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Off-Season Game Plan: Nashville Predators

Scott Cullen
5/20/2014 1:44:35 PM
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The Nashville Predators missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season -- back-to-back for the first time since 2001-2002 and 2002-2003 -- and decided to move forward without long-time head coach Barry Trotz.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Nashville team that should be on the rise, with new coach Peter Laviolette behind the bench and enough good young players to make their future promising.

After making the coaching change, the Predators started to talk about playing a more offensive style under their new coach, though it's easy to aim for more offence than a team that ranked 19th with 2.61 goals per game last season. D Shea Weber led the Predators in scoring last season, with 56 points, and the last time any Predators player had more than 60 points was 2008-2009 (J.P. Dumont), so it's not unreasonable to suggest that Nashville could score more goals with a new approach.

The strange thing is that offence wasn't the big problem for Nashville last season. They ranked 23rd in goals against, despite middle of the pack possession numbers. Those underlying numbers don't tell the whole story, because there is some variance between unblocked shots and shots on goal that likely leads to some answers about how the team attacks, but the standout number for the Predators last season is a .907 save percentage during 5-on-5 play, which ranked 29th.

However, there is probably an assumption (a reasonable one, at that) that the Predators' goaltending will be better with a healthy Pekka Rinne next season and with a defence corps that is good and getting better, the natural focus goes to the attack.

Can a new style of play inject life into the Nashville offence or will it take time to acquire the players that will be best suited to play that style? These are questions for David Poile to answer this summer because the Predators only missed the playoffs by three points last season; a few good decisions could put them right back in the playoff hunt next year.

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) -- Corsi, adjusted for zone starts, quality of competition and quality of teammates, hits, blocked shots, penalty differential and faceoffs. Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be around 70, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013-2014 regular season ratings at 87.12.

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

CF% = Corsi percentage (ie. percentage of 5-on-5 shot attempts), via www.extraskater.com.

GM/COACH
David Poile/Peter Laviolette

Returning Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Cap Hit
Patric Hornqvist 73.38 76 22 31 53 51.1% $4.25M
Craig Smith 71.80 79 24 28 52 50.4% $2.0M
Mike Fisher 71.39 75 20 29 49 46.4% $4.2M
Matt Cullen 66.22 77 10 29 39 50.5% $3.5M
Colin Wilson 63.04 81 11 22 33 48.5% $2.0M
Eric Nystrom 61.87 79 15 6 21 46.1% $2.5M
Paul Gaustad 61.77 75 10 11 21 44.5% $3.25M
Gabriel Bourque 61.60 74 9 17 26 52.3% $775K
Viktor Stalberg 61.22 70 8 10 18 48.8% $3.0M
Rich Clune 56.85 58 3 4 7 47.1% $850K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Nick Spaling 63.59 71 13 19 32 45.3% RFA $1.5M
Patrick Eaves 58.63 30 2 3 5 50.9% UFA $1.2M

On a team without a lot of proven goal-scorers, Patric Hornqvist is one, scoring at least 20 goals in four of the past five seasons and over that same time period, no one has generated shots on goal more efficiently during 5-on-5 play. If the Predators are going to play a more open game, maybe that will create even more scoring chances for Hornqvist, who has relied on shot volume more than any special finishing skill to get his numbers.

Following a 2012-2013 season in which he scored just four goals in 44 games, Craig Smith had a nice breakout season in 2013-2014, scoring 24 goals and 52 points, earning more ice time as the season progressed. He's another player that ought to benefit if the Predators are going to aim for a more offensive approach. At the very least, the Predators will hope that Smith is an offensive performer that they can lean on.

Veteran pivot Mike Fisher has been a productive player, last season marking the sixth time that he surpassed 20 goals and sixth time with at least 40 points, but he's really taken on a lot of responsibility in Nashville, with last season's 19:45 average time on ice per game one second behind his career-high, set in 2007-2008. Soon to be 34, and going into the final year of his contract, Fisher may be due for a role reduction.

Matt Cullen is a few years ahead of Fisher on the career arc, but continues to contribute secondary offence, registering at least 0.48 points per game in every season since 2005-2006. He's versatile, too, able to play in all situations and while he's a centre who has won 55.0% of his draws over the past four seasons, Cullen can play the wing too.

A sturdy forward who was productive in 25 games in 2012-2013, Colin Wilson's scoring declined last year. His 0.14 goals per game was a career-low and he doesn't generate enough shots on goal to be a consistently productive scorer.

Veteran winger Eric Nystrom played a career-high 14:52 per game last season and, for the second time in the past three years, scored at least 15 goals. He typically plays harder minutes, with defensive zone starts against quality opposition. Statistical oddity: Nystrom has never had a season with double digit assists.

Veteran forward Paul Gaustad adds grit and is a beast on face-offs, winning 58.5% of his faceoffs since arriving in Nashville, but is perhaps a little-too-well-compensated for those contributions. He was Nashville's fourth-highest paid forward last season yet, among regular forwards, was 11th in average even-strength time on ice.

