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Three questions facing Nashville 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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators.

1. Can the Predators find that extra gear?

It wouldn’t be fair to say that the Predators lack stars altogether.

P.K. Subban would be a star even if he didn’t back up all the sizzle with elite play (delightfully, he walks the walk). Subban very deservingly received a Norris nomination in 2017-18. Filip Forsberg fills up enough highlight reels to argue that he deserves that designation, too. And, of course, Pekka Rinne just won the Vezina.

The Predators have what you need to make it to the dance, so to speak, but what about when you boil down to the best-on-best level?

Consider this: Nashville didn’t employ a single person in the top 50 in points in 2017-18. Forsberg tied for 52nd place with 64 points. Meanwhile, the Winnipeg Jets featured two players in the top 50 (Patrik Laine and Blake Wheeler), while Mark Scheifele finished with 60 points despite being limited to 60 games.

Nashville can generate scoring thanks to two strong scoring lines and a war chest of excellent offensive defensemen, so this isn’t a blanket dismissal of their offense. Peter Laviolette has a track record of being a coach who emphasizes offense, and the Predators scored 261 goals last season, tying them for seventh-best in the NHL.

The bar is set pretty high for this group, though. A lot of hockey players will throw out the “Stanley Cup or bust” line, yet the Predators rank among the small number of teams who should actually mean it.

Such aspirations call for harsher digging at self-awareness, so it’s fair to ask: when teams are engineering matchups and leaning heavily on their big guns, does Nashville lose out a bit there? Sometimes smaller, incremental disadvantages can make all the difference amid the brutal competition of postseason play.

None of this is to say that Nashville can’t make this work. It’s fair to ask the question, though.

2. How will the goalie situation work out? 

As today’s under pressure topic asserts, Pekka Rinne comes into 2018-19 in an odd spot.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]

While he won the Vezina trophy – and very much deserved it with a truly fantastic season – Rinne continued to hand his harshest critics ammo with a brutal outing in Game 7 against the Winnipeg Jets. The towering Finn was yanked from that contest after allowing two awful goals, making five saves, and only lasting 10 minutes and 31 seconds.

After sporting a fantastic .927 save percentage and covering up some under-the-radar lapses from the Predators defense during the regular season, Rinne struggled during the postseason even beyond that harsh experience in elimination, allowing at least four goals on five occasions (in 13 games played). Even taking into account struggles against Pittsburgh, Rinne pitched an outstanding .930 save percentage during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. One year later, his playoff save percentage was at a backup-level of .904.

The ups and downs of NHL goaltending should already have the Predators on alert as far as how long of a leash they give Rinne. Context makes that notion even more important to consider.

Rinne, 35, sees his $7M cap hit expire after 2018-19. Juuse Saros has already shown signs of possibly being a future No.1 goalie, and the Predators authored another killer contract by signing the 23-year-old to a three-year deal that carries a laughably low $1.5M cap hit.

So, the Predators have incentive to get Rinne to pass the torch to Saros, with the main question arguably being how gradual that transition should be.

Ultimately, there’s some room for maneuvering, especially next season. Will Laviolette be willing to give Saros the net in big games if Rinne’s struggling (or Saros has simply been superior), as he’s been reluctant to do so far?

Perhaps the Predators need to look to their former coach as an example. Barry Trotz made the courageous move to give Philipp Grubauer the starting job – tentatively – as Braden Holtby struggled mightily at times in Washington. Some would argue that such a decision proved foolish, what with Grubauer struggling against Columbus, yet one can only speculate about how this situation impacted Holtby. For all we know, Holtby wouldn’t have authored such a magnificent playoff run if he didn’t a) get some much-needed rest and b) have a fire lit under him as he saw someone else begin the playoffs as the Capitals’ starter.

Laviolette needs to roll with the punches here, something he’s struggled to do at times in Nashville (possibly being too reliant upon Rinne) and Philadelphia (maybe being too erratic with goalies, particularly a young Sergei Bobrovsky?).

If that means putting Saros in instead of Rinne, so be it. If the starts go to whoever has the hot hand/goalie glove, then maybe that’s the best solution, instead.

There are some political landmines to dance around, but the end result could very well be more than worth the trouble.

3. Does David Poile have any more tricks up his sleeves?

The Predators have a remarkable amount of room to work with, considering that they’re the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners.

