Kevin Fiala

Predators won’t trade defense for forward help

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After losing James Neal to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft this past week the Nashville Predators have a pretty glaring hole in their top-six that is going to need to be addressed. Along with that, captain Mike Fisher is an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and is also considering retirement.

Because of those two developments general manager David Poile has made adding a top-six forward a priority for this summer, and he certainly has the salary cap space to get something done.

One thing he is not going to do, however, is trade one of his defensemen to find that help up front.

“We’ve traded enough defensemen in my recent history,” Poile said on Saturday, via the Tennessean. “I think everybody would be pretty much on the same page that our defense drives our team and our corps is as good as any in the league. We will not be touching our defense in the near future here.”

Over the past two years Poile has traded Shea Weber and Seth Jones off of his blue line but has still managed to assemble the NHL’s best defense. The quartet of P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm is so good that Poile made sure to protect all four of them in the expansion draft and leave Neal — a consistent 25-to 30-goal scorer signed for one more year on a pretty good contract — exposed for Vegas to take.

Without dealing one of their top-four defensemen it might be difficult to find an impact winger via the trade route, which might force them to turn to the free agent market.

But even that is going to be difficult because it is such a limited market. Now that T.J. Oshie has re-signed with the Washington Capitals Alexander Radulov would probably be the top winger available, but given his history with Nashville there is virtually no chance of that reunion happening. Justin Williams would be an intriguing veteran option, while Joe Thornton could help fill the void at center if Fisher does not return.

Still, not trading from the defense is the absolute right path for Poile and the Predators to take. Not only is that group the backbone of the Predators’ organization and one of the driving forces behind its success, it is also an extremely young group that is all signed long-term on cap friendly deals.

Even with the loss of Neal Nashville still has a deep group of forwards, while youngsters Pontus Aberg and Kevin Fiala could get an increased role and an opportunity to shine.

 

Yes, Predators expose Neal instead of Jarnkrok to expansion draft

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The Nashville Predators indeed chose to protect Calle Jarnkrok instead of James Neal from the expansion draft, as Sunday’s list confirmed.

Once it became clear that GM David Poile hadn’t (yet?) convinced Vegas Golden Knights GM George McPhee to accept a trade not to take someone like Neal, there were questions about whether the Predators might make a move rather than losing a key asset for free.

Poile still has time to sweeten the deal for McPhee, but he wasn’t able to make a trade with any of the league’s other teams. At the moment, it certainly seems plausible that the Golden Knights might snatch Neal from Nashville.

Now, as painful as that prospect might be, Neal is 29 and carries a $5 million cap hit; if the Predators didn’t view him as part of the future beyond 2017-18, then this might be a lot like pulling off the Band-Aid a year early. It wouldn’t feel good, yet it might be the best option.

There’s also a question regarding whether the Golden Knights would want to take on an expensive deal for a player who may start to leave his prime once the team’s truly ready to compete.

Actually, the most intrigue might come with the question of who else is available. The NHL’s release listed speedy, intriguing forward Pontus Aberg as available, which was recently confirmed by the Tennessean’s Adam Vignan.

As interesting a debate as Jarnkrok vs. Neal might be, the Golden Knights now must face a similar choice in Neal vs. Aberg.

Do you go with a reasonably affordable source of a precious commodity in goals in Neal, even though he’s 29 and makes $5 million? Instead, might you aim for Aberg, an intriguing young talent in need of an RFA deal?

The Predators secured Jarnkrok, a 25-year-old carrying a bargain $2 million cap hit through 2021-22. Even if his ceiling might be a touch lower, the former Red Wings prospect showed that he can climb up the lineup when needed, as he excelled when Nashville called upon him to take an elevated role thanks to injuries during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Success often makes your key pieces that much more desirable, something the Predators are experiencing right now. If Poile can’t sweeten the deal to make McPhee take a lesser player, Nashville fans will wonder about Jarnkrok vs. Neal (vs. Aberg) for some time to come.

Predators’ ‘dog-on-a-bone mentality’ has carried them during playoff run

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) The instant one of the Pittsburgh Penguins passes the puck to a teammate, one of the Nashville Predators closes in, taking away any time or space to operate.

