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Scott Cullen

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The Nashville Predators had a franchise-record 117 points to win the Presidents’ Trophy before running into a tough second-round matchup with Winnipeg.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Predators team that is still very much a championship contender.

It’s not as though the Predators shouldn’t examine what they need to do in order to beat the Jets – that’s a tough Central Division to escape – but Nashville is still a title contender.

The one area of concern for the Predators, particularly when compared to Winnipeg, was the amount of offence generated by Nashville’s forwards. A lack of secondary scoring in the playoffs ultimately contributed to Nashville getting eliminated, but with young wingers like Kevin Fiala and Eeli Tolvanen in the fold, it’s reasonable to think that internal improvement can help address that concern.

With the league’s best top four on the blueline, a quality number one line and a top-tier goaltending tandem, there is a lot of good going on in Music City. Enough that some off-season tweaking may be all that’s needed to get over the top.

HOCKEY OPS/COACH

David Poile/Peter Laviolette

HEROES

Pekka Rinne – The 35-year-old, who has had some ups and downs over the course of his career, is a Vezina finalist after he posted a .927 save percentage, his best since 2010-2011, and his 27.49 Goals Saved Above Average was tops in the league.

P.K. Subban – A Norris Trophy finalist, Subban finished the season with 59 points, one shy of his career-high, and while he didn’t drive plays as favourably as in his first season with the Predators, Nashville outscored the opposition 76-57 at evens with Subban on the ice.

Roman Josi – It’s an embarrassment of riches on the Nashville blueline, and if Subban wasn’t a Norris Trophy finalist, Josi would be in the discussion. He had 53 points in 75 games, drove play and Nashville outscored opponents 79-58 with Josi on the ice.

ZEROES

Nick Bonino – This may not have been entirely unexpected, considering that the Predators were, at least in part, paying for his playoff pedigree, but Bonino had poor possession stats (47.8 CF%, -5.2 CFRel%) finished last season with 25 points, his fewest since the 2012-2013 lockout season.

Alexei Emelin – It was somewhat of a surprise when the Predators dealt for the veteran defenceman, in part because of the cost relative to his contributions. He played a career-low 16:53 per game and had abysmal shot differentials (46.6 CF%, -7.3 CFRel%), results that could have been achieved for less.

Mike Fisher – Not to pile on a veteran centre who came out of retirement, hoping for one last run to the Cup, but it turns out it's a tough league to join when it's in full flight. Fisher was unable to generate anything offensively, putting up five points in 28 (regular season plus playoff) games with a meagre output of shots when he was on the ice.

 

RETURNING FORWARDS

 
NAME GP G A PTS CF% RelCF% PDO OZS% ATOI 2018-19 CAP
Filip Forsberg 67 28 36 64 53.5 3.2 104.4 54.2 17:28 $6.0M
Viktor Arvidsson 78 29 32 61 51.2 -0.6 102.6 55.9 17:45 $4.25M
Ryan Johansen 79 15 39 54 52.6 1.1 101.7 54.8 18:33 $8.0M
Kyle Turris 76 16 35 51 54.3 5.1 102.9 65.9 16:37 $6.0M
Craig Smith 79 25 26 51 56.8 7.7 102.5 61.5 15:23 $4.25M
Kevin Fiala 80 23 25 48 56.0 6.2 102.9 64.0 15:09 $863K
Calle Jarnkrok 68 16 19 35 49.1 -3.3 104.2 45.1 15:53 $2.0M
Colton Sissons 81 9 18 27 50.6 -1.1 99.5 32.3 16:06 $625K
Nick Bonino 71 12 13 25 47.8 -5.2 100.7 37.9 15:38 $4.1M
Austin Watson 76 14 5 19 47.0 -5.9 98.5 31.8 12:20 $1.1M
Miikka Salomaki 58 2 6 8 51.0 -0.9 96.5 31.6 10:17 $613K
 

 

