It’s mid-November. The NHL should be nearly two months into the 2020-21 season. We should be analyzing who’s off to a fast start, who are the real contenders and who are the pretenders. Instead, we’re waiting for the next free agent signing, which at this point has slowed to a crawl and is neither exciting nor news breaking. We have no idea when the new season will get started as the logistics are still very much in the air. The target date is nice, but no one knows for sure.
However, there is optimism that a season will be played whether it starts in January or February. Until then, we can satisfy our hockey craving, by doing what fans and the media do best: predict, predict and predict some more.
The Nashville Predators have changed significantly since the 2019-20 season ended. Nick Bonino was traded to the Minnesota Wild, Austin Watson was shipped north of the border to the Ottawa Senators, Craig Smith walked in free agency to the Boston Bruins and the Predators filled their spots with depth and role players.
The core of the team is still intact, and, for the most part, it will be the same team that fans know and love. But the changes that were made should give the team a bit more edge. The Predators have added a little more “sandpaper” to their game, as they say. So, while the names may be familiar, their playing style may look new.
On the blue line, Yannick Weber and Korbinian Holzer will be replaced by Mark Borowiecki and Matt Benning. As for the forwards, Luke Kunin, Nick Cousins and Brad Richardson are offseason additions. All these recent acquisitions are full-time NHLers and each one has a strong chance of making the final 23-man roster when training camp concludes.
So, how will the Predators’ lines look when hockey is back?
Line One: Filip Forsberg – Ryan Johansen – Viktor Arvidsson
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Of course, there were stretches last season when the Predators’ coaching staff tried to “fix it.” The JOFA line, as some refer to it, was broken up to spread out the team’s offense, but it didn’t quite work out as hoped.
This line has stood the test of time. All three forwards are top-six worthy in any system. They led the way for the Predators in the postseason, despite being eliminated in four games by the Arizona Coyotes. Of the 11 Predators’ goals scored during their best-of-five series, the JOFA line accounted for 7. They were the one bright spot in a very disappointing postseason, but let’s not bring that up.
Since 2017-18 the Predators’ top line has accounted for 62.71 percent of the team’s goals at 5-on-5, which is one of the best marks in the league. To put it in perspective, during that same time span, the Boston Bruins’ famous line of David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron have been responsible for 61.11 percent of even-strength goals.
The three have chemistry, which is often half the battle when it comes to success. Head coach John Hynes should already have this line written in permanent marker on the board when training camp rolls around.
Line Two: Luke Kunin – Matt Duchene – Eeli Tolvanen
This line is intriguing because of how different it looks from last season. Duchene is obviously a top-six player and arguably the Predators’ best center, even though the stats may beg to differ. However, general manager David Poile stressed the desire to build around Duchene, and this line should go a long way in helping the former All-Star find meaningful and sustained success.
Without Kyle Turris, Mikael Granlund and Craig Smith the options are limited for the second line. But there will be youth injected into the top-six with the additions of Kunin and Tolvanen. Kunin, the former Wild and 15th-overall draft pick in 2016 was acquired in the trade for Nick Bonino. He had an NHL career-high 15 goals and 31 points last season and could top that mark given the right opportunity in Nashville.
Most are familiar with Tolvanen, the Predators’ 2017 first-round pick. Many thought the young Finnish forward would already be making his mark in the NHL. However, his transition to the North American game has taken a little longer than anticipated. Nevertheless, the 21-year-old is making strides in his development. Tolvanen’s natural scoring ability paired with Duchene’s play-making skills could do wonders for the team’s offensive production.
If these three players click, they may be the most exciting line the Predators have.
Line Three: Nick Cousins – Colton Sissons – Rocco Grimaldi
Here’s a line that should look fairly familiar. There are pretty much no surprises with Sissons or Grimaldi. Both play their depth role extremely well. Sissons, who is defensively sound and a penalty-kill specialist, is a coach’s best friend. He takes care of the puck in his own end and can chip in offensively every now and again.
Last season, the speedy Grimaldi shattered his former NHL career-high in points with 31. He also doubled his former NHL career-best in goals, scoring 10 in 2019-20, a jump from five in 2018-19. The 27-year-old forward could be the offensive touch on this line, but it may be safer to expect scoring by committee.
Cousins offers grit and is a perfect addition to this line. Despite his 5-foot-11, 185-pound frame, the newly signed forward does not shy away from contact and is no stranger to the difficult areas. Look for Cousins to get involved in the forecheck, work in the corners and use his playmaking skills to be an effective setup man for his linemates.
