Following a successful 2019 Draft, the Nashville Predators and general manager David Poile turn their attention to free agency. The team has a few needs to address this summer, with the most pressing one being the addition of scoring, both primary and secondary. This can be done by bringing in a center to take pressure off Ryan Johansen or by signing a winger. Either way, they need more offense.
Luckily for the Predators, there are a lot of free agents on the market this year, including numerous ones who would fulfill their needs. Here are the five best targets for the team.
1. C Matt Duchene, 28
Previous Cap Hit: $6 million
Perhaps the most obvious free agent/team connection, Matt Duchene to the Predators seems like a foregone conclusion. The Predators have long been connected to Duchene, dating back to before they acquired Kyle Turris in Nov. 2017. They were rumored to be interested in him at the 2019 Trade Deadline and are connected to him once again, and there’s never been a better time to add him.
Duchene is coming off the best season of his career, scoring a career-high 31 goals while his 70 points tied a career high. He reached those totals in 73 games between two teams, the Ottawa Senators and Columbus Blue Jackets. He remains a great faceoff taker, winning 55.3 percent of draws this season, and was dynamite in the postseason, scoring five goals and 10 points in 10 games. He may not have had the greatest metrics – 47.7 Corsi for percentage – but he did play on a bad Senators team for much of the season. He also reestablished himself as a borderline first-line center after a few down seasons to conclude his Colorado Avalanche tenure.
How He Fits the Predators: His addition would give the Predators great center depth and provide them with an actual number one center. He’s also a skilled playmaker who makes those around him better and drives his own line. Off the ice, his much-publicized love of country music would be an excellent fit in Nashville. Finally, he’d fit in the team’s financial plans. Using Evolving-Wild’s free agency projections, Duchene is predicted to sign a six-year deal with a $6.8 million cap hit. I actually think he signs for the full seven years and his cap hit will be between $8 and $10 million, and that’d be in Tennessee, a no-income tax state.
2. W Anders Lee, 28
Previous Cap Hit: $3.75 million
When it comes to forward targets for the Predators, Duchene’s in a tier of his own and everyone else follows. At the top of that second tier is New York Islanders captain Anders Lee. He is an intriguing free agent because he’ll be cheaper than other forwards while quietly being one of the league’s more consistent goal scorers. In 2018-19, he scored 28 goals, hitting the 25-goal mark for the fourth time in the past five seasons. Those 28 goals were actually a regression from the 34 he netted in 2016-17 and the 40 he scored in 2017-18.
A couple reasons for his regression: a more sound two-way game thanks to the presence of head coach Barry Trotz and a shooting percentage that dropped from 19.2 percentage in 2017-18 to 13.7 percent in 2018-19, which is even lower than his career rate of 14.4 percent. It’s safe to assume he’ll rebound.
How He Fits the Predators: He’s a goal scorer and has only had more assists than goals in a season once in his career. He also doesn’t rely on the power play to succeed (14 power-play goals in 2017-18, 10 in 2018-19), which typically translates to sustainable success. He’d slot in appropriately on the second line, bumping Smith down. As I alluded to earlier, he’ll be cheaper than other options. He’s coming off a contract that had a $3.75 million cap hit, which was a great underpay for someone of his talent. Evolving-Wild predicts him to nearly double that to $6.5 million on a seven-year deal. If the Predators don’t land Duchene, Lee is a solid Plan B.
3. C Joe Pavelski, 34
Previous Cap Hit: $6 million
Throughout the 2018-19 season, it seemed inevitable that the San Jose Sharks and captain Joe Pavelski would agree to an extension. The Sharks and GM Doug Wilson are known as a team that extends their core players a year before free agency. However, with limited cap space following the Erik Karlsson extension and needing to sign restricted free agents Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc, Pavelski may not fit into the Sharks’ financial plans moving forward.
