Peter Laviolette

Predators decide Tolvanen still isn’t ready for NHL

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The Nashville Predators made some roster cuts on Sunday, with one being a little bit surprising: Eeli Tolvanen.

This doesn’t send a signal to panic, but it is a little frustrating to see the stilted development of the 20-year-old forward, who was the 30th overall pick of the 2017 NHL Draft.

For much of 2017-18, Tolvanen made highlight-reel plays in Finland that led people to believe that the Predators pulled off a big steal. That momentum was seemingly halted late in that season, however, as he received limited use in three regular-season games with the Predators. Still, hopes were high for the then-rookie winger.

To Tolvanen’s credit, he didn’t explore a potential out-clause as he stagnated in the AHL last season. Apparently that didn’t earn him enough cool points with the Predators to get him a longer look during this training camp, though.

To be fair to the Predators, they might just want to see more out of Tolvanen before pulling the trigger on a longer NHL look. He was fine in the AHL last season (15 goals and 35 points in 58 games with the Milwaukee Admirals), but not quite mind-blowing enough to kick the door down.

That said, it was a little frustrating to see a lack of experimentation from Predators head coach Peter Laviolette last season. Personally, I felt like Tolvanen was worth a try on a power play unit that was absolutely awful; the 2018-19 rendition of the Predators didn’t have a ton of players with a shot on par with what Tolvanen can unleash.

With Matt Duchene‘s shot added as an option on the power play, it might have been tougher to squeeze Tolvanen into the mix, although his abilities make you believe that it was worth more of a try.

It remains a little baffling that the Predators are sending Tolvanen down so early, although his waive exempt status plays a role in the decision.

A player like Tolvanen can sometimes provide that extra spark — and some extra easy goals — that can help you win a few extra games, or maybe even break open a tight playoff game. Of course, Laviolette might contest that he’s still at a point in his career where he’d make a mistake that would instead open up such opportunities for the Predators’ opponents.

Tolvanen could easily resurface for the Predators during the 2019-20 season, and maybe do so more than once. It’s nonetheless difficult to fight a bit of impatience when he’s down in the AHL, especially if it means he’s losing opportunities to one or more of Frederick Gaudreau or Miikka Salomaki.

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Nashville Predators

(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.

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.

Predators’ power play headaches linger into playoffs

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War, war never changes. To Nashville Predators forward Craig Smith, the same can be said for the team’s power play lately.

“I’m frustrated, we’re all frustrated. It pisses me off,” Smith said, according to News Channel 5’s Jonathan Burton. “We’ve been doing the same thing for years; nothing changes.”

The Predators finished the regular season with the worst power play in the NHL, and that problem reared its ugly head during their Game 1 loss to the Dallas Stars, as that unit went 0-for-4. The Stars, meanwhile, went 1-for-3 in snagging a tight 3-2 victory. (Game 2 takes place at 6 p.m. ET on Saturday on CNBC [livestream])

Heading into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Smith and other Predators players remained all-too-aware of these power-play struggles … maybe too aware?

“I think it’s a mindset to go out there,” Smith said heading into Round 1, according to NHL.com’s Robby Stanley. “Sometimes you have to play it like it’s 5-on-5. I think that’s definitely a crucial part of it too, retrieving pucks and getting back and supporting one another, because you’ve got to find the 2-on-1 somewhere. We’ve worked hard at it and watched a lot of video.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Whenever a team’s power play is struggling, I tend to look to three things:

1. Is that team just having bad luck?

It’s just about certain that this plays at least part of the role for the Predators. Still, this bleeds into the next point.

2. Are the wrong players shooting, particularly too many defensemen?

They managed a respectable four shots on goal during those four power plays, although the shooters were a mix of defensemen (P.K. Subban and Ryan Ellis) and maybe not the ideal forwards you’d want firing the puck (Brian Boyle and Kyle Turris). After generating 34 goals despite being limited to 58 games played, Viktor Arvidsson didn’t even have a missed shot on the PP.

