Predators Need a Serious Rebuild and It Won’t Be Easy

The Nashville Predators are at a crossroad. The team has made the playoffs for six straight seasons, tied for second in the NHL with the Washington Capitals. They brought in Matt Duchene on a monstrous contract two off-seasons ago and were looking to rejuvenate their forward production. However, fast-forward almost an entire season, a playoff bubble, and one pandemic later, and the Predators look to be headed for a rebuild.

An 11-15-0 start to the season screams panic for Predators fans that had high hopes for this campaign. Naturally, fans across social media platforms have been coming up with their own forms of rebuilding strategies and what they would like to see this team do in the future. Some don’t have any merit at all; however, a majority do. I’m going to be overviewing the latter in this article.

Fire the Coach

“Fire Hynes” is, without a doubt, the thing New Jersey Devils fans and Predators fans have most in common. Nevermind P.K. Subban, the utter distaste for a coach that lacks any on-ice structure has become the antagonist of two fanbases for polar opposite clubs.

Since Nashville hired John Hynes, the team has posted an extremely mediocre 27-26-2 record. While he has been able to get the best out of Mikael Granlund, who suffered immensely under former head coach Peter Laviolette, the offense has been nothing short of dull; there is an apparent disconnect between Hynes’ system and the players on the ice. Hynes’s system does a lot of what Laviolette’s did: generate low-danger shots from the outside and try to get traffic in front. In 18 of Nashville’s 27 games this season, the team has generated under two expected goals (xG) at even-strength per Evolving-Hockey. 15 of those 18 games, the xG total has been 1.5 or lower; in two of them, the total is under one. 

Out of the 18 games, 14 of them had 30 or more unblocked shot attempts. The team is shooting a lot but not from anywhere remotely close to the net. The heatmaps from HockeyViz represent this point almost too well.

Nashville Predators 2021 offensive heatmaps so far
Nashville Predators 2021 offense heatmaps – so far (credit: HockeyViz)

The Predators essentially avoid everything that involves shooting from high-danger areas. Generating shots from the slot is a foreign concept mainly because the system they play in doesn’t focus on them enough. The same thing happened to an already miserable New Jersey team in Hynes’ tenure. But how do these numbers fare relative to the rest of the league? As you might expect, it is not pretty. They’re the worst in the league when it comes to goals-for per 60 minutes and quality attempts. Thanks to Bryan Bastin from On The Forecheck, we can see the disparity between the Predators and the field. 

Predators Shot Quality Viz 2021
Predators 2021 Shot Quality Viz – so far (Credit: Bryan Bastin, On The Forecheck)

There is a clear correlation between scoring goals and getting chances from dangerous areas. Emphasizing the slot and commanding that position on the ice should be the top priority for an NHL coach. The league’s successful teams take point shots, but their defensemen are freed up because of the slot presence. However, Hynes’ system is not the only reason I would like to see him fired. His constant line juggling is no way to help younger guys grow and develop. It happened in New Jersey consistently; guys who deserved top-line minutes would be playing in the bottom six and vice versa. Line chemistry is essential for any NHL team but arguably more important for a team that is rebuilding. Rookies and younger players naturally need time to adjust. Preventing them from feeling comfortable with their linemates is not a recipe for success in record and development.

The Solution

As I mentioned previously, Hynes being gone is ideal. His middling offensive system is proving detrimental to the Predators as it did to the Devils. The team has too much offensive firepower to be last in goals for/shot quality, 28th in goals-for percentage, 17th in expected goals-for percentage, 30th in goals-for per 60, and 27th in expected goals for per 60. With the team heading into a rebuild, Hynes doesn’t appear to be the correct coach to help young offensive players in the pipeline get their legs under them.

In some form, whether it be as an assistant coach or as the head coach, Karl Taylor should be brought in behind the bench. He was the bench boss of the Milwaukee Admirals team that went an impressive 41-14-5. Sadly, we didn’t get to see that team in the playoffs due to the abrupt shutdown for COVID-19. However, the point still stands; Taylor is a great head coach for young players. His time with the Texas Stars — the AHL affiliate of Dallas — and Milwaukee have helped cement that narrative.

Eeli Tolvanen, Nashville Predators
Nashville Predators forward Eeli Tolvanen is congratulated after scoring a goal against the Chicago Blackhawks(AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

In a recent interview with Taylor, On The Forecheck‘s Shaun Smith talked about Eeli Tolvanen and Mathieu Olivier and their development with the Admirals over the last few seasons. Tolvanen connected with Taylor and his values. Enforcing every player’s development, not just in their best skill-set, but in their all-around game, is the method to Taylor’s madness. The best skills of a player only come out when their overall game improves. With the Predators’ rebuild coming up and young players inevitably taking hold of roster spots, this should be the coaching staff’s thought process. Young, primarily offensive players want to do just what their stereotype suggests: play offense. However, development can be spoiled if they don’t work on their defensive play and the more intricate parts of the game. I prefer Taylor to be the head coach, but, bottom line, he needs to be on the staff.

