Juuse Saros

Predators target Cup with Matt Duchene, improved power play

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Nashville Predators have had plenty of time to look in the mirror. They still like what they see, but they did tweak the roster that had been good enough to win back-to-back Central Division titles.

Now they want more. Much more after Nashville’s earliest playoff exit since 2015.

Center Ryan Johansen believes the Predators need to realize they have something special. He sees a group very capable of playing for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.

”Our expectations as a group are extremely high,” Johansen said. ”We all know that and we all believe we are a team that can compete for a Stanley Cup.”

In case anyone thought a first-round loss to Dallas in six games was OK, general manager David Poile made clear it wasn’t in June when he traded away defenseman P.K. Subban. That move cleared up enough salary cap space for Nashville to finally sign center Matt Duchene.

Captain Roman Josi says Nashville has so much talent on its top lines that nobody will be happy with another first-round exit.

”The expectations are high in the whole organization, and I think rightfully so,” Josi said.

WHO’S HERE

Duchene finally is in Nashville and not just checking on the property he owns in Music City. He signed a seven-year, $56 million deal with the Predators in free agency. ”He’s such a great player, and especially for me as a defenseman playing against him, he’s really hard to play against,” Josi said of Duchene. ”He scores goals. It’s going to be fun. He’s really skilled.”

New assistant coach Dan Lambert (lam-BAIR) was hired to help fix the NHL’s worst power-play unit of last season. Forward Mikael Granlund now has had a whole offseason and training camp to settle in with a team that traded for him last February.

WHO’S GONE

Subban was traded to New Jersey, shedding a salary of $9 million a season. Forwards Wayne Simmonds and Brian Boyle, pickups before the trade deadline, also are gone. Simmonds joined Subban, signing with the Devils. Boyle remains unsigned.

KEY PLAYERS

Goalie Pekka Rinne, who turns 37 in November, has to hold off Juuse Saros in net and keep the Predators in the mix in the Central Division. Coach Peter Laviolette has enough talent for two top lines, which will allow him to mix and match around Duchene and Johansen. Nashville has experimented with center Kyle Turris at wing, and both need Turris to bounce back after scoring only 23 points last season.

Dante Fabbro, 21, played all of 10 games last season including all six in the playoffs. Now he must help fill the hole left when Poile traded away a former Norris Trophy winner in Subban to keep Nashville’s top four defensemen among the NHL’s best.

OUTLOOK

How the Predators fare with the man advantage will be watched closely from the first power play, and they must avoid a sluggish start on the power play to fend off a sense of deja vu. They piled up 100 points last season despite a power play that had fans begging Nashville to decline penalties. The plan to park Duchene in front of the net and use four forwards could provide the lacking scoring punch. Josi’s contract status will be monitored closely with both sides insisting they want a new deal. Rinne has been the backbone of this franchise for so long, but he knows his play and not his past will earn him the net.

PREDICTION

The Predators didn’t have enough scoring power past their top line last season to do more than win a second straight Central Division title. They finished 47-29-6 to hold off Winnipeg and St. Louis in the division, then went 0-for-16 on the power play in that playoff loss. Poile traded away a top defenseman for the second time in three years trying to push the franchise further. This time, he signed Duchene looking for more goals, and that could put the Predators back in the Western finals for the first time since 2017.

Previewing the 2019-20 Nashville Predators

(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or worse: Dumping P.K. Subban‘s contract for little return to clear salary cap space for Matt Duchene is an interesting move because it deals from a position of strength (defense) to fill a position of need (forward). The Predators had one of the worst power play units the NHL has seen in quite some time and desperately needed another playmaker up front. Duchene’s contract carries some long-term risk, but it satisfies a short-term need and they still have a really good defense even without Subban. Duchene’s addition, combined with a full season from Mikael Granlund (who should be better than he was after joining the team from Minnesota at the trade deadline) makes this forward group significantly deeper. That probably makes the team a little better overall.

Strengths: It is still on the back end. Even without Subban the Predators still have an outstanding defense with Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm as the established veterans, while also having 2016 first-round pick Dante Fabbro starting to emerge. Behind them, the team has No. 1 caliber goalies in Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros. Rinne is 36 and is going to start passing the torch to Saros, but he hasn’t really slowed down much and is still capable of playing at a high level.

