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NHL Burning Questions: Nashville Predators

Adam Proteau looks at a few important topics surrounding the Predators this season, including managing Saros' workload, how the vets will perform and more.
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This is the newest file in THN.com’s ongoing “Three Burning Questions” series of columns. In this feature, we pose three major questions for each NHL team prior to the beginning of the 2022-23 regular season. In this file, we’ve got Three Burning Questions about the Nashville Predators.

THREE BURNING QUESTIONS FOR THE PREDATORS IN 2022-23:

1. Is this the last gasp for the Predators’ current core? The Predators qualified for the final wild-card playoff berth last season, but got rag-dolled and swept in the first round by the eventual Stanley Cup winners from Colorado. This showed the difference in where the Preds think they are and where they actually are in the NHL’s pecking order. But rather than disassembling Nashville’s lineup, Predators GM David Poile doubled down on his current core of high-level talent, first, keeping star center Filip Forsberg in the fold via an eight-year, $68-million contract expansion, then acquiring veterans Nino Niederreiter and Ryan McDonagh to bolster his forward and defense groups, respectively.

This has made an already-old-ish Preds team even older. Of their top-six forwards, four are either 30 or 31 years old. And on the back end, four of their top-six defensemen are either 32 or 33. This is not the trend for most NHL teams, who are trying to get younger and faster. Poile is under pressure by new Preds team ownership to get the team into the second round of the playoffs for the first time in five years, and if he doesn’t, you have to wonder whether Poile will be pushed to make extensive changes. The Predators have most of their lineup signed through the 2023-24 campaign, but if they fail to make the playoffs this year, why should anyone in Nashville want this team kept together?

The bottom line: make the playoffs, win a round or two, and maintain the status quo for the Preds should be a fair assumption; fail to make the playoffs, and all bets should be off for this group. Mediocrity has been the end result of too many Preds seasons, and Poile either must-see big dividends paid off, or finally admit this lineup just isn’t the right mix to win it all.

2. Can Nashville give more time off to star goalie Juuse Saros? The 27-year-old Saros had a tremendous 2021-22 season, making 67 appearances and posting a 38-25-3 record along with a 2.64 Goals-Against Average and .918 Save Percentage en route to earning his first Vezina Trophy nomination as one of the NHL’s very best goalies. The Finn was the chief reason the Preds made the playoffs in the first place, as evidenced by Nashville’s sub-par performance in the playoffs with Saros sidelined by a foot injury suffered in the final week of the regular season.

Poile chose to go an entirely new route for Saros’ understudy this year, signing another 27-year-old Finn, former Blackhawks goalie Kevin Lankanen, to a one-year contract. Lankinen has two years and 67 games of NHL regular-season experience, but his numbers (3.50 G.A.A., .891 SP in 32 games played) are not impressive. If the Predators want to keep Saros fresh and healthy in time for the arrival of the post-season, they’ll need to hand off some assignments to Lankinen. But they can’t just give away games to the third-year, NHLer; in the Central Division, there are going to be five teams contending for what will likely be only four playoff berths, and Saros can’t steal an entire season for them. Their satisfaction with Lankanen will be an indication of how high in the Central standings they’ll go.

3. How will the Predators’ new acquisitions fit in? Niederreiter just turned 30, while McDonagh turns 34 in June. As such, neither veteran will be asked to do the majority of the heavy lifting this year, but at a combined salary cap cost of $10.75 million, they’re also not going to be bit players. McDonagh does make an already-deep Preds defense corps smarter and better on offense, while Niederreiter solidifies Nashville’s second line of forwards, giving them another 20-plus goal-scorer.

Poile has only $2.3 million in cap space, so it’s unlikely the Preds have the ability to take on another experienced hand. If they did, it’s entirely possible they’d spend their remaining cap space on another goaltender, but otherwise, what you see heading into camp is what you’re going to see in February, March and April. It’s difficult seeing McDonagh and Niederreiter not fitting in, but the bigger question remains – will they be enough to get them back in the post-season, or will they finish in the dreaded mushy middle of the league (meaning, too good to finish at the bottom of the standings and lock up the best odds at a top draft pick, and too bad to be a playoff team)?

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