As a shortened and hectic offseason approaches, Last Word on Hockey is looking ahead towards how teams will deal with the reality of a flat salary cap. In terms of building a franchise, the offseason is the most crucial time of the year for front offices. However, due to COVID-19, the short-term future of how this operates has seen sweeping changes. This series attempts to examine what choices teams may have to make. We’ll operate going from worst to best. Today’s piece focuses on the Nashville Predators’ offseason.
2021 Nashville Predators Offseason Primer
General manager David Poile promised fans a Predators’ youth movement during the 2020 offseason. While that promise was fulfilled in 2020-21, the commitment to the strategy only began in earnest on the back of several injuries to Nashville’s primary core. When the injury bug spread like wildfire through the roster taking out Ryan Johansen, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis and Matt Duchene, only then did the team turn towards their prospects for support. It certainly wasn’t the ideal introduction to the NHL for the Admirals’ finest: “Hey! Come dig us out of an 11-16-1 hole.”
On the flip side, the physical affliction within the roster proved rather serendipitous. After all, it’s doubtful that Poile had planned to blood so many youngsters but it soon became a necessity. And within the chaos, the prospects shone.
Now, on the back of so many positive prospect performances, maybe Nashville will embrace a stripping-down exercise and jettison the bloated veteran contracts which tether this team to its mediocrity.
Pending Free Agents
Speaking of which, Nashville’s free agents could provide a small outlet for cap clearance. Their unrestricted free agent list includes Mikael Granlund, Brad Richardson, Erik Haula, Erik Gudbranson and the much-beloved Pekka Rinne. Unfortunately, the quality here isn’t getting anyone hot under the collar with only one premier piece amongst plenty of replacement-level-types.
As such, much of the attention will be on Nashville’s intriguing restricted free agent board instead. Headlining that list is Juuse Saros, who’s established himself as one of the most exciting goaltending talents in the NHL. Once he’s taken care of, the Predators will be prioritizing instrumental pieces such as Eeli Tolvanen, Dante Fabbro, Tanner Jeannot and Mathieu Olivier. Plenty within the Milwaukee Admirals fold, who gained experience in the NHL this season, also qualify as RFA’s this offseason. This includes players like Cole Smith, Michael McCarron, Rem Pitlick and Jeremy Davies.
Salary Cap Outlook
Currently, David Poile has around $18.5 million dollars in cap space according to CapFriendly and around nine or ten notable free agents. Of course, if the Predators manage to entice Seattle into taking a pricier forward, they relieve themselves of further constraints. For example, if Arvidsson is exposed and selected by the Kraken, the Predators cap space jumps up to almost $23 million dollars.
Expansion selection aside, when analyzing the players they have to sign, they should probably be looking to assign around $7 million dollars for their two goalie spots, around $4-5.5 million for a top-six forward and then use the remaining 6 million or so to bolster their depth.
Right now, the Nashville Predators are in a good position to make a few additions and subtractions and carve out a slight facelift this offseason. But to access the big-ticket items, they would rely on Seattle taking Johansen or Duchene off their hands, which is unlikely without a side deal.
Major Likely Departures
Haula is likely one of the only casualties of the cap situation. Despite growing into his role as the season progressed, he never quite provided that goalscoring upside Poile was seeking. He finished with nine goals in 2020-21, which is his smallest tally since 2014-15.*
*Discounts his injury-plagued season in 2018-19.
This feels like a one-and-done type contract for Richardson. Overall, he only managed to play 17 games this year and Nashville ended up finding better options in the minors to replace him.
David Poile’s deadline day addition of Erik Gudbranson was an empty-calorie play to create a buyer’s buzz around the franchise. Treading water and refusing to properly commit to a buyer or seller moniker, Nashville’s GM went and added a guy that was so insignificant, you almost wonder if Poile just wanted to feel part of the trade hubbub.
While the move was effectively a PR stunt to congratulate the team on a remarkable run, the results on the ice were pretty ugly. Nashville got their brains bashed in when Gudbranson was out there; he averaged around 40 percent in Corsi for, overall shot-share and expected goal percentages at five-on-five.
So long as Poile is done setting fire to cap space, we should assume Gudbranson’s brief stint in Nashville is over.