Turning 35 on July 11, Pavelski is one of the older free agents this summer who still has value. He seems to constantly go under the radar, yet is good for 25 to 35 goals and 60 to 70 points every season. His 205 goals since 2013-14 are sixth-most in the league and only three behind Sidney Crosby for second place. He’s dynamite on the power play, with 121 career goals on the man advantage. In 2018-19, he totaled 38 goals, including 12 on the power play, and 64 points in 75 games. He had another four goals and nine points in 13 playoff games. He’s always been a positive possession player at five-on-five and has won at least 50 percent of faceoffs every season he’s been in the league.
How He Fits the Predators: This is pretty obvious. The team needs center depth, particularly from players who can score, and Pavelski is that player. He’s remarkably consistent, rarely gets injured, and doesn’t take penalties. He’s a leader, both on and off the ice, and given his age, he won’t require much term even if it means a large cap hit. Evolving-Wild projects him to sign a three-year deal with a $7.4 million cap hit. He can be the missing piece that pushes the team from Stanley Cup contender to winner.
4. W Mats Zuccarello, 31
Previous Cap Hit: $4.5 million
After struggling with only 12 points in 20 games to start the 2018-19 season, it looked like Mats Zuccarello’s game was regressing. That was before he exploded for 25 points in the next 26 games leading to the trade deadline, when the New York Rangers dealt him to the Dallas Stars. A broken arm held him to two regular-seasons games post-deadline, but he was great in the postseason with 11 points in 13 games, helping the Stars defeat the Predators in the first round. Although it still makes sense for the Stars to re-sign him, it hasn’t happened yet, and the Predators should have interest in the Norwegian winger if he does reach free agency.
Zuccarello has long been known for his speed and he possesses a deceptively good shot, as the Predators learned in the 2019 Playoffs. He’s also incredibly tough despite his 5-foot-8 frame and gets in the head of opponents. He’s a great five-on-five player despite not having strong metrics, and his ability to seemingly get lost in the offensive zone makes him a power-play threat.
How He Fits the Predators: His speed and attention to playing a two-way game would be a perfect fit for what the Predators want to do. They’ve already had great success with undersized players, so that shouldn’t be a concern for them. Where he may not be a good fit are his limited offensive upside and what term he’s seeking. He’ll turn 32 before the 2019-20 season begins and some team will likely offer him a five or six-year deal. That team shouldn’t be the Predators. Evolving-Wild projects him to sign a four-year deal with a cap hit just north of $6 million, which is reasonable. If that is what he’s seeking, the Predators should be in on him, but for no more than four years.
5. W Corey Perry, 34
Previous Cap Hit: $8.625 million
After 14 seasons with the Anaheim Ducks, the team bought out the final two years of Corey Perry’s contract that carried an $8.625 million cap hit. That came after 988 regular-season games, 372 goals, 776 points, and the 2007 Stanley Cup. He has struggled in recent seasons with 17 goals in 2017-18 and six in 2018-19. He was also held to 31 games this past season due to injury. It’s tough to tell what he has left in the tank, but he’s only three seasons removed from being a 30-goal scorer and two seasons from being a 50-point producer.
Perry is one of the greatest goal scorers of the last decade. In 2010-11, he scored 50 goals and captured the Hart Trophy. He’s a six-time 30-goal scorer and has never depended on the power play for the majority of his goals. Throughout his career, he’s never had to rely on elite footspeed to score. Instead, he’s used his great shot and quick release, and has always been willing to go to the dirty areas to generate offense. That skillset and playing style should allow him to age well, as long as he stays healthy.
How He Fits the Predators: Perry has been a great goal scorer throughout his career and can score from anywhere in the offensive zone. He’d be an immediate upgrade to the Predators’ woeful power play and in general boost their offense, even in a limited role at five-on-five. Considering he was just bought out, he’ll be looking to reestablish his value, so expect him to sign a one or two-year deal with a low cap hit, perhaps even as low as $1 million. The only downside to this deal is that his surgically-repaired knee could prevent him from getting back to his old self. Still, it’s hard not seeing him as a 20-goal scorer over 65 to 70 games.
I’m not certain what Poile and the Predators are going to do in free agency, but they need to do something. They freed up nearly $9 million in cap space by dealing P.K. Subban, and they need to use that money to improve the roster. This can be done by adding scoring threats, and the five players listed above would be excellent fits.