July 1 marks the beginning of free agency in the NHL. For fans around the league, it’s like Christmas but instead of getting toys, your team gets a fancy new hockey player (whose sweater you’ll probably want in December when it’s actually Christmas). It is a time for teams to stock up for the upcoming season, to change identities, and to start fresh. Players you once thought looked natural in one uniform suddenly look strange in a new one.
The Nashville Predators haven’t had much time to nurse their wounds after losing Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. Despite coming off the best season in franchise history, the Predators and GM of the Year David Poile have a lot of work to do in the next couple of days. Already, they have had some tough decisions to make, losing winger James Neal to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft. While Nashville’s first-round draft pick Eeli Tolvanen might be a great catch who could conceivably compete for a job this season, it’s likely the team won’t benefit from this pick for a couple more years.
This brings us to the present. What do the Predators need to do this summer to remain a contender? Frankly, they may not (and should not) have to do much, but with the loss of Neal (and possibly Mike Fisher to retirement), they’re going to have to be smart. Obviously, Poile isn’t opposed to the art of the blockbuster deal, but he’s going to have to do a little more finessing this time around. The Predators are in a good spot right now. They just have some tinkering to do.
How to Replace Neal
Since arriving from Pittsburgh in June 2014, James Neal was one of the team’s top scorers, netting 77 goals over three seasons. He is also one of the top 25 shooters in the NHL, which has led him to become one of six active NHL players to score at least 20 goals in each of his first nine seasons. Yet, according to Poile, the decision to leave Neal vulnerable to the hands of Vegas was strictly business.
“It came down to more of a business decision,” Poile said. “We signed (forward Calle) Jarnkrok to a six-year deal last year. I think he’s an improving player, plays multiple positions and I think his career is clearly on the upside.”
Clearly, they have a lot of trust that Jarnkrok, a 25-year-old center, is going to fill the void left by the 29-year-old Neal, but is he really the answer? Consistent 20-goal scorers don’t exactly grow on trees in the NHL, and although Neal’s contract expires next summer, you’d have to think Nashville could’ve at least gotten something for him at the trade deadline in 2018 instead of giving him to Vegas for nothing. Due to his track record, you have to give Poile the benefit of the doubt here, and perhaps Neal’s $5 million salary will go towards re-signing players like Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson. But as it stands right now, the Predators don’t really have a replacement for Neal.
So, who do you turn to if you’re the Preds? Their Cup window is still clearly open, but it may not stay that way for long. They should keep developing and nurturing the young talent of Kevin Fiala, Pontus Aberg, and Frederick Gaudreau, but those players aren’t likely going to provide any immediate answers. Poile is going to have to once again look to the free agent market this year for some help.
Sam Gagner might be a good addition for the Predators. While he’s going to demand a significant pay increase from his time in Columbus, Gagner is a younger player at 27 who is now starting to reach his potential. He’s a good bet to at least get you 40 points a season, and he could flourish on a deep team like Nashville. Plus, signing Gagner would also allow Jarnkrok time to continue to develop.
Joe Thornton is another big name on the market, but if the Predators are smart, they’d stay away from the 37-year-old center at the tail-end of his career. Actually, a lot of would-be enticing free agents available this summer are on the wrong end of 30: Justin Williams, Thomas Vanek, Patrick Marleau, and Alexander Radulov among them. It’s hard to see Poile wanting to add age to his team, especially when he’s going to be looking to sign his younger assets soon. Perhaps the Predators should aim their cross-hairs on Nick Bonino, the 29-year-old center who just hoisted the Cup on Nashville turf a few weeks ago. His faceoff prowess and defensive play would be another welcome addition to bolster the bottom six for the Predators, not to mention the experience of two Cup rings.
Leave the Defense Alone
The Predators’ strong defense was the key to their success in the 2016-17 playoffs. They were tenacious defensively, and they drove the offense with their speed and skill. Their top four defensemen—P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis—were each protected from this year’s expansion draft. Clearly, they have their priorities straight, although it’s part of the reason why Neal had to go.
“I think everybody would be pretty much on the same page that our defense drives our team and our corps is as good as any in the league,” says Poile. “We will not be touching our defense in the near future here.”
While Neal’s departure is going to hurt the Predators offensively, it seems that the team believes their not-so-secret offensive weapon is their defensive corps. This is a good idea for the Preds to make their top four defensemen untouchable, especially in the wake of Phil Housley’s departure as assistant coach. However, this might make it tough for the team to acquire other players like Avalanche center Matt Duchene. Colorado reportedly wants an NHL-ready defenseman from Nashville for a potential deal, but Poile isn’t about to give anyone up just yet.
Nashville is definitely interested in Matt Duchene. However, if trade ask is for a defenceman, the Preds likely aren't a fit by choice.
— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) June 22, 2017
Still, this is the smart move for Nashville. They have four young elite defensemen who can skate, move the puck, and score. They’re the type of players teams would kill to have at least one of (let alone four) in today’s NHL, and the best part for the Predators is that they’re each signed to cap-friendly contracts.
What About Rinne?
Pekka Rinne had an outstanding postseason for the Predators. Actually, it was otherworldly. For the first three rounds, Rinne turned back the clock to his Vezina-nominated years, going a dominant 12-4 with a 1.70 goals-against average and a playoff save percentage of .942. Unfortunately for the Predators, he couldn’t maintain that level of play in the Final round. He looked old and shaky throughout the whole series, especially in Pittsburgh, and his .888 save percentage just wasn’t going to cut it against a lethal Penguins offense.
Head coach Peter Laviolette was adamant about Rinne being the number-one guy in the playoffs. There was no goalie controversy, no matter what anyone in the media surmised. But during the Final, it wasn’t hard to see that the 34-year-old Rinne was beginning to look like, well, a 34-year-old goaltender. Yes, the Penguins were making the NHL’s best goalies look stupid in this year’s postseason, but when the Predators needed Rinne to make just a routine save, he continually came up short.
Of course, goaltenders tend to age less rapidly in the NHL, but it might be time for the Predators to start thinking about the future in front of their net. Rinne’s been a workhorse who will likely continue to be the number-one starter for the Predators for the next few years, but if he continues to lose games like he did in Pittsburgh (or even last year in San Jose), they might need to start developing their young goaltenders: Juuse Saros and Marek Mazanec, neither of whom have been all that inspiring in the backup role.
The question is, where do the Predators turn to if Rinne is, in fact, regressing faster than anticipated? Does Poile truly believe that Saros is the future? If so, they may want to consider getting him more starts this upcoming season, which would also be beneficial for Rinne, should they need him to be sharp for another Cup run. While the answer for Rinne may not come immediately, it would be wise for the Predators to start making some moves that would at least begin some sort of future development in net.
Jeff Yerger covers the Nashville Predators for THW. He once accidentally drew on one of Henrik Lundqvist’s suits (just don’t tell Hank). He is also a sucker for IPAs and saxophone solos. Find him on Twitter @jyergs.