Preview (opens in a new tab)Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2020-21, where Last Word on Hockey gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2020-21 Stanley Cup pick. Today the series continues with the 2020-21 Nashville Predators.
2020-21 Nashville Predators
The Predators suffered through a turbulent year in 2019-20. Inconsistency plagued the team and their longest streak of the season was a six-game slump through the middle of November. However, what was arguably worse was the team’s tendency to concede goals in quick succession. There were nine instances last season where the Predators gave up multiple goals in a matter of minutes. Most notably was the third-period disaster in the 2020 Winter Classic. Nashville gave up three goals at the start of the final frame to lose to the Dallas Stars in a game they had led for more than 35 minutes.
Overall the Predators’ struggles saw them trigger a mid-season coaching change, finish with their worst regular-season record in six years (in terms of points percentage) and bow out of the postseason in the Qualifying Round to the Arizona Coyotes in four games.
They seemed to continue their gradual decline from perennial Stanley Cup contender to mere bubble-team after-thoughts. Their newest acquisition from the 2019 off-season was the hailed franchise-tag center Matt Duchene, who brought excitement in the early going but his early-season form soon fizzled out. (42 points in 66 games) The forward lines were constantly shaken up in an attempt to get their stagnant star players firing on all cylinders, but to no avail.
Peter Laviolette was fired as head coach of the Nashville Predators in January and replaced by John Hynes. While the coaching change saw an uptick in on-ice results in the regular season, Nashville was still beaten by a mediocre Coyotes team in a qualifying playoff series to cap off a bitterly disappointing campaign.
General manager David Poile described the Predators Qualifying Round loss as ‘unacceptable’ and promised that changes were coming. Many fans interpreted Poile’s season-ending press conference as a willingness to get younger.
Sure enough, the Predators traded their veteran third-line centre, Nick Bonino, to the Minnesota Wild in exchange for 23-year-old centre Luke Kunin with a few draft picks also exchanged in the deal. David Poile cashed in on the Predators’ biggest bargaining chip to sign a former first-round pick who can be plugged into a similar role either on the second or third line.
In addition to the departures, the next biggest loss to the Predators roster is Craig Smith. Drafted 98th overall by the Predators in 2009, Smith spent all nine years of his NHL career in Nashville. He scored 162 goals and 330 points in gold. Smith tested free agency this offseason and has joined the Boston Bruins on a three-year deal. Also departing is long-time Predator Austin Watson, who was traded to the Ottawa Senators for a fourth-round pick. Elsewhere, Dan Hamhuis retired from the NHL after 16 seasons. He started and ended his 1,148-game career as a Nashville Predator. Otherwise, Korbinian Holzer, Yannick Weber and Colin Blackwell have not been re-signed for the upcoming season.
In terms of the team’s additions, it seems that Poile has tried to make complementary roster decisions to give this team a chance to gel. Nashville recently re-signed Granlund after letting him test free agency. When it became apparent that there was no deal for him in the current market, Granlund re-signed in Nashville. He inked a one-year deal worth $3.75 million, $2 million cheaper than his previous contract.
Additionally, he also signed Erik Haula, who already has a great rapport with Granlund. The fellow-countrymen have played together internationally for Finland on several occasions. But what is also intriguing about Haula was that he had a 29-goal season with the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017-18. Unfortunately, he suffered a horrific knee injury in November 2018 and since coming back, Haula hasn’t seen the same levels of production. But for only $1.75 million, he is the kind of player that is worth a punt on.
On the fourth line and bottom pairing, the 2020-21 Nashville Predators added familiar grit. Brad Richardson, who was on the fourth line of the Arizona Coyotes in their most recent playoff series with the Predators, clearly impressed David Poile during the Stanley Cup Qualifiers. He has been signed as a free agent on a one-year deal. Elsewhere Poile sourced a depth forward in former Vegas Golden Knight, Nick Cousins. Then with Nashville’s third defensive pairing in mind, he signed Matt Benning and Mark Borowiecki to two-year deals in free agency.
Nick Cousins – Brad Richardson – Calle Jarnkrok
The top-six for the 2020-21 Nashville Predators remains practically the same as last season with the sole exception of the sixth man. This may at first glance feel uninspiring for the fanbase. But last season was a down year for most of their top forwards. The issue, therefore, seems to point to a fault with the systems and coaching as opposed to a downturn in actual roster talent.
There is certainly hope for a bounce-back season with John Hynes recently reuniting the ‘JoFA’ line for the playoff matchup against the Arizona Coyotes. The first line was probably the only bright spark in that series. They looked dominant for long stretches on the ice. Arvidsson seemed revitalized and Filip Forsberg finished the season on a nice scoring run.
If Forsberg and Arvidsson play well in tandem, you can expect at least 50 goals between them. However, what will be pivotal for this core is Ryan Johansen’s form. The first line centre often seemed lethargic and disinterested last year, playing nowhere near the level Nashville had come to expect. The feeling is he will be the key to how well Nashville will fare in John Hynes’ first full season in Smashville.
The second line welcomes back the familiar faces of Matt Duchene and Mikael Granlund who were developing good chemistry under Hynes’ system. Granlund finished the second half of the season with an improvement in point production and this included his memorable multi-point night against the Calgary Flames. The Predators will be hoping for more out of Duchene however. His $8 million contract requires 70 point seasons in the front half of the deal to be worthwhile.
