Matt Duchene

Previewing the 2019-20 Nashville Predators

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(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.

Blue Jackets look to move past drama of departing stars

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — The offseason drama churned up by the exodus of some of their top stars is now behind the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Now they open training camp with some burning questions.

Can veteran Joonas Korpisalo, rookie Elvis Merzlikins or someone else step into the huge skates vacated by star goalie Sergei Bobrovsky?

How will Columbus replace the scoring of forwards Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene?

Can Blue Jackets stalwarts like Cam Atkinson, Josh Anderson and Pierre-Luc Dubois make the Columbus faithful stop grumbling about the superstars who spurned the city and get the team to the playoffs for a fourth straight year?

General manager Jarmo Kekalainen, for one, is indignant that anyone thinks the Blue Jackets will take a step backward following the offseason exodus of talent. He’s tired of talking about it already.

”We’re very, very confident in our core group,” Kekalainen said. ”And I’m a little aggravated by the doubters, to be honest with you, because it shows disrespect to our core group that brought us all that success we’ve had in the past three years.”

Kekalainen decided to go with a strategy of counting on trusted veterans to step up their offensive production along with moving up NHL-ready prospects to help fill the void left by Panarin – who made it clear a year ago he didn’t want to re-sign with the team and subsequently left for the New York Rangers – and Duchene, a trade-deadline rental who signed with Nashville.

”We’re all going to have to do it by committee,” said Atkinson, who had a career-high 41 goals and 28 assists last season. ”Hopefully, the guys who get the opportunity seize the moment, step in and step up for us because we’re going to need everyone.”

Alexandre Texier and Emil Bemstrom, both 20, are among the prospects expected to contribute. Texier came to the U.S. at the end of last season, had a short stay in the minors and then showed flashes of what he could do down the stretch for the Blue Jackets. Bemstrom starred in the Swedish professional league and comes to camp amid plenty of hype.

”(Panarin) is a very good player, he’s a game-breaker. But I’m not going to sit here and say that’s a hole,” said coach John Tortorella, who acknowledged he has a chip on his shoulder because of the predictions of doom. ”It just gives other people an opportunity to fill that, and I feel very comfortable where we’re going with some of our young kids.”

Kekalainen’s biggest offseason move was adding veteran help with Gustav Nyquist, a top-six forward who had a career-high 22 goals and 38 assists last season with Detroit and San Jose.

Replacing Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, is the toughest order. Columbus will give Korpisalo a chance to be the everyday guy. Korpisalo has played well in stretches as Bobrovsky’s backup for the past four seasons. He’ll compete with the flashy 25-year-old Merzlikins, who has been outstanding in the Swiss league and in international play.

Players who have been here awhile insist the naysaying will go away if they win.

”We feel confident with what we have in this room,” All-Star defenseman Seth Jones said. ”We understand what the narrative is probably going to be this year, and I think now more than ever we have to maintain the tight chemistry in this room and not let outside noise interfere with what we’re trying to accomplish.”

The Blue Jackets, who got to the second round of the playoffs after a stunning sweep of Tampa Bay in the opening round last spring, will skate together for the first time Saturday free of the drama Panarin and Bobrovsky dragged around all last season after both made it known they didn’t want to stay in Columbus any longer than necessary.

”Maybe we don’t have the shiny pieces people like to talk about,” captain Nick Foligno said. ”But there’s going to be a lot of headlines, a lot of great plays going on because of the skill we have.”

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Biggest stories of the offseason

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With NHL training camps set to begin and the 2019-20 season just around the corner, this week’s NHL Power Rankings will be taking a look back at the biggest storylines of the offseason.

Offer sheets, restricted free agents, a Metropolitan Division arms race, the general manager and coaching carousel in full swing, and even a few oddities.

What were the biggest stories of the summer? To the rankings!

The big stories

1. The rise and fall of Paul Fenton. Simply the most stunning story of the offseason. After one mostly disastrous season in charge of the Minnesota Wild, Fenton was fired this offseason and replaced by Bill Guerin. It’s not just that he was fired after a year, but that the Wild waited until after the draft and free agency to make the move.

2. Sebastian Aho‘s offer sheet. It had been six years since a restricted free agent signed an offer sheet with another team, and it was starting to feel like it was never going to happen again. Then Aho and the Montreal Canadiens actually went through with the process. Only problem was the Canadiens made it a contract that was ridiculously easy for the Carolina Hurricanes to match.

3. Unsigned RFAs. With the start of training camp just days away almost all of the top RFAs remain unsigned. Mitch Marner, Patrik Laine, Mikko Rantanen, Brayden Point, Kyle Connor, Charlie McAvoy, Ivan Provorov, Brock Boeser. It is unprecedented to have this many top-tier RFAs still unsigned this late in the summer. Many of these negotiations will continue throughout training camp and the preseason, but how many will spill over to the regular season?

4. Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s IIHF suspension. Three months after a social media video surfaced of Washington Capitals star Evgeny Kuznetsov in a room with white powder on a table, he was handed a four-year suspension by the IIHF due to a positive cocaine test in May. Kuznetsov voluntarily sought help through the NHL’s education and counseling program and is expected to meet with commissioner Gary Bettman before training camp.

