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Off-Season Game Plan: Nashville Predators

Scott Cullen
5/16/2013 5:59:34 PM
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The Nashville Predators missed the playoffs for the second time in the last nine seasons, a result that will secure them a top draft pick, but also indicates that there is much room for improvement.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at what may in store for the Predators this summer.

When the Predators were trying to make plans to build their team around goaltender Pekka Rinne and defencemen Ryan Suter and Shea Weber, they obviously knew there would be a significant financial commitment involved if they were going to keep all three, particularly when considering that all three are among the best at their respective positions.

It turns out that the Predators kept two -- Rinne and Weber -- and felt the loss of Suter, who signed as a free agent in Minnesota.

Nashville tied for last in the league with 2.27 goals per game, registering a league-low 25.9 shots on goal per game. Some of that can be attributed to injuries as Patric Hornqvist and Colin Wilson, two of Nashville's better offensive players, missed half the season, but it says something when injuries to Hornqvist and Wilson cause such problems.

"We need to get more dynamic with our forwards,"GM David Poile told The Tennessean. "We need more scoring. Again, you look at the stats, we're not even that far behind some of the teams, but it feels like we are. We want to be better there."

While the Predators launched fewer shots, they also allowed fewer, down to 27.8 per game in 2013, which ranked eighth in the league, despite a defence corps that had a lot of inexperienced blueliners getting significant opportunities.

If Pekka Rinne had been on top of his game in net, suppressing shots against to that level could have been enough to make Nashville a playoff contender, at the very least, but that wasn't how the season played out.

Poile acknowledged that the season was a disappointment, but seems prepared to chalk it up to injuries. "We always use that expression of getting on the bus and getting in the right seat. We're having trouble getting everybody on the bus to start with and we didn't have anybody in the right seat."

It's reasonable enough to wonder if, even healthy, the Predators have the right people getting on that proverbial bus, but that's for Poile to assess this summer, as Nashville responds to rare disappointment.

The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013 regular season ratings with a 93.65.

Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.

GM/COACH
David Poile/Barry Trotz

Returning Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
Mike Fisher 69.71 38 10 11 21 +6 $4.2M
Colin Wilson 69.60 25 7 12 19 +1 $2.0M
Patric Hornqvist 68.02 24 4 10 14 -1 $4.25M
Gabriel Bourque 66.39 34 11 5 16 +6 $775K
David Legwand 65.05 48 12 13 25 -6 $4.5M
Taylor Beck 64.51 16 3 4 7 0 $887K
Paul Gaustad 58.81 23 2 3 5 -1 $3.25M
Sergei Kostitsyn 57.94 46 3 12 15 -5 $3.0M
Craig Smith 57.80 44 4 8 12 -11 $2.0M
Richard Clune 57.75 47 4 5 9 +3 $538K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Class '12-'13 Cap Hit
Matt Halischuk 60.73 36 5 6 11 +1 RFA $713K
Nick Spaling 59.66 47 9 4 13 -10 RFA $1.05M
Brandon Yip 56.74 34 3 5 8 -3 UFA $750K
Bobby Butler 55.62 34 4 7 11 -8 RFA $525K

Predators Forwards Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com

On a team without any game-breaking scorers, Mike Fisher is about as good as the Predators have up front. The 32-year-old centre has topped 50 points twice in his career, but he does the proverbial heavy lifting, starting many shifts in the defensive zone and facing the opposition's best line on a nightly basis.

Colin Wilson was enjoying an offensive breakthrough season, with 19 points in 25 games, before he was sidelined with shoulder trouble. He's since had surgery and will be out four-to-six months as he recovers, but there is reason to be optimistic that the 23-year-old can be a reliable offensive contributor. At the same time, Wilson's value can't get overblown because of that small sample, particularly because he scored on an unsustainable 26.9% of his shots, and had a career-low 1.04 shots on goal per game.

Injuries limited Patric Hornqvist to only half of the already-shortened season and he finished just 4.6% of his shots, leaving him with four goals in 24 games, a definite step down from the 78 goals he accumulated in the previous three seasons. That didn't stop the Predators from signing Hornqvist to a five-year contract extension because they recognize his value lies in his willingness to go to the hard areas on the ice in order to score goals.

Through his first two NHL seasons, Gabriel Bourque has 18 goals and 35 points in 77 games. While his shooting percentage in that time (16.5%) isn't likely to sustain, the 22-year-old is establishing that he's a legitimate top nine forward, with some upward mobility if he continues to produce offensively.

32-year-old David Legwand has played 894 regular season (plus 47 playoff) games for the Predators, and he's become a valuable contributor, able to score a bit while providing sound two-way play. The 2013 season wasn't his finest -- his 0.52 points per game was his second lowest over the last 10 seasons -- and he's entering the last year of his contract, but he's been a fixture in Nashville, playing for the Predators since 1999.

Taylor Beck could still be considered a prospect as he only played 16 games last season, but there was a lot to like about his first stint in the NHL. He generated shots on goal (39 in 16 games), earned more ice time (16:06) with his play and, after 41 points in 50 AHL games, he's a winger with good size and offensive ability who could be ready for a full-time role.