FREE AGENT FORWARDS

 
NAME GP G A PTS CF% RelCF% PDO OZS% ATOI 2017-18 CAP STATUS
Ryan Hartman 78 11 20 31 53.0 0.0 99.4 56.0 13:04 $863K RFA
Scott Hartnell 62 13 11 24 51.1 -1.5 100.2 50.7 12:01 $1.0M UFA
Mike Fisher 16 2 2 4 41.4 -12.3 100.3 31.9 12:21 $1.0M UFA
 

He tied a career-high with 64 points, but that total doesn’t accurately reflect how much of a star  Filip Forsberg has become. The 23-year-old winger did that in 67 regular-season games, before adding 16 points in 13 playoff games, and he’s daring enough to attempt dangles with the puck that only a tiny percentage of NHL players even consider as a realistic in-game option.

 

 

 

Nashville’s whirling dervish winger, Viktor Arvidsson has scored 60 goals over the past two seasons, including eight while shorthanded. He’s tenacious on the puck and his contract ($4.25-million for six more years) is extraordinarily team friendly.

It’s certainly true that Ryan Johansen fills the No. 1 centre spot for the Predators, but he has been somewhat underwhelming offensively, scoring 37 goals in 213 games since arriving in a trade from Columbus. His shot rate has declined, to 1.63 per game last season, his lowest since his rookie season 2011-2012, when he played nearly six fewer minutes per game. Nevertheless, he has the skill to make big plays, and has produced 27 points (8 G, 19 A) in 27 playoff games for Nashville, but his big ticket contract would make more sense with better regular-season performance.  

Kyle Turris was fantastic after he was acquired from Ottawa, putting up 42 points in 65 games, with the Predators outscoring the opposition 50-27 at evens with the 28-year-old centre on the ice. With linemates Craig Smith and Kevin Fiala, it was even more lopsided (32-13) with Nashville earning 71% of the goals and 61% of the expected goals, both near the very best in the league among lines that played at least 300 5-on-5 minutes together.

After a miserable 2016-2017 season, Craig Smith bounced back with a career-high 25 goals, the fourth time in the past five seasons that he’s surpassed the 20-goal plateau. He is mentioned as a trade candidate, from time to time, but a couple of years at his current deal is fair value.

Kevin Fiala’s 2016-2017 season ended with a broken femur in Game One of the second round playoff series against St. Louis, and the 21-year-old recovered to produce 23 goals and 48 points in a real breakthrough season. Fiala’s potential is a reason to hope for even more offensive production from Nashville’s forwards in the future.

For the third straight season, Calle Jarnkrok put up more than 30 points, and he did so in just 68 games last season, but he also got shuffled away from centre once the Predators added Turris and Bonino down the middle. Jarnkrok’s versatility and inexpensive contract still makes him valuable, but could make him valuable to other clubs, too.

Colton Sissons has made steady progress and the 24-year-old put up 27 points in 81 games, both career-highs. He’s also been an effective playoff performer in the past couple of seasons, contributing nine goals and 19 points in 35 games, which is really strong from a fourth-line centre.

A two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Penguins, Nick Bonino cashed in as a free agent, signing a four-year deal in Nashville. He’s been an effective complementary player throughout his career, but was outshot rather soundly in his first season with the Predators (much as he was in his last season with Pittsburgh).

While 2010 first-rounder Austin Watson may not live up to that draft slot, he’s found a role as a checking winger and scored a career-high 14 goals in 2017-2018, before adding five goals in 13 playoff games.

A winger who has managed just eight goals in 125 career games, Miikka Salomaki is a servicable, but also entirely replaceable, fourth-line winger.

Acquired from the Blackhawks for a first-round pick and a prospect, 23-year-old winger Ryan Hartman is an agitator, but one who is skilled enough to move up the lineup when necessary. As it is, on a team as deep as the Predators, he may be a fourth-line player, but he can make a positive contribution.

Somehow, Eeli Tolvanen fell to 30th in the draft last summer, and the Predators accepted that gift. He scored 25 goals in 60 (regular season plus playoff) games in the KHL and played for Finland at the World Juniors, Olympics and World Championships. The 19-year-old had 13 points in nine games at the latter two tourneys and skated in three games with the Predators late in the season. Next season, he should have a top-nine role to start, and his offensive upside is another reason for higher hopes about Nashville’s attack.

