Although we’re less than three months into the season, the trade deadline is already just three weeks away. Where does each team stand and what moves should they be looking to make? We continue our look around the league with the Nashville Predators.
The Nashville Predators are sellers. In fact, the Predators being ready to gut their roster has been one of the more talked-about storylines of the 2020-21 season. Ask any media personality in hockey and they will say that Nashville is shopping this guy and listening on that guy. It seems that almost anyone on the roster could be available as the Predators have been labeled as disappointments.
Yet, hidden behind the headlines, the outrage level likely isn’t that high internally in Nashville. Quietly, the team is actually playing quite well of late. Since Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman proclaimed last month that there were only three untouchables on the entire Nashville roster, the team has gone 10-7-1 including four wins in a row and wins in six of their past seven. The team is up to .500 on the season and that could be enough to sneak into the postseason in the Central Division’s final spot. In their history, the Predators have never really torn apart their roster and restarted and it seems unlikely that they have the proper motivation to do so now.
With that said, this is still not where the 2017 Western Conference Champions thought they would be at this point in time. The season results have gotten worse each year since their Stanley Cup Final appearance: a second-round exit in 2018, a first-round loss in 2019, and a failure to even advance beyond the qualifying round last year. Now, there is a real possibility that the Predators could miss the playoffs entirely this season. A team loaded with depth and numerous talented veterans, Nashville should be better and it is somewhat inexplicable why they aren’t. As a result, there needs to be a shake-up. However, given the recent improvements, the Predators’ approach to the deadline is likely to be less fire sale and more strategic dealing, especially in a buyer’s market.
17-17-1, .500, T-5th in Central Division
Deadline Cap Space
$2.46MM in full-season space ($10.97MM at the trade deadline), 0/3 retention slots used, 45/50 contracts used per CapFriendly
Upcoming Draft Picks
2021: NSH 1st, NSH 2nd, NSH 3rd, NSH 4th, COL 4th, NSH 5th, NSH 6th
2022: NSH 1st, NSH 2nd, NSH 3rd, NSH 4th, NSH 5th, NSH 7th
It is probably easier to start with the players who aren’t for sale. As Friedman noted back in February, that definitely includes career Predator goaltender Pekka Rinne, who is in the last year of his contract and quite possibly his career and is being honored with the ability to go out on his own terms (and a No-Movement Clause helps). It also included cornerstone defensemen Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis. At the time, this was the extent of Friedman’s list. He even noted that young defender Dante Fabbro or top scorer Filip Forsberg could be available at the right price. Now, that is almost certainly not the case. Friedman has also since flipped on Ellis’ availability, but he should be safe. Nashville also has no reason to trade young impact players, such as off-season acquisition Luke Kunin, recent first-round pick Eeli Tolvanen, collegiate standouts Rem Pitlick and Jeremy Davies, and impressive goaltender Juuse Saros.
Beyond that group, it probably isn’t a stretch to say that GM David Poile will at least listen to offers for anyone else on the roster. Part of that is due to the Predators’ current situation and the slim likelihood that they can contend this season, even if they do sneak into the playoffs in a top-heavy Central Division. This means that they receive no benefit from hanging on to their impending unrestricted free agents. Mikael Granlund is the top trade chip among this group. The skilled forward was a late off-season signing and somewhat of an afterthought heading into the season, but leads all Nashville forwards in time on ice, proving himself to be an invaluable piece. Other teams have taken notice as well, as Granlund’s name has been floated on the rumor mill more than a few times and has been linked to several contenders. Another late off-season addition, Erik Haula will also be for sale. A similarly versatile forward to Granlund, Haula hasn’t made as much of an impact but has previously proven to be an asset in the right system. Among other expiring contracts, veterans Brad Richardson and Luca Sbisa, if healthy by the deadline, could draw some interest at a cheap price point. Despite their recent success, the Predators only reason for not trading any of these potential rentals would be if they had interest in an extension and only Granlund, their most valuable piece, would conceivably fit the bill.