Major Likely Re-Signings
This is a nailed-on, done deal already. Saros, almost singlehandedly dragged the Predators to back-to-back postseasons and established that he could be a consistent and trustworthy starter in the process. The deal will likely be a bridge since the Preds also have Russian phenom, Yaroslav Askarov waiting in the wings.
From a business perspective, Poile is probably relieved Saros wasn’t voted a Vezina finalist this year as it easily knocks a million off his AAV. That said, the outrageously athletic netminder can expect a very decent raise.
Granlund has arguably benefitted the most from John Hynes’ coaching. He is certainly the most trusted forward on the team, having over a minute more of average ice time per night (19:27) than even Filip Forsberg (18:17), who’s in second place.
His point totals aren’t setting the place alight (62 in 130 games as a Predator) but he is an excellent complementary piece to playmakers like Duchene and Johansen. Problem is, his performance has warranted a pay rise from the $3.75 million dollar discount deal he took last year. In the end, Poile should offer him a new contract.
Led the team in powerplay goals and terrorized goaltenders with a shot that rivals the likes of Patrik Laine‘s. Tolvanen took a little while getting acclimated but when he did, he exploded into life. His sharpshooting managed to provide a modicum of respectability to an otherwise woeful powerplay. At one point, he carried it from the bottom five in the league into the middle of the pack.
Conversely, he did disappear towards the end of the season, as goalscorers tend to, but that shouldn’t discourage anyone. His release is always going to be a threat in this league. However, Nashville needs to draw up more ways to get him the puck in space. After all, he only had three more shots than Rocco Grimaldi in 2020-21.
Fabbro’s fate was discussed in the expansion draft protection list article which you can find here.
Ultimately, defencemen take a while to mature and develop. The Predators, despite benching Fabbro for the postseason, see his potential and will re-sign him this offseason.
Tanner Jeannot and Mathieu Olivier
24-year-old pair, Jeannot and Olivier were wrecking balls down the stretch for the Predators. Jeannot, in particular, was an absolute truck, mowing down opposition with feral ferocity.
They are grouped together here because they were interchangeable in the roster down the stretch. Both forwards slot nicely into a heavy checking role on the fourth line. They also play a game that appeals to the grit-and-grind style that Hynes likes in his bottom six. So much so that he often threw them onto the ice to set the tone at the beginning of periods.
Despite the fact that bottom-six forwards are the most replaceable asset for any hockey club, it’s clear that Nashville is very keen to hold on to these two going forward.
This one is a bit of a shot in the dark. But if Rinne plays next year it is unfathomable to imagine him being anywhere but Smashville. He’s talked a lot about how important being with just one NHL franchise his entire career means to him. What’s more, beyond all of the sentimental reasons, he and Juuse work well together and surely making your number one goalie as comfortable as possible is also a significant factor to consider?
In an interview with The Athletic Hockey Show Podcast, Rinne did confirm that Poile has kicked off the Nashville Predators offseason by holding talks with him about his future. Could there be one more season left in him?
Let’s be real: everyone wants a farewell tour. Fans want him back for one more year to send him off with a statue outside Bridgestone and his name raised to the rafters. Who wouldn’t be on board with that?
Potential Free Agent Additions
If Pekka Rinne doesn’t re-sign for one last hurrah before he hangs up his skates and blocker, Nashville has a few intriguing backup options in net. Naturally, they will want to remain cheap and cheerful with this contract as Juuse has now proven he can carry a starter’s load. With that said, guys like Antti Raanta or Jonathan Bernier are probably too expensive to pursue. Therefore, David Poile’s focus would likely be on a James Reimer or a David Rittich-type player to support Saros.
Reimer posted a .906 save percentage in 2020-21 and conceded 6.4 goals above expected. Meanwhile, Rittich had a .901 save percentage in 19 games, conceding 3.1 goals above expected. Rittich ranked 30th and Reimer ranked 41st in goals saved above expected respectively. Poile would hope to offer around $1.5-2 million dollars for either of their services which seems fair.
Otherwise, the Predators shouldn’t get too carried away with free-agent signings this offseason. A metamorphosis in roster ideology has almost taken hold in Tennessee and it would benefit the Predators to embrace the prospect injection on a permanent basis. That way the likes of Philip Tomasino and Rem Pitlick can slot into the roster as opposed to being frozen out by veterans on one-year deals. Ideally, the Nashville Predators offseason should see more of that youthful focus.