Viktor Arvidsson-Ryan Johansen-Filip Forsberg or will it be Arvidsson-Matt Duchene-Forsberg? How will the Nashville Predators’ lineup look next season? Well, it might be madness to break up the “JOFA” line, and it’s a pretty safe bet to assume head coach Peter Laviolette and his staff think so too. But, after that seasoned and proven first line, it’s hard to know what the rest of the forward group will look like.
The Predators signed Duchene as a free agent this offseason and he looks to slot into that second-line center role, after all, you don’t dole out $56 million for a bottom-six player. By power of deduction, Kyle Turris will fall to third-line center, right? Well, maybe not, because what about Nick Bonino? He’s certainly earned third-line minutes and Turris has been less than stellar. There will be decisions to be made for the upcoming season and not just at the center position.
The Predators, Stable At Center, Really?
Well, actually, yes they are. As much criticism as Turris has received over the past eight months or so, he is a very skilled player who, when on his game, is a top-six forward on pretty much every team in the league. Johansen, Duchene, Bonino and Turris is not only an extremely deep depth chart but a talented one too.
Paul Fenton, Joe Sakic, Doug Armstrong and the rest of the Central Division general managers (GMs) are yelling “cry me a river” at their computer screens right now because it’s a pretty good problem to have. However, as Predators fans are grinning ear-to-ear right now, there is a serious problem and that is the fact that Colton Sissons plays center too, so where does he fit into this plan? Considering the Predators just signed Sissons to a seven-year extension, GM David Poile sees the North Vancouver native fitting in regardless of who’s on the roster.
Odd Centerman Out
Here’s a list of players on the Predators’ roster who are listed as natural centermen:
- Nick Bonino
- Matt Duchene
- Frederick Gaudreau
- Mikael Granlund
- Calle Järnkrok
- Ryan Johansen
- Rem Pitlick (Although he only played center in his final year at the University of Minnesota)
- Colton Sissons
- Kyle Turris
So, with the center position looking crowded, what are the best options for Nashville? Back in Nov. 2017, after Turris was acquired, Poile mentioned that Bonino could play on the wing if needed. This may be an option the Predators could utilize going into next season, setting up a depth chart of, Johansen, Duchene, Turris and Sissons.
However, the better plan may be to bump Turris to the wing and allow Bonino to stay at center, and here’s why. It’s no secret that Turris has struggled recently and at this point his trade value has surely plummeted, meaning the return in a trade right now would be truly nauseating considering the Predators gave up Samuel Girard to acquire the former Ottawa Senator.
It would be nice to get the 29-year-old’s $6 million cap hit off the books, especially with Nashville operating with roughly $1.6 million in space for the 2019-20 season. However, admitting defeat on the Turris trade would be premature and a terrible look for Poile. The other reason why Turris should see a position change is that Bonino is simply more efficient at center. Bonino is a better defensive player, who also fares better in the face-off circle. Last season, Bonino’s 51.8 percent win percentage was the team’s fourth-best behind Johansen, Sissons and Brian Boyle.
But, what is more impressive, and puts Bonino ahead of Turris, is his efficiency in the defensive zone. Bonino won 53.5 percent of defensive zone face-offs, which was second-best on the team with a minimum of 100 face-offs taken, compared to Turris’ 49.1 percent. This isn’t to say that Turris is a bad centerman, he should be relegated to the fourth line, on the fringe of being in the lineup or a healthy scratch – it just means there’s a better option.
Turris should start the season on the third line being centered by Bonino and possibly opposite of Austin Watson. Alleviating the former third-overall pick of center responsibility would allow Turris to get his confidence back and possibly increase his value should Poile entertain offers.
What Could the Starting Lineup Look Like Come October?
Obviously, there are certain players who are guaranteed their roster spot, but the further you look down the projected lines the murkier it gets. To get a better look at who could be on the bubble, it may be best to mock-up what the lines will look like.
