Will Predators prove that trading P.K. Subban is worth it?

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The Nashville Predators made a bold move in trading P.K. Subban to the New Jersey Devils during draft weekend. While the initial package is downright pitiful, the logic is that it opens up space for future moves, with all signs pointing toward serious flirtation with Matt Duchene.

Which brings us to the $9M questions: will the Predators actually be a better team in 2019-20, and in the long term?

With Matt Duchene reportedly slated to visit the Predators on this very Thursday (according to Pierre LeBrun), it only seems fitting to dive into the situation right now. There’s a lot to chew on here, so like Subban during the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, you might feel the need to grab some Listerine.

The theme seems to be the word “over,” and not just because it could take Predators fans a long time to get over their team trading P.K.

Overreacting to Subban’s struggles?

As much as I roll my eyes at people going a little over-the-top while discussing Subban’s decline (plenty of wiser people are with me in expecting Subban to deliver value to the Devils), there actually is some argument to trading Subban.

Injuries hindered Subban, and it’s possible that they might linger, especially since he’s 30. If you follow the Bill Belichick model of getting rid of players “a year early, not a year late,” then maybe the Predators simply bit the bullet.

That’s tougher to stomach when you consider how poor the return was for P.K., though. Honestly, even if the Predators wanted to eventually trade Subban, they almost certainly would have received more in a trade if they merely gave P.K. a chance to climb back up in public perception. Again, it’s not that hard to fathom a rebound season for Subban, so the only reason you’d panic-trade Subban now is because you absolutely must have a free agent like Matt Duchene.

Such a plan is dubious, but beyond that, was a putrid P.K. trade the only way to clear space? From bribing someone to take Kyle Turris and/or Nick Bonino, or possibly something more reasonable in parting ways with Craig Smith or Mikael Granlund, it’s tough to digest the idea that the only way forward was surgery at the scale of getting so little for Subban.

Putting a ton of trust in Dante Fabbro, an admittedly promising 21-year-old defenseman who nonetheless only played 10 NHL games so far, seems dubious. Maybe this is as much about soothing concerns about trading Subban by plucking at the dulcet strings of potential. Nonetheless, GM David Poile himself said that Fabbro’s play affected the Subban trade decision, as The Athletic’s Adam Vingan reported (sub required).

“The makeup of our defense is still very good,” Poile said. “I probably would not have made this trade if Dante Fabbro hadn’t signed with the Predators and hadn’t played at the end of the year and hadn’t played as well as he did. That gave me good confidence that … we could still have a good defense and trade somebody like P.K.”

The key, of course, isn’t for Fabbro to be better, or even close to, Subban. Instead, it’s about a net gain. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that the Predators are likely to get what they pay for.

Soon to overpay Duchene?

Look, if the Predators were opening up all of this money to bring in Artemi Panarin, then I’d be sold. He’s a true superstar, he’s younger than Subban, and he’d give Nashville a gamebreaker.

Instead, virtually every sign points to Duchene being the Predators’ target, and while I really like Duchene, I like Duchene a whole lot more at his expiring price ($6M) than the massive raise he is expected to receive. TSN’s Darren Dreger spoke about $9.5M, and that maybe being conservative. LeBrun also points to $9.5M, while his Athletic colleague Craig Custance places Duchene in the $8-$10M tier.

From viewpoints that are more traditionally minded, to those with a more analytics bent, just about no one values Duchene at that level. It’s one thing if Duchene received a slight raise as Evolving Wild’s projections would indicate, but at up to eight figures, a potential Duchene deal approaches an albatross level.

As much as Subban’s $9M is scary at age 30, it also runs out after 2021-22, really mitigating the risks. Duchene is 28 with a January birthday, and chances are, he’ll cost as much as Subban per season, and for more term.

Yes, there’s the chance that the tax breaks and country music might lure Duchene to sign a deal that’s friendlier than he would in, say, Montreal. The Predators have developed a knack for swinging bargain deals, after all.

Still, with the way Kevin Hayes and others have raised the earnings bar, and with this possibly being Duchene’s best stab at big bucks, can we really expect huge savings for Nashville or any other suitor?

With Ryan Johansen coming in at $8M, Turris getting $6M, and Nick Bonino at $4M, a massive Duchene deal could leave the Predators with an expensive center group, but not necessarily great bang for the buck.

Overrating Josi

The Predators didn’t just move Subban to afford Duchene or a free agent addition; they also likely want to pave the way to extend captain Roman Josi.

