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Three questions facing Nashville Predators

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators.

1. Can the Predators find that extra gear?

It wouldn’t be fair to say that the Predators lack stars altogether.

P.K. Subban would be a star even if he didn’t back up all the sizzle with elite play (delightfully, he walks the walk). Subban very deservingly received a Norris nomination in 2017-18. Filip Forsberg fills up enough highlight reels to argue that he deserves that designation, too. And, of course, Pekka Rinne just won the Vezina.

The Predators have what you need to make it to the dance, so to speak, but what about when you boil down to the best-on-best level?

Consider this: Nashville didn’t employ a single person in the top 50 in points in 2017-18. Forsberg tied for 52nd place with 64 points. Meanwhile, the Winnipeg Jets featured two players in the top 50 (Patrik Laine and Blake Wheeler), while Mark Scheifele finished with 60 points despite being limited to 60 games.

Nashville can generate scoring thanks to two strong scoring lines and a war chest of excellent offensive defensemen, so this isn’t a blanket dismissal of their offense. Peter Laviolette has a track record of being a coach who emphasizes offense, and the Predators scored 261 goals last season, tying them for seventh-best in the NHL.

The bar is set pretty high for this group, though. A lot of hockey players will throw out the “Stanley Cup or bust” line, yet the Predators rank among the small number of teams who should actually mean it.

Such aspirations call for harsher digging at self-awareness, so it’s fair to ask: when teams are engineering matchups and leaning heavily on their big guns, does Nashville lose out a bit there? Sometimes smaller, incremental disadvantages can make all the difference amid the brutal competition of postseason play.

None of this is to say that Nashville can’t make this work. It’s fair to ask the question, though.

2. How will the goalie situation work out? 

As today’s under pressure topic asserts, Pekka Rinne comes into 2018-19 in an odd spot.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]

While he won the Vezina trophy – and very much deserved it with a truly fantastic season – Rinne continued to hand his harshest critics ammo with a brutal outing in Game 7 against the Winnipeg Jets. The towering Finn was yanked from that contest after allowing two awful goals, making five saves, and only lasting 10 minutes and 31 seconds.

After sporting a fantastic .927 save percentage and covering up some under-the-radar lapses from the Predators defense during the regular season, Rinne struggled during the postseason even beyond that harsh experience in elimination, allowing at least four goals on five occasions (in 13 games played). Even taking into account struggles against Pittsburgh, Rinne pitched an outstanding .930 save percentage during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. One year later, his playoff save percentage was at a backup-level of .904.

The ups and downs of NHL goaltending should already have the Predators on alert as far as how long of a leash they give Rinne. Context makes that notion even more important to consider.

Rinne, 35, sees his $7M cap hit expire after 2018-19. Juuse Saros has already shown signs of possibly being a future No.1 goalie, and the Predators authored another killer contract by signing the 23-year-old to a three-year deal that carries a laughably low $1.5M cap hit.

So, the Predators have incentive to get Rinne to pass the torch to Saros, with the main question arguably being how gradual that transition should be.

Ultimately, there’s some room for maneuvering, especially next season. Will Laviolette be willing to give Saros the net in big games if Rinne’s struggling (or Saros has simply been superior), as he’s been reluctant to do so far?

Perhaps the Predators need to look to their former coach as an example. Barry Trotz made the courageous move to give Philipp Grubauer the starting job – tentatively – as Braden Holtby struggled mightily at times in Washington. Some would argue that such a decision proved foolish, what with Grubauer struggling against Columbus, yet one can only speculate about how this situation impacted Holtby. For all we know, Holtby wouldn’t have authored such a magnificent playoff run if he didn’t a) get some much-needed rest and b) have a fire lit under him as he saw someone else begin the playoffs as the Capitals’ starter.

Laviolette needs to roll with the punches here, something he’s struggled to do at times in Nashville (possibly being too reliant upon Rinne) and Philadelphia (maybe being too erratic with goalies, particularly a young Sergei Bobrovsky?).

If that means putting Saros in instead of Rinne, so be it. If the starts go to whoever has the hot hand/goalie glove, then maybe that’s the best solution, instead.

There are some political landmines to dance around, but the end result could very well be more than worth the trouble.

3. Does David Poile have any more tricks up his sleeves?

The Predators have a remarkable amount of room to work with, considering that they’re the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners.

According to Cap Friendly, Nashville has about $7.625M in cap space heading into 2018-19. They don’t have any outstanding RFAs to deal with, and the team-friendly Ryan Ellis deal gives them wonderful cost certainty.

