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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.

It’s Nashville Predators Day at PHT

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. 

2018-19
47-29-6, 100 points (1st in Central Division, 3rd in Western Conference)
Playoffs: Lost to Dallas Stars 4-2 in Round 1.

IN:
Matt Duchene
Steve Santini
Daniel Carr

OUT:
P.K. Subban
Wayne Simmonds
Brian Boyle

RE-SIGNED:
Colton Sissons
Rocco Grimaldi
Jarred Tinordi

2018-19 Summary

If you judged the Nashville Predators’ season by the sour mood hanging over the team and fans at the end of the 2018-19, you’d almost think they were a cellar dweller.

Instead, the Predators managed to hold off the Jets and Blues to narrowly win the Central Division, and the team was able to survive some tough injuries to make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. There’s no getting around the disappointment once they got there, mind you, as falling to the Stars in a six-game Round 1 series definitely ranks as a letdown.

GM David Poile’s reaction to that letdown was to make major moves, something he hasn’t been shy about in the past.

Yet, even by Poile’s standards, he made some bold bets during this offseason.

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

The headliner, of course, was trading P.K. Subban to New Jersey for pennies on the dollar to clear up cap space for long-rumored free agent target Matt Duchene. While that move was also, in a more indirect way, meant to keep things open for a possible Roman Josi extension, many will fairly view the Predators’ overall offseason as sending away Subban so they could land Duchene.

The value proposition is debatable, but the logic makes a reasonable amount of sense.

After all, the Predators were absolutely terrible on the power play last season, and they also had trouble getting much offense outside of the top line of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and Viktor Arvidsson. The hope is that Duchene can provide more balance to Nashville’s scoring attack, while Dante Fabbro might be able to replace some of what the Predators lost in shipping out Subban for not-much (sorry, Santini).

The Predators also made a fascinating bet in signing a quality depth player – but a depth player nonetheless – in Colton Sissons to a seven-year, $20 million contract. This is a “Poile move” as much as the bold trade, as the Predators also made a similar decision with Calle Jarnkrok a few years back.

One cannot help but wonder if the Predators are addressing personnel changes while ignoring possible structural issues.

Nashville’s power play woes could be as strategic as they were talent-related, as the Predators relied far too much upon lower-danger point shots, rather than a heavier number of attempts from better scoring areas like the slot. Will they emphasize that more now that Duchene is added to the mix? We’ll see.

Let’s not forget how much the Predators have struggled to integrate other new faces.

Mikael Granlund hopes to have a better full season with Nashville, after his first “rental” run was underwhelming. Kyle Turris had a fast start with the Predators, then went on to struggle for a year and change. Wayne Simmonds never really managed to make a mark as a rental, and now he’s gone to the Devils. Nick Bonino was also a disappointment as a free agent addition from a while back. Is anyone noticing a trend?

Will it be different this time around with Duchene, and will some of those players turn things around? The Predators are gambling big-time that the answer is “Yes.”

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.

Predators are being bold with term; are they being smart?

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If nothing else, the Nashville Predators aren’t afraid to be bold.

In a vacuum, the Colton Sissons signing isn’t something that will make or break the Predators’ future. That seven-year, $20 million contract has inspired some fascinating debates, but the most interesting questions arise around GM David Poile’s larger team building, and his courageous decisions.

As we’ve seen, Poile doesn’t just lock up obvious core players to term, he frequently gives supporting cast players unusual security, too.

This signing seems like a good excuse to dive into the Predators’ biggest offseason decisions, and also ponder maybe the biggest one of all: what to do with captain Roman Josi, whose bargain contract will only last for one more season.

The interlocking P.K. Subban, Matt Duchene, Roman Josi situation

By any reasonable estimate, the Predators got hosed in getting such a small return for Subban in that deal with the Devils.

Of course, the Predators’ goal wasn’t necessarily to get a great return for Subban, but instead to get rid of Subban’s $9M to (most directly) sign Matt Duchene, and maybe eventually provide more leeway to extend Josi.

There was some argument to trading away Subban, as at 30, there’s a risk that his $9M AAV could become scary.

