The Nashville Predators entered the 2013 offseason with visions of flashy playmakers dancing in their heads. The franchise owned the fourth pick in the NHL Draft – the teams’ second highest draft pick ever – and money to spend in free agency. By all accounts, the team was supposed to acquire the high-end offensive player they’ve been seeking for 15 seasons. Then the script changed as Seth Jones fell to the Predators in the draft. The team followed up draft day by signing five free agents last Friday. Many needs were addressed, but some still remain.
Here are some pros, cons and observations from the offseason that has been:
Pro: By now, everybody knows what happened at the draft; defenseman Seth Jones fell to the Predators at No. 4 and David Poile couldn’t pass on him. With Jones in the fold, the Predators have the luxury of penciling in five defensemen on the depth chart for the next three seasons. Shea Weber, Kevin Klein, Roman Josi, Seth Jones and Victor Bartley are all under contract through the 2015-16 season. That list doesn’t include players such as Ryan Ellis or Mattias Ekholm that could earn a spot and an extension. Few teams can operate with that luxury.
Con: The negative side of that luxury: Defensively, the Predators are lacking in the experience department. Aside from Weber, Klein and Josi, no defensemen currently on the projected roster has played in more than 64 NHL games. Josi has only played in 100. In fact, the four players currently slated to compete for the other three spots on the opening night roster – Ryan Ellis, Victor Bartley, Seth Jones, Mattias Ekholm – have played in a total of 89 NHL games. The talent is there, but the experience is not.
A reliable, veteran defenseman that can play second pair and penalty kill minutes would be a big help for the current group. Eighty-two games from now things may look different, but it seems like an unnecessary roll of the dice not to bring in a reliable veteran for this season. Jones may come in and perform right away. Then again, he may not. Most likely, he will experience the typical ups and downs most 18-year-old NHL rookies encounter. Icing him in the regular season is one thing; icing him for 18-20 minutes a night in the playoffs is a different animal altogether.
Odds are Barry Trotz would prefer to use him in a more protected role. The same could be said for Ekholm and/or Ellis. Bartley is more of a wild card. He exceeded expectations last season and may develop into a solid second-pair defenseman, but that’s far from a certainty at this point.
The Predators are committed to getting back to defense-first, heavy forecheck, lunch pail hockey. Rolling with four largely inexperienced defensemen doesn’t jibe. Granted, the type of player I’m talking about would likely require a multi-year deal, thus occupying a spot in 2014-15 that David Poile may want to reserve for a prospect. Sometimes the long-term view wins out over the short-term.
Pro: Speaking of long-term view: These seven defensemen will have a chance to grow, mature and develop a special chemistry together in a way few units are afforded the opportunity. In the free agency era, three consecutive seasons together for an entire position group is nearly unheard of.
It’s also a luxury for Poile. If the young group develops according to plan, he will be able to focus all of his attention on improving the forwards. From a GM’s perspective, being able to pencil in an entire position group for three years and not worry as much about them is rare.
The other benefit from Poile’s perspective is age: While it’s daring rolling with such a young group this year, the total bill will be consistent and semi-inexpensive for the next couple of seasons. Weber is the highest paid defenseman in the NHL. Putting a group around him that has talent but doesn’t cost a fortune is no small chore; credit Poile for accomplishing that.
Con: Along the same lines, the Predators elected to sign Carter Hutton, a goaltender that has appeared in one NHL game, instead of signing an experienced, veteran backup. Given Pekka Rinne’s workload over the past few seasons – plus his expected participation in the Olympics – and the team’s defense-first mentality, having a reliable backup Trotz trusts without hesitation would seem to be more of a priority. That said, who am I to question Mitch Korn’s evaluations? His track record speaks for itself. Despite that fact, it’s still a calculated risk.