Weaknesses: Until proven otherwise it is the power play unit because there was nothing productive about this unit a year ago. They finished the regular season 31st in success rate, were one of the worst power play units in the league at getting shots on goal, and then followed up that performance by getting completely shut out in their Round 1 loss to the Dallas Stars. You don’t need a great power play unit to win, but you still need to get something from it. The Predators received nothing from theirs all year.

[MORE: X-factor | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Peter Laviolette is an outstanding coach with a great track record of success in the NHL. He wins a lot, he has taken three different teams to the Stanley Cup Final, and his name is on it once. You can do a heck of a lot worse than him behind the bench, and if you are going to fire someone with that resume you better be darn sure you are getting a clear upgrade. But coaches like him get fired all the time, especially if ownership thinks the team has become stale. The Predators may not be at that point just yet, but the 2018-19 season was a bit of a regression and a small (emphasis on small) step in the wrong direction. Because of that we will put Laviolette’s hot seat rating at a 5, with a chance to move in either direction.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Juuse Saros, Mikael Granlund, and Viktor Arvidsson are three players worth watching.

Saros just because he is going to start seeing more playing time in net. He is probably already good enough to be a clear No. 1 on a significant number of teams around the league and gives the Predators a great 1A and 1B situation with Rinne. He has a .920 save percentage so far in the NHL and is the team’s long-term solution in goal.

Granlund was a huge addition at the trade deadline from the Minnesota Wild but really struggled after the trade, managing just two goals and five assists in 22 games (regular season and playoffs combined). He is better than that and has shown the ability to be a 70-point player in the league. If the Predators can get that version of him it could be a game-changer for their offense.

Speaking of game-changers on their offense, Arvidsson has been one of the most underrated goal-scorers in the league since he became a regular in the Predators’ lineup. The 2018-19 season was his best performance to date, scoring 34 goals in only 58 games. That is close to a 50-goal pace over 82 games. Can he repeat that performance this season?

Playoffs or lottery: Definitely the playoffs, it is just a matter of what kind of playoff team they are going to be. On paper, this still looks like a Stanley Cup contender and potentially one of the best teams in the NHL. They had the same look a year ago only to take a small step back during the regular season and then quietly exit in Round 1 of the playoffs.

More
Predators being bold with term, but are they being smart?
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Moves make clear Preds’ early playoff exits not good enough

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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.

Golden questions for Nashville Predators

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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators. 

Let’s examine three key questions for the Predators next season …

1. Is this really a better winning formula?

The Predators could have a deeper offense by adding Matt Duchene, while still having one of the best defense corps in the NHL if Dante Fabbro can make up for enough of what Nashville lost in P.K. Subban. By subtracting from a strength in hopes of bolstering a weakness, maybe the Predators will find a perfect balance.

There’s an uncomfortable possibility that David Poile might have outsmarted himself here, though.

For one thing, what if the Predators sold low on Subban, whose struggles were a bit exaggerated in 2018-19, and was a Norris finalist as recently as 2017-18? It’s difficult to ignore that Subban’s still someone who wins the shot share battle, while Duchene’s possession numbers have regularly been negative/average.

It’s possible that Fabbro might stumble considerably, considering he’s only played in four regular season and six playoff games at the NHL level. It’s also possible that the Predators have overrated both Duchene as a difference-maker and Roman Josi as a defenseman.

One must also wonder if this team’s just made too many changes over the years. They’ve traded for Subban and traded him away, brought in Kyle Turris in a big trade, were fairly bold in trading Kevin Fiala for Mikael Granlund, and so on. If you’re a stickler for “chemistry,” aren’t you a touch worried?

Duchene hasn’t been on a ton of winning teams during his career, but this is the best roster he’s ever joined … so we’ll see if this works out. At least you can’t accuse the Predators of being too timid.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

2. What kind of goaltending will they get?

Pekka Rinne‘s had his critics over the years, yet he’s shut most of them up. But speaking of years … Rinne turns 37 on Nov. 3, so there’s a real threat for a decline.

If that drop-off comes in a dramatic way, will promising young goalie Juuse Saros be able to hold down the fort? The 24-year-old was fine in 2018-19 (.915 save percentage), but did stumble a bit at times. Where Rinne is a towering presence, Saros bucks the trend by being a smaller goalie. Might that get exposed with more reps?

