Roundtable: Fixing the Predators; most exciting NHL players

Fix the Predators. Go!

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: To start, you have to move on from David Poile. He’s the only general manager the franchise has ever known, but a fresh set of eyes is needed. Poile long did wonders with the Predators on a limited budget. But as they’ve loosened the purse strings, the money spent has ended up hampering progress.

Ryan Johansen, Kyle Turris, Matt Duchene are the three current cap hits that are restricting the Predators from building smartly for the future. Turris’ six-year, $36M deal signed in 2017 was bought out in October and $2M will remain on their cap through 2023-24. Johansen (2024-25) and Duchene (2025-26) likely won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

It’s so bad that one of your better defensemen, Mattias Ekholm, is reportedly on the trade block because he has one year left on an attractive contract.

So if you’re Poile, or a new GM, what do you do? You hope the likes of Eeli Tolvanen, Dante Fabbro, Philip Tomasino, and Luke Evangelista, among others, develop into core piece over the next few seasons. The prospect pool needs to be restocked, which might be helped with an Ekholm, or even a Filip Forsberg deal. The future could be brighter, but for now it’s going to be painful.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: If there’s one overarching rule, it should be “nothing is sacred.”

During a recent intermission bit, Elliotte Friedman noted that the Predators were willing to trade all but three players: Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Pekka Rinne. I totally get that Rinne’s meant a ton to that organization, but if he’s really off limits, that, to me, speaks of an organization that’s simply not spry enough. The thing is, I feel like you could sell Rinne on a Ray Bourque-type trade: get him to a contender, give your fans a surrogate team to root for, and get a future asset for your trouble.

That sort of thing should be elementary, but the “nothing is sacred” motto applies to what’s probably most important. David Poile’s accomplished a lot during his staggeringly long run in two GM jobs, but this Predators team needs a renovation, and he’s not the person to do it.

Really, anyone too married to old decisions has to go. If there’s any hesitation to get out of difficult contracts like that of Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen, and so on, then that’s unacceptable.

The overarching plan should be to yank that Band-Aid off hard and fast, rather than going the “managed decay” route. If you don’t want to blow it all up, then you at least need to get fresh faces.

Take a look at all of the coaches on “the free agent market,” especially with Claude Julien added to the mix, and tell me you wouldn’t prefer most or all of the prominent ones to John Hynes. Why not go after a Julien, a Gerard Gallant, a Bruce Boudreau, and so on?

Whether it’s a rebuild, a less dramatic retool (maybe just take it on the chin during this low-attendance season, then swing one more time?), or a desperate gasp at being competitive in 2020-21, the Predators need to do something. They’re beyond stale. Honestly, it’s hard not to feel bummed out by their total lack of positive energy. Bad vibes, y’all.

[Your 2020-21 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: For the better part of a year now I have been telling myself “The Predators are better than this. There are signs this can turn around.” Last year it was the fact they were such a good 5-on-5 team and getting crushed by bad special teams and goaltending. This year it is the fact they possession and shot numbers are so good and they are getting crushed by bad shooting percentages and … bad special teams. But after a year-and-a-half of that, maybe it’s not just bad luck anymore.

Maybe this is just what they are. A team that has gotten a little older, does not have a ton of players on the upswing, and has reached its ceiling. I am not saying they can not possibly compete for a playoff spot this season or next season. But I am also not sure there is a quick fix here, which leads me to believe a full scale rebuild could be on the horizon in the next year or two.

The last thing a team wants is to be stuck in the middle ground between rebuilding and contending, because that is a brutal place to be and it can be awfully difficult to get out that cycle. The longer you put off the rebuild, the longer the rebuild is going to take. So I think you ride out the rest of this shortened season, see where you end up, and then make your decision on which way to go after that.

I suspect the answer will be rebuild.

[Fresh off No. 400, Blackhawks star Patrick Kane wants more]

Marisa Ingemi, NHL writer: This feels like a classic rebuild situation for a team that isn’t aware it’s time to rebuild. They have some solid pieces they could move and this is a good year to do it, since nothing is real and everything is a mess anyhow.