The Predators have popped up a bit in discussions about John Tavares’ potential destination. He would certainly upgrade their forward lines, but would also likely require some additional moves to create room. At the very least, a centre with a long-term contract would figure to be on the way out in order to facilitate such a deal.

Nashville did seem to think that they needed more forward depth last season, and they have Mike Fisher and Scott Hartnell headed for unrestricted free agent status. If they don’t retain Hartnell, some inexpensive veteran wingers that could contribute in depth roles include Chris Kunitz, Tommy Wingels, Daniel Winnik or Dominic Moore (among many others).

 

RETURNING DEFENCEMEN

 
NAME GP G A PTS CF% RelCF% PDO OZS% ATOI 2018-19 CAP
P.K. Subban 82 16 43 59 51.6 0.2 101.9 43.2 24:07 $9.0M
Roman Josi 75 14 39 53 53.5 3.7 102.3 52.4 24:28 $4.0M
Mattias Ekholm 81 10 24 34 54.5 4.7 100.5 48.1 23:35 $3.75M
Ryan Ellis 44 9 23 32 55.5 4.5 103.4 55.6 23:21 $2.5M
Matt Irwin 50 2 6 8 50.9 -0.4 100.6 49.9 13:26 $675K
Yannick Weber 47 2 3 5 46.6 -6.7 101.4 57.2 12:03 $675K
Anthony Bitetto 32 1 2 3 44.1 -7.5 101.2 53.8 13:26 $650K
 

 

FREE AGENT DEFENCEMAN

 
NAME GP G A PTS CF% RelCF% PDO OZS% ATOI 2017-18 CAP STATUS
Alexei Emelin 76 1 8 9 46.6 -7.3 102.2 43.7 16:53 $4.1M UFA
 

P.K. Subban is a star like few others in the NHL. He performs at a very high level, and that was no different last season, as he played in all 82 games and was very productive even though his ice time (24:07) per game was his lowest since 2012-2013; these are the luxuries of Nashville’s situation, as they can afford not to overwork their Norris Trophy finalist. However, his name also has crept into some trade rumours, under the notion that his $9-million cap hit is challenging when the team has other needs but, man, that had better bring a serious return to even be contemplated. Otherwise, it's taking a core piece away from a championship contender.

Embedded Image
Roman Josi had a tremendous season for the Predators.

A brilliant talent in his own right, Roman Josi creates a lot of offence for the Predators and, over the past five seasons, he ranks seventh among defencemen in goals and fifth in points (Subban is 12th and fourth, respectively). He’s also under contract for two more years at an outrageous bargain price of $4-million per year.

While Subban and Josi draw the most attention on the Nashville blueline because of their offensive contributions, Mattias Ekholm is more of the defensive conscience, and he’s really good at it. Stop me if you’ve heard this before but, he’s on a very team-friendly contract for the next four seasons.

While he missed nearly half of the season recovering from knee surgery, Ryan Ellis returned in fine form and the 27-year-old played as well as he ever has in the second half of the season. He struggled a bit in the playoffs, but that’s small-sample quibbling for a player who has reached a very high level and has one year left on his contract. Presumably, the Predators would like to keep Ellis around, so they could get him signed to an extension this summer.

The Predators don’t ask a whole lot of their third paring, but Matt Irwin has been solid in that role for a couple of seasons. Yannick Weber’s possession numbers haven’t been great for a couple of years and Anthony Bitetto saw action in a career-high 32 games last season. With Alexei Emelin a free agent, would they consider adding a free agent like Luke Schenn, Brandon Manning or Christian Folin? They could conceivably take a run at a bigger name free agent, like Calvin De Haan, though that would seem to require a pretty significant commitment from both sides (in terms of cost for Nashville, and role for De Haan). What about Greg Pateryn, a defensive right-shot defenceman who had a solid year for Dallas?