The Predators took a risk by signing Paul Gaustad, a checking centre with limited offensive upside, to a four-year, $13-million contract, then Gaustad missed more than half the season with injuries. He's a big-bodied banger who can play tough checking minutes but, especially given the defensive play of Nashville's top two centres, it's a luxury to spend that kind of money of Gaustad.

Life was going pretty well for Sergei Kostitsyn in Russia during the lockout, as he scored 28 points in 27 games for Avangard Omsk, but he endured a miserable season once the NHL returned to the ice, scoring three goals and 15 points in 46 games, despite playing a career-high 16:43 per game. Kostitsyn has one year remaining on his contract and his skill is needed, but he's a complementary piece at best.

As a rookie, in 2011-2012, Craig Smith showed some offensive talent and contributed 36 points in 72 games, but took a step back last season, never getting on track after a slow start that saw him put up one point in 15 games. The 23-year-old is one of several Predators forwards that needs to be significantly better next season.

Salvaging a career that was headed for the scrap heap, 26-year-old Richard Clune fought 26 times between the AHL and NHL last season, but also showed that he could be more than strictly a puncher, playing 12:32 per game in April. Maybe Clune isn't going to develop into more than a fourth-line scrapper, but he's a physical player who can help the cause.

A depth forward who has yet to average 12 minutes per game in the NHL (a career-high 11:57 in 2013), Matt Halischuk regressed from his breakthrough 15-goal season (2011-2012), chipping in five goals and 11 points in 36 games. He's a hard working player, but one that is constantly battling to keep his spot in the lineup.

Nick Spaling's role continues to increase, as he played nearly 16 minutes per game last season, but there is at least some evidence that perhaps he's not quite up to that responsibility. He's a solid depth forward, but will have to be better if he's going to keep playing as much as he did in 2013.

Nashville is the third team giving Bobby Butler a chance to prove he can score in the NHL after a 29-goal senior season at New Hampshire in 2009-2010. So far, Butler has 20 goals in 128 career games, showing some flashes, but not enough yet to establish that he's a full-time NHLer.

With the fourth pick in the draft, the Predators should have a chance to get Finnish centre Aleksander Barkov, who finished in the Top 10 in scoring in the Finnish SM-liigga as a 17-year-old. The Predators are notoriously patient, but Barkov might be ready to play. If the Predators don't get immediate help through the draft, then they could venture to the free agent market, looking for a proven scorer that won't break the bank. Veterans like Clarke MacArthur, Pierre-Marc Bouchard or Mason Raymond could be among the wingers that would provide immediate help offensively.

Returning Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
Shea Weber 76.73 48 9 19 28 -2 $7.857M
Kevin Klein 68.08 47 3 11 14 -1 $2.9M
Ryan Ellis 63.91 32 2 4 6 -2 $1.44M
Hal Gill 57.31 32 0 0 0 -3 $2.0M

Free Agent Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Class '12-'13 Cap Hit
Roman Josi 69.50 48 5 13 18 -7 RFA $1.0M
Victor Bartley 66.43 24 0 7 7 +2 RFA $538K
Jonathon Blum 63.95 35 1 6 7 -1 RFA $650K

Predators Defence Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com

After the Philadelphia Flyers signed Shea Weber to a massive offer sheet as a restricted free agent last summer, the Predators gulped and matched the 14-year, $110-million offer to keep one of the game's pre-eminent defencemen in Music City. Weber continued to do his thing, playing 26 minutes per game against the opponent's best line and scoring with his rocket shot.

Over the last five seasons, Weber has scored 83 goals to lead all defencemen. Zdeno Chara is second, with 59. Weber's salary is $14-million per season in the first four years of his deal, then $12-million for the next two seasons, so it's a heavy investment to keep him and the kind of financial commitment that always makes it conceivable the Predators would consider dealing him.

Kevin Klein has quietly established his credentials as a top four defenceman, playing 20 minutes per game over the last four seasons and while he could improve possession numbers and point production, Klein is a steady contributor for the Predators.

In 64 career NHL games, Ryan Ellis has scored 14 power play points and just three at even strength and it's the perceived trouble at even strength that is preventing Ellis from solidifying his role on the Nashville defence. He's never going to be a big, punishing defender, but Ellis' puck possession skills and smart play still give him plenty of upside, even if he's had to spend a little time in the AHL honing his game.

6-foot-7 shotblocker Hal Gill is now 38-years-old so the finish line is right in front of him, especially considering that he has one year left on his contract and played a career-low 13:23 per game last season.

Thrust into a bigger role with Ryan Suter gone, Roman Josi performed well for the Predators; not at Suter's level, but the 22-year-old was a solid puck-mover logging more than 23 minutes per game so there should be bigger and better things to come.

Playing the second half of the NHL season in Nashville, after posting 26 points and a plus-4 rating in 54 AHL games, 25-year-old Victor Bartley was steady, playing 19:33 per game and giving every indication that he will be part of the Predators' blueline going forward.

