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.
53-18-11, 117 pts. (1st Central Division; 1st Western Conference)
Playoffs: Lost 4-3 vs. the Winnipeg Jets, second round
A year removed from the Stanley Cup Final. An intact team from the previous year that had a wealth of playoff experience under their belt, one of the best defensive cores in the league and one the NHL’s best goalies.
And by all accounts, the Predators lived up to their expectations in during the regular season with the top record in all of the NHL and the Presidents’ Trophy to show for it.
But that all came crashing down in the second round against the Winnipeg Jets. The Predators were stretched to the limit against the speedy Jets. They forced a Game 7 at home, but couldn’t repeat the magic they had shown the year before.
The loss rendered the Predators’ season an abject failure. A team oozing with talent managed to shoulder the expectations that were levied upon them, by outsides sources, and their own lofty standards given their makeup.
Nashville showed just how difficult it is to get back to the Cup Final. And how being the best team in the regular season hardly translates to being the best team in the postseason. Their regular season showing was a bit of a foregone conclusion. Their playoff run was not.
Now, the Predators press on with, once again, largely the same squad.
They added some talent to the back end in Dan Hamhuis, who replaces Alexei Emelin, who became an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Pekka Rinne, who won the Vezina Trophy, but struggled in the playoffs, will give it another go. And the team locked up the future heir to Rinne’s throne — Juuse Saros — in case there’s a big regression in the elder’s game.
Tolvanen looked the part in the KHL this past season, scoring 19 times and adding 17 assists in 49 games as a rookie. He was named the KHL’s player of the week six times, its player of the month twice and attended the KHL All-Star Game, along with stints with Finland at the junior, senior and Olympic levels throughout the season. He’s a gifted skater, a saavy sniper and still can be disciplined defensively. The Predators have a budding superstar in Tolvanen.
• Dante Fabbro, D, 20, Boston University (NCAA) – 2016 first-round pick
Fabbro will head back to Boston University for his junior season after putting up nine goals and 29 points in his freshman year. Fabbro helped Canada win gold at the world juniors and the Preds felt he was ready to make the jump to the pro game, but Fabbro decided another year in college was worth it.
Preds fans will be worried they have another Jimmy Vesey on their hands. That wound still stings. That said, Fabbro progressed well in his first season in Boston and another year there isn’t a bad thing. There’s still time for him to move to the AHL next season, or perhaps right into an NHL role.
Pettersson’s stock took a nice bump due to a solid first season in the American Hockey League, with 13 goals and 33 assists in 72 games, and the fact that Nashville dealt prospect Vladislav Kamenev to the Colorado Avalanche in the trade that brought them Kyle Turris last November. Another good showing in Milwaukee could offer him some opportunities with the big club this season. Nashville has a great spine at center, so breaking into it will require an injury or an outstanding performance during training camp.
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 Colorado Avalanche.
43-30-9, 95 pts. (4th in the Central Division, 8th in the Western Conference)
Playoffs: Lost 4-2 vs. Nashville Predators, first round
The Avalanche stunned the hockey world when they went from being one of the worst teams in league history in 2016-17 to being a playoff team in 2017-18. They got off to a rocky start, but things seemed to turn after they made a blockbuster deal with Ottawa and Nashville. They sent Matt Duchene to the Senators and got back a package that included defenseman Samuel Girard. Things seemed to click after that.
There’s many reasons why they were able to get their franchise back on the rails so quickly, but Nathan MacKinnon was the main catalyst.
The 22-year-old was chosen as one of the three finalists for the Hart Trophy after he posted an incredible 39 goals and 97 points in 74 games last season. MacKinnon has always had immense potential, but he failed to live up to the hype in the three previous years. Now, it looks like he’s finally arrived as a franchise center. But he’s not the only reason Colorado was able to sneak in to the postseason.
