes) obviously trusted Järnkrok to fill whatever role was necessary.
Starting the season, we may see him in the bottom six alongside Trenin and McCarron, but Järnkrok also saw a lot of time in practice this week with Haula, Kunin and Duchene. He’s a valuable piece of this team that gets little to no fanfare, but in a season filled with uncertainty and most likely a lot of roster turnover, his value as a forward is obvious.
The bottom line: Calle Järnkrok may be the glue that keeps the forward group productive this season. With other professional sports leagues in the US seeing high rates of positive tests, Järnkrok is a very good replacement wherever he is asked to play, and does not having any glaring weaknesses that would bring a line down. I don’t think he can replicate his offensive output from last season, but the drop-off should not be very far.