Try to move the Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen and Pekka Rinne contracts for one. Everyone is going to think they have a chance by the time the trade deadline rolls around and the Preds can probably sell high on any one of them to a team desperate to make an addition.

If they want to make a coaching change Gerard Gallant is probably the best option on the market but also, wouldn’t it be a fun time to go the creative route and hire someone totally new who isn’t one of the same like 35 guys recycled in NHL coaching job conversations? A concept.

They seem like they need some change, I think this is a perfect time to rebuild with the expansion draft on the horizon and surely another weird offseason anyways.

[Hockey Culture: Grant Fuhr on how he became part of Oilers dynasty]

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: The recent report from Elliotte Friedman that there “maybe only three untouchables” on the Predators roster, and that Filip Forsberg was not one of them, should give you a good sense for where things stand with Nashville. At the right price, virtually anything could be on the table for players not named Josi, Ellis, or Rinne.

If “fix the Predators” means make a proposal to get them back into annual contention for the Stanley Cup, I think any possible trades for their $8M forwards Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene should be explored as a first step. Both players are seriously underperforming relative to their salaries. Duchene has 50 points (16 goals) in 87 games as a Predator since signing his big ticket. Johansen doesn’t have a goal this season and has not turned into the caliber of number one center you’d expect when the price is Seth Jones.

It’s hard to imagine there wouldn’t be a market for a pair of top six players, but given the remaining term on their contracts (Johansen four more years, Duchene five), it’s also hard to imagine the potential return for Johansen, Duchene, or both, being the entire solution for Nashville.

That brings us to Forsberg and Mattias Ekholm. These are the two most “tradeable” players on the roster given their combination of proven talent and contract status (both are UFA after next season). Each of those players would net Nashville a serious haul. If the Preds don’t want to break the bank to extend them (which may not even be possible depending on whether Johansen and Duchene stay put), the optimal strategy may be to trade them too.

All of this is to say, Nashville is in a precarious position. Years of decisions while in “win-now” mode have put the Preds in limbo at this juncture. It’s possible that in one or two years this roster could look much different as the team navigates some critical decisions for its top players.

[NHL Power Rankings: Kaprizov, Zuccarello helping Wild make big climb]

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: After winning four of their last five games, I don’t know if the Predators need fixing. The easiest thing to do is always fire the coach and see if that works but it looks like the Predators are coming around. I thought the Predators biggest problems would be in goal with Pekka Rinne an aging veteran and coming off a poor 2019-20 season where he was 18-14-4 with a 3.17 goals-against-average and a 895 save percentage, but he has turned around his peripherals and has a 2.52 goals-against-average with a .911 save percentage.

I was never a fan of Juuse Saros and thought Nashville made a good play in drafting Yaroslav Askarov with the 11th pick of the 2020 Draft.

On the blueline they are strong led by Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm but they are a bit short up front with Filip Forsberg being their only quality forward. Nashville has received some nice production of late from Eeli Tolvanen and if he is able to produce like he was expected to a couple of years ago when he came into the NHL with plenty of fanfare, then that will help the Preds future. They need better production from Mikael Granlund, Matt Duchene, Viktor Arvidsson and Dante Fabbro to contend but all in all, I would just see what happens in the interim and hope that their success continues on their recent hot streak.

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Who has been your must-watch player through the first two months of the season?

James O’Brien, NHL writer: I’d love to get all artisanal and praise the tannins of the Carolina Hurricanes. And there’s no denying that you can lean in hipster directions. In hockey terms, that’s walking in with Kirill Kaprizov under your arm, rather than an obscure record on vinyl.

But, come on, it’s Connor McDavid. You know that time someone scored a cheesy, seemingly impossible goal against you in a video game, and you shrieked at your friend about how that goal would never happen? Your friend should just spam your inbox with McDavid highlights, adorned with the occasional “See??!!?!”