The junkyard dog approach to hockey for the Stanley Cup Final debutants has a history: It is the Predators’ on-ice version of Stanley, the blue mutt with a bone clenched between his teeth. He’s the team mascot whose picture is stuck on the Predators’ locker-room door, now with two bandages commemorating playoff-ending injuries first to forward Kevin Fiala, then center Ryan Johansen. The dog, its name tag hanging from a spiked collar, bares his teeth in photos on three walls inside, too.

Stanley is the symbol of how coach Peter Laviolette wanted his Predators to play this season. They responded with an attacking, never-stop approach that has helped Nashville go from the last team into the NHL playoffs to one that is two wins from a championship. The Predators are tied 2-2 with the Penguins with Game 5 coming up Thursday night in Pittsburgh.

“We definitely know what our identity is,” defenseman P.K. Subban said. “It’s kind of the dog-on-a-bone mentality. And we want to dictate the pace of the game, and we want to attack you in all three zones as a five-man unit and be tough to play against. And I think everybody on our team can skate, move the puck and make plays.”

Read more: Predators forecheck giving Penguins d-men plenty of problems

Stanley is more than just a cartoon dog. The Predators also award the best player in each game a heavy chain as a reward, a hockey version of a game ball. The Predators in past years have given out a construction worker’s hard hat to recognize the best player in a game.

Defenseman Matt Irwin says Stanley shows exactly how the Predators want to play.

“If you think of Stanley and you look at him, his knees are bent, he’s in an athletic stance, his mouth’s drooling,” Irwin said. “It’s the intensity he brings, and that’s the kind of intensity we want to bring to our game every night.”

That’s exactly what Laviolette wanted when the Stanley concept was introduced months ago. Irwin said winning the big chain is a very cool honor, even though he’s won it only once this season.

“Obviously when you win the chain, it’s recognition from your teammates you contributed and you had a solid night,” Irwin said.

Photos of a menacing dog and a chain can only go so far, though. The Predators finished the regular season 16th in the NHL with 94 points. They knew they would be starting on the road in every series, and the Predators responded by winning the opener of their first three series.

Now they head to Pittsburgh needing to find a way to win in the home ice of the defending champions after dropping Games 1 and 2.

The Predators are 5-5 away from Nashville this postseason. They are getting production from everyone who hits the ice, with 19 different players scoring at least one goal – two shy of the NHL record of 21 held by the 1987 Philadelphia Flyers. They also have killed 24 of 25 penalties in the Stanley Cup Final.

In Game 1, Nashville became the first team to hold an opponent without a shot on goal in a period of a Final game since the NHL started tracking that statistic in 1957, and that drought lasted 37 minutes even though Pittsburgh pulled out a 5-3 win. In Game 3, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were held without a shot on goal in the same playoff game for the first time in their careers.

Mattias Ekholm said everything is designed to make opponents work hard and fellow defenseman Ryan Ellis noted that the hard work is required of the Predators, too.

“As much as it is about skill and speed and all that, it’s the work ethic, it’s the little things, and I think that’s kind of the idea behind that is doing the right thing and working as hard as we can,” Ellis said. “I mean working hard in a game trumps all no matter skill level or this or that.”

From Calder Cup to Stanley Cup Final, Gaudreau’s had a wild ride

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NASHVILLE — Thirty-nine days ago, Frederick Gaudreau was having himself a pretty good postseason.

He opened with three goals and four points in his first three games, firing an impressive 14 shots on goal. He scored once at even strength, one shorthanded, and once on the power play.

A very solid playoffs.

But it was for the Milwaukee Admirals. In the Calder Cup playoffs.

Undrafted out of the Quebec League, Gaudreau’s spent most of his professional life in the AHL, emerging as a good scorer and skill guy. Then this spring, fate intervened. Injuries to Kevin Fiala and Ryan Johansen opened the door for Gaudreau to join the Preds, and get a realistic shot at minutes.

He made his NHL postseason debut in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final, and has since seen both his role and impact grow steadily.

Gaudreau has two goals through the first three Cup Final games, including the game-winner in Saturday night’s 5-1 victory over the Pens. He also received his highest ice-time total of the playoffs, at 13:01.

To put that in perspective, James Neal played 14:33.

Which begs the questions: Who is this guy? And how is this happening?

