Last Word on Hockey’s Puck Drop Previews are back for the 2023-24 season! As the regular season approaches, Last Word will preview each team’s current outlook and stories to watch for the upcoming year. We’ll also do our best to project how things will go for each team over the course of the campaign. Today, we’re previewing the 2023-24 Nashville Predators.
2023-24 Nashville Predators
This season will see the start of the Barry Trotz era. It was announced in February that Trotz was appointed general manager, effective from June 30th, following the retirement of David Poile. Predators fans will be hoping this has allowed Trotz to do his homework and set the club up for a successful season.
Currently, Nashville does not view itself to be in a full rebuild, rather opting to consider a retool more appropriate. Trotz has indeed worked hard to do this, looking to rely on a mix of new and old established NHLers. However, it will soon be seen if this was the right move.
The previous season was a difficult one for the Preds. A spotty record of 42-32-8 was only good enough for a fifth-placed finish in the Central Division and tenth in the Western Conference. This meant that for the first time since the 2013-14 season, Nashville missed the playoffs.
Therefore, decisive action was deemed necessary. Whilst a full gutting of the squad was not done, plenty of changes were made. Throughout the season, the likes of Connor Ingram, Nino Niederreiter, Tanner Jeannot, Mattias Ekholm and Mikael Granlund all departed. This made room for Trotz to mould the team into his own image.
The Predators were not afraid to make big, big changes to the squad this year. Nashville lost several players of various importance, with the likes of Cal Foote, Zach Sanford and Rasmus Asplund all departing for pastures new.
However, the biggest name to leave was forward Matt Duchene. Although he underperformed last season and had a large contract, it still came as a surprise to many that the Preds bought out last season’s top goal scorer. The Canadian has remained in the Central Division, signing a team-friendly deal with the Dallas Stars.
Duchene was quickly replaced, however. With a large hole down Nashville’s core, Trotz managed to lure Ryan O’Reilly to the Music City. As one of the top free agents in his class, with an excellent NHL record on and off the ice, he was a huge coup.
Fellow forwards Gustav Nyquist and Denis Gurianov were also acquired in free agency. The former is a speedy, playmaking winger, who is not afraid to fire on goal and has plenty of leadership qualities. Gurianov also is a similar sort of player and whilst he does not put up the same stats as Nyquist, he does provide more grit. The Russian will be a fine addition to the middle six.
Another player who fans will be pleased to see on the roster is Luke Schenn. 2008’s fifth overall pick had a strong rookie season but followed up with many rough years in the NHL, which included a number of demotions to the AHL. He has since bounced back to proudly call himself a two-time Stanley Cup winner and be recognised as one of the league’s more reliable stay-at-home defencemen. He will be an excellent match alongside the attack-minded Roman Josi.
As mentioned above, Nashville’s top-six group has undergone quite a transformation. Filip Forsberg and Thomas Novak project to be the only ones to return from last season. However, it does seem that after dispatching players, the Predators’ recruitment has not resolved their biggest problem; goalscoring
O’Reilly is an excellent forward but as a former Selke Trophy winner, he is more known for his two-way game. Nyquist is always ready to attempt a shot on goal but does not boast a prolific accuracy record. Last season was a difficult one for Gurianov and the Russian is under pressure to bounce back. Finally, fellow winger Luke Evangelista is unproven in the NHL.
It is not all doom and gloom, however. The projected top-six is bursting with playmakers, who will boost each other’s game. Combined with the outs don’t leadership brought in this will boost confidence and the probability of goals.
It will be interesting to see how the bottom-six group will fare for the Preds this season.
The highlights will be down the middle, with the returning pair of Colton Sissons and Cody Glass. Both are perfect for the intensity that being in an NHL team’s bottom-six group and will bring camaraderie, hard hits and a tough two-way game.