Line Four: Calle Jarnkrok – Brad Richardson – Yakov Trenin
This line might be the great unknown. Trenin has looked spectacular in the limited sample size we have of him. His big frame likes to crash and bang, but don’t sleep on his scoring touch. The Russian forward is fresh off a 20-goal campaign in 2019-20 while playing for the Milwaukee Admirals and even notched two goals in the 21 games he played for the Predators last season. How he will fare in a full season of work remains be seen, but Trenin has shown positive signs of becoming a full-time NHLer.
Richardson is entering his 16th season, so will his game reflect his age? Most wouldn’t consider 35 “old”, but when it comes to the NHL, he’s older than many. The native of Belleville, Ontario tallied 19 goals and 27 points in 2018-19. However, there was a substantial drop off the next season when he managed just six goals and five assists in 59 games. That sort of regression is concerning in terms of whether or not he can still be effective for the Predators.
Obviously, Poile never envisioned Richardson would lead the team in scoring. He wasn’t brought to Nashville for his goals, but you have to wonder if his best days are truly behind him?
Jarnkrok may be one of the most underrated players on the Predators’ roster. Remember, the Swedish forward was saved from the expansion draft when the Vegas Golden Knights were selecting their team. Poile and crew knew his value back in 2017 and used a valuable exemption slot on him. Whether that was the right decision will be debated over and over again, but Jarnkrok is still in Nashville and heading into his eighth season with the club.
He has a very fast release to his wrist shot and should be one of the scoring leaders among the bottom-six forward group. Jarnkrok had one of his best seasons last year, recording his second-most points in an NHL season with 34 and narrowly missing out on tying his NHL career-best for goals by one, with 15. Expect Cousins and Trenin to be the grit and grind on the fourth line, while Jarnkrok will be the soft hands.
Defense Pairing One: Roman Josi – Ryan Ellis
No explanation needed here. A Norris Trophy-winner in Josi and his long-time defensive partner in Ellis. They couldn’t be a better pairing. Many seasons of playing together has created amazing chemistry and even better results. Like the first forward line, breaking this pairing up shouldn’t even be a discussion.
Defense Pairing Two: Mattias Ekholm – Dante Fabbro
Predators fans already know what a hidden gem Ekholm is. He’s seemingly replaced Josi as one of the league’s best kept secrets. The 6-foot-4 defenseman doesn’t nearly receive the credit he deserves and that’s largely due to the fact that he plays behind Josi. Ekholm is as reliable as they come and his spot in the top-four is solidified.
Fabbro is still extremely young and developing his game. However, he looked much more confident playing top-four minutes last season and should take another huge step in his development next season.
Defense Pairing Three: Jarred Tinordi – Mark Borowiecki
The Predators signed Matt Benning in free agency and some have predicted he will land on the third pairing. However, Tinordi played fairly well down the stretch in 2019-20, and was a regular feature in the lineup during the playoffs. Benning may take the job away from Tinordi when training camp gets underway, but based on how Tinordi finished last season, it may be his job to lose.
Borowiecki is the only defenseman you can confidently say will be on this pairing. The newly-signed free agent was Poile’s first acquisition when the market opened on Oct. 9. The front office is very high on Borowiecki’s skill set as well as what he can offer in terms of leadership. If he does get paired with the 6-foot-6 Tinordi, expect plenty of hits as neither one shies away from contact.
Starting Goaltender: Juuse Saros
This is it. The Pekka Rinne era may be over, well the starting goalie era at least. The young Saros has waited patiently to take over the job from a legend and sure Hall-of-Famer and it looks like 2020-21 will be his shot. Saros claimed most of the work towards the end of last season and was handed the reins during the playoffs.
The 25-year-old looks poised to take on the role of starter and has certainly earned it. His save percentage dropped a little from seasons past in 2019-20 and his goals-against average was slightly elevated, but that could be chalked up to the NHL career-high 40 games he played.
We don’t know when the start of next season will be. In the meanwhile, Hynes may be using this time to draw up line combinations, but it seems a lot of the work may be done for him. Of course, you never know how players will gel when they hit the ice. Poile promised changes when the Predators crashed and burned out of the playoffs last season, and for the most part, he has delivered. With this projected lineup, expect a more spread out offense across the top-six forwards and more grit in the bottom-six. There’ll be new faces on defense and a new era beginning between the pipes.