According to Cap Friendly, Nashville has about $7.625M in cap space heading into 2018-19. They don’t have any outstanding RFAs to deal with, and the team-friendly Ryan Ellis deal gives them wonderful cost certainty.

GM David Poile is no stranger to blockbuster moves, so he could address Question 1 in a big way via any number of trades. Nashville wouldn’t even need to move salary to fit the 2018-19 cap hits for Erik Karlsson, Max Pacioretty, Artemi Panarin, or Tyler Seguin.

They also have managed to bring along some promising prospects who could be used in a trade, if Poile can stomach such moves.

Would landing a big name be worth parting ways with Dante Fabbro or even Eeli Tolvanen? Maybe, maybe not. There are ways where Poile could probably even manage a balancing act of extending a Karlsson or other game-breaker, particularly with Rinne’s $7M set to come off the books.

(Nashville has $64.44M devoted to 18 skaters for 2019-20, and Kevin Fiala is one of the only noteworthy guys who would need a new deal, beyond the Rinne puzzle.)

There are reasons why the Predators were at least trying to get into the John Tavares sweepstakes, and the Predators have plenty of incentive – not to mention that cushy cap space – to land that extra player to put them totally over the top. Can Poile hunt that big game once again?

Totally unrelated side question: well, does Marc Bergevin still accept his calls after the Subban – Shea Weber trade? Again, totally unrelated.

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.

Building off a breakthrough: Kevin Fiala

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators.

Not that long ago, Kevin Fiala breaking his left leg might have totally derailed his career. At minimum, that sort of the thing would have at least set him back a few years.

Such a thought had to surface for some observers during the Nashville Predators’ 2017 Stanley Cup Final run – Fiala was sidelined during the second round – especially since blinding speed ranks as one of his strengths.

How could such a thought not occur in the back of someone’s mind after seeing this?

Instead, this happened not much more than a year later:

That double-OT goal against the Winnipeg Jets in Game 2 of that competitive series was the cherry on top of a breakthrough year for Kevin Fiala, who just turned 22 on July 22.

Rather than floundering after coming back from that injury, Fiala found outstanding chemistry with Craig Smith and Kyle Turris once the latter landed in Nashville. Fiala scored 23 goals and 48 points in 2017-18 after debuting in 2016-17 with 16 points in 54 games. Oh yeah, he also looked like his speedy self in the process.

And, really, there might be more where that came from.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Under Pressure]

It doesn’t hurt matters that the puck tends to go in the right direction when Fiala’s on the ice. His possession numbers were highly promising last season, and his heat maps indicate that Nashville should make it a point to give Fiala even more opportunities. You can make a strong argument that he deserves a bump up from his TOI average of 15:09 per game from 2017-18, even though Nashville also needs to dole out ice time to a strong top line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson.

Granted, his rookie deal is set to expire after 2018-19, so the Predators might want to follow up that proactive Ryan Ellis extension with an extension for Fiala before he shows that he’s capable of even bigger things. Frankly, Fiala could generate the sort of follow-up that could break the bank.

To little surprise, Predators GM David Poile seems aware of Fiala’s potential as another rising contributor, as he noted back in January.

“If you look at his development curve as a stock, I would say it’s going in the right direction and you might want to invest in Kevin Fiala,” Poile said, via NHL.com.

No doubt about it, the Predators must have felt relief once it became clear that Fiala still has world-class wheels.

Even so, we’ve seen plenty of speedy skaters produce middle results in the NHL. It’s one thing to be fast; it’s another to combine speed with creativity, smarts, and finish to really move the needle. Fiala showed plenty of signs that he has that ability, showing why the Predators selected him 11th overall in the 2014 NHL Draft.

As you’d expect, there were still signs of growing pains here and there. That’s something that happens to players Fiala’s age even if they’re not coming off of a catastrophic injury.

On the Forecheck’s season review cannot help but linger upon some of Fiala’s mistakes, including some foolish penalties. That series against the Jets featured peaks and valleys, as while Fiala scored that huge game-winning goal, Peter Laviolette also sent a message to him by way of a healthy scratch.

Really, some of that stems from young players often taking the fall when it comes to healthy scratches.* Coaches often go back to what they “know” and what feels most comfortable when their teams struggle, and wet-behind-the-ears players sometimes lose that game of musical chairs.