The thing is, the Predators only seemed to expose themselves to greater risks. It remains to be seen if Matt Duchene will be worth $8M, even right away, and he’s already 28. Roman Josi turned 29 in June, so if Josi’s cap hit is comparable to Subban’s — and it could be a lot higher if Josi plays the market right — then the Predators would take even bigger risks on Josi. After all, Josi’s next contract will begin in 2020-21, while Subban’s is set to expire after 2021-22.

So, in moving on from Subban to Duchene and/or Josi, the Predators are continuing to make big gambles that they’re right. Even if Subban really was on the decline, at least his deal isn’t going on for that much longer. Nashville’s instead chosen one or maybe two even riskier contracts at comparable prices, really rolling the dice that they’re not painting themselves into a corner.

There’s also the scenario where Josi leaves Nashville, and things could get pretty dizzying from there.

Even if you look at it as a Matt Duchene for P.K. Subban trade alone, that’s not necessarily a guaranteed “win” for Nashville. It’s all pretty bold, though.

[This post goes into even greater detail about trading Subban, and the aftermath.]

Lots of term

Nashville doesn’t have much term locked in its goalies Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros, which is wise, as goalies are very tough to predict. Those risks are instead spread out to a considerable number of skaters, and Poile’s crossing his fingers that he’s going to find the sweet spot with veterans, rather than going all that heavy on youth.

The long-term plan has frequently been fruitful for the Predators, as Viktor Arvidsson ($4.25M for five more seasons) and Filip Forsberg ($6M for three more seasons) rank as some of the best bargains in the NHL. Josi’s $4M is right up there, though that fun ride ends after 2019-20.

Your mileage varies when you praise the overall work, though, because some savings are offset by clunkers. It stings to spend $10.1M in combined cap space on Kyle Turris and Nick Bonino, especially since $16M for Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen ranks somewhere between “the price of doing business” and “bad.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

So that’s the thing with locking down supporting cast members. It’s nice to have a defensive forward who seemingly moves the needle like Colton Sissons seems to do …

… Yet is he a bit of an extravagance at $2.857M per year? Again, that’s a matter of debate.

The uncomfortable truth is that, if the Predators are wrong about enough of these deals, then it’s that much tougher to wiggle your way out of mistakes. Yes, maybe the Predators can move Sissons if he slides, but you risk falling behind the pack if you lose value propositions too often.

Will that be the case with the Predators? We’ll have to wait and see, and the most fascinating test cases come down the line. If it doesn’t work out next year, in particular, then things could pretty uncomfortable, pretty quickly.

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.

Duchene heads to Smashville on seven-year, $56M deal

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When David Poile sent P.K. Subban to the New Jersey Devils, the hockey world knew something was up.

Yes, Poile had to make room for a pending big-money contract for fellow defenseman Roman Josi, whose current team-friendly deal will be anything but in the near future.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

But he was also clearing cap space for one of the most coveted free agents on the board: Matt Duchene, a player Poile wanted badly — enough to trade Subban from their formidable rearguard.

And now it’s official. Poile got his man, to the tune of seven years and $56 million.

“Our objective this offseason was to bolster our offense, and signing Matt Duchene gives us another dynamic goal-scoring, playmaking center,” Poile said in a statement. “We are excited to add his skill and experience to our top-six forwards and look forward to the next seven years of Matt and his family in Smashville. Matt’s love of country music and passion for the city of Nashville make this partnership a perfect fit.”

Considering some whispers went into the eight-figure range, this seems to be a very good deal.

The Predators now boast quite the spine up front with Ryan Johansen, Kyle Turris (whom they acquired in a deal that helped send Duchene from Colorado to Ottawa), Nick Bonino and Colton Sissons (and RFA).

The deal also helps Nashville keep pace in the arms race that is the Central Division.

With the Dallas Stars signing Joe Pavelski, Corey Perry and Andrej Sekera, and the Minnesota Wild locking up Mats Zuccarello, the Preds aren’t being left in the dust. Not in the least.

It should be an interesting day for the rest of the division.

The Winnipeg Jets don’t appear like they’ll be making any big splashes, only signing defensemen Nathan Beaulieu to a $1 million deal. They have to sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, both restricted free agents and both in need of big money.

The Colorado Avalanche, meanwhile, added Joonas Donskoi and re-sign Colin Wilson.

And what will the St. Louis Blues do? They got by just fine this season without a superstar making mountains of money and have yet to do anything.


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.

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.