© Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Coming into the season, a lot of people expected the Nashville Predators to contend for the Stanley Cup. They didn’t fit the bill of contenders in the regular season though, finishing 8th in the Western Conference. But they found their form in the playoffs and came within two wins of their first Cup in franchise history.
But Nashville still has work to do. They came 11th in the league in goals for, which is good. They came 15th in the league in goals against, which is good. They had a 51.4% Corsi, which is good. But you need to be great to win the Stanley Cup.
Let’s take a closer look at the Predators’ roster and salary cap situation so we can get a clearer idea of what this team needs to do in the offseason in order to take the step from challengers to champions.
Here’s a rough depth chart of the Predators’ roster through the lens of the catch-all statistic Game Score:
Just eyeballing the roster you can tell that this is a team with strong forwards and defensemen lacking in just a little bit of depth.
Up front, Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson lead the charge, with James Neal and a group of others providing good depth. The team has several players that are mediocre fourth-liners at best though, including some that play on the third line. Names like Colton Sissons and Austin Watson may be NHL players, but the roster would be better served if Nashville could find a way to replace those players with more productive players on the cheap.
On defense the team fares tremendously well, possessing the best defense group in the league. P.K. Subban and Roman Josi are stars, and Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm are also better than your average second-pairing player. The only real weakness on the team is Yannick Weber and anybody else that comes in after him, such as Brad Hunt. So like their forward group, Nashville can improve by adding some better depth to their blueline.
In net, 34-year-old Pekka Rinne had a good season, boasting a .918 save percentage in the regular season and a Conn Smythe-calibre .930 in the playoffs. He’s been inconsistent since turning 30 though, boasting a .910, .902, .923, and .908 in the previous four seasons. He needs to be at least as good as he was last year, which may be asking too much. Luckily the team also has Juuse Sarros, a 22-year-old goalie that had a .923 save percentage in his rookie season. He could be their goalie of the future, and if Rinne falters this year, he’ll need to step up.
Overall then, Nashville is a team that could serve to add to their depth in order to take the next step both in the regular season and in the playoffs.
Here’s another rough depth chart of the Predators’ roster, this time with their salary info included. Note that the team also owes $2.834M in buyout money to Viktor Stalberg, Eric Nystrom, and Barret Jackman. They should have roughly $20M in salary cap space total this summer.
Firstly, they have several bargain deals that allow them to ice a roster as talented as the one that they have. Josi’s and Ellis’ contracts are particularly good, and Jarnkrok, Fiala, Ekholm, and Saros stand out as good value as well.
Secondly, the team has no glaringly bad contracts holding them down. In fact, virtually the only contract even resembling something ugly is Pekka Rinne’s. And while Rinne is overpaid, there are few other options currently out there, meaning Rinne is still among their best options.
The one problem for them this summer will be the key players they have on expiring contracts. Johansen in particular is in line for a long-term deal, and there’s a good chance Arvidsson gets one as well. Mike Fisher is trickier, because he’s contemplating retirement. Pontus Aberg, who had a mini-coming out party in the playoffs, looks like he’s finally ready for a long look in the NHL. His contract figures to be minuscule.
Overall then, Nashville is in a good salary cap situation, with manageable problems to worry about in the short-term, and virtually nothing to worry about in the long-term.
To summarize, here’s what we have in Nashville:
- A team that finished just outside the top ten in goals for and goals against, who had good but unspectacular puck possession numbers.
- A team with lots of front-end talent, but some minor depth issues.
- A generally good salary cap situation, with a tiny bit of cap space that can be dedicated to unrestricted free agency.
What this means then is Nashville should focus on becoming a top-ten team in goals for and against, with improved puck possession numbers. The best remaining way for them to do that is by adding depth. The easiest way to add that depth will be in free agency.
Nashville’s offseason plan, then, should be to add virtually the most talented players possible at any position. Let me be clear: they shouldn’t target fourth-line guys to put on the fourth line, and they shouldn’t target bottom-pairing guys to put on the bottom pair. What they should do is go after top six forwards and top four defenseman, and fringe players after that. That then gives Nashville the option of either putting those new additions in depth roles, or having those players bump other good players down the lineup. Either way, the end result is that Nashville becomes deeper and more productive.
There are hurdles though. For one, the expansion draft puts Nashville in serious danger of losing James Neal, who they had to expose in order to protect their four defensemen. If the Predators can entice the Golden Knights to lay off Neal in the form of picks and prospects, Nashville can move forward with a focus on free agency. If they can’t, they’ll need to replace Neal rather than add to him, which would make the Predators’ efforts in free agency less impactful. On a similar note, they’re in danger of losing Fisher to retirement, which would mean even more lost depth.
At the entry draft, Nashville has picks in every round except for the fourth, meaning they’ll have a good opportunity to add quality prospects to the pipeline in order to keep their future bright. They can also explore parlaying those assets via trade, with the hope of improving the main roster.
And in free agency, the team should look to sign whichever quality players they can. It won’t be easy, as they’ll likely have less than $10M in cap space after deals to Johansen and Arvidsson, but if they budget properly, they can add multiple good pieces. Just look at the cheap deals handed out to useful players last summer, whether it’s Kris Versteeg or Michael Grabner or Jonathan Marchessault. Players like that make your team better. And if they want to add a bigger fish they can likely afford at least one of those as well. Joe Thornton improves your team. Kevin Shattenkirk improves your team. Nick Bonino improves your team. Justin Williams improves your team. Dmitri Kulikov improves your team. So go out there and improve your team. If you can do that by whatever means necessary, you can take the next step from challengers to champions.
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