Fiala can avoid that situation in the future by accumulating reps and numbers, not to mention Laviolette’s trust.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see such developments manifest themselves in more ice time, responsibilities, and other signs that Fiala is ascending even further up the ladder. Either way, Fiala seems like he’s going to play an important role for the Predators, and it’s been a quick ascension.

* – Though, the other side of that coin is older players of waning relevance. Scott Hartnell fits that bill, and he’s the one who took Fiala’s spot.

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 Q&A: P.K. Subban on state of NHL, video game cheating

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If you follow P.K. Subban on social media then you’re aware that he’s kept up a pretty busy off-season. He hung out with LeBron James at the NBA playoffs, took a Business of Entertainment, Media, and Sports class at Harvard University with fellow athletes Kaka, Lindsey Vonn and Zdeno Chara, worked as a commentator for NBC Sports during the Stanley Cup Final, met up with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, spent time in Las Vegas for the NHL Awards, posed for the cover of Sports Illustrated and traveled around Europe.

Oh, and he did a media tour after being named the cover athlete for EA Sports’ NHL 19 video game.

It’s been a busy summer for Subban, but that’s just how the Nashville Predators defenseman likes it.

“I just do my thing. I don’t really know what a low-key off-season. I just do my own thing,” he told Pro Hockey Talk recently. “I don’t ever go into an off-season being like Oh, I’m going to do this or do this. I share a lot of my off-season on social media, so people can be in-tune with what I’m doing. But that’s for your fans, right? They want to know what you’re doing. They want to know what you’re up to, so I share all my stuff on social media.

“I don’t share it so that TSN or NBC or ESPN picks it up, but they do, and people love to talk about what I’m doing in my off-season. It’s great and so far it’s been a very, very enjoyable one.”

We caught up with Subban recently to talk about (allegedly) cheating at video games while playing against his brothers, the state of the NHL and more.

Enjoy.

PHT: What made you want to participate in the class at Harvard this summer?

SUBBAN: “First of all, you have to have the time to do it and this was an off-season where I had the time to be able to go and take the course. It’s been mentioned to me a few times by other athletes and other people in the business and entertainment worlds that this would be a great course for you to take if you’re interested in wanting to learn more about business, sports and entertainment. It was something I had on my radar but was hoping I wasn’t able to do it until the end of my career, meaning that I’d be in long playoff runs every year. But this year our playoff run ended a little shorter and I had time to register for the class. I did it late and am very thankful that they allowed me to still be in it. It was a great experience; I learned a lot. And it was fun to be around other successful people in their line of work.”

EA Sports

PHT: How jealous are [your brothers] Malcolm and Jordan of you having the NHL 19 cover?

SUBBAN: “I don’t know about them being jealous. I think they’re very happy and they’re very supportive of me being on the cover. I know they love to play video games, probably a little bit more than I do, but I know that for them it’s probably a little surreal just like it is for me. I still have to pinch myself every now and then when I see the cover. It is a pretty cool honor to do that. I know that they’re very excited to see me on the cover and hopefully one day they’ll both get their opportunity to be on the cover of the EA Sports game. It’s not an easy thing to do but I think for them that’s definitely a goal in their minds is to one day be on the cover and I think that’s well in their crosshairs to accomplish it, for sure.”

PHT: The NHL posted a video last month of Malcolm talking about how you were a bit of a cheater when you guys played video games growing up — something about using your toe to reset the console. True?

SUBBAN: “Well, first of all let’s put this out here — it’s all alleged, right? There’s no video proof. Everything’s alleged as far as I’m concerned. I’m in no position to confirm or deny anything, really. I don’t have to. But I will say this — if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying, I guess, when it comes to video games. Put it this way — I do whatever it takes to win when it comes to my brothers and video games and I always won. That’s all the information we need to know is who won it for the day. Nobody wants to know how it happened, just know the result.”

PHT: Who are the big gamers on the Predators?

SUBBAN: “Tony Bitetto’s a big gamer. [Roman] Josi plays video games. He thinks he’s really good at it but he’s mediocre. Ryan Hartman’s in; Nick Bonino’s really good, kind of a smart guy in terms of hockey and it translates well to video games; Yannick Weber plays a little bit. Ryan Ellis is like an undercover gamer. I didn’t really know how good he was until towards the end of the year when guys were telling me… Kevin Fiala, another guy who thinks he’s unreal at video games but he really isn’t. Filip Forsberg’s good.

