Roman Josi

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.

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.

Which teams should take a chance on Andrei Markov?

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After being away from the NHL for two seasons, Andrei Markov is ready to return to North America. He made that clear during an interview with the Montreal Gazette last month. The Russian blue liner left for the AK Bars Kazan of the KHL two seasons ago and he’s hoping an NHL team will take a chance on him now.

His preference would be to play out the final year of his career with the only NHL team he’s ever played for, the Montreal Canadiens, but that doesn’t appear to be likely at this point.

The 40-year-old needs to play just 10 more games to reach the 1,000 mark for his career. That’s an important milestone for him.

“It’s something you want to be there,” Markov said of reaching that plateau. “It’s important, you know. But most important probably is to try to play one more year in the NHL, to prove that I can still play in that level.”

But can Markov keep up with the current pace of play in the NHL?

After multiple knee surgeries, it became clear that he wasn’t ever going to be the fastest player on the ice anymore. But his hockey smarts were always his biggest asset. There weren’t too many players that thought the game better than Markov when he was at his best. Whether or not the body can still perform at a high level remains to be seen.

Markov was negotiating his own contract the last time he and the Habs failed to come to terms on an agreement (two summers ago), but he’s since hired Allan Walsh to be his agent.

“He’s certainly looking to play on a team where there’s a role for him,” Walsh told TSN 690 radio in Montreal last week. “We believe that he can really help any team’s power play, that he can contribute meaningful five-on-five minutes, that he can serve as a veteran presence in the room, and he’s always been known as a bit of a quiet guy but he’s also been known as a quiet leader. He’s always been in amazing physical shape in his entire career and he’s in great shape right now.”

Walsh went on to say that his new client isn’t looking to sign a PTO and he’s looking to play for a team that’s ready to win right away.

Keeping all that in mind, which teams would be the best fits for Markov? Let’s look at some options.

• San Jose Sharks: We know that the Sharks are top-heavy on their defense with players like Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns, but they also have Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brenden Dillon. The issue with San Jose last year was that they didn’t have enough depth to fill out their blue line every night. During the postseason, there were many nights when Joakim Ryan was playing less than 10 minutes per game (sometimes less than five minutes). Ryan is no longer there, but they now have Tim Heed, Dalton Prout and Radim Simek on the fold. Markov on an affordable contract could be an intriguing fit in San Jose.

• Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers’ defense is a little more crowded than San Jose’s right now, but there’s an obvious connection between their team and Markov’s camp. Of course, Markov played for assistant coach Michel Therrien for many years in Montreal and he also played part of a season for Alain Vigneault a long time ago. Again, the Flyers have young depth on the blue line, they added Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun, but maybe they can find a way to make it work.

Florida Panthers: Markov has spent a good chunk of the summer training in Florida, so he’s familiar with the area. The Panthers made it clear that they want to start winning with a little more regularity. That’s why they signed Sergei Bobrovsky to a seven-year deal this off-season. They also added Brett Connolly and Anton Stralman this summer. Aaron Ekblad, Michael Matheson, Keith Yandle and Stralman will make up the top four, but Mark Pysyk, MacKenzie Weegar, Ian McCoshen and Joshua Brown will battle for the five, six and seven spots on defense. There’s room for Markov if they believe he can play.

Nashville Predators: Like the Sharks, the Preds are also top-heavy on defense. Even after trading P.K. Subban away, they still have Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm. Youngster Dante Fabbro is also expected to play a big role in Nashville this season, so the top four is full. Beyond that, there are some question marks. Also, the Preds also owned the worst power play in the NHL last season. Could Markov help them improve in that area?

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Tyson Barrie is big x-factor for Maple Leafs

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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 Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Tyson Barrie trade wasn’t just jaw-dropping and an inventive way to steal Free Agency Day headlines; it was also a catalyst for some fascinating debates about how valuable Barrie really is.

Some of the more intriguing Toronto Maple Leafs X-factors boil down to Barrie: how good is he really, and will Mike Babcock manufacture ways to get the most out of him?

If you’re the type to keep things really simple, you’ll note just how prolific a scorer Barrie has been from the blueline, and think that he’s grossly underrated. Barrie managed 59 points in 78 games last season, and had almost as many (57) despite being limited to 68 regular-season contests in 2017-18. Toronto Maple Leafs fans could be forgiven for drooling while imagining how the speedy defenseman’s numbers might translate to an already talented team.

Yet, for those who delve into deeper numbers, Barrie may actually be overrated, and open up a discussion about whether or not he’s much of a net positive for his team. By just about every shot-counting defensive metric, Barrie can at times be a disaster in his own end.

Really, assessing Barrie may come down to questions of taste and priorities. Barrie might be a right-handed shooting version of Roman Josi: a “roving” defenseman who controls the puck a lot, generates results on offense, but who’s overall positive impact can be questioned when you ponder puck possession stats, along with the conundrum: would his team be better off with a forward having the puck on his stick more than Barrie/Josi?

Like Josi, Barrie has shown positive traits when it comes to the transition game. Barrie’s particularly deft at exiting the defensive zone with puck control, as you can see in this All Three Zones chart (by CJ Turtoro with data from Corey Sznajder):

It’s useful to include a comparison to Jake Gardiner for a number of reasons, as Barrie essentially replaces Gardiner in 2019-20.

Barrie might even be a replacement as a go-to scapegoat, honestly. They’re both very useful defensemen who have their flaws, and those flaws get magnified in a harsh market like Toronto. It wouldn’t be one bit shocking if cameras fixated on Barrie during low moments in the same way they seemed glued to Gardiner after Game 7 gaffes.

Yet it’s their one fundamental difference that makes things especially intriguing, and Barrie an X-factor: Gardiner’s a left-handed defenseman, while Barrie shoots with his right.

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

Toronto was wise to add Jake Muzzin to a defensive group that saw a huge drop-off after Gardiner and Morgan Rielly, but ultimately, Muzzin was also a tad bit redundant, as all three shoot (and crucially, pass) left-handed.

Even if Barrie might end up being a downgrade from Gardiner, this boost in versatility could be big. It also presents Mike Babcock with a chance to prove that he’s worth the megabucks he’s been receiving from the Maple Leafs.

Theoretically, Babcock could use his experience and system to try to get the best out of Barrie. It’s probably a little much to imagine too much of a “teaching” situation for a defenseman who’s 28, but Babcock could optimize the situation with ideal zone starts, a defensive partner who is adept at denying entries to Toronto’s zone, and finding the right balance between Barrie’s aggressiveness and making safer plays.

Frankly, it’s also just as important that Babcock show patience with Barrie, who’s the type of double-edged sword who could drive a coach mad.

With Barrie entering  a contract year, this is most likely to be a short experiment. We’re very much in “win now” territory for Toronto, though, so Babcock needs to get in the lab and use Barrie as a catalyst for a long-awaited breakthrough.

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.

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.