Because It’s The Cap: Nashville Predators

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 2:27 am by Jeremy Crowe

Nashville built off of a strong 2014/15 season with a very
good 2015/16, although to some it may have been considered a bit of a
disappointment. The team made it to game seven of the Western Conference
semi-finals, before ultimately bowing out to the Sharks, but finished with
eight fewer points than the previous season. There were some scoring woes and,
despite the addition of top centre Ryan Johansen from Columbus in a mid-season
blockbuster, the team was unable to produce consistent results. On the whole, Nashville
suffered from a bit of bad luck regarding shooting percentage, and subpar
performances in net from Pekka Rinne and Carter Hutton. Had they performed as
well as their expected goal metric indicated, we might be singing a different
tune about Nashville’s final positioning this season.

Last Season

Preds-Numbers

There was a noted optimism coming into 2015/16, with
Nashville looking to build off of their 104 point campaign in 2014/15. Things
started off well, as the team finished October with an 7-1-2 record and looked
like a force to be reckoned with in the Central Division. But the offense
proved to be inconsistent: a 4-0 loss, a 7-5 win, a 2-1 loss, a 7-0 win, and
shortly after, three games in a row where they were shut out – 4-0, 4-0 and 3-0
– in November. They faded back into the pack, where they remained most of the
year, battling for a wild card play-off spot instead of a division lead.

The Preds drew a tough straw in the first round of the
play-offs, battling against the resurgent Ducks. Anaheim had about as opposite
a start to the season to Nashville as you could get, with a brutal stretch that
many thought would spell the end of Bruce Boudreau’s tenure. But the team
rebounded to become one of the best teams in the entire league by season’s end
and entered the play-offs sky high. Nashville weathered the storm and took them
out with a great game seven performance. In the second round, the Preds took eventual
Stanley Cup finalist San Jose Sharks to the brink, coming back from a 2-0
series deficit and forcing a game seven. The Sharks proved victorious, and
Nashville was left wondering “what if?”.

Nashville has always had a bit of a problem bringing in
in-their-prime scoring talent and keeping it. Many point to Peter Forsberg as a
good example of a time when the team had a top C, and while that’s true, it was
on the downswing of his career. Alex Radulov performed well in his time with
the team and could have been that star winger, but otherwise, Nashville has
been a meat-and-potatoes team. Peter Laviolette (and to a lesser extent, Barry
Trotz’s final year with the team) did his part to change that, adding in more
up-tempo offensive play while still preaching a strong defensive work ethic. But even after the strong 2014/15 season, it was
obvious that running noted piece of human garbage Mike “Family Man” Ribeiro out as a number one centre was not going to produce
the desired offensive production. So, in early January, in an effort to
kickstart the league’s 17th ranked offense, general manager David
Poile sent young defender Seth Jones to Columbus for star centre Ryan Johansen.

Early returns were mixed: Johansen produced seven points in
his first six games, but Nashville went just 1-4-1. Johasen would go on to
score just eight goals for the Predators, and even though he added 26 assists
for 34 points in 42 games, it wasn’t the explosion that many had expected.
Johansen’s offensive production was also inconsistent – he had 14 game and 8
games goalless droughts, one of which sandwiched a seven game pointless streak.
Through all of that, Nashville’s offense did improve from 17th in
the league to 13th by season’s end. Johansen is also not finished
developing; he’s just 23, and has much room for improvement on both sides of
the puck.

Roster Analysis

The Predators were one of the top teams in the league in
Corsi last season, lead by strong performances from Mike Ribeiro (56.7%), Craig
Smith (56.6%) and Filip Forsberg (56.3%).

Preds Corsi Differential

(chart via Sean Tierney of Today’s Slapshot and GameCharts)

Forsberg was the clear top weapon for the team, providing 33
goals and 64 points. He was exceptional when it came to shot production, as his
lines generated 11.97 more shot attempts per 60 minutes relative to the rest of
his team, good for fifth in the entire NHL. Forsberg also chucked 351
individual shot attempts towards the net at even strength, and another 139 if
you factor in all situations (including powerplay), placing him top ten in the
league.