“We’re a tight group. I’m not even a big video game guy, but because I love my teammates so much I’ll get involved whenever they ask me. I think they just like the theatrics on the headphones that I bring to our group game nights. I think they like it when I’m yelling and screaming when I’m dying [in Fortnite].”

PHT: Since your video game cheating history is alleged, who are the biggest sore losers on the Predators when it comes to gaming?

SUBBAN: “Nobody really gets too rattled about it. I think when we play cards guys get a little bit more upset. But in video games guys don’t really get rattled. It’s pretty fun. It’s like little bragging rights but video games is just to kill time for us on those long plane rides for us when you don’t want to read or play cards anymore. We’re a pretty chill group when it comes to that.”

PHT: NHL 19 has a mode where users can play some pond hockey. Give me your best story playing outside with your brothers growing up?

SUBBAN: “Just playing on the backyard rink, not so much a pond, but our backyard rink that my dad used to put in every winter. Malcolm would always been the one to go in net, so it’s fitting that he transitioned to a goaltender. But he would be the one always willing to go in net and Jordan and I would be playing against him and it would like pass-and-play and we’d try to fool Malcolm. He was pretty good back then and obviously he’s really good now being a full-time NHLer now.”

PHT: The game also has over 200 NHL legends in it. I’m giving you the chance to be reincarnated to come back as a current or former player. Who are you choosing?

SUBBAN: “That’s a great question but it really comes down to two players. Anyone who picks anyone other than Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr… Maybe as a defenseman I’d probably come back as Bobby Orr, but when you think about it Wayne Gretzky being probably the best player of all-time, I guess you’d probably want to come back as him… There hasn’t been a player to do it like he has. So definitely would take Wayne.”

PHT: Finally, I’m granting you power to be NHL commissioner. What would you change about the game as it is today?

SUBBAN: “I think we make changes as we go. I don’t necessarily think that we need to change a lot of things about our game. If you look at our game, the NHL, compared to other pro sports, we’re probably the only sport right now that’s on the up and up consistently from year to year. We’ve continued to grow, maybe not at the pace in terms of revenue from what the other sports are going.

“Maybe that doesn’t please everybody but we are continuing to grow and I think that hockey has so much room for growth. That’s the exciting thing about the NHL and where it’s at now is that I don’t even think the NHL’s tapped into how they can compete with the other professional sports. I’m very excited to be a part of the NHL and be a part of that growth.

“The changes that are going to come are going to come organically. I don’t think there’s anything that pops out in my mind like Oh, my God we’ve got to change this. I think the game’s exciting and it’s continuing to get better every year. Fans are enjoying it, that’s why they continue to show up and that’s why we’re able to put teams in markets like Las Vegas and there’s rumors of other markets that may be coming in. The interest wouldn’t be there unless the game wasn’t continuing to trend in the right direction.

“I’m satisfied with where it’s at now but I’m also very optimistic and excited about the future and where the game can be in five, 10, 15, 20 years. It’s all good.”

————

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.

What’s the right contract for Tom Wilson, Capitals?

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What kind of price to put on grit, agitation, intimidation?

In the NHL, it’s something of a Rorschach Test for GMs. It’s easier to gauge the value of elite players and middle-of-the-pack guys when scoring is their calling card, but when it comes to “intangibles,” prices can vary.

Even with that in mind, Tom Wilson stands as a tricky test case.

You can tie yourself in knots examining the agitating winger, especially if you’re a Washington Capitals fan nervously hoping that the RFA signs a deal soon. Relief won’t come from the latest update, either; the Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan reports that Wilson’s agent Mark Guy said that the two sides aren’t “done or close.”

Khurshudyan provides some interesting ranges for a possible contract: Guy told her that a new deal could be “north of four years,” while Washington also indicated a preference for a long-term agreement. The salary cap could fall somewhere in the $3.5-$4.5 million range, according to Khurshudyan.

With Wilson (probably wisely) opting against salary arbitration, it’s a lot tougher to guess when something will formulate.

But, hey, that gives hockey people plenty of time to bicker about his value. Back when Wilson was suspended during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Puck Daddy’s Ryan Lambert summarized the debate regarding the 24-year-old’s value.

