You win a Presidents’ Trophy, you don’t win the Stanley Cup, you get another chance with, more or less, the same group of players. The Washington Capitals finished first overall in 2015-16 and 2016-17, bombed out in Round 2 of the post-season twice and got their long-awaited championship by 2018.
It was understandable, then, to see the Nashville Predators and GM David Poile take a relatively conservative path last summer. They’d lost in Round 2 but, because of the NHL’s playoff format, they faced the team with the second-most points, the Winnipeg Jets. The defeat was disappointing but somewhat forgivable given the fierce competition. The biggest roster change Poile made in the off-season was signing veteran UFA defenseman Dan Hamhuis for the bottom pair. Poile was giving last year’s group its mulligan.
By the 2019 trade deadline, however, it was clear this team was broken. It labored to the NHL’s worst power play, and while Poile’s trades, sending out Kevin Fiala and Ryan Hartman in separate deals for Mikael Granlund and Wayne Simmonds, represented a gallant effort to patch over some holes, it didn’t work. Simmonds was, let’s face it, a disaster as a Predator, chipping in one goal in 17 regular-season games and two playoff games combined. Granlund managed two goals in 22 total games.
The Predators’ six-game loss to the Dallas Stars in Round 1 of these playoffs obviously isn’t squarely on Simmonds and Granlund, but what their minimal impact tells us is that Nashville will have to think bigger – much bigger – to re-emerge as a significant Cup contender next year. It got mostly solid goaltending from Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros all season. It finished fourth in goals-against average, sixth in penalty killing, 10th in 5-on-5 shots against per 60 and ninth in shot attempts allowed per 60. This remains a strong defensive club, led by the all-world blueline quartet of Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and P.K. Subban.
But we know what Nashville’s glaring problem is. The power play finished the regular season at a pathetic 12.9 percent, the lowest mark of any team in the past two years. The Preds were 19th in goals. Interestingly, they ranked 10th in shots on goal and eighth in shot attempts per 60 minutes, but their shot quality was poor. They were 19th in scoring chances per 60, 17th in high-danger shots for per 60 and ranked 20th in shooting percentage at 5-on-5. All those numbers suggest this is a team low on goal-scoring skill and finishing ability.
The lack of scoring touch was Nashville’s undoing in Round 1. The Predators actually generated the most chances per 60 of any team but scored on just 6.82 percent of their shots at 5-on-5, and the power play was as awful as ever, going an incredible 0 for 15. That’s not a misprint. The Stars’ supposed lack of scoring depth never mattered because the Predators just weren’t threatening enough. Any team would love to have Viktor Arvidsson or Filip Forsberg on one of its top two lines despite their struggles this spring, but that duo isn’t nearly enough. It’s time for Poile to get to work.
So what does this team need most? A legitimate first-line center would help. It’s safe to declare the Columbus Blue Jackets the winner of the Seth Jones/Ryan Johansen trade. Johansen is a fine player, a big, rangy offensive center but, in his three full seasons with Nashville, he’s finished 35th, 94th and 64th in league scoring. Over that stretch, among 650 players with at least 1,000 minutes played at 5-on-5, Johansen ranks 107th in points per 60. He’s part of the solution, not the problem, but that’s second-line center production. Nashville needs an upgrade.
Who might that be? In that same 650-player sample, Matt Duchene ranks 74th in points per 60, and he happens to be a pending UFA, and he happens to love country music. It’s entirely possible he falls in love with Columbus on a deep playoff run and ends up staying there but, for now, on paper, Duchene looks like the top pivot available and an ideal fit for Nashville. There’s no shortage of quality forwards in this summer’s class aside from Duchene, either. Want top-end skill? Back up the Brinks truck for Artemi Panarin. Grit and size? Take a chance on Micheal Ferland. Veteran scoring touch? Jordan Eberle and Mats Zuccarello. More so than in recent summers, the options are there for Poile.
But is the money there? Nashville projects to have just $1.86 million in cap space at the moment. That number is artificial, as it reflects the expanded playoff roster and doesn’t include the projected $3.5-milion increase in the league-wide cap, but even once we factor those elements out, it’s clear Nashville doesn’t have a massive chunk of change to spend. Checking center Colton Sissons needs a new contract and nice raise as an RFA and, most importantly, captain and star defenseman Josi enters the final year of his deal and his thus eligible to sign an extension July 1. Without a Norris Trophy or Stanley Cup to his name, he likely can’t quite ask for Drew Doughty’s eight-year, $88-million deal with an $11-million AAV, but Josi has a legitimate claim to eight years and $80 million with a $10-million AAV. Preparing for that cap hit will limit Poile’s ability to chase scoring forwards…
…unless he trades a defenseman. Could that mean Josi given he’s the one not signed beyond 2019-20? Probably not. He’s Nashville’s captain. The most likely candidate is obviously Subban. He carries a $9-million cap hit for three more seasons. He’s the oldest member of Nashville’s Big Four, turning 30 next month. The Predators’ top ‘D’ prospect, Dante Fabbro, projects as a long-term top-four option, shoots from the right side and played his first 10 NHL games this season between the regular season and playoffs. Line up all those facts on one table and it suddenly looks possible, if not probable, we see Subban change teams this summer. It makes too much sense.
Poile played it conservatively last summer – but that hasn’t typically been his M.O. Now that it‘s clear Nashville isn’t good enough to win it all with this group, expect much more drastic roster changes this time around.
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