GM David Poile is no stranger to blockbuster moves, so he could address Question 1 in a big way via any number of trades. Nashville wouldn’t even need to move salary to fit the 2018-19 cap hits for Erik Karlsson, Max Pacioretty, Artemi Panarin, or Tyler Seguin.

They also have managed to bring along some promising prospects who could be used in a trade, if Poile can stomach such moves.

Would landing a big name be worth parting ways with Dante Fabbro or even Eeli Tolvanen? Maybe, maybe not. There are ways where Poile could probably even manage a balancing act of extending a Karlsson or other game-breaker, particularly with Rinne’s $7M set to come off the books.

(Nashville has $64.44M devoted to 18 skaters for 2019-20, and Kevin Fiala is one of the only noteworthy guys who would need a new deal, beyond the Rinne puzzle.)

There are reasons why the Predators were at least trying to get into the John Tavares sweepstakes, and the Predators have plenty of incentive – not to mention that cushy cap space – to land that extra player to put them totally over the top. Can Poile hunt that big game once again?

Totally unrelated side question: well, does Marc Bergevin still accept his calls after the Subban – Shea Weber trade? Again, totally unrelated.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Max Domi ejected after punching, bloodying Aaron Ekblad

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Max Domi didn’t take long to make an impact with the Montreal Canadiens, but it might earn him a suspension for when the games actually start to matter.

Domi was ejected from tonight’s 5-2 exhibition loss to the Florida Panthers after landing what many call a sucker-punch on defenseman Aaron Ekblad. As you can see, Ekblad fell and was bloodied by the blow, and did not return to the contest.

The best news is that, so far, it sounds like Ekblad is OK. Being bloodied by such an exchange would already be a concern, but that was especially worrisome since the 22-year-old has a history of concussion issues.

Panthers coach Bob Boughner said that team doctors determined that Ekblad didn’t suffer a concussion or a broken nose, according to The Athletic‘s Arpon Basu. Now, it’s worth noting that sometimes concussion symptoms don’t truly surface until after the adrenaline wears off, so there’s a chance that an additional update about Ekblad could be less positive. Either way, it’s positive that the early word is optimistic.

Whether you think it’s a fair course or not, Ekblad’s relative health could be good news for Domi and the Canadiens, as the Department of Player Safety factors injuries into possible suspension decisions.

Domi, 23, received a one-game suspension back in March 2016 for instigating this fight with Ryan Garbutt:

Whether he’s suspended or not, this isn’t a great start for Domi, although some Habs fans will be happy to see Tie’s son assert himself. So there’s that.

In case you’re wondering, Alex Galchenyuk is making a positive first impression with the Arizona Coyotes, including scoring two goals in a recent exhibition. The hits just keep coming for Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin, but at least they aren’t in the literal form of Domi’s fists.

Did you note that these two teams are division rivals? They’ll take on each other four teams in 2018-19, so we’ll see if Luongo’s warning holds up.

“Bit of a gutless play,” Luongo said, via TSN’s John Lu. ” … We definitely won’t forget about it.”

The Panthers will have a chance to forget about it, or at least let the anger simmer down, as the two teams don’t meet in the regular season until a Dec. 28 contest in Florida.

UPDATE:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Sabres are remarkably expensive, but relief is coming

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After finally hammering out a bridge deal with rising forward Sam Reinhart, the Buffalo Sabres’ roster seems more or less set for 2018-19.

There’s plenty of debate regarding whether this team will improve, take a step back after a minor step forward, or idle in the same mediocre position they were last season. But one thing is clear once you peruse their Cap Friendly page and other listings of their salary structure, even if it might sneak up on you: this team is expensive.

Following the addition of Reinhart’s new $3.65 million cap hit, the Sabres have committed $76,684,524 to the cap this coming season, leaving them with about $2.815M in cap space.

That’s staggering stuff, especially considering: a) their moribund lack of success in recent seasons and b) the profound savings they’ll enjoy from prominent players (Rasmus Dahlin, Casey Mittelstadt) competing on entry-level contracts.

Let’s take a look at the Sabres’ somewhat puzzling salary structure to try to see warning signs, reasons for optimism, and situations that could go either way.

Long-term commitments

Three contracts stand out the most for Buffalo, and they’re a mixed bag:

Jack Eichel, 21: $10M cap hit through 2025-26
Kyle Okposo, 30: $6M through 2022-23
Rasmus Ristolainen, 23: $5.4M through 2021-22

It would be wise to throw in two other deals, too:

Patrik Berglund, 30: $3.85M through 2021-22
Carter Hutton, 32: $2.75M through 2020-21

Plenty of people criticized (and still criticize) the Eichel deal. Personally, I think he’s worth it. Even if you make an impassioned argument that Eichel’s only worth, say, $8.5M, Buffalo would have gained little in playing hardball there.

