The Western Conference should be on notice. It might not be today, it might not be tomorrow, but at some point in the coming weeks, it seems all but certain that the Nashville Predators will be taking over top spot.
For the time being, the top two spots in the West are held down by the Vegas Golden Knights and Winnipeg Jets, but right in the rearview mirror, a mere three points back of first place in the conference, are the Predators. And as the season has worn on, Nashville has only gotten better. Since Jan. 1, no team in the Western Conference has a better points percentage than the Predators (.769), who have picked up 20 points in 13 games. And with three games in hand on the Jets and a pair in hand on the Golden Knights, Nashville stands to make up some ground in short order, using those additional games to potentially draw level and surpass those between them and top spot in the conference.
But what makes the Predators’ chase of first place in the West and home-ice advantage throughout the post-season a much more realistic pursuit is that in the coming weeks the rich only stand to get richer. That is to say Nashville’s stellar roster could bulk up further ahead of the deadline, turning a top contender into a team to be truly feared come the stretch run and playoff time.
Already, the Predators have made headlines ahead of the deadline by convincing former captain Mike Fisher to return from retirement in time for the post-deadline portion of the schedule and into the post-season. The addition of Fisher is no minor move, either. While he's not what one would call a game-changing talent, particularly not after several months spent spectating instead of practicing, Fisher scored 18 goals and 42 points last season. That ability doesn't disappear in the span of six months. That’s not to say anyone is realistically expecting him to contribute at that rate when he makes his return to the lineup, but as a third- or fourth-line depth forward, Nashville likely could've done no better than bringing Fisher back into the fold. That's particularly true when one considers the Predators didn't have to give up a single asset to bring him in.
However, adding the 36-year-old center is a move that could pale in comparison to other potential acquisitions Predators GM David Poile could pull off in the coming weeks. Talk has been abound that Nashville is interested in adding another scorer to what has been to this point a fairly deep attack. Reason being is that while the Predators have the ability to score goals — they rank 11th in the league with 157 goals for — there are four Western Conference teams, including three within the Central Division, with a better offensive total. Among the players mentioned in connection with Nashville have been Max Pacioretty, Rick Nash, Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist.
To be sure, with some creative maneuvering the Predators could add any of the four aforementioned wingers, but their ability to do so goes beyond merely having the cap space necessary to acquire another scorer. Rather, what gives Nashville a potential leg up on others when it comes to stocking up at the deadline is the ability to go all-in and sacrifice a slice of the future to supplement the present. Evidence of the Predators’ willingness to do just that already exists, too. One need look no further than the acquisition of Kyle Turris from the Colorado Avalanche, by way of the Ottawa Senators, which saw Nashville send two highly touted prospects the other way in Vladislav Kamenev and Samuel Girard, who has turned heads with his play in Denver.
But trading Kamenev and Girard hasn't left the cupboards bare. The Predators still have several prospects who could draw interest from teams looking to build for the future. Chief among those is defenseman Dante Fabbro, who is having another excellent season at Boston University, while others such as Yakov Trenin, Emil Pettersson and Alexandre Carrier could likewise have suitors come deadline day. That doesn't necessarily mean the Predators will move any more of their top prospects, but the option is at least on the table. That's because, unlike other teams who could be chasing top-six talent at the deadline, Nashville need not worry as much about sacrificing pieces of their future at this stage.
Whereas conference rivals such as the Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild or St. Louis Blues have aging cores and rely on veteran players to be their top contributors, the Predators’ brightest stars are all 28 or younger. That includes all four of Nashville’s top defenders, which is the backbone of the organization, as well as linchpin forwards Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, Kevin Fiala and Ryan Johansen. A core that young means Nashville will have time to replenish their system even if they move solid prospects or high draft picks at the upcoming deadline.
As worrisome for the rest of the West as the Predators’ ability and potential willingness to put quality offers on the table at or ahead of the trade freeze, though, is what bringing another offense-minded forward could mean for Nashville. As noted, the Predators’ offense has proven it is good enough to sit among the top third in the conference, but another player with 20-goal capability could make the attack downright lethal. Simply consider the combinations Nashville could put forth. The unit of Forsberg, Johansen and Arvidsson is a ready-made top unit, with Turris, Fiala and Craig Smith representing a solid second line. Were the Predators to add someone such as Pacioretty or Nyquist, though, they could arguably boast the best top-six of any team in the West, not to mention a third line that would include a mix of the returning Fisher, Calle Jarnkrok and two-time Stanley Cup champion Nick Bonino.
In addition, Nashville adding an offensive weapon would give one of the league’s best power plays more ways to make opponents pay. The Predators are currently operating at a 24-percent clip with the man advantage thanks to two dominant units. All told, Nashville has eight players with at least 10 points on the power play. That's a mark matched only by the Winnipeg Jets. So, if the Predators add another weapon, they could have more firepower on their two power play units than any penalty killing group in the league could contain.
Really, another offense-minded forward might be all Nashville needs to boast the most complete roster in the entire league. It would ensure the Predators leave no box unchecked. From the goaltending of Pekka Rinne, the defensive brilliance provided by Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis, and the attacking power of Forsberg, Johansen, Fiala, Turris and Arvidsson, it's already difficult to poke any holes in the roster. So, another goal-scorer could very well be the piece that pushes Nashville over the top and helps Poile ensure he doesn't watch his team fall any wins short of the Stanley Cup this time around.
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