If you forced me to choose a duo to roll with in 2019-20, this one would be one of the top options, but as we’ve seen with goalies, that doesn’t mean strong play is a guarantee. With Subban gone and Duchene not exactly a perennial Selke pick, the Predators goalie job could be tougher than ever, and there have been certain stretches where the Predators’ defense already depended upon their goalies more than some might think. (Example: they were middle-of-the-pack in high-danger chances allowed in 2018-19.)

3. Did they fix their power play?

Duchene changes the Predators’ personnel options, and they changed to a new power play coach in Dan Lambert.

Ideally, those tweaks will modernize a Predators’ man advantage that relied far too much on point shots from defensemen, and sputtered to the tune of a league-worst 12.9 percent success rate.

With Subban gone, that’s one less force pressuring the Predators to play that way, and maybe lean more toward a three-forward, two-defensemen setup, compared to the wider league trend toward four forward, one defenseman setups.

Will those changes be enough to improve that woeful unit? Maybe positive regression would have taken care of some of that bad production, anyway?

The Predators might flat-out need a better power play if their new-look team isn’t as impressive at even-strength, so we’ll see.

***

There are a lot of questions swirling around Nashville, but the most fascinating one is: are they actually better than they were last season? The Predators certainly are gambling a lot on that being the case.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Will Laviolette bring out best of 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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators. 

In the grand scheme of things, I’d rate Peter Laviolette as a very good coach, if not a great one.

Even so, there have been times when the Predators haven’t felt optimized, and that inspires some questions about whether swapping out P.K. Subban for Matt Duchene will take this team to the next level. Here are a few areas where Laviolette’s coaching style and decisions become a big x-factor.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | Under Pressure]

Integrating the new guy: Nashville has experienced mixed results from David Poile’s many big trades.

Kyle Turris is facing a legit crisis of confidence. Mikael Granlund really didn’t move the needle, Wayne Simmonds barely produced any offense as a rental, and Nick Bonino‘s been a meh addition at best. Blaming Laviolette isn’t totally fair, but he must work to make sure that Duchene is placed in the best possible situation to succeed.

That might require some experimentation.

Would the Predators be better off with Duchene on a top line with Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, or should Ryan Johansen remain between them? Should they try to find two different duos from those four? Might Duchene be better off as a winger with less offensive responsibility? Laviolette must find the right answers.

Rehabbing: It’s almost as important to get more out of Turris and Granlund.

Can Laviolette convince Turris to put struggles behind him? Don’t underestimate the power of a clean slate … unless Turris is simply done as an effective top-six or even top-nine forward.

Is Granlund better off as a center or wing, and where should he slot in the lineup? Nashville still needs to solve that riddle.

Powering up: The Predators’ power play was absolutely miserable last season, and while the team hired someone new to run the power play, it’s hard not to put some blame on Laviolette, too.

Their excessive reliance on point shots and far-too-defensemen-heavy focus was easy for even a layman to see, so why did Laviolette stand idly by? Did he learn from those issues, and if he didn’t, can his new PP coach Dan Lambert make up the difference?

Perhaps the Duchene – Subban roster swap will fix some of the problems for the Predators, as there should be an organic push to go for what works more (four forwards and one defenseman, forwards taking more shots) than before, when Nashville might have been trying to placate both Subban and Roman Josi. That said, as skilled as Josi is, if he’s still too much of a focal point on the power play, then the results may remain middling. With Subban out of town, Nashville may see a step back at even-strength, too, making better man advantage work that much more crucial.

Handling the goalies: On paper, Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros rank as one of the most reliable duos in the almost inherently unreliable goaltending position.

But there are still ways a coach can mess this up. Making the right calls regarding when to play Rinne or Saros – depending upon rest and possible playoff meltdowns – could very well decide a close series, or even a playoff push if things are bumpy at times in 2019-20.

Eeli’s struggling: Eeli Tolvanen is far from the only frustrating prospect, but it feels like the risks are increasing that he’s going to fall into the Jesse Puljujarvi Zone of Prospect Dread. Why not give him a little more room to breathe and see if Tolvanen can keep his head above water enough at five-on-five that his deadly release could be another weapon for Nashville’s offense?

It won’t be easy to ace all of those tests, but Laviolette’s proficiency is a huge X-factor as the Predators hope to compete for a Stanley Cup.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.