Since McDavid is smothered in the obvious — allow me to next praise the deliciousness of pizza — let me throw in some bonus insight.™

The All-Canadian North Division is the must-watch division. It gets at part of why Connor McDavid is so must-watch. Not only is he a speedy superhuman hockey player (have we definitively proven he’s not an alien?), but McDavid often needs to assert his dominance to bail out a flawed Oilers roster. And, delightfully, he’s often facing defenses totally unequipped (extra-unequipped?) to stop a scoring supernova at his level.

Beyond McDavid and his pal Leon Draisaitl, we get to enjoy Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner picking defenses apart like cats with defenseless prey. There are messy soap operas from the Flames, Canucks, Canadiens, and Senators to sort through. And it’s not as though there are many dull moments with the Jets, either.

Somehow, that division’s been more captivating than we even expected, and you could say the same for McDavid, the greatest player in the world.

[Contender or Pretender: Goaltending, injuries will determine Blues season]

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: We know what Connor McDavid can do on a nightly basis. We have years of evidence to tell us he’s the most exciting player in the league. But… I’m all for new content, so give me Kirill Kaprizov, and then give me some more.

It’s been some time since I wanted to stall on a Wild game as I flip through the NHL Center Ice channels, but here we are. “Dollar Dollar Bill Kirill” is the bolt of electricity that that organization has needed. The Calder Trophy favorite is a big reason why they’re a threat in the West Division.

Kaprizov is so good you could be entertained by watching him just skate:

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Obviously Connor McDavid chasing 100 points in a shortened season and Kirill Kaprizov single-handedly turning the Minnesota Wild into a must-watch team are at the top of my list. But Mathew Barzal has also been standing out to me. When he is at his best he is a top-five player to watch with the puck in my eyes because of his speed and the way he can stickhandle his way out of a phone booth. He has had that going on a lot this year. It has also been fun to see Marc-Andre Fleury playing at a super high level again. But if you are going to make me pick one and only one, I think I have to go with Kaprizov just because new talent and skill in the league is always exciting and because he has just been that good.

Marisa Ingemi, NHL writer: Maybe it’s basic but Cale Makar. Maybe it’s also because I watch too much college hockey and when Makar was at UMass he was my favorite player to watch then, too.

I appreciate a player who can do what everyone wants to do and do it so much better than anyone can even dream to be, and that’s what Makar does as a dynamic, two-way defensemen. Today’s game has a ton of “puck movers” and defensemen who can skate well or who can serve as like a fourth forward on the ice, but Makar makes offense happen and is legit still one of the best defenders in the game.

It’s early for award conversations and yeah Charlie McAvoy and Jeff Petry are looking great too but Makar is a shoo-in for the Norris now, for me, barring anything weird in an all-too weird year.

He ranks behind just John Carlson and Victor Hedman in points per game for a defenseman. Just a super fun player to watch night in and night out.

[Examining Mika Zibanejad’s stunning slump for the Rangers]

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: That’s easy. Kirill Kaprizov. The Minnesota Wild rookie is a supremely talented player that produces a “wow” moment pretty much every time he’s on the ice, even when he doesn’t score a goal or set one up. Kaprizov is an elite skater with incredible hockey sense, and he’s helped turn the Wild into appointment viewing each and every night. Give him the Calder Trophy already!

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: My must-watch player is the same as it has been since the start of the 2015-16 season. Connor McDavid. He is a pleasure to watch and seeing him combine his speed and talent to make so many players look like minor leaguers is what makes watching the Oilers so good every night they are on the schedule.

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    Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

    Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

    There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

    While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

    Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

    Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

    “It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

    Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

    The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

    “I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

    It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

    “This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

    Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

    Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

    “The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

    Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

    “We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

    LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

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    LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

    Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

    Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

    L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

    For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

    The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

    “I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

    The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

    Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    “He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

    Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

    “I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

    Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

    Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

    “First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

    Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

    The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

    “The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

    Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

    “It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

    Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

    Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

    “It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

    Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

    Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

    “Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

    The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

    “I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

    Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

    Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

    “On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

    The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

    “It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

    It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

    “(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

    Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

    “It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

    NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

    UP NEXT

    Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

    Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.