Considering the impact of the aging curve, Okposo’s contract looks like a real problem right now.

That said, Okposo absolutely faced extenuating circumstances considering how closely the 2017-18 season followed profound health scares, so maybe things improve in 2018-19? Consider that, even last season, Okposo generated 35 points over 51 games from November through February, which would prorate to about 56 points during a full season. That’s not world-beating stuff, yet if Okposo could generate 55-60 points while producing positive possession, the $6M wouldn’t seem so outrageous.

Okposo is just one of those intriguing pivotal considerations for Buffalo, as we’ll get to Ristolainen soon.

The nice thing, again, for Buffalo’s salary structure is that young players give them some default bargains. While bonuses can cloud matters, they’ll be paying Mittelstadt below market value for two seasons, while Dahlin’s primed to begin his three-year rookie contract. Such considerations – not to mention the dream of Alex Nylander “figuring things out” and giving them another bargain – could make those riskier deals easier to stomach.

Passing the torch?

The best news is that Buffalo’s ugliest deals are largely going away, whether they’re ending after 2018-19 or 2019-20.

Especially bad deals off the books after 2018-19:

Jason Pominville, 35: $5.6M
Matt Moulson, 34: $3.975M

Worst deal expiring after 2019-20:

Zach Bogosian, 28: $5.143M

With Jeff Skinner (26, $5.725M) entering a contract year, the Sabres would enjoy plenty of room to extend him – if they want to – considering the money freed up by those expiring Moulson and Pominville deals.

The Sabres see more than just Bogosian’s deal expire after two more seasons, and by then, they should know if Marco Scandella (28, $4M) was merely overwhelmed by a huge jump in useage (he logged almost exactly four more minutes per game in 2017-18 versus 2016-17, averaging a career-high TOI of 23:19). They’ll be able to gather more intel on forwards Vladimir Sobotka (31, $3.5M) and Conor Sheary (26, $3M) as well. Oh yeah, and they’d cross the bridge to a new deal with Reinhart.

Now, it’s not guaranteed that all that expiring money will mean that Buffalo will suddenly be cheap to run, as it’s conceivable that a lot of that liberated cash will simply go to Mittelstadt, Skinner, Sheary, Tage Thompson, and Linus Ullmark.

Of course, even if that’s the case, Buffalo would see more money going to younger players, which is generally a positive step in today’s NHL.

Ripple effects

You know how fans often depict Erik Karlsson and other defensemen (maybe Dougie Hamilton?) as players who bring offense yet are glaring liabilities in their own end? Such a criticism holds more weight with a player like Rasmus Ristolainen, who’s sometimes a whipping boy among analytics-minded hockey fans.

Painfully enough, Ristolainen might even be a little overrated on offense, as Bill Comeau’s SKATR comparison tool and other metrics suggest:

The Sabres’ defense has been a uniquely ugly beast, though, and it’s fair to wonder if the tide-changing addition of Rasmus Dahlin may very well – eventually? – produce a domino effect.

Basically, Dahlin’s ascent may gradually place Ristolainen and others (again, Scandella was leaned up far too often last season) in more comfortable situations. It’s unclear if Ristolainen will prove that he’s worth $5.4M per season, but he might at least be able to clean up his numbers if he goes from difficult zone start situations to being used as more of an offensive specialist.

At 23, it’s not outrageous to wonder if a) Ristolainen’s confidence has been shaken and b) there’s still time for him to improve.

As special as Dahlin appears to be, it’s a lot to ask for him to fix things overnight, or even quickly. Unfortunately, the Sabres have been asking their defensemen to do too much in recent years, already. Maybe Dahlin will be so outstanding, so quickly, that such missteps won’t matter so much?

Overall improvements may also help forwards and goalies to thrive at a higher level, too.

Eichel’s dealt with poor support at times during his Buffalo run, not to mention some rough injury luck here and there. While the Ryan O'Reilly trade stings, landing Skinner and Sheary while inserting Dahlin and Mittelstadt into the lineup could really raise the wider competence of this team. Bonus points if Hutton proves that he can be a true No. 1 goalie, or failing that, a good platoon member alongside Ullmark.

***

This Sabres team is prohibitively expensive, and faces a serious uphill battle in proving that they’re worth the money.

Ultimately, the franchise’s future may hinge on key fork-in-the-road moments, such as Eichel getting some offensive support, the goaltending situation panning out, and solutions emerging on defense.

