The Nashville Predators said goodbye to two prominent players this offseason when they traded defenseman Ryan Ellis to the Philadelphia Flyers in a three-team deal, and also sent forward Viktor Arvidsson to the Los Angeles Kings.
Their return in all of those trades is Cody Glass, Philippe Myers, some draft picks, and a lot of salary cap space that, to this point, has gone unused other than to re-sign a couple of returning players (starting goalie Juuse Saros and forward Mikael Granlund).
So what does this mean for what the Predators front office thinks of this current group and its current long-and short-term potential?
Earlier this offseason the words “competitive rebuild” were mentioned by general manager David Poile, and that is something that should usually give fans a healthy dose of fear. Competitive rebuilds do not tend to work out as you envision them to work. The idea, in theory, makes sense. You restock the cupboard for the future, you accumulate long-term assets you can build around, but you do not totally sacrifice the present and at least try to make the playoffs.
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The reality is that “competitive rebuilds” tend to result in an even longer rebuild and even more down years because you are never actually good enough to make the playoffs and never bad enough to finish with the best lottery odds to get that franchise-changing superstar at the top of the draft. At some point a team has to pick a direction: Are you competing or are you rebuilding?
The fact the Predators did opt to get younger and trade two significant players — and Ellis is the shocking trade here — is a pretty good sign that the Predators have an idea of what their team is. This group hit its peak in 2017 and 2018 with a Stanley Cup Final appearance that was followed by the franchise’s first Presidents’ Trophy. But it has been a steady, gradual decline in the couple of years since then. Things looked so bleak at the halfway point of the 2020-21 season that it looked like a team that was on the verge of a complete teardown and full rebuild.
It was not until Saros turned himself into an unbeatable brick wall and carried the team to a playoff spot that things started to turn around for the Predators. While he is certainly capable of playing at that level consistently, it is never good when a team’s plan has to revolve around a goalie stealing games all the time. Both special teams units have been lousy for a couple of years now, they lack goal scorers, and their most expensive players have not played to their contracts. The nature of their offseason approach seems to indicate the Predators are at least aware of that.
So what do the Predators need for this “competitive rebuild” to work?
For starters, Saros needs to play like a top-tier goalie. Especially with Ellis no longer being a significant part of their defense. Without that, there really is not much of a chance for the “competitive” part of the equation.
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A healthy Filip Forsberg (only 39 games this past season) is also a necessity because he is the one big money forward on the team that has not been a major disappointment the past couple of years. You could also add bounce back years from Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene to this equation, but I am not sure anybody has much confidence in either development at this point. At least not for both of them.
The real X-factor though will be the development of Eeli Tolvanen and Glass. The Predators do not have an especially deep farm system, but these are the two young players that at least have the potential to be difference makers. Nashville has been waiting for Tolvanen for what seems like an eternity at this point (it has only been a few years) and he showed some flashes of that potential during his first full season. He scored at a 20-goal pace over 82 games and was a factor on the power play.
Glass, meanwhile, was one of the key parts of the return to the Ellis trade and has shown flashes of being a good NHL player. They are both 22 years old and are probably at a point in their careers where they need to take a significant step forward if they are going to be impact players.
Finally, what are they going to do with all of that unused salary cap space? Not every team is going to spend to the cap — and not every team can right now — but being $12 million below the cap is a lot of available money. Tolvanen still needs re-signed this offseason, while Forsberg and Ekholm are both unrestricted free agents after this season. Even with that, there is still a window there to add somebody if your goal is to remain competitive.
The problem with this is the more “ifs” you have for a team to be successful the more likely it is that some of those are not going to go the way you want. Not everything goes perfectly. So it seems likely that the Predators are destined for another season where they remain on the fringes of the NHL’s playoff race, especially given the subtractions from the 2020-21 roster that already had its share of flaws. That seems to be the outlook for at least the foreseeable future until they really have to decide if they are rebuilding or are going to be competitive.