Craig Smith

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Moves make clear Preds’ early playoff exits not good enough

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — P.K. Subban now is with the New Jersey Devils, and Matt Duchene finally is a member of the Nashville Predators.

That sends as clear a message as possible that last season was not nearly good enough.

”It’s a message from the front office that just willing to do anything that’s going to make our team better,” goaltender Pekka Rinne said Thursday. ”I always personally feel like it’s on players when things don’t go as planned or as you wanted them to go. I think it’s the nature of this game. There’s always going to be changes, and you just got to get used to it.”

The Predators held off both Winnipeg and St. Louis to win a second straight Central Division title only to be ousted by Dallas in the first round. St. Louis went on to win its first Stanley Cup.

General manager David Poile wasted no time boosting offense, first trading away his highest-paid player in Subban to New Jersey. That created the space needed to sign Duchene to a seven-year, $56 million contract at the start of free agency.

The Predators remain confident this revamped roster can win Nashville’s first Stanley Cup and reverse the trend of exiting the playoffs earlier each season since winning the 2017 Western Conference title.

Some things to watch during the Predators’ training camp that starts Friday with on-ice testing:

POWER PLAY

The Predators had the NHL’s worst unit with the man advantage last season, and coach Peter Laviolette hired Dan Lambert (pronounced lam-BAIR) as an assistant coach this summer to help fix that issue. Lambert has had lots of experience working on the power play and spent the last two seasons as head coach of the Western Hockey League’s Spokane Chiefs. Spokane led the WHL scoring on 29.1 percent of its power play chances and converted at a 36.1 percent rate in the postseason.

Nashville has plenty of room for improvement, especially after going 0-for-16 on the power play against Dallas in the playoffs.

JOSI’S CONTRACT

Captain Roman Josi is ready to work and leave the business of his next contract to his agent. Josi is heading into the final year of the contract he signed in June 2013 that pays him $4 million this season. Poile made clear at the end of last season that signing Josi to an extension was a top priority once they could start talking July 1. That likely will have to wait with the Predators having $600,000 in salary cap space. That is projected to jump to $21.4 million next season.

DUCHENE’S LINE

Laviolette will have to figure out who Duchene will be playing with and whether to split up Nashville’s top line of center Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson. Laviolette’s options include pairing Duchene with Mikael Granlund, Kyle Turris and Craig Smith.

YOUNG PREDATORS

Eeli Tolvanen attracted so much attention when he joined the Predators after playing for Finland in the 2018 Winter Olympics. He lasted four games with Nashville last season before being sent to Milwaukee in the AHL where he had 35 points in 58 games. Tolvanen will be in camp trying to stick around longer this time around.

Defenseman Dante Fabbro joined the Predators last season in time to play four games before appearing in all six playoff games. Now the Predators have to figure out if the 6-foot, 189-pound defenseman should keep playing with veteran Dan Hamhuis or if he should partner with Josi or Mattias Ekholm.

TOP GOALIE

Rinne went 30-19-4 with four shutouts as the undisputed starter, while Juuse Saros won 17 games with three shutouts as his backup. Rinne turns 37 on Nov. 3, and the 2018 Vezina Trophy winner said he knows he’ll have to fight for every game with Saros ready to be a No. 1 goalie in the NHL.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Meaning of NHL regular season; Kadri regrets cross-check

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Here’s the NBC Sports Stanley Cup playoff update for April 25

• Format not to blame for wild Round 1 upsets. (Sportsnet)

• The cascade of issues that not having a Canadian team in the playoffs creates. (Angus Reid Institute)

• Perhaps your favorite team is out and you’re looking to cheat on them with a new team. Here’s a bandwagon guide. (CBC)

• The regular season means nothing. (FiveThirtyEight)

• Torn ACL likely to mean Zach Hyman will miss the beginning of next season. (NHL.com)

• Mike Modano getting himself into eSports. (TSN)

• A timeline of the recently-ended Calgary Flames season. (Calgary Sun)

• The tragic consequences of the NHL’s science denial. (The Atlantic)

• The seve…. eight deadly sins of Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. (Deadspin)

• The Washington Capitals’ Russian contingent heading to the World’s after their shocking playoff exit. (TSN)

Craig Smith is none too pleased with the Nashville Predators season ending in Round 1. (Tennessean)

• Game 7 controversy could have a ripple effect in the college game. (Jamestown Sun)

• Dubas not playing games after Maple Leafs tossed. (The Score)

Nazem Kadri regrets his silly cross-check. (TSN)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Where it went wrong for Predators, and how they could fix it

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There has been a changing of the guard in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins? Out without winning a single game between them.

The Winnipeg Jets, a Western Conference Finalist a year ago and a popular Stanley Cup pick this season? They are finished.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Now the Nashville Predators, one of the top teams in the Western Conference for a couple of years now, have joined them. Just like the Jets, it probably should not be a huge surprise to see them go out as early as they did because something just seemed to be off with this team for much of the season, and especially in the second half.

It’s not hard to find the biggest culprit in their demise this season, either, and it begins with an inconsistent offense that was dragged down by the league’s worst power play unit. It was a unit that hit rock bottom in their Round 1 loss against the Dallas Stars.