Too many point shots is one of those issues that seems all too obvious with power plays dealing with deeper-seated issues than a mere cold streak. In Nashville, you’d figure there’s a political element. After all, you want to keep your star defensemen happy. Either way, you’d want Forsberg, Arvidsson, and Ryan Johansen firing more shots.

3. Are the Predators making the right personnel choices?

Identifying the power play as a problem, GM David Poile brought in a big net-front presence in Brian Boyle (who was also sought after for his defensive acumen) and Wayne Simmonds (a player well-known for his resume of power-play prowess, though that’s faded recently).

There have been signs of at least mild improvement by Nashville’s power play in the last month or so, but allow me to get back on my soapbox and wonder if what the Predators’ PP really needs is Eeli Tolvanen.

Even if the young forward can’t earn Peter Laviolette’s trust at even-strength, you could easily fit Tolvanen into a role as a power-play specialist and hide him lower in the order otherwise. The Stars aren’t exactly the league’s deepest team, so Tolvanen’s skill could also create dividends if Laviolette decided to take the very mild risk of inserting the 30th pick of the 2017 NHL Draft.

In particular, Forsberg and Arvidsson can be threats in these situations, yet for all that the Predators possess, they could really use a/another true sniper whose shot is simply a weapon.

That’s especially true since Ben Bishop has been one of the best goalies in the NHL this season, and considering his enormous frame, it might take next level shooting skills to beat him on some nights. You can quibble with Tolvanen’s all-around game, but few would doubt his shot.

***

One way or another, the Predators need to find answers as the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs go along. Maybe they can grind out a Round 1 series win against a generally low-scoring Stars team, but maybe not, as special teams might just move the needle. Beyond Dallas, the Predators would have to really dominate on 5-on-5 to beat the cream of the crop, if they can’t at least scrounge up respectable special teams.

And that might require not “doing the same thing for years.”

Stars-Predators Game 2 from Bridgestone Arena will be Saturday night at 6:00 p.m. ET on CNBC (livestream).

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 hop over Jets, Blues to win Central Division

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(UPDATE: Here’s the full Round 1 schedule with dates and TV info.)

They won’t need a banner for the Presidents’ Trophy this time around, but the Nashville Predators did manage to win the Central Division for the second season in a row — this time on the final night of the season.

Saturday set a fitting scene, then, as the Predators fought back from a 2-0 deficit to beat the Chicago Blackhawks 5-2. An empty-net goal and Nick Bonino‘s late 5-2 tally made the game look a lot more lopsided that it often was.

(In fact, Ryan Ellis kept what could have been a 3-3 tying goal out of the Predators’ net with a head’s up play.)

It’s fitting in at least a few ways. For one thing, the Predators symbolically took the divisional torch from the Blackhawks during their run to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. Chicago won the 2016-17 Central Division title, then the Predators emphatically swept them. From there, Nashville’s won the last two Central crowns. Maybe that history explains why the Blackhawks gave Nashville such a battle?

The benefits seem pretty clear. Nashville avoids either the St. Louis Blues or the Winnipeg Jets in the first round. That doesn’t mean they’ll open the first round in a leisurely way against the Dallas Stars, but avoiding the Jets and Blues is a plus. Nashville also gets home ice for at least two rounds of the postseason, depending upon how things shake out.

It’s enough to leave you hopping with joy.

Again, it will be Nashville vs. Dallas, which figures to be a very tight-checking matchup.

Meanwhile, we’ll get what is sure to be a slobberknocker (c/o Jim Ross) of a two vs. three seed series in the Central, as the Blues will face the Jets. It’s not yet clear which team will hold home-ice advantage in that series, as the Blues currently sit in second, but Winnipeg can pass them (hop by them?) if they beat the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday.

That series is, frankly, about as tough to call as the Central Division race has been down the wire.

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.