Forecasting the future isn’t easy, but the Sabres should at least be fascinating to watch.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Highlight-reel plays from Pettersson, Talbot spice up preseason

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We’re two weeks away from real, meaningful hockey being played in the NHL, so for now we’ll have to deal with preseason games with rosters featuring 70-80 percent of players who won’t be regulars beginning in October.

But it’s still hockey and there are still highlights to be seen. For example, Tuesday night’s Edmonton Oilers 4-2 win over the Vancouver Canucks featured a save of the season candidate, a great goal and a pair of broken ankles, courtesy of uber-prospect Elias Pettersson.

First up, Cam Talbot is looking for a rebound season and started things off with this robbery on Canucks forward Nikolay Goldobin, fooling everyone in the building:

Goldobin would get his revenge later for the Canucks’ second goal.

The Canucks would finally breakthrough against Talbot in the second period as Sven Baertschi, with his back to the goal, went between-the-legs to end the shutout bid:

Now we move to Pettersson, who is already giving Canucks fans something to look forward to this season. The Calder Trophy candidate didn’t score or help create a goal here, but just absolutely ruined Ryan Stome:

“To be honest, I was thinking of when I was younger and playing [EA Sports NHL] video games and I was dreaming to play here,” Pettersson said afterward via Sportsnet. “To play my first game here in Vancouver, it was a dream come true.”

Pettersson will turn 20 in November, which means many, many more highlights like that are ahead for us to enjoy.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

What ‘NHL 19’ is missing: An ‘NHL 20’ wish list

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On Tuesday, PHT broke down the biggest changes EA Sports’ “NHL 19” brings to the table. While we’re still not so sure about the death of poke-checks,* the gist is that those tweaks present a big upgrade over “NHL 18.”

If you’ve spent a moment on the Internet, or really with other humans, you know that there’s an urge for even more. It must be frustrating for the gang at EA Sports, or really anyone anywhere. We might as well have a little fun with it, though, right?

Considering the veritable bucket of modes and ways to play in “NHL 19,” it’s likely that people will have a slew of other changes/modes/etc. they’d love to see if there’s an “NHL 20.” So, feel free to add your own hopes in the comments, and don’t be shy about getting really specific.

* – For what it’s worth, it seems like EA is trying to address issues with tuner updates. Maybe they’ll find a perfect recipe for pokes?

Here are some of the things I’d like to see, or never see again:

Story Mode

The NBA2K series really set the tone, even getting Spike Lee to pen (an admittedly derided) story mode script, although a greed element has soiled the series. EA’s jumped into the fray, with Dan Marino giving your player guidance in a recent story mode.

So, it’s only natural for hockey fans to want their own version, even if you probably won’t ever get to limp over to a digital Herb Brooks and yell “I am a hockey player!”

Now, with a lot of requests for EA tweaking “NHL 20” – assuming, hopefully, that greedy hockey gamers continue to get the opportunity to play NHL games – one must understand that the team making these games doesn’t enjoy the same budget as those churning out yearly FIFA or Madden titles.

The good news is that it’s easy to picture a scenario where a story mode could be grafted on the creaky-but-still-fun Be a Pro Mode. As a team-building nerd, I wouldn’t mind seeing a “roleplaying” element come to the GM simulation that is Franchise Mode, but Be a Pro would be an easier transition. I could easily see them graft a story onto Be a Pro, while maybe pairing down the number of games you actually play in the well-executed third-person gameplay.

However they do it, a story mode would really freshen things up. They could even have a mini-game where you try to rack up experience points by filling your interviews with the maximum number of cliches and bland answers. That’s what we call a sim, folks.

Classic teams

One of the many things the NBA2K series does right is allowing you to play as nostalgia-heavy classic teams, including approximately 5 million iterations of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. (Still smarting over the lack of Charles Barkley Suns, though. Come on, Chuck.)

The NBA is uniquely suited for such a mode, as games are 5-on-5, and star players make an enormous impact on the game. Most teams only go so deep into their benches, so you can capture the vibe of a legendary team even if you only nab 8-10 players.

That’s tougher in sports like hockey, particularly when fans become enamored with bottom-six pluggers.

Here’s the thing, though: it might be worth the effort.

It wouldn’t be surprising if you’ve been engaged in a silly debate: would this year’s contenders be able to hang with the Gretzky Oilers, dynasty Islanders, or unparalleled vintage Habs? Allowing those debates to live out in digital form would be a blast.

Perhaps EA’s NHL team could focus on a small number of these classic teams, as to avoid some of the drudgery that would come with attempting to pump out as many retro squads as NBA2K regularly provides. Such a tweak could also get fans arguing about which versions of dynasty teams were the best, and maybe the ’91 Penguins could be in NHL 20, while the ’92 one could move to NHL 21?

