4 Players the Predators Could Target in Free Agency

It’s October in 2020 so that of course means NHL free agency is about to open. Like everything else in sports, there’ll be a different feeling to this year’s negotiations and deals. The salary cap will remain flat at $81.5 million for the upcoming season, so players eyeing up lucrative contracts and hefty raises may have to take a rain check. Teams no longer have the same amount of available cash that they anticipated they would before the world changed nearly seven months ago.

The Nashville Predators may look to add pieces. But based on their recent activity, it would suggest that they‘re either looking to keep salary down for the time being or making room for a big splash. However, with the lack of success from recent big-name acquisitions, such as Kyle Turris and Matt Duchene, the former may be more probable. Nashville recently traded Nick Bonino and placed Turris on unconditional waivers for the purpose of a buyout. This has left the team with just over $17.6 million in cap space.

Both Craig Smith and Mikael Granlund will enter free agency, meaning the Predators will most likely need to find replacements for them. It isn’t out the realm of possibility that Smith re-signs with the Predators, the only NHL team he has ever known. However, based on what his agent, Kevin Magnuson, is seeking, it may be unlikely that Smith remains in the Music City.

“A three-year deal is our goal,” Magnuson said. “I think the number because there are eight to 10 teams that have decent cap space, I think we won’t be too far off at the end of the day. He’s not going to be signing any blockbuster deals, but at the same time, he’s going to be in the market or a little bit above it, I think.” (from ‘Predators forward Craig Smith will enter free agency,’ The Athletic, 09/25/2020).

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Granlund never really found his feet with the Predators. After being acquired at the deadline in 2018-19 for Kevin Fiala, the Finnish forward could never live up to the expectations of the Predators or deliver the production they needed. His 2019-20 cap hit of $5.75 million paired with his down production since leaving the Minnesota Wild probably make it unfeasible that the two sides would even want to hash out a new deal.

Mikael Granlund Nashville Predators
Mikael Granlund, Nashville Predators (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Adding to the departures in Nashville are defensemen, Yannick Weber and Korbinian Holzer.

General manager David Poile expressed the desire to reshape the team into one that is younger, promoting from their prospect pool. The Predators could and will most likely fill the voids left by departures with players already in the system.

“I want to keep all of my options open from free agency to trades, but ideally I’d like to do a lot of our improvements and changes in house,” Poile said via a video call with reporters.

Considering all the top free agents this year hover from the late-20s to early-30s, it may be safe to assume that Predators fans shouldn’t expect any major signings on Oct. 9. But who’s available at a bargain price and can still help the team?

Erik Haula

The 29-year-old forward, last with the Florida Panthers, is coming off a down year. He split time between the Carolina Hurricanes and Panthers due to a trade midseason. During the 48 games he played in 2019-20, Haula recorded 12 goals and 12 assists. But it’s the Vegas Golden Knights’ version of Haula who is intriguing.

The former seventh-round pick tallied 55 points in 76 games during 2017-18, netting 29 goals. Haula’s expiring contract is a three-year, $8.25 million deal, which he received from the Golden Knights. The Finnish forward’s cap hit of $2.75 million could work well, especially considering that he has the potential to be Smith’s replacement, who had a $4.25 million cap hit. Factoring in the negotiating power that Poile may have, such as Haula’s down season and the expected lower salaries for free agents, the deal could be even more team-friendly.

Erik Haula Florida Panthers
Erik Haula, Florida Panthers (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The downside with this possible signing is the question mark tied to Haula’s health. A string of injuries has led to missed time and although he may have great potential, as proven in Vegas; as they say, the greatest ability is availability.

Ultimately, it seems that for Haula and the Predators to come together, the right deal would need to be on the table. The majority of teams are looking for deals, with several more desperate than Nashville to find scorers. So, don’t expect Poile to entertain a bidding war if multiple suitors kick the tires on Haula.

Jesper Fast

When you look at Jesper Fast’s numbers, you could be wondering why you would want to entertain signing a player who’s a habitual 30-point scorer? The 28-year-old’s NHL career-high is 33 points, set back in 2017-18 and he’s coming off a campaign where he notched 29 points. But it’s beyond the popular stats where Fast’s value lies.

According to Larry Brooks of the New York Post, Fast recently won the New York Rangers’ Player’s Player Award for the fifth straight season, an accolade that is voted upon by his teammates.

