The Nashville Predators have tweaked their team yet again, adding another all-star, most recently Matt Duchene. The Predators have moved from bargain shoppers to big-time spenders to ensure they have superstars on their roster. They traded for Ryan Johansen and then gave him a big pay day to stay. They parted with their beloved captain in Shea Weber to acquire P.K. Subban and his massive contract before ultimately moving him to the New Jersey Devils. Kyle Turris and Mikael Granlund were additions to strengthen the center position and add more scoring touch.
Now the Predators have several big-name players that the rest of the league will have to take note of. Opposing teams need to be prepared for their offensive fire power. However, who are the unsung heroes on the roster, who are the players who are going to be integral to the Predators’ success, but may not get the same attention, and certainly not the same pay day?
Every Team Needs an Unsung Hero
The Washington Capitals had Devante Smith-Pelly in 2018, the Pittsburgh Penguins had Jake Guentzel in 2017, as painful as it is for Predators fans to hear, and although it didn’t bring a Stanley Cup for the St. Louis Blues in that particular year, the Blues received secondary help from Robby Fabbri in 2016. The Predators are no strangers to production from sneaky depth players; don’t forget that Colin Wilson earned the nickname “Playoff Colin“ because of his stat lines during the postseason.
The playoffs are a while away, so let’s enjoy the regular season first. More importantly, the Predators will have to make the postseason before they can worry about who will be their unsung heroes. But, it can be the players who fly under the radar who make a world of difference when it comes to being one of the top-eight teams in the conference after Game 82 or finishing on the outside looking in. In head coach Peter Laviolette’s ideal world, the JOFA line of Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson would lead the charge for all 82 games.
However, when facing shutdown lines and other elite talent that the league has to offer it can make for less than ideal circumstances for stretches of the season. So, let’s look at who could be the hidden gems for the Predators in the upcoming season. Don’t forget these aren’t the players that Laviolette is typically going to give the nod to when the game is tied entering the final minutes of the game. These are the players who can spark the bench in ways other than goals and assists.
Järnkrok can be a scary force for the Predators due to his versatile skillset. The Gävle, Sweden native is a reliable center who can also play the wing. What’s more, his face-off skills combined with his defensive awareness has allowed him to develop in to a trusted penalty killer for Laviolette. Not to mention that Järnkrok has one the fastest releases on the Predators’ roster as Los Angeles Kings goalie Cal Petersen can attest to after Järnkrok scored a hat-trick against him in November.
The Predators proved they value the former Detroit Red Wings’ second-round pick immensely a few years ago. Don’t forget that they elected to protect Järnkrok from being eligible for selection during the expansion draft in which they lost James Neal to the Vegas Golden Nights.
Järnkrok finished the 2018-19 season with a plus-13, which isn’t great, but considering last season was a down one for him, producing nine less points despite playing 11 more games, he still finished fifth-best on the team’s plus/minus list. The season before, he finished tied for the league’s 32nd best plus/minus rating with a plus-20, so assuming the center bounces back he will definitely be one of Nashville’s unsung heroes.
It was far from a pleasant postseason for the Predators or their fans when they were matched up against the Dallas Stars last season, but the one bright spot was Rocco Grimaldi. The speedy winger seemed like the only offensive threat the Predators had. He has had a career bouncing from the AHL to the NHL and from team to team, originally starting with the Florida Panthers. He plays with a chip on his shoulder every game, seemingly to prove that he is not too small and he has what it takes to play in the league. He finished last season with 13 points in 53 games while sliding in and out of the lineup and receiving fourth-line minutes.
The upcoming season should fair much better for the California native as he’s already earned the right for a more stable roster spot from the start of the season. But, that might not be the only factor that will lead Grimaldi to having a much better season. There’s a good chance that Turris will slide to the third line with the addition of Duchene, reuniting Turris and Grimaldi, a combination that brought surprising success during the postseason. If the Tampa Bay Lightning’s style of play has taught us anything, it’s that speed kills, and Grimaldi has plenty of it.
Sissons may be one of the least surprising names on this list, as the six-year veteran recorded eight multi-point games last season. However, what might be more impressive is the fact that Sissons finished just 0.4 percentage points behind Johansen for the team’s best face-off percentage. Like Järnkrok, Sissons’ numbers will not blow you away, but his defensive awareness is where he thrives. The former second-round pick finished with a plus-20 rating last season, which was good enough for fourth-best on the team and land him in the top-40 league-wide.
It seems that as each year goes by Sissons becomes a stronger player and the Predators rely on him more and more. But, due to Sissons seemingly being a career bottom-six NHL player, it will be rare for him to be featured in the headlines.
Watson is one of those fearless players, a player who is willing to put it all on the line each and every game. Off the ice, it wasn’t the easiest of seasons for the 27-year-old. He missed more than half the season while he stepped away from the game, but the Ann Arbor, Michigan native still finished with the fifth-most blocks on the team and led the Predators in hits, registering 109. To give more of a perspective on Watson’s physical play, since the 2016-17 season, the former first-round pick has recorded 439 hits, which not only leads the team, but is 90 more than the next closest Predator. Watson is a constant when the Predators are defending a small lead and facing an opposing empty net.
When a player is willing to put his body on the line as Watson is, whether blocking a shot, throwing a big hit or sticking up for his teammates by dropping the gloves, it can give the team a spark that is tough to replicate any other way. He may not show up on the scoresheet often, but his contributions often extend past measurable stats, making him one of the integral parts to the Predators’ success and lands him on the unsung heroes list.
If not now, then when for the former first-round pick of the Predators? It’s tough to throw Tolvanen on the list when his contributions haven’t been there. However, it is no fault of his own as he only suited up for four games and averaged just 13:16 of ice time during his short stint with the Predators last season. He has a lot of potential, and according to The Tennessean’s Paul Skrbina, Tolvanen is continuing to develop with the confidence that he can make the Predators’ roster out of training camp (from ‘Predators’ Eeli Tolvanen knows he has plenty to learn, and he’s ready to learn it, The Tennessean, 07/05/2019).
The 20-year-old has shown he has the ability to put the puck in the net, recording 25 goals and 18 assists in 60 games in the KHL during the 2017-18 season. While 18 years old, he set a KHL record when he produced 19 goals and 17 assists for 36 points in 49 games, which was the most for a player under the age of 19.
If the Vihti, Finland native’s game can translate to the smaller North American ice, he could definitely be a bottom-six threat for the Predators, giving them a scoring touch outside of the players that they rely on so heavily already.
Winning by Committee Continues
Expectations will once again be sky high for the Predators, with fans and critics looking for them to make another deep playoff run. However, the Predators are still waiting for their first 40-goal scorer. Last season, Duchene had a career high of 31 goals and Arvidsson set the Predators’ single-season record with 34. The team has also never seen a player record more than 85 points in a single season; Paul Kariya had 85 back in 2005-06.
The Predators have always been a “win by committee” type team and players like Sissons, Järnkrok, Watson and Grimaldi have always been essential. Despite all the potential all-star players they now have, the unsung heroes will play more of a role to the Predators’ success in 2019-20 than hockey fans may know.
I graduated from Mount Royal University with a degree in Journalism with the hopes to pursue a career in sports media. I have been following hockey for many years at various different levels. Whether playing, watching or writing about it, hockey has played a massive role in my life. I was the sports editor at The Calgary Journal as well as a sports columnist for The Calgary Reflector. Follow on Twitter: @A_Grant27