A blue-collar speed winger who thrived due to high percentages early in his career, Gabriel Bourque has settled into an effective third-line role and scored 25 of his 26 points last season at even strength. Bourque fits as a third-liner or, at times, a defensive conscience with more offensively-minded players.

Brought in from Chicago with expectations of providing offence, Viktor Stalberg got less ice time and was less productive with Nashville; his 18 points in 70 games representing a career-low scoring rate. Stalberg has size, speed and enough skill to contribute offensively, but needs a fresh start after last season.

Not many players agitate like Rich Clune, who ranks third in penalty minutes over the past couple seasons and he's capable of filling a fourth-line role, though adequate possession stats have not brought any notable offence.

25-year-old Nick Spaling has steadily improved his game and, playing a career-high 16:01 per game last season, set career marks in goals (13), assists (19) and points (32). While that's a positive trend, Spaling doesn't get a lot of shots, which makes his offensive contributions somewhat suspect, and likely means he's going to face a battle for ice time under the new coaching regime.

With the expectation that Peter Laviolette would like his team to be more up-tempo and offensively-focused, the Predators do have a couple of strong prospects to inject into the lineup. Filip Forsberg and Calle Jarnkrok -- picked up at the last two trade deadlines, respectively -- have had moments in the NHL, but could go into next season with expectations for regular playing time.

If the Predators are going to go on the attack more often, they may need personnel changes to help make that happen. In addition to turning loose their young skilled forwards, the Predators might also want to venture into the free agent or trade market to land a proven offensive weapon.

Returning Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Cap Hit
Shea Weber 79.63 79 23 33 56 48.0% $7.857M
Roman Josi 74.99 72 13 27 40 48.7% $4.0M
Seth Jones 64.90 77 6 19 25 49.5% $925K
Victor Bartley 57.96 50 1 5 6 44.5% $667K

Free Agent Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Ryan Ellis 65.54 80 6 21 27 50.3% RFA $1.44M
Michael Del Zotto 61.73 67 3 13 16 50.5% RFA $2.55M
Mattias Ekholm 59.41 62 1 8 9 50.1% UFA $1.025M

The cornerstone around which the Predators are built, Shea Weber plays big minutes, in all situations and is coming off a year in which he scored a career-high 56 points. He is the runaway leader, among defencemen, for goals in the past six seasons and, over the past three seasons, he ranks third in total ice time. There is a fair argument to be made that Weber might be better off taking on a little bit less responsibility, as his possession stats have declined under his heavy workload, but he is front and centre to Nashville's efforts.

He's overlooked, somewhat, because of Weber's presence, but 23-year-old Roman Josi is an impressive defender in his own right. Last season, he was one of 16 defencemen to have at least 10 goals and 40 points, and his 26:25 average time on ice ranked fifth in the league, just behind Weber.

Surprisingly available when the Predators were ready to make the fourth pick last summer, Seth Jones jumped straight to the NHL and instantly looked like he belonged, playing more than 23 minutes per game for the first couple months, but Jones couldn't handle that workload, so his ice time was cut back. Jones' future is extremely bright, so he can be expected to play a big role next season and beyond, and the more that Jones is able to handle, the easier it may be to reduce Weber's workload.

Victor Bartley cracked the Predators' lineup in 2012-2013, playing 24 games, and while last season was his first full season in the NHL, Bartley was utilized in a part-time role, playing under 16 minutes per game for 50 games and not faring well against relatively easy matchups. Signed for a couple more years, Bartley is an inexpensive option to fill the seventh slot on the blueline.

The path to the NHL hasn't been easy for Ryan Ellis, the heady, yet undersized, defenceman. He's been largely protected in his usage with the Predators, but has always put up solid possession stats. At the moment, he's also playing, and thriving, in a bigger role with Team Canada at the World Championships, so it may not be such a stretch to consider giving Ellis a bigger role in the future. The decision to be made is whether or not Ellis, smarts and puck skills will outweigh the size mismatches that he must deal with against bigger forwards.

Quickly phased out in New York, under new coach Alain Vigneault, Michael Del Zotto looked to be getting a fresh start in Nashville, but didn't exactly get it. Del Zotto played only 16:18 per game with the Predators and his possession trend hasn't been great the past couple seasons. He's 23, so it would be early to give up on Del Zotto altogether but, as a restricted free agent coming off a disappointing season in which he was paid $2.9-million, his qualifying offer could force a decision.

Mattias Ekholm just wrapped up his first season with the Predators, and while he didn't stand out, it was generally positive. With further development, he could earn a bigger role but that will depend on being able to earn the trust of a new coaching staff. Like Ellis, Ekholm is playing a more substantial role at the World Championships.

The Predators may be able to go with largely the same group coming back but, if there is room in the budget, adding a top four defenceman wouldn't hurt. Maybe Kimmo Timonen could be convinced to return or Ron Hainsey might be a viable left-shooting defence option for the Predators.

