Welcome to our latest series here at Last Word on Hockey. The Puck Drop Preview series takes you through each team as the season is fast approaching. The preview will focus on the narratives surrounding the team ending last year, during the offseason, and heading into the 2021-22 season. Puck Drop Preview also focuses on what the season has in store for each team from a roster and expectations perspective. Join us as we look at all 32 teams before the season starts. Today, we take a look at the 2021-22 Nashville Predators.
2021-22 Nashville Predators
Many had the Predators left for dead at certain points last season. However, Nashville found its way into the playoffs despite numerous injuries. The Predators looked like their AHL affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals, at times, but they found a way to get the last spot in the Central Division. The old adage about needing a scorecard to keep up with the lineup was apt for the 2020-21 season.
Nashville may have exited after losing in the opening round to the Carolina Hurricanes. However, they did overcome adversity to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Credit is due to their young players, the coaching on John Hynes and the spectacular play of Juuse Saros in net.
Rinne Retires & Other Changes
It’s going to be odd not seeing Pekka Rinne patrol the crease for the Predators. Saros wrested the top job from his fellow Finn and the writing was on the wall. The former seventh round pick retires with 369 wins, a 2.43 goals-against-average and 60 career shutouts. Rinne will have his jersey raised to the rafters at Bridgestone Arena soon enough.
General manager David Poile also made some other drastic changes like sending veteran defenceman Ryan Ellis to the Philadelphia Flyers. The team also lost Calle Jarnkrok to the Seattle Kraken expansion draft. Erik Haula was also signed by the Boston Bruins and Luca Sbisa also moved on. Oft-injured forward Viktor Arvidsson was shipped off to the Los Angeles Kings in the off-season.
Nashville did manage to bring back Mikael Granlund after he thrived under Hynes’ system. David Rittich comes in as the veteran backup that will lighten the load for Saros.
Filip Forsberg – Ryan Johansen – Matt Duchene
Eeli Tolvanen – Mikael Granlund – Luke Kunin
Nick Cousins – Cody Glass – Tanner Jeannot
Yakov Trenin – Colton Sissons – Mathieu Olivier
Extras: Rem Pitlick, Rocco Grimaldi, Philip Tomasino
There’s a lot of money tied up on the top line and they all have a lot to prove. It feels weird that the JoFA line is no more, but Poile decided to cut bait on the team’s single-season franchise goal king. Both Johansen and Duchene are trying to justify their big-money contracts of $8 million apiece. They were both exposed to the Kraken in the expansion draft, but neither were taken. It’s hopeful that both take that slight personally and step up their respective games. Forsberg becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and will look to justify a big deal.
Granlund is hoping to replicate last season’s late surge to prove that his four-year, $20 million contract was worth it. Kunin is trying to also get a raise from his $2.3 million deal and is still a restricted free agent at the end of the campaign. He was known to provide some timely goals for the Predators last season. Tolvanen started playing like a first-round choice and hit double-digit goals for the first time last season. Duchene could also come down to centre the second line if needed or to put a natural winger on the top line.
The third line has a lot to prove as well. Newcomer Cody Glass is a former sixth overall selection. He’s getting a chance to get some sustained minutes with the Predators — something he didn’t have with Vegas. Cousins found a home with the Predators and gives the team energy. Jeannot endeared himself to the Smashville faithful as well with his solid play to earn a roster protection slot. He came out of nowhere to grab that spot and stepped up when injuries ravaged the team.
Nashville’s fourth line played really well and is one of the no-brainers when filling out the line sheets. There’s plenty of snarl and grit on that last forward group. They even started games and Jeannot filled in nicely when Olivier got hurt. This line can be relied on to kill penalties and salt away leads with their physical play.
Grimaldi might struggle to find time in Hynes’ system but can inject some much-needed offence into the lineup. Tomasino has shown improved play in the AHL with the Chicago Wolves. Pitlick bounced between the AHL and NHL and is hoping to stick.
Mattias Ekholm – Alexandre Carrier
Mark Borowiecki – Dante Fabbro
Extras: Ben Harpur, Matthew Benning
Josi is still one of the best blueliners in the business and he’ll hopefully help Myers, who came from the Flyers. Different partners could audition for that place next to Josi in Carrier and Fabbro. Carrier looks like he’s ready to break out and bounced between both the AHL and NHL. Ekholm is also a solid hand on defence is also looking to cash in on a payday if he has a strong season. He and Borowiecki will be counted on to be solid veteran leaders.
Extra: Connor Ingram
Saros has put his marker down at being the team’s future goalie. Yaroslav Askarov is likely a few seasons away from competing, so it’s Saros’ crease. The Finn may be on the smaller side, but showed he can shoulder the load with a 2.27 goals-against-average. Rittich will be counted on to spell Saros and get more game time than he did with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Ingram will be the top dog in Milwaukee and be ready in case of an injury.
Players to Watch
Ryan Johansen & Matt Duchene
We’re lumping both players into the same category because they’re both on a similar trajectory. Both want to justify the price tag they got and both are annoyed they were exposed to Seattle. Things haven’t gone too well in Music City, but there’s still time to turn things around. Any increased production from the two would be welcome for a team that’s going to need every goal it can get.
The Finn wants to prove last season wasn’t a fluke. There’s a lot of pressure to take over for a franchise legend in Rinne. Saros finally took the next step and doesn’t want to go backwards. His ability to keep games close will dictate what type of season the Predators will have.
The former Flyers defenceman is going to have to step in for the talented Ellis. He was limited to one goal in 44 games last season and will need to step up his production. He’ll get a chance to play with the former Norris Trophy in Josi and might get some time with the steady Ekholm. A change of location may help him bounce back.
Prediction for the 2021-22 Nashville Predators
The team does have over $10 million in cap space, but they have some decisions to make in the offseason. Nashville’s start will dictate where they take the franchise. A good start may see the Predators and David Poile try to add a piece or two with their cap space. However, a bad start could see them trade players like Ekholm and Forsberg to contenders. Both players are UFAs at the end of the season and Poile won’t let cut them loose without something coming back in return.
The team returns to the traditional Central Division with the added caveat of the Arizona Coyotes joining the division. Nashville is at a crossroads and their play will decide what direction they go.