Even Josi’s critics will admit that, in the grand scheme of things, he’s a huge steal at $4 million per season. The Predators won’t enjoy that luxury after 2018-19, however, and the Predators open themselves up to signing Josi for a similar contract to that of Subban, only it could end up being even riskier.

The analytics community has been debating Josi’s value for years, right down to now-Devils analytics lead Tyler Dellow breaking the Josi vs. Subban argument down for The Athletic back in 2017. While Josi puts up big points and is tremendous in transition, his possession stats often leave a lot to be desired.

Dellow summarized some of the Josi debate with the line:

What if he’s actually just a guy who puts up empty calorie points and doesn’t actually drive success in a meaningful way?

Honestly, with Josi at $4M, the debate seemed like little more than interesting “Who’s better?” fodder. Now the real bill is looming, though, and the Predators could really put themselves in a bind if they make the wrong calls.

The thing is, even if Josi is better, the Predators probably need to think that he’s a lot better than Subban, and that he’ll stay that way, or the risks will really start to stack up.

Josi is really just a year and change younger than Subban, as Josi turned 29 on June 1. He’s been savagely underpaid at that $4M since 2013-14, so even a “hometown discount” would probably at least meet Subban’s $9M per year. And, again, the risk level would likely be much higher. While Josi’s next deal would start in 2020-21, Subban’s would be just about finished, as his $9M expires after 2021-22.

Risky business.

Stating the possible scenario over again

So, to review:

  • The Predators were reasonable in trading Subban, but they probably chose the worst time to do so, landing very little beyond cap space.
  • If the Predators sign Matt Duchene, they’re almost certain to lock him down to a riskier contract than the one P.K. has. And Duchene might not even be more valuable than Subban.
  • If the Predators moved Subban in part to retain Roman Josi, then a Josi extension is highly likely to be riskier than the P.K. contract. There’s also a healthy debate about which defenseman is actually more valuable, especially since Josi would be 30 when his next contract kicks in.
  • Maybe Nashville goes the prudent route and doesn’t sign Duchene and/or Josi. But, if so, why trade Subban for dimes on the dollar? The lose-lose situations start to pile up a bit.

Yikes, right? This all sounds really bad to me. I don’t know about you.

An overview of a best-case scenario

To be fair, maybe this could work out.

  • Duchene takes the sort of discount that William Karlsson gave Vegas, and Duchene’s speed and shot make a big difference for the Predators.
  • Josi also takes a hometown discount. That’s not outrageous, although a hometown discount could still be enormously expensive. Yet, maybe Josi justifies the cost, at least in the early years of such a contract?

Even in that rather sunny scenario, the Predators might not make the strides they’re currently tripping over their feet to make. As much as this is all about Subban, Duchene, and Josi, it’s important to get other things right.

Overlooking the real problems?

Are the Predators treating symptoms rather than causes? It’s not like Duchene would be the first major addition Nashville’s made to try to fix their offensive struggles.

Obviously, Kyle Turris was a big part of the Matt Duchene trade involving Colorado and Ottawa, only to see his stock plummet. The Predators have also brought in Mikael Granlund, Nick Bonino, Wayne Simmonds, and others to try to boost their offense, and the results have largely been disappointing.

With that in mind, is it possible that this team is simply not being optimized by Peter Laviolette? Duchene is the type of scorer who may animate the corpse that is Nashville’s power play, but to what extent? Much of those issues could be systemic, and it’s unclear if Laviolette & Co. know how to solve those problems.

If the Predators sign Duchene, only to enjoy minimal results, it really must be asked: at what point are you just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? Is it possible that the Predators should have given Turris, Granlund, and others more time to find their games before taking the drastic measure to trade away Subban?

For all this talk of overreacting, overpaying, and overrating, maybe they haven’t truly understood why the Predators’ offense is underachieving?

***

Look, I firmly believe that Subban, Duchene, and Josi are all very good players. There are scenarios where these moves work out extremely well for the Predators, even long term.

Considering the likelihood that Duchene and Josi will both sign expensive, risky contracts — ones that end up being bigger dice rolls than the Subban deal Nashville had to get rid of — I can’t help but shake the feeling that the Predators might be doing all of this work, only to end up in a similar spot for 2019-20, and potentially a far worse situation down the line.

Predators GM David Poile’s enjoyed some maestro moments, and maybe he’s saving his best for these challenging times.

Even so, there’s a strong chance that history will repeat itself, and the Predators will find themselves in a situation much like the Canadiens after trading P.K. Subban: feeling embarrassed, regretful, and overwhelmed with a bunch of extra invitations to golf.

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.