A first-round pick in 2007, Jonathan Blum's NHL career has been going in fits and starts. While he did play a career-high 35 games in 2013, he also played just 14:18 per game. Blum is a heady defenceman who is NHL ready, but it remains to be seen just how significant his role will be on the Nashville blueline.

As if there aren't enough young defencemen competing for ice time, prospect Mattias Ekholm has to be pushing for a spot after a year of seasoning in the American Hockey League. The Predators have done well developing defencemen, but that rep would be enhanced if Ellis and/or Blum took a significant step ahead.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Cap Hit
Pekka Rinne 70.75 43 15 16 8 2.43 .910 $7.0M

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Class '12-'13 Cap Hit
Chris Mason 39.04 11 1 7 1 3.73 .873 UFA $1.5M

Naturally, after posting a .926 save percentage in the previous two seasons, Pekka Rinne's first season under his $7-million per season contract extension brought a career-worst .910 save percentage and the Predators simply didn't score enough to succeed with Rinne playing like an average starting goaltender.

Nashville can upgrade their backup goaltender, potentially by promoting prospect Magnus Hellberg, but it's an area in which they are unlikely to spend significant money, given what they are paying Rinne. Looking at available free agents, former Predator Dan Ellis, Thomas Greiss, Jason LaBarbera or Anton Khudobin could be upgrades on Chris Mason, who struggled in 2013.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Filip Forsberg LW Leksands (SWE) 15-18-33, +11, 38 GP
Mattias Ekholm D Milwaukee (AHL) 10-22-32, +15, 59 GP
Austin Watson C Milwaukee (AHL) 20-17-37, +4, 72 GP
Colton Sissons RW Kelowna (WHL) 28-39-67, +43, 61 GP
Brendan Leipsic LW Portland (WHL) 49-71-120, +55, 68 GP
Magnus Hellberg G Milwaukee (AHL) 22-13-0, 2.14 GAA, .924 SV%, 39 GP
Jimmy Vesey LW Harvard (ECAC) 11-7-18, -11, 27 GP
Miikka Salomaki LW Karpat (SML) 9-10-19, +8, 42 GP
Zach Budish RW Minnesota (WCHA) 14-22-36, +17, 40 GP
Pontus Aberg LW Djurgardens (SWE) 12-28-40, +13, 52 GP

Plucked from the Washington Capitals in the Martin Erat trade, Filip Forsberg got into five games at the end of the year with Nashville, a chance to tantalize with his skills, but also reveal that there is work to be done before the 18-year-old is going to make a significant difference in the NHL. In a year or two, though, the Predators could have a quality scoring winger with good size and speed.

After a year in the AHL, Mattias Ekholm is knocking at the Predators' door. He's 6-foot-4, mobile, can use his size and has good instincts with the puck. He's battling a number of other prospects for a spot on the Nashville blueline.

2010 first-rounder Austin Watson is a Predators-style forward, for better or worse. He plays a sound two-way game and has good size, but may not have the highest ceiling offensively. Nevertheless, he's a safe prospect, one that could thrive in a system that expects conscientious defensive play out of its forwards.

Steadily-improving Colton Sissons took a step forward offensively this season, perhaps suggesting that he has more to offer as he progresses, but he'll need a few years of seasoning before he challenges for a spot in Nashville.

Size may be the issue for 5-foot-9 Brendan Leipsic, but he rolled up a 120-point season in the Western Hockey League, more than doubling his production from the previous season. He still has time to develop, and get stronger, but that offensive upside is attractive.

Another tall goaltending prospect, 6-foot-5 Magnus Hellberg took some time to adjust to North America, but was dominant down the stretch. In his last 29 games, Hellberg had a 1.74 goals against average and .930 save percentage, the kind of numbers that make one think he could be ready to move on from the AHL.

A winger with good size who can get in on the forecehck, Jimmy Vesey will have time to develop, as he just completed his first year at Harvard, also playing for the gold-medal-winning U.S. team at the World Junior Hockey Championships.

A second-round pick in 2011, Miikka Salomaki has already played three seasons against men in Finland's top league, so the 20-year-old winger is due to make his appearance in North America soon.

Injuries hampered power forward Zach Budish early in his college career, but he stayed healthy the last two years and put up 71 points in 83 games for the University of Minnesota before getting a late-season audition with Milwaukee in the AHL. With some time to develop his game at the pro level, Budish could be a physical presence down the road.

A second-round pick last summer, Pontus Aberg is a skilled winger with offensive upside. It may take some time, but if he continues to progress, there is a potential payoff down the road.

DRAFT
4th - Aleksander Barkov, Elias Lindholm, Darnell Nurse

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Predators have approximately $45.2M committed to the 2013-2014 salary cap for 14 players.

Check out my possible Predators lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.

Needs: Three top line forwards, one top four defenceman.

What I said the Predators needed last year: One top-six forward, depth forwards, one top four defenceman, two additional defencemen.

They added: Richard Clune, Scott Hannan, Hal Gill.

TRADE MARKET
Sergei Kostitsyn, Paul Gaustad, Hal Gill, Jonathon Blum.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.




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