“He came highly regarded from our minor league club,” Preds head coach Peter Laviolette said on Sunday. “[We were told] he’s a very, very smart two-way player that would not hurt us in any zone. He would be able to contribute inside the game.

“But the next part of that is making the step to the next level, to the National Hockey League. While a lot of these guys have come up from Milwaukee, he’s probably the least experienced of that group. He’s stepped in and done such a terrific job. He’s been able to play different positions on different lines for us, and he’s done it very well.”

Gaudreau, 24, had a brief taste of NHL life earlier this season. He made his big league debut and went on to appear in nine games for the Preds, most of them coming in December. After one final appearance in early January, he was reassigned to Milwaukee and spent the next four months there.

At times, the Stanley Cup playoffs must’ve felt a million miles away.

But as mentioned above, fate broke Gaudreau’s way. Johansen’s season-ending thigh injury left a significant hole down at center, forcing the likes of Colton Sissons and Calle Jarnkrok to shoulder a major load.

Gaudreau got the call based on his overall body of work, though one has to think Nashville brass was intrigued by his career-high offensive numbers — 25 goals and 48 points in just 66 games with the Admirals this season.

Laviolette said the club recognized what Gaudreau’s strengths were, and has encouraged him to play to them. Even if it means doing so against the likes of Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

“We just had some quick conversations about him and his game, talked to him just a little bit, told him to play his game and have fun,” Laviolette explained. “Enjoy the experience. Sometimes, if you think too much about a situation or the pressure of a situation, that can work against you.”

So far, so good for Gaudreau. He’s won over a number of folks in Nashville, Neal included.

“I think he’s surprising everybody how good he is,” Neal said. “He’s calm and collected. He’s a young kid, in a huge, crazy atmosphere, a huge time with the Cup Final.

“He’s done an unbelievable job.”

Here’s how the Predators will line up for Game 1

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PITTSBURGH — For the first time in franchise history, the Nashville Predators will play in a Stanley Cup Final tonight.

Here’s how the Preds are expected to look in Game 1 against the Penguins at PPG Paints Arena:

 

 

Forwards

Filip ForsbergColton SissonsPontus Aberg
Viktor ArvidssonMike FisherJames Neal
Colin WilsonCalle JarnkrokCraig Smith
Frederick GaudreauVernon FiddlerAustin Watson

The big omission up front is Ryan Johansen, the Preds’ No. 1 center who’s been diagnosed with acute compartment syndrome and won’t play in the final. Kevin Fiala was also lost for the playoffs after getting hurt in the second round.

Johansen was acquired last year to give the Preds the type of elite center they’d been missing. Obviously, the timing of his injury couldn’t have been much worse.

“We lost a lot of offense and a big, heavy, strong centerman in Johansen,” said Sissons. “There’s gonna be some big shoes for us to fill.”

Of note, Wilson was absent from this morning’s skate. If he doesn’t play for whatever reason, expect Cody McLeod to take his spot.

Defense

Roman JosiRyan Ellis
Mattias EkholmP.K. Subban
Matt Irwin —  Yannick Weber

This is the strength of Nashville’s roster. Essentially, the Preds have two first pairings at their disposal, and head coach Peter Laviolette deploys them as such.

Penguins center Evgeni Malkin told reporters yesterday that it’s like the Preds have “four Karlssons,” referring to Josi, Ellis, Ekholm, and Subban.

That’s a slight exaggeration, but it’s arguably the best top four in the league.

Goalies

Pekka Rinne (starter)
Juuse Saros (backup)

Rinne has been excellent in these playoffs, compiling a 12-4 record with a .941 save percentage. This after a regular season where his save percentage fluctuated wildly from month-to-month.

“I think we started off really well (in the playoffs) against Chicago, then you gain some confidence, and personally I was playing well,” Rinne said. “Once that ball starts rolling you feel better and better and things start to go your way. I feel the biggest thing is as a team, for a long time in the regular season we were trying to find consistency and at times we didn’t do a good job. I feel like this postseason we’ve been really consistent and solid and playing really good hockey for 16 games now.”

Rinne has been so good that Saros has yet to even play a second of the postseason.

Related: Here’s how the Penguins will line up for Game 1