One of the most critical assets of any successful NHL team is a solid defense. Arguably, the Nashville Predators have one of the best defensive cores in the league with Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Seth Jones and Ryan Ellis at the helm.
Entering last season, however, there was one problem.
General Manager David Poile acknowledged that problem by signing veteran defenseman Anton Volchenkov to a one-year contract last summer and trading for Cody Franson mid-season in February.
Unfortunately for the Predators, the additions did not work out as well as planned after being ousted in the first round by the Chicago Blackhawks.
This offseason, Poile has changes in mind for the Predators’ defense. Already, he has made it known Franson will not be re-signed by Nashville next season and will hit the free agent market on July 1.
“I was really disappointed in how it worked out with Cody,” Poile said in his offseason address on Saturday. “He’s a good player, a great person, a big body. But he’s a right-handed shot. Weber, Jones and Ellis are right-handed shots, and none of them can or want to play on the left side. [Franson] is not a fit for us.”
Franson scored one goal and three assists in 23 games last season for Nashville.
Volchenkov, too, is an unrestricted free agent, but there are more uncertainties about his future with the Predators than Franson’s.
Volchenkov’s agent, Jay Grossman, told PHT on Monday he’s had discussions with the Predators about re-signing the pending UFA for a second season in the Music City, but added there’s “nothing further to report.”
“We haven’t made a decision whether to re-sign him next year or not,” Poile said. “We may not, and we may go in a different direction. If there is a [similar] defenseman out there with a physical edge and veteran, then we could go in that direction.”
It appears Nashville is going to part ways with the 33-year-old Volchenkov.
There is a shallow market for depth defensemen this summer. A couple of names stick out like Johnny Oduya and Michal Roszival, but the Predators will end up paying more for either of them than they would for Volchenkov. The most reasonable UFA defender available is Tim Gleason.
Gleason, arguably the cheapest of the three mentioned, played three seasons under current Nashville head coach Peter Laviolette in between 2006-09 with the Carolina Hurricanes. The grizzled veteran has played in 727 career NHL games totaling 142 points (17 goals, 125 assists) and 701 penalty minutes.
Last season, Gleason played 55 games in Carolina prior to being traded to the Washington Capitals just days before the trade deadline. In 72 games, he scored nine points (one goal, eight assists), blocked 108 shots, made 167 hits and averaged 16:20 of time on ice per night.
As a left-handed shot, Gleason would fit perfectly if paired with Ellis or Jones.
The other option Poile has is to promote a younger player from within the organization.
“I really favor promoting from within,” Poile said. “It’s the right thing to do in your organization if the kid is playing well enough.”
Victor Bartley played just 37 games last season despite being a capable sixth defenseman. When called upon, the 6-foot, 203-pounder can be that physical defender missing from Nashville’s lineup. Though Bartley did not play half the season, he amassed the third highest hit total on the team’s defense (77).
“I’m comfortable with Victor Bartley having a chance to play more regularly,” Poile said.
Anthony Bitetto is another player who could get a promotion to the NHL next season. Before that happens, Poile will have to re-sign the UFA.
Last season, Bitetto played in seven games making a minimal impact with an average of 11:14 of time on ice. In 70 games with the Preds’ AHL-affiliate Milwaukee Admirals, Bitetto scored 30 points (four goals, 26 assists). He is known for his hard shot and physicality.
However, promoting Bartley and Bitetto will run Nashville’s defensive depth thin when injuries occur.
Signing Gleason to a low-risk one-year contract is the best option for Nashville. If another defenseman gets injured, Bartley is an excellent safety net to not completely deplete the Predators’ defense. Adding Gleason to the roster would make it hard to argue against Nashville’s defense being one of the best in the NHL for the second consecutive season.
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Colin Fitts is a Nashville Predators staff writer and is a credentialed media member of the Chicago Wolves. From Nashville, Tennessee, Colin majors in journalism and public relations at Columbia College Chicago. Follow him on Twitter, @FittsTHW. Email: 22fitts [at] gmail [dot] com.