Colin Wilson, who finished with a dismal three even strength
goals, suffered from a microscopic 5.5% shooting rate, well down from his
pre-2015/16 career average of 13.2%. Wilson’s drop in production was almost all
goal-based; his even strength assist rate was higher than his career average,
but his goalscoring dropped from 0.77 goals per 60 to just 0.23. This seems to
be rooted in either poor shot selection or just bad luck. Wilson was actually
producing shots and attempts at a higher-than-normal rate, with 7.01 shots per
60 (all situations) and 11.94 attempts, both notably higher than his pre-2015
averages. It would not surprise me to see Wilson surge in goals next season,
back to a similar rate to his career levels.

Outside of your expected names like James Neal (31 goals),
Johansen and Forsberg, Nashville had another big shot-generator: Rookie Viktor
Arvidsson. The 23 year old Swede was a bit of a surprise, notching eight goals
in 56 games in playing largely a 3rd and 4th line role
with almost no special teams time. While Arvidsson’s point production was
nothing special, his offensive generation was another matter. He is a shooting
machine, producing 12.03 shots per 60 minutes at even strength, and 19.74 Corsi
per 60 minutes – both team-leading numbers, and top six in the NHL.

Preds-iCorsi

Arvidsson is also creating scoring chances, with 107 at even
strength this season (just under 10 per 60 minutes of icetime), good for fifth
on the team, despite playing in fewer games than any of the top ten Preds.
While he may not have the high-end shot or puck skill to be a consistent
point-producer, he is proving to be an incredibly effective bottom six forward and
still has room to grow.

Roman Josi and Shea Weber are still no doubt the top
defensive pair for the team, usage-wise, but Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis make
for one of the top second-pairing combinations in the NHL. They are
consistently above-average relative to the rest of the team in almost every
category possible. It’s not simply Weber and Josi taking tough minutes and
leaving the scraps for Ellis and Ekholm, either, as they play very similar
percentages of icetime, and face similar quality of competition. Weber and Josi
come out on the tougher end in both of those categories, but the difference is
not a significant amount.

The departure of Jones on the blueline allowed Anthony
Bitetto and Petter Granberg to gain more playing time. Bitetto seemingly won
that battle, dressing for all of Nashville’s play-off games. He will likely be
the leading candidate for the sixth defender slot next season, assuming Nashville
does not bring in an outsider to fill the role.

Top prospect Kevin Fiala will certainly contend for a roster
spot next season. The 19 year old Fiala lead the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals with
50 points in 66 games. His defensive game is a work in progress and he still
needs to build upper body strength, but it would not be a surprise to see the explosive
5’10” forward make the roster out of camp and slot into a middle-six role and
secondary powerplay time. 22 year old Pontus Aberg lead Milwaukee with 25 goals
and could also be a candidate for a roster spot. Young defenders Trevor Murphy
(32 points in his rookie season with Milwaukee), and Jack Dougherty (52 points
in the WHL, will start next season with the Admirals), could make NHL impacts
in the future, but not likely in 2016/17.

The Predators are losing only two notables to free agency
this off-season: fourth line centre Paul Gaustad and back-up goaltender Carter
Hutton. Gaustad was one of the biggest anchors in the league, with almost zero
offensive production, mixed in with the worst scoring chance differential on
the team. While he is no doubt a great glue guy and a tremendous leader, his
actual on-ice abilities will not be a loss for the team. Hutton is an average
(at best) back-up, and should be easily replaced with Marek Mazanec in the
short-term.

Cap Situation

Preds-Cap

Cap-wise, the Predators are coming up roses. Of their top 11
players (top six forwards, top four d-men, and goalie), eight are signed for at
least two more seasons, six of whom are at $5 million per season or less. Only
Ribeiro is likely to be lost during this timeframe.