The wingers that will flank Sissons and Glass will likely be players they are familiar with. This will include Philip Tomasino, a 2019 first-round pick. Tomasino has had a rollercoaster start to his career. His rookie season saw a respectable 32 points in 76 games, but last year he was forced to split his time between Nashville and the Milwaukee Admirals. In the final year of his contract, Tomasino will be doing his utmost to show that his versatility, speed, puck-moving skills and strong shot will be useful to stay around with the big club.
Roman Josi – Luke Schenn
Once again, Nashville’s defence will be its strong suit. Josi, an ever-present contender in the Norris Trophy conversation will lead the blueline. The Swiss can be relied upon for his outstanding offensive production, puck-moving, playmaking and leadership. As outlined above, it is likely new boy Schenn will be paired up with the club’s captain. His role as a stay-at-home defenceman will free Josi to make decisive plays.
The top four looks to be rounded out by veterans Ryan McDonagh and Tyson Barrie. Once again, the duo will match nicely with Barrie’s offensive play, pairing well with McDonagh’s defensive qualities. The latter is also a huge voice in the locker room and is not afraid to throw big hits and protect his teammates, which makes McDonagh a wonderful teammate to have.
The bottom pairing looks to likely be Dante Fabbro and Alexandre Carrier. Both are solid two-way defencemen who could crack the top four if required. Each has the ability to track back and can quarterback play, as well as fire off a strong shot. Fabbro and Carrier are both strong options for the special teams units.
Goaltending will once again be a strong suit for Nashville and will be fascinating to monitor. Jusse Saros, considered one of the NHL’s best goaltenders, will be the presumed starter. Currently, Kevin Lankinen is the likely back-up. However, things could change very quickly.
Rumours are swirling that if the playoffs are once again out of reach by the trade deadline, Trotz could pull the trigger and trade Saros. This would subsequently put Lankinen and Yaroslav in a heated battle for the starting spot, Askarov would be expected to at least showcase that he can beat out Lankinen, a player with minimal experience.
Players to Watch
This year will be a big one for Evangelista. Drafted in 2020’s second round, the former London Knight spent most of last season in Milwaukee. He impressed with 32 points in 49 games, making the AHL All-Star Game. He also had a brief stint with the big team, notching a respectable 15 points in 24 games.
After such a strong year, he will likely be there opening night. Evangelista will bring to the table his playmaking ability – 40 of last season’s points came from assists – and excellent defensive skills, with teammates, coaches and fans alike hoping he develops into the tremendous two-way player he is projecting to be.
However, his shot is not a strong asset. Once again this is a flaw which will not help the Predators’ forward group, but if he can work on this and boost his scoring, we could truly see a breakout year for the Canadian.
Nashville’s eleventh overall pick in the 2020 Draft, Askarov is considered the future between the pipes in Nashville. The Russian has spent his career in North America waiting in the wings to succeed Saros.
The Predators’ results could see Saros traded, resulting in a duel between himself and Lankinen for the starting spot. However, the battle could begin regardless of Saros’ status. Askarov has already had a taste of professional hockey in North America but will want to use this pre-season to prove he is ready for the NHL. If he does the 21-year-old could be saying goodbye to the Admirals and serving as Saros’ back-up.
Prediction for the 2023-24 Nashville Predators
There is a definite risk of the Predators falling short again. Ultimately, Trotz needed to get another goalscorer; Forsberg alone cannot be responsible for all the scoring. The likes of Evangelista, Tomasino and Askarov have huge seasons ahead of them – questions will be raised if they cannot contribute.
Additionally, if struggles run deep into the season and Trotz feels forced to trade Saros, the goaltending will not recover. This will have a serious impact on the quality of the team moving forward. It could even start the ball rolling on a number of other big pieces being moved.
However, the players acquired do seem to have made the team better equipped to avoid a repeat of last year. If the forward group gels nicely, the playmaking talent on offer could increase scoring. Combined with one of the best defensive cores in the league and an elite goaltender, Nashville could make the playoffs on a wildcard. Considering the quality of the Central Division, automatic qualification might even be a possibility.
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