To say it was bad would be an understatement.

It wasn’t just bad, it was historically bad. The type of performance that would make even an objective third party with no rooting interest scream at the TV at its overall incompetence.

After finishing the regular season converting on just 12.9 of their power play opportunities, one of the worst marks the NHL has seen over the past 15 years, the Predators went 0-for-the-series against Dallas, failing to score on even one of their 15 power play attempts. This is not something that just happens. The NHL has tracked power play success rates as far back as the 1933-34 season, and the Predators were just the 11th team during that time to get at least 15 power play opportunities in the playoffs and fail to score a single goal. You probably will not be shocked to learn that none of those 11 teams advanced beyond Round 1. You don’t need a great power play to win the Stanley Cup, but you need to get something out of it on occasion.

The Predators got nothing, continuing what turned out to be a season-long trend.

Dallas’ PK deserves a lot of credit here, and especially starting goalie Ben Bishop, but Nashville’s struggles on the power play weren’t a new thing in this series, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest it wasn’t just a run of bad luck — it was simply a bad unit that needs drastically improved.

Not only did they have the NHL’s lowest success rate, but they were only 19th in the league at generating shot attempts on the power play and even worse (24th) at actually getting those attempts on net. If you can’t generate shots, and if you can’t get them on net when you do, you’re not going to score many goals.

Now comes the question on how to address it.

Injuries were a big problem for the Predators throughout the season, with Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, P.K, Subban, and Kyle Turris all missing significant action, and when Turris was on the ice, his production took a cliff dive. It is worth wondering if they are in need of another big-time forward. Forsberg and Arvidsson are outstanding, but they might still need another impact player up front. Maybe a full season from Mikael Granlund will help (he was mostly silent after coming over from the Minnesota Wild in a pre-deadline trade), but even he is not really a player that is going to put the fear of God in an opposing defense. He is very similar to what the Predators’ forward group is already made of — really good and really productive players, but not really a game-changing, impact talent.

If there is one thing to be said about general manager David Poile it is that he is not afraid to swing for the fences in trades. He has made several blockbusters over the past few years and it has played a significant role in building the roster the Predators have today. Would he be willing to make another one, and would he consider dipping into his pool of star defenders and flipping one for another impact talent up front to help strengthen an offense that went stale this year and a power play unit that collapsed on itself from the very beginning of the year?

He already did it once when he traded Seth Jones to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Ryan Johansen, and it might be worth at least considering again. It is a delicate balance to strike because the Predators’ defense, especially their top-four of P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm is a huge part of what has made the team so good. But it is also a very clear strength and could be used to maybe help address what is now looking like a pretty significant weakness.

The other option is to keep your All-Star defense, shed salary elsewhere on the roster (Turris, if you think he is done as a top-six performer; maybe a Craig Smith or Nick Bonino?) and try to position yourself for a run at an Artemi Panarin or Jeff Skinner in free agency.

Whatever path they choose, it would be awfully difficult to come back next season with the same collection of forwards after they struggled so much this season and helped assemble such a dreadful power play unit. They simply need another finisher somewhere on the roster that can bring a level of consistency to the offense and improve a power play that failed the team all season.

Related: Stars eliminate Predators in overtime thriller

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

‘Grind’ games likely to continue as Predators-Stars series shifts to Dallas

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The Dallas Stars put up a strong defensive showing during the regular season, which saw the team finish just behind the New York Islanders in goals allowed. While Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin did a good job keeping pucks out of the net, the team as a whole still let plenty of shots through (31.6 shots allowed per game).

That’s continued into their Round 1 matchup against the Nashville Predators. As the series is split 1-1 with Game 3 Monday night in Dallas (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream), Bishop’s been stingy in net, allowing four goals through two games, but the Stars as a whole have allowed 74 shots so far and 101 even strength shot attempts.

Five of those shots for came in overtime during Game 2, with the winner coming off Craig Smith’s stick after five minutes.

“They’re difficult to generate against,” said Predators head coach Peter Laviolette. “Good team defense, they have good goaltending, and our team is built a lot of the same way, and so that probably leads itself to some low-scoring games. We’re able to get one in overtime, and it was a big goal to tie and crack one in overtime. The difference between 2-0 and 1-1 is a big difference especially going on the road.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

While Nashville has done a fine job creating chances on Bishop, they’ve also done good through two games at limiting the Stars’ opportunities on Pekka Rinne. Via Natural Stat Trick, Dallas has 70 attempts at 5-on-5 through two games and their power play was fruitless in Game 2, failing to capitalize on all six of their opportunities.

“When you go 0-for-6, a couple good chances, but you got to come through,” said Stars head coach Jim Montgomery. “Need to think shot-first. I thought we were all looking for the next play instead of looking to score. That’s power play, but also 5-on-5. I thought we passed up too many shots.”

Both games have been decided by a single goal, a trend that wouldn’t be surprising if it continued for the rest of the series.

“We kind of expected it with these two defensive teams,” said Stars forward Tyler Seguin after Game 2. “It was a grind game, it was a hard, compete game. We’ve done a pretty good job at keeping them to the perimeter. We’re expecting, maybe, a little different game now that we’re going home. We’re going to have the juices going for sure.”

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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.