This off-season will see priority one set on re-signing
Forsberg, who slots in as an RFA for the first time. He will be commanding a
hefty increase on his entry-level deal, likely in the neighbourhood of $4m for
a bridge deal, or $6m-$7m for a longer-term contract. Fortunately, thanks to
contracts like Gaustad ($3.25m) coming off the books this off-season, and the
combined $10.3 million of Ribeiro, Mike Fisher, and Eric Nystrom expiring next
season, either option should be easily achievable. Outside of Forsberg,
Nashville has two notable RFAs in Calle Jarnkrok and Gabriel Bourque, both of
whom should be relatively quick and painless re-signs.

Four of Nashville’s six defenders are locked up for at least
two more seasons at (mostly) reasonable deals, and all six are signed for next
season. A huge boon for the team is having Josi, Ekholm and Ellis signed for 3+
more years at ridiculously team-friendly deals. Josi’s $4m per year contract continues
to be one of the best bargains in the league. While Weber isn’t a top
defenseman anymore, he still is going to be used like one, and
he still at least puts up points. His contract, which runs for another ten
years(!!!), isn’t hampering the team right now, but most certainly will end up
being one of the worst contracts in the league within the next few seasons as
age catches up to him.

The Nashville net belongs to Pekka Rinne for the next three
seasons. The 33 year old, however, did not perform up to par with his
reputation or contract. Rinne’s even strength save rate of just 92.04% placed
him 33rd of 48 goalies with 1000+ minutes played in 2015/16. While it is
reasonable to think that Rinne can improve on that number next season, it’s
also sensible to believe that Rinne’s best seasons are behind him, and that 92.04%
is more likely to be carried forward than previous Vezina-quality performances.
21 year old Jusse Saros may be Rinne’s heir apparent, as he posted a strong 92%
save percentage with Milwaukee in his rookie season, but he’s probably not
quite NHL-ready yet.

Off-Season Plan

Preds-P60

(chart via Carolyn Wilke of Today’s Slapshot)

Up front, the Predators have almost a full fleet of
forwards, but should look to improve on them, especially in the middle six. It
would be easy to assume that all but Gaustad would be considered a returning
player. But if ownership wants to improve on 2015/16, there is space to go out
and improve their depth, especially in the middle six. The bottom six is home
to many younger players, it might be wise to bring in a more steady, veteran hand.
There are a ton of free agent wingers available, but not much in the way of impact
top sixers. The few that fit that bill are going to be scooped up at massive
overpayments for way too long. If the price is right, players like Teddy
Purcell, Jason Chimera, PA Parenteau, or Lee Stempniak could work as third
liners, with the ability to step up to a top six role on occasion. The best bet
for the Preds would likely be to explore the trade market in hopes of landing a
second line winger. With the impending expansion of the league, and the cap
likely to stay at a similar point to this year’s number, there will be a lot of
teams looking to dump salary this off-season.

Though the Preds are already set with six NHL defenders,
they have the cap space to sign another bottom-pairing defender to shore up the
blueline, if they so choose. They could go in the direction of a stay-at-home,
physical, penalty killing option, or stick with their top four-style two-way
blueliner to complement their elder statesman in Barret Jackman. Targets could
include players like aging but useful ex-Pred Marek Zidlicky, Yannick Weber, or
a more unproven but cheap option like Zach Redmond.

In net, Marek Mazanec will likely get the nod as the back-up
to Pekka Rinne. The 24 year old hasn’t been lights-out in the AHL, but has some
NHL experience (27 games played between 2013-2015) and is cheap.

Conclusion

Smart cap management, bargain deals, and a burgeoning young
core featuring players entering or at the apex of their primes years have put
Nashville in a position to succeed. Management will now have the task of
accentuating the positives of their current roster with the adequate depth and
additional scoring ability needed to get the team over their hump. The
Predators’ window of being a serious contender is open. Now it’s up to them to
take the next step.