Every player in the Rangers’ locker room seems to love the Swedish forward. When asked about Fast last October, teammate Mika Zibanejad said, “He is everything you want a teammate to be, on and off the ice,” the center explained. “He does the little things shift in and shifts out. He forechecks, is hard on the puck, blocks shots. He sacrifices every day.

“Off the ice, he is a friend to everyone. Maybe he is not rewarded with the offensive numbers, but everyone here knows how important he is to our team. You can’t ask for more.” (from ‘Rangers Could Face Contract Issue With Popular and Effective Jesper Fast,’ New York Post, 07/30/2020).

The Predators already possess the talent they need at the forward position. Despite their struggles in the bubble, Nashville has players who can score. What they seem to be lacking is the magic seen in the 2017 playoffs, that attitude that came with knowing they had to work for every piece of success. It wasn’t going to be handed to them.

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Listening to Fast’s teammates describe him, it sounds eerily familiar to how the Predators might describe Nick Bonino. A player who plays his role well, blocks shots whenever needed and sacrifices for the team. Having another Bonino-type player would not be a bad thing. An addition like Fast might be what is needed to give the Predators a mentality change, helping them get back to what made them successful.

Jesper Fast New York Rangers
Jesper Fast, New York Rangers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, there is a catch. Fast was earning an average annual value (AAV) of $1.85 million, which would work great for the Predators. But according to the same article from the New York Post, the forward could be demanding a significant pay raise and unlike Haula, Fast could be justified in asking for more.

Depending on how much of a pay raise the right winger is looking for, Fast could be a nice addition to bring in.

Slater Koekkoek

The former first-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning has struggled to live up to the expectations that came along with being a top-10 selection. The 26-year-old defenseman bounced between the Lightning and the Syracuse Crunch during his tenure with the organization, never logging more than 35 games a season with the NHL counterpart. Koekkoek was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks during the 2018-19 season, and like his time in Florida, he struggled to stay in the lineup on a full-time basis.

The Predators could be in the market for a defenseman with the expected departures of Weber and Holzer. However, Poile already envisions Jarred Tinordi and Alexandre Carrier filling out the third defensive pairing. Meaning if the team were to sign a player for that seventh defenseman role, he would have to come with a low-price tag, and Koekkoek just might fit the bill.

The native of Winchester, Ontario is coming off a contract with an AAV of $925k and there’s nothing to suggest he should fetch much more when hitting the open market.

Slater Koekkoek #29, Tampa Bay Lightning
Slater Koekkoek #29, Tampa Bay Lightning – taken on January 25, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As mentioned, Koekkoek is just 26 years old, so he would definitely help Poile’s desire to shed some years off the average age of the team. Despite playing on a Blackhawks team that finished dead last in the Central Division during 2019-20, the 6-foot-2 defenseman held a positive plus/minus rating. Granted his numbers weren’t otherworldly, but remember, the Predators will be looking for an occasional player for their third defensive pairing. Koekkoek has shown that he can handle himself on the ice and will not be a liability.

If Poile can convince the young Canadian to take on the role that the team needs, Koekkoek would be a very nice addition. His NHL career has not gone the way the Lightning expected when they drafted him, but they clearly saw something to justify spending a top-10 pick. If the Predators can spark his game, their defense would certainly get richer by acquiring Koekkoek.

Anthony Bitetto

Let’s get the band back together! Well, he might not have been a focal point in the band, but Bitetto was still a member. Yes, former Predators defenseman, Tony B is available and could more than fill the Predators’ need for an extra defenseman. As just mentioned the Predators may require someone who’s comfortable with being a healthy scratch for stretches of the season, and – with all due respect to the native New Yorker – who knows more about doing that than Bitetto, the player who used to play that exact role for the team before?

Bitetto has always hovered around the $600k to $700k cap hit, with short term, never receiving more than two years in any deal. With players like Carrier, Jeremy Davies and David Farrance all developing and currently in the system, the Predators should not be looking to hand out more than a one or two-year deal for any potential free agent defenseman.

The 30-year-old is more than a capable defenseman and has expressed he loves Nashville. This could be a signing that makes the most sense when it comes to the defense.

Anthony Bitetto Predators
Anthony Bitetto, Nashville Predators Oct. 19, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Clearly, as Poile explained, the Predators’ main priority is to improve and shake up the team using the internal pieces that they already have. The answers may already be in Nashville’s system and that makes a lot of sense. Poile has also said he will keep his options open regarding free agency. So, expect the veteran GM of nearly 40 years to be working the phones as soon as the market opens, may be the only predictable forecast in what will be this most unusual free agency period.