The Nashville Predators are at somewhat of a crossroads this upcoming offseason with two of their key players being pending free agents forwards – 28-year old Mikael Granlund, and 30-year-old Craig Smith. There are always high hopes in the Music City with a team full of talent, as the core includes perennial 60-point scorer Filip Forsberg, 2019 acquisition Matt Duchene, and possibly the best defensive duo in the NHL in Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis.
However, this team has underachieved the last few years given its talent and preseason expectations. This season was no different, as the Preds are currently holding down the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. There are many personnel issues for general manager David Poile to address this offseason but none possibly more pressing than for Granlund and Smith.
As I mentioned in my article earlier in the week, Granlund has vastly underperformed in his first full season with the Predators, accumulating 30 points across 64 games (13 goals and 17 assists). He had to deal with a coaching change mid-season, but that seemed to improve his standard statistical categories as he had 12 points in 18 games under head coach John Hynes. However, his advanced metrics seemed to stay steady regardless of system and coach. Nevertheless, Granlund is expected to command up to $6.5 to $7 million a year in a down free-agent market this summer.
As much as I love his potential, he has not developed much chemistry with Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, or Duchene this last season. He never lived up to the considerable expectations that the Predators had for him when they acquired him from the Minnesota Wild at last season’s trade deadline. There was nothing in his standard or advanced metrics to suggest that he was a fit for their system. Furthermore, his 1.38 P/60 (points per 60 minutes) this season pales in comparison to what other recently-signed $7 million per year players have produced (Chris Kreider at 2.26 and Anders Lee at 1.83). It was worth a shot, but Poile needs to move on.
On the other side of the coin, Smith was arguably the Predators’ most consistent forward this season (even more so than Forsberg, who seemed to disappear at times). He is an excellent third-line player that could give a team 40 points a season for the next few years, filling in with ease on a second line when needed. He led the team in 5-on-5 high danger scoring chances with 57, and was second on the team in 5-on-5 scoring chances for, with 119, behind only Forsberg. Given Smith’s outlook as a solid top-six/high-end checking line forward, his market may extend to $4.5 to $5 million per year.
It behooves me to mention that a big reason for Smith’s success this year was the chemistry with his linemates, Nick Bonino and Rocco Grimaldi. That line was fifth in the NHL in goals scored, behind only the top-scoring lines of the Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers, Winnipeg Jets, and Montreal Canadiens. When factoring in playing time (goals for percentage), this line was an absolute powerhouse at times. Their goals-for percentage was second in the NHL of any line combination that scored 20-plus goals. If the Preds can sign him for less than $20 million over four years, then he would be well worth the money given his veteran status and production.
Dan Hamhuis and Yannick Weber
Outside of the two core free agents, Granlund and Smith, the Predators have two defensemen that played more than 40 games this season that are scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency – Dan Hamhuis (60 games) and Yannick Weber (41 games). Hamhuis, 37 years old, is coming to the end of his playing career, but has been a staple for the Predators for 8 of his 16 seasons in the NHL. He is coming off of a two-year, $2.5 million contract, while Weber, 31 years old, is coming off a two-year, $1.35 million contract. The Predators are set with their top-four defensemen with Josi, Ellis, Matthias Ekholm, and Dante Fabbro set to take up most of the minutes.
Most hockey patrons may look to plus-minus rating as a good defensive indicator, but as hockey analytics have advanced there are better defensive metrics that properly capture defensive performance. One of these metrics is expected plus/minus or goal differential (E+/-) which looks at the individual players’ expected goals for and expected goals against while they are on the ice, but while also taking into account the quality of shot and the league-wide shooting percentage for the specific shot locations.
Related: Predators’ John Hynes – A Check-in
Dan Hamhuis had a minus-3.6 E +/- which was 727th in the league and Yannick Weber had a minus-4.2 which was 760th in the league. The second defensive metric that is typically used in analytics circles is DPS (defensive point shares), which calculates how a player’s defensive contributions while on the ice effect his point totals. Hamhuis actually had a solid DPS of 2.0, which was good for 147th in the NHL, but Weber had a minus-4.2 DPS, which ranked 727th in the league. Both Weber and Hamhuis, more so Weber, proved to be defensive liabilities throughout the year.
For those that are stay-at-home defensemen like Hamhuis and Weber, they need to show production on the defensive side of the ice, which they clearly did not do. I am inclined to believe that Poile will let both of these stay-at-home defensemen go given their age and defensive liability. Those minutes should end up going to Jarrod Tinordi, who received increased playing time after Hynes took over and he should fill out half that third defensive pairing. I also expect to see Alexandre Carrier up in the NHL next season as well, who just recently signed a three-year extension with the club, after leading the Milwaukee Admirals in assists (32) and defensemen in points (37) last season.
Potential Free Agent Targets
The expected 2020-21 salary cap is $86 million and the Predators will have roughly $14 million in space. This year’s free-agent class is not nearly as deep as years past with only one premier forward available – Taylor Hall – who would cost the Preds most of their space. Following Hall are the relatively more affordable likes of Mike Hoffman, Tyler Toffoli, and Evgenii Dadonov.
Poile should target either Hoffman or Toffoli, both of whom should command a $6 to $7 million price tag. Hoffman, 30 years old, played most of the season on the Panthers’ third line and still posted 59 points in 69 games. He should immediately improve Nashville’s 26th ranked power-play unit as he was tied for 11th in the league with 11 power-play goals (21 total power-play points). The Predators need goal scorers and Hoffman is probably the most proven after Hall.
The next free agent they need to consider is Tyler Toffoli, 28 years old. After being dealt to the Vancouver Canucks and playing alongside the likes of Elias Pettersson and JT Miller, Toffoli has been one of the most productive players in the NHL after the deadline with 10 points in 10 games. Toffoli has always shown great offensive prowess at times, but he blossomed into an elite force after being on the defensive-minded Los Angeles Kings. His P/60 this year was 2.04, which was slightly above his average from the last three seasons (1.85). He is exactly the type of two way forward that the Predators seek that can get red hot offensively with his superb patience, anticipation and quick release.
Both Hoffman and Toffoli will be hot commodities in this down free-agent class, but Nashville should be considered either as an alternative and an upgrade to Granlund. On the other hand, Smith is very intriguing after his highly productive Coronavirus-shortened season. It will be interesting to watch whether the Predators exit the crossroads this summer down a path that finally provides a product that lives up to its annual lofty expectations.