Returning Goaltenders

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Cap Hit
Pekka Rinne 56.03 24 10 10 3 2.77 .902 $7.0M

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Carter Hutton 65.06 40 20 11 4 2.62 .910 UFA $550K

All the roster building in Nashville may be for naught if Pekka Rinne doesn't regain his form in net. After recovering from hip surgery last season, Rinne was not the goaltender that he had been in the previous five years. Considering what the Predators have committed, financially, to Rinne, they need him to be healthy and on top of his game.

Filling the backup spot could be as simple as re-signing Carter Hutton, or maybe the Predators will look for someone with more experience; Ray Emery or Ilya Bryzgalov, perhaps?

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Calle Jarnkrok C Milwaukee (AHL) 18-27-45, +26, 63 GP
Filip Forsberg LW Milwaukee (AHL) 15-19-34, +7, 47 GP
Colton Sissons C Milwaukee (AHL) 25-19-44, -3, 62 GP
Taylor Beck RW Milwaukee (AHL) 17-32-49, -8, 65 GP
Austin Watson C Milwaukee (AHL) 22-24-46, +4, 76 GP
Brendan Leipsic LW Portland (WHL) 39-52-91, +28, 60 GP
Pontus Aberg LW Farjesstad (SHL) 15-16-31, +2, 52 GP
Marek Mazanec G Milwaukee (AHL) 2.44 GAA, .914 SV%, 31 GP
Miikka Salomaki LW Milwaukee (AHL) 20-30-50, +6, 75 GP
Jimmy Vesey LW Harvard (ECAC) 13-9-22, -6, 31 GP
Jonathan-Ismael Diaby D Victoriaville (QMJHL) 9-19-28, +11, 38 GP
Anthony Bitetto D Milwaukee (AHL) 11-25-36, -13, 73 GP
Simon Moser LW Milwaukee (AHL) 8-18-26, +2, 48 GP

Swiped out of Detroit in the David Legwand deal, Calle Jarnkrok was already coming on strong after a slow start, then continued both in the AHL, where he put up nine points in six games with Milwaukee, then the NHL, where he had nine points in a dozen games with Nashville, putting up solid possession numbers in sheltered use.

Acquired from Washington for Martin Erat in 2013, Filip Forsberg had a solid showing in his first year in North America, and added five points in 13 games with the Predators. The 19-year-old could, along with Jarnkrok, be part of Nashville's resurgence.

A second-round pick in 2012, Colton Sissons had a strong first pro campaign, earning the solid two-way performer a 17-game look with the Predators, scoring four points.

Drafted in the third round in 2009, Taylor Beck is a winger with good size and has put up 90 points in 115 AHL games over the past two seasons. He also has seven points and good possession numbers in 23 games with the Predators.

A 6-foot-4 centre who was a first-round pick in 2010, Austin Watson finished the year strong in the AHL, with 18 points in his last 22 games. He's probably knocking on the door for an opportunity with the Predators, though there aren't a plethora of openings down the middle, particularly if Jarnkrok sticks.

Between the last two WHL seasons and playoffs, Brendan Leipsic has tallied 268 points in 169 games, so he knows what to do when he gets in the offensive zone. The undersized winger, who was a third-round p ick in 2012, will need to show that he can handle the rest as he makes the move to pro hockey.

A skilled forward who had a productive year in the Swedish Hockey League, Pontus Aberg was a second-round pick in 2012 and he's going to be worth a look at some point.

Forced into action for Nashville last season when injuries hit, Marek Mazanec was a sixth-round pick in 2012. He's big, athletic and showed promise in his 25 games with the Predators, but could use time as an AHL starter to further his development.

Picked in the second round in 2011, Miikka Salomaki had a nice first season in North America, leading Milwaukee in scoring. Sturdy winger isn't shy and could contend for a spot soon.

A third-round pick in 2012, Jimmy Vesey is a winger with good size and scoring touch, which he has shown scoring 24 goals in 58 games in two seasons at Harvard.

Jonathan Ismael-Diaby is a mammoth defenceman that the Predators picked in the third round last summer. He's going to need time to polish his game, but made significant progress in 2013-2014.

23-year-old Anthony Bitetto was a sixth-round pick in 2010 and turned pro after two years at Northeastern. Last season was something of a breakthrough for him, with more offensive production than he had shown previously.

A 25-year-old signed as a free agent out of Switzerland, Simon Moser earned a six-game look-see with Nashville last season. Moser has size, but doesn't have enough of an offensive track record to expect him to be anything more than a checker.

Predators advanced stats and player usage chart from Extra Skater

DRAFT
11th - Brendan Perlini, Haydn Fleury, Alex Tuch

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Predators have approximately $48.3M committed to the 2014-2015 salary cap for 17 players.

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

Needs: Three top six forwards, one top four defenceman, backup goaltender.

What I said the Predators needed last year: Three top line forwards, one top four defenceman.

They added: Matt Cullen, Eric Nystrom, Viktor Stalberg, Seth Jones.

TRADE MARKET
Viktor Stalberg, Colin Wilson, Nick Spaling, Paul Gaustad, Michael Del Zotto.

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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