Mikko Rantanen also took a huge step forward in his second NHL season. The 21-year-old went from being a 38-point scorer in year one to being an 84-point guy in his sophomore campaign. Getting point-per-game production from him was critical. Again, no one expected it, but it was a welcomed bonus.
On defense, veterans Erik Johnson (missed 20 games) and Tyson Barrie (57 points in 68 games) played an important role. Barrie, in particular, stood out. He’s the primary puck-mover on the team. He anchors the power play and plays significant minutes for his team. There was rumblings about him being available, but Colorado did well to hold on to him.
Between the pipes, the Avs got solid play from Semyon Varlamov, who stayed healthy enough to play in 51 games, and they got some solid outings from last year’s backup goalie, Jonathan Bernier.
In the end, the Avalanche were knocked out in the first round by Nashville, but they didn’t go down without a fight. Even though they didn’t go on a long playoff run, it’s impossible to consider last season a failure for this young team.
• Cale Makar, D, 19, UMass-Amherst – 2017 first-round pick
Makar is going back to school next season, so he won’t be a contributor for Avs during most of the year, but he could be one of those players that helps out once his college season is over, which means he could be an option in the playoffs. He’s a smaller defenseman, but he’s got smarts, skill and speed, which makes him the ideal modern-day blueliner. Expect him to be in Colorado sooner than later.
“I just felt it was in my best interest to go back to school for one more year and hopefully develop a little bit more,” Makar told NHL.com. “I’m getting to the point where I feel I’m pro ready, but at the end of the day I know that there are still some things in my game, whether it’s in the defensive side or off ice physically that I can tweak.”
After taking Makar early in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, the Avs came back in the second round and took Timmins. Despite suffering an ankle injury last January, Timmins still had a productive year with the Greyhounds (41 points in 36 games) and with Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship. He’s a smart defender with good skating ability. He’s also not shy to throw his weight around. He’ll make the leap to the pro ranks this season.
The Avs got Kamenev from Nashville in that three-way deal that sent Duchene to Ottawa. Kamenev missed a good chunk of last season because of an arm injury, but he’s as NHL-ready as any of the top prospects in the Avalanche organization. He’s a versatile forward that can play any of the three spots up front. In his last full AHL season (2016-17), he picked up 20 goals and 51 points, so we know he can produce at the pro level. Kamenev just has to focus on staying healthy and taking his overall game up another notch or two.
1. What team(s) need to make to make a trade or two before the deadline and why?
SEAN LEAHY: The New York Islanders sit just outside of the playoffs in the East and while we know they can score, they can’t keep the puck out of their net. They lead the NHL in goals allowed (223), so an upgrade in goal would be ideal, but that market isn’t very fruitful with three days until the deadline. If not in goal, then the blue line, surely. Ryan McDonagh is out there, but trading with the Rangers would require an overpayment. Would Peter Chiarelli pick up the phone if he sees Garth Snow calling again to maybe inquire about Oscar Klefbom or Adam Larsson?
Out West, Nashville Predators GM David Poile has never been one to shy away from strengthening his team. He added Kyle Turris in October and will get Mike Fisher back next week. Olympic stud Eeli Tolvanen may also join the team very soon. But after coming within two games of winning a Cup last year, the Predators are once again in position to challenge for a title.
“I think we’re closer to doing nothing than to do something,” Poile said recently. But he’s a general manager, and we shouldn’t believe anything they say around trade deadline. If an opportunity is there, he’s going to take it. Is Rick Nash worth adding if it means giving up someone like a Dante Fabbro after sending Samuel Girard and Vladislav Kamenev away in the Turris deal?
JAMES O’BRIEN: Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Islanders. These three teams see a remarkable forking path ahead. Each could easily miss the playoffs entirely, which would be an enormous failure for all involved (in the case of the Isles, for all we know, it may factor into John Tavares‘ future). Fascinatingly, all three teams could also be easily be seen as dangerous with the right tweaks. While they all have varied needs to fill, the general theme is getting that “extra oomph.”