” … He is more accurately described a middle-six forward who has been thrust into a bigger role because Barry Trotz is trying to spread the offense across the first two lines more evenly. A lot is made of the fact that Wilson finished with 32 points at 5-on-5 this season, because that was fourth on the Capitals behind only Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, and Nick Backstrom. But look at the guys who had that many 5-on-5 points this year: Alex DeBrincat, Dustin Brown, Gabe Landeskog, Gus Nyquist, Josh Bailey, Kevin Fiala, and Vince Trocheck. These are guys for whom a pretty reasonable evaluation is “They’re mostly pretty good,” but not much more than that, and with the exception of Landeskog and Brown, none of them played with guys who, like Ovechkin, were legit MVP candidates.

The remarkable thing about Wilson is that various debates can swing both ways.

From an “intangibles” perspective, you could argue that he can be something of a poor man’s Todd Bertuzzi, “opening up space” for forwards such as Alex Ovechkin, and maybe get opponents off their game with a violent hit or a fight. Conversely, someone could argue that his tendency to take penalties could put his team in a bad position, or perhaps that players looking to deliver crushing checks may find themselves out of position.

The pure numbers get more complicated as you burrow deeper.

On one hand, his career-high came this season, with a modest 14 goals and 35 points. While he rode shotgun with Ovechkin for significant chunks of time, he also didn’t get a lot of reps on the Capitals’ deadly power play.

Wilson’s possession stats were pretty good for a player of his style … yet again, that sometimes came with high-end players, and he also enjoyed some cushy offensive zone starts in some cases, too.

Still, a guy who can score a bit, hit a lot, and kill a ton of penalties brings quite a bit of value. As a former first-rounder (16th overall in 2012), few would doubt that the Caps hold Wilson in high regard.

The Capitals also boast a pretty robust $8.26M in cap space, according to Cap Friendly, so even though they’ve been prudent when it comes to bringing back members of their championship squad, they’d struggle to say that they can’t afford to pay Wilson at full value.

*Phew*

Is your head spinning yet? That would be understandable, and maybe that explains why contract negotiations seem stilted. What kind of deal would make sense for Wilson?

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.

Finland top US, Swiss make quarters at IIHF worlds

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HERNING, Denmark (AP) — Finland handed the United States its first defeat at the ice hockey world championship in a 6-2 thumping on Tuesday.

The Finns supplanted the U.S. to top Group B in Herning, and will face Switzerland in the quarterfinals on Thursday. The Swiss clinched a quarterfinal berth by beating France 5-1 to finish fourth in Group A in Copenhagen.

Canada shut out Germany 3-0 to secure third place in Group B and set up a quarterfinal matchup against Sweden or Russia, who will clash over the top spot in Group A.

”We didn’t leave ourselves in a great spot after the group stage but we’re going to have to play them at some stage,” captain Connor McDavid said about the potential opponents.

The Americans’ first defeat in seven games dropped them to second in the group and a quarterfinal against the Czech Republic, the third team in Group A.

”It’s not a good feeling losing,” U.S. captain Patrick Kane said. ”It could be good for us to make sure we won’t deal with this again and stay positive. We’re a good team, we’ve had a good tournament to this point.”

”(The Czechs) have some talents, it will be a tough game against them.”

Host Denmark will fight with Latvia over the last quarterfinal berth in the same group to play the winner of Group A.

Sebastian Aho scored a couple of opening-period goals for Finland and added one more into an empty net to finish the scoring to become the championship leader with nine goals and eight assists. Kane also has 17 points with six goals and 11 assists.

”We’ve played really well,” Aho said. ”We just try not to think who we play against, focus on our own system and play our game.”

Kane got a power play goal to reduce the deficit to 4-1 in the final period. Derek Ryan added another one for the U.S.

Brayden Schenn gave Canada an early goal just 20 seconds into the game. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins made it 2-0 in the second and Tyson Jost sealed it in the third.

McDavid had two assists and goaltender Darcy Kuemper made 12 saves for his shutout.

”Everyone played hard and everyone played really responsible, so a good momentum for us,” Kuemper said.

Gregory Hofmann, Enzo Corvi, Ramon Untersander, Kevin Fiala Simon Moser had a goal apiece for the Swiss. France replied with one from Guillaume Leclerc.

Also, Slovakia beat already relegated Belarus 7-4 in their last game.