 

RETURNING GOALTENDER

 
NAME GP W L T SV% EV SV% 2018-19 CAP
Pekka Rinne 59 42 13 4 .927 .938 $7.0M
 

 

FREE AGENT GOALTENDER

 
NAME GP W L T SV% EV SV% 2017-18 CAP STATUS
Juuse Saros 26 11 5 7 .925 .930 $693K RFA
 

A few years ago, it was easy enough to pin a portion of blame for Nashville’s struggles on Pekka Rinne. He had below average save percentage in three of four seasons from 2012-2013 through 2015-2016, but his impressive playoff run in 2017 helped improve his tarnished reputation. He followed that up with an outstanding season in 2017-2018, before some trouble in the postseason. He’s on top of his game once again, it appears, but is also 35-years-old and it’s fair to wonder how long he’ll be able to remain there.

Embedded Image
Pekka Rinne had one of his best seasons in 2017-2018.

Backup Juuse Saros had three rough starts to open last season, during which he allowed 13 goals on just 71 shots, but after that he was spectacular, posting a .935 save percentage in the remaining 23 games in which he appeared. He doesn’t have Rinne’s towering presence, but there’s a pretty easy argument to make for 23-year-old Saros to get more playing time and eventually take over the starting role as Rinne declines.

 

TOP PROSPECTS

 
PLAYER POS. GP G A PTS +/- TEAM (LEAGUE)
Eeli Tolvanen RW 49 19 17 36 +4 Jokerit (KHL)
Dante Fabbro D 38 9 20 29 +4 Boston University (HE)
Yakov Trenin C 44 5 11 16 +3 Milwaukee (AHL)
Patrick Harper C 20 8 13 21 +3 Boston University (HE)
Rem Pitlick C 38 12 19 31 +2 Minnesota (Big 10)
Emil Pettersson C 72 13 33 46 -4 Milwaukee (AHL)
Grant Mismash LW 38 9 13 22 +4 North Dakota (NCHC)
Alexandre Carrier D 73 4 24 28 -14 Milwaukee (AHL)
Tom Novak C 34 3 23 26 +6 Minnesota (Big 10)
Anthony Richard LW 75 19 17 36 +2 Milwaukee (AHL)
Frederic Allard D 55 8 16 24 -1 Milwaukee (AHL)
Miroslav Svoboda G 47       .926 HC Plzen (CZE)
Jack Dougherty D 63 1 11 12 -15 Milwaukee (AHL)
Filip Pyrochta D 42 3 9 12 -3 Tygri Liberec (CZE)
Frederick Gaudreau C 54 22 21 43 +9 Milwaukee (AHL)
 

DRAFT

No first-round pick.

FREE AGENCY

The Predators have approximately $67.5M committed to the 2018-2019 salary cap for 19 players.

NEEDS

One top-nine forward, one defenceman

WHAT I SAID THE PREDATORS NEEDED LAST YEAR

A centre, forward depth

THEY ADDED

Nick Bonino, Scott Hartnell, Alexei Emelin

TRADE MARKET

Craig Smith, Nick Bonino, Miikka Salomaki, P.K. Subban

 

PROJECTED 2018-2019 DEPTH CHART

LEFT WING CENTRE RIGHT WING
Filip Forsberg Ryan Johansen Viktor Arvidsson
Kevin Fiala Kyle Turris Craig Smith
Calle Jarnkrok Nick Bonino Eeli Tolvanen*
Austin Watson Colton Sissons Ryan Hartman
Chris Kunitz* Frederick Gaudreau Mikka Salomaki
Anthony Richard Yakov Trenin Emil Pettersson

 

LEFT DEFENCE RIGHT DEFENCE GOALTENDER
Mattias Ekholm P.K. Subban Pekka Rinne
Roman Josi Ryan Ellis Juuse Saros
Matt Irwin Greg Pateryn* Miroslav Svoboda
Anthony Bitetto Yannick Weber  
Frederic Allard Alexandre Carrier  

 

Many of the advanced stats used here come from Natural Stat TrickCorsicaHockey Viz, and Hockey Reference.

Scott Cullen can be reached at scott.cullen@bellmedia.ca