Trade UFAs for Draft Capital

This one is pretty obvious. Sell the assets that might not be returning for picks in the upcoming drafts, preferably 2022. My colleague Alex MacLean went over some unrestricted free agents that should be sold at the deadline this season, so go check out his article here. General manager David Poile needs to milk as much value out of his assets as possible during trade deadline season. Any way that he could pull a first-round pick should be the priority. Whether that be selling a defenseman like Mattias Ekholm or packaging him with a guy like Mikael Granlund or a depth forward like Brad Richardson and Erik Haula, if this rebuild will be short and successful, Poile needs to get as much draft capital as possible. However, some fans are hesitant that Poile can do this given his recent trade history; this leads me to my next point.

Fire the GM

There have been many rumblings around the Predators fan base and media about Poile’s future with Nashville. Poile is 71 years old and most likely approaching retirement soon anyway. It seems as if the game has passed him by, as it usually does for everyone. His trading skills are not what they used to be; I covered the Ryan Hartman trade a week ago, and it was clear from all angles that Poile got fleeced. The same thing could be said for the Kevin Fiala-Granlund exchange and the Nick Bonino trade. While Bonino hasn’t performed up to snuff with the Wild, the 37th overall pick that Poile gave away in the deal turned out to be Marat Khusnutdinov; a small but versatile forward with excellent offensive capabilities and a high ceiling.

David Poile Nashville Predators
David Poile, Nashville Predators, 2019 NHL Draft (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

There have been other times when Poile has either made moves or has not made moves necessary to keep the team contending. He didn’t trade Mikael Granlund, Craig Smith, or any of the free agents that provided value at the trade deadline when their value was high. Not dealing Smith was the worst of the moves that he didn’t make. His trade value was high after another fantastic offensive season with the Preds, where he provided a fair amount of goals and drove offense to the max. He was playing extremely well at the time, and the team didn’t look good, so, just like most of the fanbase, I didn’t see a reason NOT to trade him.

The same thing can be said after the 2017-18 Presidents’ Trophy season when Poile decided not to make any moves to shake up a roster that had just lost in the first round to the Dallas Stars. Let’s not forget about the horrendous contracts he has signed recently; Ryan Johansen, Matt Duchene, and Kyle Turris are the notable ones, along with Colton Sissons’ term.

The Solution

Poile does not appear to be the right general manager to take the franchise through this rebuild. Most don’t trust him to acquire good draft capital and decent prospects to help jumpstart the inevitable rebuilding stage. As for the replacement? There are not a ton of obvious candidates.

A GM that can draft well and knows what to do with his prospects is optimal. A name like Steve Sullivan has been mentioned throughout Predators circles. The attraction is understandable, but it’s doubtful that he’s the guy. The GM market could open up by this offseason, where Predators ownership will have to make a decision. A rash decision to fire Poile this season would be unwise. Instead, it would be for the betterment of the organization to take this decision slowly and think out every possible route available before coming to a verdict.

Overall Franchise Adjustments

There are a lot of other moves that would benefit the culture change needed for this franchise. For starters, a revamp of how the front office utilizes analytics. A more prominent analytics voice could benefit the scouts and GM — whoever that may be — when trying to find draft sleepers or effective depth pickups during free agency.

Another change would be the way they make up their roster’s foundation. This is less of a concrete answer, but as of right now, the roster is very defense-heavy. Since the Predators’ inception in 1998, the defense has been the primary target. The position has developed exceptionally well, but at the cost of forward development. Nashville has a reputation of ruining forwards that come in to play; a player like Turris comes to mind. Prioritizing forward development (especially when it comes to scoring wingers) is vital, and having a lack of it has proven detrimental to the Predators’ success.

Kyle Turris Nashville Predators
Kyle Turris during his time with the Nashville Predators (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Overall, the franchise needs a clean slate. There are flaws in the roster, behind the bench, and in the front office. The Predators won’t be going anywhere until they pick a pathway, whether to continue trying to contend — which my colleague Kristy Flannery wrote about — or go into full rebuild mode. For now, playing mediocre hockey to keep a playoff streak alive is not fun for anyone. The players are not happy, Poile and ownership are not satisfied, and the fans are furious. Something needs to be done, and the first thing that needs to happen is choosing which direction the franchise is taking from this day forward.

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