5. Metropolitan Division madness. The Devils and Rangers re-ignited their rivalry with big offseasons that saw them land the top two picks in the draft and acquire some big name veterans, the Flyers overhauled their defense and gave Kevin Hayes a ton of money, the Blue Jackets lost several key players, the Penguins traded Phil Kessel and Olli Maatta, and the Hurricanes added to an already outstanding defense.

6. Florida goes all in Bob. The worst kept secret at the start of the summer was Sergei Bobrovsky going to the Florida Panthers. He fills their biggest need and could be the piece they need to get back in the playoffs, especially after hiring Joel Quenneville as head coach in April.

7. The GM and coaching carousel. Decades after he revived the Red Wings as a player, Steve Yzerman returns to Detroit to try and do the same as the general manager. That paved the way for Ken Holland to leave Detroit to try and rebuild the charred remains of the Peter Chiarelli era in Edmonton. Behind the benches, six teams will have new coaches as Quenneville (Florida), Alain Vigneault (Philadelphia), Todd McLellan (Los Angeles), Ralph Krueger (Buffalo), D.J. Smith (Ottawa), Dave Tippett (Edmonton), and Dallas Eakins (Anaheim) get their chances. For many, it is a second (or third) chance behind an NHL bench.

8. Nashville’s big change. The Predators needed another game-breaking forward to help fix a dreadful power play that failed them all year. They hope to have found that in Matt Duchene. To make room for him they had to deal from their depth on defense and dump P.K. Subban‘s salary. Are they a better team with Duchene over Subban? David Poile is taking a big gamble that they are.

9. Ron Francis takes over Seattle. This is going to be a tough job, not only because he is starting an organization from scratch, but because expectations will be almost unreachable given what happened with the Vegas Golden Knights.

10. New rules. Video review is being expanded to cover major and match penalties, as well as goals scored as the result of a hand pass, high stick on the puck, or pucks that should have been whistled for being out of play. There are also some new player safety rules in place. Read all about them here.

The oddities

11. Robin Lehner‘s New York “Rangers” Masterton Trophy. Lehner won the 2018-19 Masterton Trophy, awarded annually to the player that shows perseverance and dedication to hockey, and gave an inspiring speech at the awards ceremony. When he actually received the physical trophy it had him playing for the New York Rangers. He played the 2018-19 season for the New York Islanders. Fans of those teams do not like being confused for the other.

12. NJ Devil goes through the glass. What was the mascot trying to accomplish? No one knows, but it spoiled a child’s birthday party by running through a giant glass window.

13. Connor McDavid‘s skate lace belt. Not really sure what else to say here, other than when you are the best in the world you can dress however you want.

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14. Phil Kessel’s one-room theatre. After putting his Pittsburgh home on the market, the Internet pounced on a random photo of what looked to be the loneliest movie theatre room in the world … a single desk chair in front of a big screen TV. Kessel said he never actually used the room, it had been empty, and his realtor thought they should put a chair in it to give the feel of a theatre. It was still fun while it lasted.

15. Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s reaction to Keenan Thompson’s Lightning joke. He did not find it amusing (Victor Hedman, however, cracked a smile).

MORE:
• 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.

Atkinson ready for Blue Jackets to ‘prove people wrong’

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CHICAGO — When training camps open next week, the Columbus Blue Jackets will be missing a number of faces that helped stage the biggest upset of the 2018-19 NHL season. Gone are Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and Sergei Bobrovsky. But for Cam Atkinson, the franchise’s longest-tenured player, there are a number of players who can take on bigger roles this coming season to offset those losses.

“A guy like Josh Anderson taking a step forward and being more of a powerhouse and bringing it every single game,” Atkinson told NBC Sports during the 2019 NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago this week, “Not that he didn’t, but every guy’s going to have to step up. 

“I’m going to have to step up more, guys like Seth Jones can contribute more. Zach Werenski, I look at him and he can contribute more offensively, I think. [Oliver] Bjorkstrand can score a lot of goals.”

One player who got a small taste of the NHL last season with two regular season and eight Stanley Cup playoff games is Alexandre Texier. The French forward saw plenty of time on a line with Anderson and captain Nick Foligno in the postseason and scored twice in Game 4 to knock out the top-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning.

Atkinson firmly believes Texier will be one of the Blue Jackets’ impact players and do it for a long time.

“He’s a young guy that played some playoff games last year. He’s a 19-year-old kid, so I think he’s going to have a great career,” he said.

Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella is “pissed” about the personnel departures, but to Atkinson, he understands it’s a business. 

Heading into the 2019-20 season, Columbus is a team that’s being pegged as a bottom dweller. That’s something Atkinson believes the Blue Jackets can rally behind.

“I think you have to look at it like we have to come in with a chip on our shoulder because everyone’s written us off already,” Atkinson said. “How do you think that makes the players feel? You can either go one of two ways: you can either take that and use that as motivation to prove people wrong or you can use it and go the opposite way and say maybe they were right. 

“I know being a leader I’m going to make sure we come in with a chip on our shoulder and prove people wrong.”

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.