New Blood For 2020-21 Nashville Predators
Alongside both Duchene and Granlund, there was an assumption that the Predators may try and blood the much-anticipated prospect, Eeli Tolvanen after the off-season moves. And while there is still a possibility that this happens, Luke Kunin could lay claim to the final spot in the top-six. While Tolvanen has shooting talent that is desperately needed on the Predators roster, Kunin is a little more versatile and fits in with the playmaking style that has already been established there.
Nashville has plenty of options and combinations to play around with in the bottom-six. While they retained stalwarts such as Colton Sissons, Rocco Grimaldi and Calle Jarnkrok, they also added depth pieces to make up for their offseason losses to their core.
It is almost certain that their third line won’t be nearly as prolific as last season’s incarnation. Grimald, Bonino and Smith were ranked in the top 10 forward lines in the NHL for productivity with 29 goals scored and 11 conceded over the season. That sort of production isn’t being replicated with Grimaldi, Sissons and Haula.
On the fourth line, David Poile has added grizzled nastiness in the form of Brad Richardson and Nick Cousins. This brings back memories of the Predators from yesteryear. And there seems to be a very deliberate shift towards physicality with the roster construction. The Predators were ranked as one of the lowest teams in terms of hits during the extended playoff format last season.
Mark Borowiecki – Matt Benning
The Predators’ top four remains unchanged. Captain Roman Josi will hope he can continue to dominate with the same play-driving ability that helped him win the Norris Trophy last season. He will be the Predator’s fulcrum on both offence and defence. Meanwhile, Ryan Ellis will no doubt partner Josi and again be one of the most overlooked talents in the NHL. His ability to stay defensively solid while adding an extra element of offence with his shot provides Nashville with an extremely dynamic partnership on the top line.
On the second pairing, the Predators need to see some development from Dante Fabbro. He often seemed out of his depth last season at the number four spot. This would perhaps help to account for part of the reason the Predators finished the season 18th in goals allowed. For a long time, the Predators’ main strength was their defence, but the depth has been exposed and it remains to be seen if Matthias Ekholm is the right man to help Fabbro’s development.
Nashville’s bottom pair was bought in free agency. Both new incumbents, Matthew Benning and Mark Borowiecki will function as the shutdown pair. Borowiecki is thought of as an upgrade on Dan Hamhuis, a similar style of player but younger and faster with more physicality to give.
While the baton may have been passed last postseason, it is difficult to class Juuse Saros as the starting goaltender for the Predators. It may still be a case of a 1A/1B situation in Smashville, where the team will ride the hot hand. However, it was telling that John Hynes refused to bench Saros during his struggles in the Qualifying series against the Arizona Coyotes.
It could come down to who looks better at training camp to decide who gets the start on Opening Night. But expect these goalies to share the load as we’ve come to see more and more of in the NHL these days. There is a sense however that Rinne could be returning for his final year at Bridgestone Arena. It would suggest that he could gradually fade into the backup role as the year progresses.
Players to watch
Eeli Tolvanen has been a topic of intrigue and hope for many years among Predators fans. He hasn’t yet announced himself as an NHL player after a few short stints in Nashville over the last few seasons. However, it seems that he will get his chance in this shortened season to make his case. A spot on the second line wing has opened up and the sharpshooter could complement Duchene and Granlund’s playmaking creativity.
This would create a cohesive second line, something the Predators are desperate to sort. What should be concerning to the Predators’ hierarchy is that Tolvanen has made no indication that he is ready to reach the level required. He hasn’t outgrown the AHL by any means and he isn’t setting the KHL on fire this year either; he has just five goals and 13 points in 25 games for Jokerit this season.
Perhaps one of the most disappointing skaters last year for the Predators, Viktor Arvidsson is due a bounce-back year. Nashville’s first-line right winger had one of the worst drop-offs in production in the entire league in 2019-20, However that was in no small part due to a lower-body injury which he suffered in November after receiving multiple cross-checks from the St Louis Blues’ fourth-liner Robert Bortuzzo.
When Arvidsson returned to the ice, he didn’t look like the same player. His tenacity and speed on the rush had vanished and he struggled for goals throughout the year. He finally found a semblance of his goal-scoring prowess in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers. He notched three goals in four games against the Arizona Coyotes. Arvidsson is only one season removed from a record-breaking Predators season for goals scored. He managed 34 goals in just 58 games in 2018-19.
Philip Tomasino is now Nashville’s prized prospect in the forefront of the pipeline. Last season he dominated in the OHL with 40 goals and 100 points split between stints with the Niagara Ice Dogs and the Oshawa Generals. He is currently lighting up the World Junior Championship on Team Canada’s fourth line. He has four goals and six points in the first three games of the tournament. While showing extreme promise in a junior competition on a vastly superior team to the rest, may not provide much of an indication of a player’s NHL readiness, his productivity is still a sign of great promise.
Predictions for the 2020-21 Nashville Predators
The 2020-21 Nashville Predators line up as the fourth-best team on paper in the modified Central Division. They certainly rank behind the Tampa Bay Lightning, Dallas Stars and Carolina Hurricanes. They will most likely battle for the final playoff spot in the division with the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Florida Panthers. The best-case scenario for the Predators is to finish third or fourth in the Central. If they came up against the Carolina Hurricanes in the First Round they could even manage a playoff series win. But the second round is the absolute best case. The worst case is they miss the playoffs completely without being bad enough to secure a lottery spot.
The most realistic scenario is the Predators scraping into the postseason. That in theory would have them pitted against a powerhouse Tampa Bay Lightning team in the first round. In this case, expect a gentleman’s sweep of five games.