Pro: Given the level of high-end offensive talent on the roster (or lack thereof) – and in the system – Poile did an outstanding job signing four, hard-working, and defensive-minded ‘Predator Way’ forwards that all fill specific roles. While the fan base was clamoring for big names, Poile approached things in more detailed manner, electing to fill roles and add depth in hopes of icing a team that plays the Predator Way. Simply put, given the way the draft played out, the team is not well positioned to win any other way. The roster will be deeper, harder to play against and more experienced next season. The four free agents have played a total of 1,987 regular season NHL games, led by Cullen’s 1,073 regular season games and 147 playoff games. They replace, presumably, four forwards – Matt Halischuk, Nick Spaling (unsigned RFA), Sergei Kostitsyn and Brandon Yip – that totaled 908 games and, aside from Kostitsyn, didn’t pack a ton of punch.
Con: The Predators are currently committed to five centers at a combined cost of $17.3 million. Those centers scored a total of 36 goals last season. To be fair, some battled injuries and the circumstances surrounding a shortened season, but that’s still a healthy sum of money for a group that doesn’t include a true No. 1 center. They will be deeper down the middle than they have been in many years (maybe ever), but the search for an elite center that can do it all – score goals, win key faceoffs in all three zones, be used against any opposing line and play both the penalty kill and power play – will continue.
Con: Year after year, (fans have) waited patiently for Poile to go on a spending spree at the open of free agency. This year he finally spent and the reaction is halfhearted at best. In total, the Predators handed out five contracts totaling $36.2 million. Only two of the players brought in addressed the real need – the need everybody was hoping would be addressed: offensive skill. But neither player is a major upgrade over the player they are replacing. In Hendricks and Nystrom, the Predators committed to a pair of four-year deals at a price tag of $4.35 million per season. Again, both players fill a need and will be welcome additions. That said, that’s a large sum of money spent on players that mostly filled holes left by missed evaluations.
Pro and con: Based on projected depth charts, the Predators stand to ice one of the least expensive first lines and most expensive fourth lines. For a franchise that prides itself on finding inexpensive pieces, that fact is bizarre to say the least.
Con: Given that a lot can change, it’s a little unfair to say this on July 11, but the decision to hang on to both Craig Smith and Ryan Ellis is a bit of a gamble. The franchise was unable to get the missing forward through the draft, and the free agent market offered little in the way of true upgrades, leaving the trade market as the only real option. Ellis is the club’s best defensive asset because of his power play potential and Smith is the most expendable offensive piece. Pairing the duo, while they still have value, with another prospect or a pick could have fetched something. The possibility that both perform below expectations and see their value dip is too great to risk.
Future shockwaves: The Predators have four centers under contract for 2014-15 already – Fisher, Gaustad, Cullen and Hendricks – and that doesn’t include the possibility of (a) Colin Wilson moving to center or (b) prospects maturing to the NHL level over the next calendar year. The team will face a numbers crunch next season. At this moment, 11 forwards are under contract for the 2014-15 season – and that figure does not include players like Taylor Beck or Rich Clune, or prospects like Austin Watson, Pontus Aberg or Zach Budish, among others.
With that in mind, is 2013-14 the final year of the David Legwand era in Nashville? As the Predators’ rollercoaster has made its way up and down, Legwand has been on board for every turn. It’s hard to imagine the Predators taking the ice without him. Taking it a step further, both Fisher and Cullen will be free agents after 2014-15. That means the current crop of centers may see a major overhaul in the near future.
Expanding on the numbers crunch: The following players are under contract for the next four-plus seasons: Shea Weber, Patric Hornqvist, Roman Josi, Pekka Rinne, Paul Gaustad, Viktor Stalberg, Eric Nystrom and Matt Hendricks. Those eight players are on the books for a combined total of $39.1 million real (not cap) dollars in 2016-17.
Assuming players mature as projected, the following are likely to earn raises in that same timeframe: Gabriel Bourque, Colin Wilson, Filip Forsberg and Seth Jones. That doesn’t include wildcards like Smith, Ellis, Ekholm or Beck.
One final observation: It’s amazing how much the roster has turned over in the last 3 seasons. Only eight players remain from the 2010-11 team that lost to Vancouver in the second round of the playoffs: Shea Weber, Mike Fisher, David Legwand, Patric Hornqvist, Kevin Klein Pekka Rinne, Colin Wilson and Nick Spaling.