The other reason why Poile is open to moving other players off his roster, those with term on their contracts, is partially due to the impending Expansion Draft. Whether the Predators choose to use the standard 7-3 protection scheme or instead choose the 8-skater scheme in order to protect Mattias Ekholm, they will be exposing key players either way. Ironically, the Predators’ impressive depth on paper is not doing much to help them this season but will hurt them in expansion. Ekholm is at the top of most trade boards as a name likely to move before the deadline. The Seattle Kraken would not hesitate to claim him if he was to be left exposed in the draft and the Predators will not give him up for free when he can command a strong return on the trade market as a balanced, two-way defenseman with an affordable contract and a reliable top-four track record. Yet, even if Ekholm is traded and the Predators can protect three defensemen and seven forwards, they still face liability up front. Nashville simply has too many valuable names at forward, even if many are underachieving. Are they really ready to let expensive, underwhelming former stars like Ryan Johansen or Matt Duchene go for free? Could they really leave career Predators like Calle Jarnkrok or Colton Sissons exposed? And they also need to consider protecting younger names like Pitlick an Yakov Trenin who could be looked upon to take on larger roles moving forward. There are simply too many names in Nashville for a valuable player not to be left exposed, so why not listen to trade offers instead. Moving Johansen or Duchene this season is unlikely due to cap implications, but Jarnkrok, Sissons, Rocco Grimaldi, and Nick Cousins are all for sale at the right price. The difference between last month’s mindset and the current strategy is likely that only one or two of the aforementioned players are likely to go, rather than the whole lot in a fire sale.
The x-factor for Nashville at the deadline is forward Viktor Arvidsson. By no means does the team have to trade the talented winger, who will have a safe spot on their protection list come Expansion Draft time if he is still on the roster. However, Arvidsson has been in decline for two seasons now – an unexpected regression for a 27-year-old. Arvidsson is still relied upon to play a key top-six role for Nashville, but is failing to produce like he did as a back-to-back 61-point player just a few years ago. On one hand, the Predators would be selling low on the skilled forward, who should still have plenty left in the tank. On the other hand, moving Arvidsson if they are happy with an offer could be the reality check that the team desperately needs. If the trade market remains underwhelming though, as many expect, it is more likely that Arvidsson stays put for now. Trading him at his lowest point while the team is finally gaining traction is not the shake up they need.
1) Draft Picks – Despite several years in a row of regular season success, the Predators have managed to build themselves a nice pipeline of talent. At every position, they have multiple players who project to be good NHLers. The problem with their current pipeline is that it is getting a little old. Some of their best prospects are already in the pros, bouncing between the NHL and AHL or locked into contracts overseas. Many others are collegiate players on the older side for prospects. Nashville needs some fresh blood and the best way to do that is to add draft picks. Though they have their full complement of draft picks this year (minus a seventh-rounder), draft pick packages will be the way to go as they move on from current roster players.
2) Top-Four Left-Handed Prospect Defenseman – If available, the one area that Nashville could target a specific player rather than load up on draft picks is at left defense. With Ekholm looking like his time in Nashville is winding down and some concern over whether Boston University defenseman David Farrance will sign with the team or instead opt for free agency, there could be a major hole in the top-four at LHD. The Predators have the cap space to find a capable free agent stopgap, but could use a long-term plan. Young pros Fabbro, Alexandre Carrier, and Frederic Allard are all right-handed and Davies looks like a solid NHLer but is already 24 and lacks top-pair upside. In the pipeline, Marc Del Gaizo is an intriguing prospect but more likely a bottom-pair defender. No one else even projects to be an NHLer. The Predators need to reload on the blue line, and can do that through the draft, but if a top young left-handed defense prospect is offered up, they would be wise to consider. To a lesser extent, center is also a position that could become a need sooner rather than later in Nashville as many of the Predators’ top forward prospects are not necessarily projected to play center at the top level. A natural pivot with top-six upside would be a nice addition, but isn’t as pressing as left defense and could be more easily found where the team expects to pick in the first round of the 2021 NHL Draft.