(Note: Apologies for the highly technical jargon.)
With a little more balance, these teams could go from first-round fodder to terrifying dark horse. Sometimes it’s wise just to stand pat; other times GMs need to make that extra effort, even if it merely sends a message to current roster players that they’re going for it.
Missing the playoffs would be bad no matter what, but it would be far better if they went out swinging rather than flinching at strikes.
ADAM GRETZ: If I am Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford I push all of my chips to the center of the table and go all in on this trade deadline. They have a chance to make history and you do not get that opportunity very often. You only get so many years of players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang and you owe it to yourself to put them in the best possible position to win. Once those players get older or retire the team is going to stink and need to rebuild anyway, and there is no prospect or draft pick in the organization right now that is going to change. This is all especially true when you have a chance to go back-to-back-to-back. No prospect or draft pick should be off limits. Get another center. Improve the defense. Get creative with the salary cap. Whatever you have to do.
JOEY ALFIERI: Even though the Penguins have turned their season around, I still feel like they need to add another forward or two before Monday. It doesn’t have to be a major acquisition, but just another capable two-way player that can play on the third line and on the penalty kill.
The Columbus Blue Jackets and St. Louis Blues have both seen their play drop over the last few weeks, so if they want to make a push for a playoff spot, I feel like they need to give their players a jolt by adding a body. Missing the playoffs shouldn’t be an option for either team, especially after the success they had last season.
SCOTT BILLECK: New York Islanders. They need to stop the bleeding on the back end. They’ve allowed a league-high 223 goals against, which is 12 more than the Senators. Ottawa is nowhere near the playoff picture, but the Islanders right in the mix in the wildcard race thanks to their penchant for scoring goals. A good defenseman would help. Something has to change with that .901 in the team save percentage department. Get in quick before all the good players are gone.
Columbus Blue Jackets. They need some scoring. Desperately, it would seem given their recent slide. Evander Kane, anyone? The return of Rick Nash? Mike Hoffman is available. The sooner the better in this case.
2. What players who are considered trade bait are being overrated?
LEAHY: Tomas Plekanec’s production has dropped off a cliff since 2015-16 and he has 15 goals and 50 points in his last 137 games. Consider he was good for double digit goals and around 50 points a season for a long time. Teams are always looking to bolster their depth, especially down the middle, and while he can win you a face-off, (52.5 percent) there are definitely better options at center who are out there.
O’BRIEN: Mike Green – It pains me to say this, as in the past, Green’s absorbed excessive criticism for his flaws on the defensive end. Those exaggerations are now sliding closer to being the cold, hard reality for a blue liner who might need a highly specialized, sheltered role to be worth a look.
Jack Johnson – He’s really bad. Maybe there’s a scenario where a team could find the right style fit for him, but considering JJ’s cap hit, it’s tough to imagine him being worth giving up even a so-so asset.
Thomas Vanek – Yes, you can work limited players with specific skills into an advantageous situation. There’s a scenario where Vanek could be an older version of 2016-17 Sam Gagner, serving as the “trigger” on a PP that sets the table for him. Still, he can’t really do much on his own any longer, and you might as well go for a more spry “all-offense” option.
GRETZ: I think Derick Brassard is probably approaching that overrated territory. Don’t get me wrong, he is a good player. But he seems to be slowing down a bit in recent years, he carries a pretty big salary cap, and since the Senators do not have to trade him the price is probably going to be extremely high. Is it worth it? I am not sure. The other guy? Evander Kane. Again, pretty good player. But that seems to be the extent of it. Every year we hear about his talent and how he could have a breakout year and how he can be a dynamic player, and every year he is the same good but not great player. He has topped 50 points once in his career. He is a free agent after this season. He just seems a little overrated. I would also add Patrick Maroon to that list. He had a big shooting percentage driven performance a year ago and he has that “heavy hockey” pedigree hockey people love for the playoffs, but I would not give up a huge price for him.