Forsberg – Johansen – Arvidsson
Granlund – Duchene – Smith
Watson – Bonino – Turris
Järnkrok – Sissons – Grimaldi/Salomaki
If this is what the lineup looks like in the fall, Frederick Gaudreau could find himself spending the majority of the season either with the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals or as a healthy scratch as he did in the 2017-18 season. Other factors to include would be Eeli Tolvanen and Rem Pitlick, both of whom the Predators are very high on and will most likely see time in Nashville in the near future. For now, it seems like both Tolvanen and Pitlick could start in Milwaukee as their game continues to develop, making it a “tomorrow problem” in terms of finding space for them.
Despite Grimaldi’s impressive postseason, he still may not see regular action as he could be battling with Miikka Salomaki for a spot on the fourth line. With the list of other potential players looking to earn ice-time such as Colin Blackwell and Anthony Richard, it could give Poile some trade bait to consider.
Time for a Trade?
It’s been established that maybe Turris should stick around in Nashville a little longer and Bonino is too valuable defensively to ship out just to make space on the roster. This begs the question, if someone is going to be traded, who should it be?
This is just one writer’s opinion, but it should be treated as a fact: you cannot trade Sissons. The former second-round pick has improved year after year, adding valuable secondary scoring to a team that has been starved of it for the past several seasons.
If the saying “defence wins championships” is true, then Sissons will have played a massive part if Nashville parades the Cup down Broadway. The 25-year-old averaged more shorthanded time, at 1:59 per game than any other Predators last season, illustrating the level of trust the coaching staff already has in the young center.
Sissons had the second-best face-off percentage on the team, behind only Johansen, a player that gets paid handsomely to be a face-off ace among other things. Sissons won 53.1 percent in 2018-19 and 55.3 percent in 2017-18. He continues to show that he is one of the Predators’ best weapons when they need a clutch face-off win, which is invaluable in today’s league.
The NHL has made several rule changes in an attempt to create more offense. As a result, face-offs have become harder to win due to the rule that states the defensive team must set their stick first regardless of whether they’re at home or on the road. Also, with teams no longer allowed to take timeouts after icing the puck, face-off specialists have become even more of a premium. Sissons is more valuable now than he has ever been before.
No one is un-tradable, Poile has shown that, but it may be hard to find someone of Sissons’ caliber for a similar price tag. Sissons is truly value for money. Ryan Kennedy from The Hockey News points to Colorado’s J.T. Compher as a good player comparison. Compher received an annual average value (AAV) of $3.5 million from the Colorado Avalanche compared to Sissons’ $2.86 million AAV. Compher had slightly more points than Sissons did last season, but also fewer responsibilities as he played on the wing.
Poile could look to move Gaudreau or Salomaki, but the issue is the return. If Nashville is content with late-round picks coming back the other way then it’s a low-risk move. However, considering both Gaudreau and Salomaki are borderline players, it might not alleviate the issues of finding valuable and consistent ice-time for up-and-coming players. Tolvanen is thought and hoped to be a future goal scorer who will be best utilized for his speed and shot, so rotating him with Grimaldi in a fourth-line role may not be in the best interest of his development.
This leaves an interesting option that could make sense for the Predators, trading Craig Smith. The former Wisconsin Badger has consistently played in Nashville’s top-six. Therefore, moving him could free up room for a young skilled player to play quality minutes or even allow a possibly “rejuvenated” Turris to play on the second line again, but just on the wing of course. Yet, the most enticing aspect of this hypothetical would be removing Smith’s $4.25 million cap hit, giving Poile some breathing room in regards to cap space. Considering Smith is entering the final year of his contract, now is the perfect time to move the 29-year-old.
Poile carried the heavy-lifting this summer, trying to make the numbers work in order to sign Duchene. Now it seems it’s Laviolette’s turn to try and make the pieces fit together and find out if the team is trying to cram a square peg into a round hole due to the surprising surplus at center.