(As someone who loves fantasy drafts in franchise modes, it would be that much more entertaining to put classic players in such situations. And not just because it would be endlessly amusing to create the Quebec Nordiques and force Eric Lindros to finally play for them.)

Graphics

Circling back to the point about limited budgets, I’m not sure how feasible it would be for the NHL games to convert to EA’s vaunted Frostbite engine.

I’d also like to state that, personally, the game playing well is infinitely more important than how the game looks, and the NHL games frequently look nice overall. But yes, there are some moments where individual players look, uh … US Gamer’s Kat Bailey put it well:

But the players themselves are just so ugly. Many of the NHL’s biggest stars are captured accurately, but many more look like weird Neanderthals with bulging foreheads and massive jawlines. NHL has leaned on the same tired character models going on four years now, and as a result it looks quite out of date when compared to basically every other sports game

Again, I sort of “get it” when it comes to the easier-said-than-done elements to improving graphics, but ignoring that beef would be like throwing a sheet over the elephant in the room for many who care more about that sort of thing.

Miscellaneous whining and nitpicks

OK, now let’s get to the granular stuff that still leaves many (OK, me) seething:

  • So, apparently EA’s finally implemented something I’ve been clamoring for: the ability to manually switch the player you’re controlling. The company line seemed to be that icon passing or switching ruined the presentation of games, but I’d often grumble at the title’s inability to easily let me control who I wanted. In especially tightly contested games, that’s the sort of thing that could make you wish you weren’t around other people so you could throw a fit.

You know, theoretically.

After a lucky Google search, apparently this was quietly added:

Huzzah. Now, I could quibble about maybe implementing the control scheme differently – this tweak is stealthy enough that I literally learned about this while constructing this post – but at least it’s, to steal an EA line, in the game.

  • Stay onside, computer teammates. *Glares*

Look, as a simulation, I get that you’d sometimes go offside in a game. That’s especially true when you’re obnoxiously dangling or deking while entering the attacking zone, as I’m wont to do. That’s fine.

Sometimes the AI can get a little ridiculous when it comes to prematurely entering the zone, however, to the point where you’re cursing your teammates like an NFL offensive lineman racking up false start penalties.

It’s to the point where I’d probably accept less aggressive computer teammates if it meant less teeth-gnashing offside infractions.

(There are also times when icing can be pretty ridiculous, but at least it’s reasonably straightforward.)

  • Menus – UI (user interface) has been a sore spot for the EA NHL games at least since they made the jump to the PS4/XBox One, and that remains the case in “NHL 19.” For all the areas of improvement (the slowdown in changing menus seems to be gone, or at least alleviated), there are a ton of other things that make it tedious to navigate the game.

That might sound like a minor quibble, and it’s not the end of the world, but when you consider how dense things get – particularly with Scouting and certain elements of Hockey Ultimate Team – it would be nice if EA pays some mind to the UI for future iterations.

  • Fancy stats, or more stats – This is simple enough. It would be nice if the NHL titles provided more stats, both from simulation and in-game readouts.
  • Partial sims – Back quite a few years ago, you could “intervene” in a game that was being simulated, taking over your team in, say, the third period.

This was a nice way of speeding up seasons if you didn’t want to play all 82 regular-season games, and wasn’t the worst way of adding a different type of difficulty to gameplay. Could you overcome a deficit in a limited amount of time?

I’m not certain which edition of the EA NHL games had this before – I’m guessing it was a feature from the XBox 360/PS3 era – but it was pretty nifty. It’s not as though EA is against the idea, either, as Madden recently featured a sped-up version of games where you’d sim games until there were key moments.

Either way, it was cool, and I’d love to see it again.

  • PC versions – It would be nice to see the NHL games on PCs.

Consider the mods that people could pump out. Granted, EA might not be as thrilled about people essentially warping the NHL games, yet it could allow a passionate community to add value to the titles.

As this PC Gamer article notes, such a possibility is at least being discussed. If so, it would break a decade-long absence for EA’s NHL titles.

***

In case the wave of words over the last two days didn’t make it clear, I’m generally pretty positive abou EA’s NHL series.

Are there issues, sometimes grating ones, with these games? Absolutely. Still, I can’t deny that I play these titles a lot, and get plenty of enjoyment out of them. Hockey has translated to video game forms in a pretty majestic way since the 8-bit era, and it remains that way today.

That doesn’t mean we can’t ask for more. Really, isn’t the half the point of the Internet?

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.