ALFIERI: I don’t get the fuss over Patrick Maroon. He’s big, he’s scored some goals over the last couple of years, but I just don’t think he should be a priority for any team looking for a winger that can score. Obviously there are much better options on the market as of right now. Of course, it all depends on the price, but I don’t think the Oilers would be interested in giving him away, even if he is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
Tomas Plekanec is still a useful player, but his offensive game is practically non-existent. I’d take him on my team if he’s slotted correctly on the depth chart. At this point, the veteran should be seen as a fourth-line center on a very good hockey team. There will be a market for him if the Canadiens are willing to deal him.
BILLECK: Thomas Vanek – He won’t help you defensively and is questionable to show up in the playoffs.
Patrick Maroon – He did a lot of good things with Connor McDavid. But anyone can do that. Maybe he needs a change of scenery, but he’s a little too slow for today’s game.
Mike Green – This isn’t your late 2000s Mike Green. Instead, you get a defenseman who doesn’t do play much defense and doesn’t put up points like he used to.
3. What not-so-outlandish trade do you think should happen but ultimately won’t?
SEAN LEAHY: It’ll never, ever happen (OK, maybe it’s outlandish) but makes a lot of sense for all involved. Henrik Lundqvist to the New York Islanders. King Henrik gets to stay in New York, the Rangers can get some of those extra picks Garth Snow picked up from the Calgary Flames last year and the Islanders solve their goaltending issue. Lundqvist still has three more years left on his contract so future visits to MSG would be preeeeetty interesting.
JAMES O’BRIEN: Freeing Max Pacioretty. For the sake of entertainment, I hope I’m wrong.
More and more, the Montreal Canadiens feel like they’re going to handle things like the Vancouver Canucks did with Erik Gudbranson: clinging onto hope for the present when they should be setting the stage for the future. At 29 and with a deal that expires after 2018-19, “Patches” simply makes more sense on a contender, which the Habs aren’t this season and may not be next year. How refreshing would it be to see a far-too-frequent scapegoat get a new lease on life as more of a supporting cast member?
It smells a lot like Phil Kessel making a huge impact on the Penguins. It’s all so fun that, of course, it probably won’t happen.
ADAM GRETZ: Mike Green going back to Washington. Just because it seems like it would have been a lot of fun. But with the Capitals adding two defensemen to round out their third pairing over the past week it just does not seem like something that is in the cards.
JOEY ALFIERI: It’s pretty clear that Max Pacioretty needs a change of scenery. He hasn’t been noticeable on the ice over the last little while, which makes you wonder if the trade rumors are getting to him. 30-goal scorers that can kill penalties don’t grow on trees, so the Canadiens will have to get a great offer to part ways with him. He’s not a rental (he has one year left on his contract), so GM Marc Bergevin doesn’t have to deal him at the deadline to get something for him.
SCOTT BILLECK:Mats Zuccarello to the Winnipeg Jets. Jets fans are salivating at the thought of having another Mathieu Perreault on their roster. Perreault has been so good for the Jets that adding a similar player would have had a bolstering effect throughout their forward contingent. The problem here is price tag. The trend this year is that every player available seems to have a price tag with more markup than a Mercedes. Cheveldayoff isn’t into trading picks and assets. He’s barely into trading at all. It should happen. It’s a trade that has the potential to put the Jets over the top. But the asking price may be too much for Chevy to budge.
4. Erik Karlsson trade: Does it happen before the deadline or in the summer, and who should be at the front of the line for him?
SEAN LEAHY: I can’t see a GM overwhelming Pierre Dorion with an offer by Monday’s deadline. Unless Karlsson threatens to sit out, the Ottawa Senators GM should wait it out, much like Joe Sakic did with Matt Duchene. The team doesn’t need to trade Karlsson now. Wait for the draft and the summer when the other 30 teams know their salary cap situation and have an idea of what sort of enticing package they could offer.
Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman should be calling Dorion now planting seeds for a summer deal. Mikhail Sergachev is a nice start, and if you’re a buyer, maybe work out a sign-and-trade thereby ensuring an extra year of Karlsson, who’s signed through 2019.
JAMES O’BRIEN: Karlsson seems most likely to move during the summer.
To start, draft positions will crystallize. The Senators would need one heck of a haul, so why risk moving Karlsson for a package that includes a mystery first-rounder?
Honestly, any team that aggressively wants to contend should ante up. Karlsson would be a lot of fun to watch with Auston Matthews in Toronto, burning everyone alongside Connor McDavid, or even landing on a team like the Dallas Stars. (Imagine trying to protect a one-goal lead with Karlsson, Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, John Klingberg, and Alex Radulov on the ice.)
If forced to pick one team, I’d go with the Oilers, because they need to make a desperate swing to improve. Why not just go the super-obvious route? Karlsson can cure a lot of ills, even if the organization continues to blunder on the margins.
ADAM GRETZ: Think it happens at the trade deadline. It would be an almost unheard of trade given Karlsson’s talent level — players like him almost never get traded — but what choice do the Senators have? They do not seem to be in a position to re-sign him, and you can not lose him for nothing. This is when his value is highest because whatever team gets him gets two playoff runs with him. Who should be at the top of the list? I don’t know, Tampa Bay or Philadelphia.
JOEY ALFIERI: Like Pacioretty, Karlsson has another year left on his deal so the Sens don’t have to make this move right now. I think it’ll get done at the draft. It’s just too difficult for a team to pull that kind of trade off in February. The Tampa Bay Lightning should be all-in when it comes to Karlsson. Imagine having Hedman and Karlsson on the same blue line. Come playoff time, the Bolts could have those two guys play 30 minutes each. No matter when this trade happens, Steve Yzerman should try to pull it off.
SCOTT BILLECK: Before the deadline (although it shouldn’t be happening at all). If the Bruins could make it work, they could continue taking great defenseman from the Senators (see Zdeno Chara) and going to Stanley Cups with them. If the Islanders can’t keep Tavares, maybe there is something there given all the cap space that would free up. Edmonton? That’s a juicy one as well. This is a tough one because whatever team wants Karlsson has to give up so many assets to get him.
Once it became clear that GM David Poile hadn’t (yet?) convinced Vegas Golden Knights GM George McPhee to accept a trade not to take someone like Neal, there were questions about whether the Predators might make a move rather than losing a key asset for free.
Poile still has time to sweeten the deal for McPhee, but he wasn’t able to make a trade with any of the league’s other teams. At the moment, it certainly seems plausible that the Golden Knights might snatch Neal from Nashville.
Now, as painful as that prospect might be, Neal is 29 and carries a $5 million cap hit; if the Predators didn’t view him as part of the future beyond 2017-18, then this might be a lot like pulling off the Band-Aid a year early. It wouldn’t feel good, yet it might be the best option.
There’s also a question regarding whether the Golden Knights would want to take on an expensive deal for a player who may start to leave his prime once the team’s truly ready to compete.
As interesting a debate as Jarnkrok vs. Neal might be, the Golden Knights now must face a similar choice in Neal vs. Aberg.
Do you go with a reasonably affordable source of a precious commodity in goals in Neal, even though he’s 29 and makes $5 million? Instead, might you aim for Aberg, an intriguing young talent in need of an RFA deal?
The Predators secured Jarnkrok, a 25-year-old carrying a bargain $2 million cap hit through 2021-22. Even if his ceiling might be a touch lower, the former Red Wings prospect showed that he can climb up the lineup when needed, as he excelled when Nashville called upon him to take an elevated role thanks to injuries during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Success often makes your key pieces that much more desirable, something the Predators are experiencing right now. If Poile can’t sweeten the deal to make McPhee take a lesser player, Nashville fans will wonder about Jarnkrok vs. Neal (vs. Aberg) for some time to come.