June 08 2016 11:00AM
Nashville built off of a strong 2014/15 season with a very good 2015/16, although to some it may have been considered a bit of a disappointment. The team made it to game seven of the Western Conference semi-finals, before ultimately bowing out to the Sharks, but finished with eight fewer points than the previous season. There were some scoring woes and, despite the addition of top centre Ryan Johansen from Columbus in a mid-season blockbuster, the team was unable to produce consistent results. On the whole, Nashville suffered from a bit of bad luck regarding shooting percentage, and subpar performances in net from Pekka Rinne and Carter Hutton. Had they performed as well as their expected goal metric indicated, we might be singing a different tune about Nashville’s final positioning this season.
There was a noted optimism coming into 2015/16, with
Nashville looking to build off of their 104 point campaign in 2014/15. Things
started off well, as the team finished October with an 7-1-2 record and looked
like a force to be reckoned with in the Central Division. But the offense
proved to be inconsistent: a 4-0 loss, a 7-5 win, a 2-1 loss, a 7-0 win, and
shortly after, three games in a row where they were shut out – 4-0, 4-0 and 3-0
– in November. They faded back into the pack, where they remained most of the
year, battling for a wild card play-off spot instead of a division lead.
The Preds drew a tough straw in the first round of the play-offs, battling against the resurgent Ducks. Anaheim had about as opposite a start to the season to Nashville as you could get, with a brutal stretch that many thought would spell the end of Bruce Boudreau’s tenure. But the team rebounded to become one of the best teams in the entire league by season’s end and entered the play-offs sky high. Nashville weathered the storm and took them out with a great game seven performance. In the second round, the Preds took eventual Stanley Cup finalist San Jose Sharks to the brink, coming back from a 2-0 series deficit and forcing a game seven. The Sharks proved victorious, and Nashville was left wondering “what if?”.
Nashville has always had a bit of a problem bringing in in-their-prime scoring talent and keeping it. Many point to Peter Forsberg as a good example of a time when the team had a top C, and while that’s true, it was on the downswing of his career. Alex Radulov performed well in his time with the team and could have been that star winger, but otherwise, Nashville has been a meat-and-potatoes team. Peter Laviolette (and to a lesser extent, Barry Trotz’s final year with the team) did his part to change that, adding in more up-tempo offensive play while still preaching a strong defensive work ethic. But even after the strong 2014/15 season, it was obvious that running noted piece of human garbage Mike “Family Man” Ribeiro out as a number one centre was not going to produce the desired offensive production. So, in early January, in an effort to kickstart the league’s 17th ranked offense, general manager David Poile sent young defender Seth Jones to Columbus for star centre Ryan Johansen.
Early returns were mixed: Johansen produced seven points in his first six games, but Nashville went just 1-4-1. Johasen would go on to score just eight goals for the Predators, and even though he added 26 assists for 34 points in 42 games, it wasn’t the explosion that many had expected. Johansen’s offensive production was also inconsistent – he had 14 game and 8 games goalless droughts, one of which sandwiched a seven game pointless streak. Through all of that, Nashville’s offense did improve from 17th in the league to 13th by season’s end. Johansen is also not finished developing; he’s just 23, and has much room for improvement on both sides of the puck.
The Predators were one of the top teams in the league in Corsi last season, lead by strong performances from Mike Ribeiro (56.7%), Craig Smith (56.6%) and Filip Forsberg (56.3%).
Forsberg was the clear top weapon for the team, providing 33 goals and 64 points. He was exceptional when it came to shot production, as his lines generated 11.97 more shot attempts per 60 minutes relative to the rest of his team, good for fifth in the entire NHL. Forsberg also chucked 351 individual shot attempts towards the net at even strength, and another 139 if you factor in all situations (including powerplay), placing him top ten in the league.
Colin Wilson, who finished with a dismal three even strength goals, suffered from a microscopic 5.5% shooting rate, well down from his pre-2015/16 career average of 13.2%. Wilson’s drop in production was almost all goal-based; his even strength assist rate was higher than his career average, but his goalscoring dropped from 0.77 goals per 60 to just 0.23. This seems to be rooted in either poor shot selection or just bad luck. Wilson was actually producing shots and attempts at a higher-than-normal rate, with 7.01 shots per 60 (all situations) and 11.94 attempts, both notably higher than his pre-2015 averages. It would not surprise me to see Wilson surge in goals next season, back to a similar rate to his career levels.
Outside of your expected names like James Neal (31 goals), Johansen and Forsberg, Nashville had another big shot-generator: Rookie Viktor Arvidsson. The 23 year old Swede was a bit of a surprise, notching eight goals in 56 games in playing largely a 3rd and 4th line role with almost no special teams time. While Arvidsson’s point production was nothing special, his offensive generation was another matter. He is a shooting machine, producing 12.03 shots per 60 minutes at even strength, and 19.74 Corsi per 60 minutes – both team-leading numbers, and top six in the NHL.
Arvidsson is also creating scoring chances, with 107 at even strength this season (just under 10 per 60 minutes of icetime), good for fifth on the team, despite playing in fewer games than any of the top ten Preds. While he may not have the high-end shot or puck skill to be a consistent point-producer, he is proving to be an incredibly effective bottom six forward and still has room to grow.
Roman Josi and Shea Weber are still no doubt the top defensive pair for the team, usage-wise, but Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis make for one of the top second-pairing combinations in the NHL. They are consistently above-average relative to the rest of the team in almost every category possible. It’s not simply Weber and Josi taking tough minutes and leaving the scraps for Ellis and Ekholm, either, as they play very similar percentages of icetime, and face similar quality of competition. Weber and Josi come out on the tougher end in both of those categories, but the difference is not a significant amount.
The departure of Jones on the blueline allowed Anthony Bitetto and Petter Granberg to gain more playing time. Bitetto seemingly won that battle, dressing for all of Nashville’s play-off games. He will likely be the leading candidate for the sixth defender slot next season, assuming Nashville does not bring in an outsider to fill the role.
Top prospect Kevin Fiala will certainly contend for a roster spot next season. The 19 year old Fiala lead the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals with 50 points in 66 games. His defensive game is a work in progress and he still needs to build upper body strength, but it would not be a surprise to see the explosive 5’10” forward make the roster out of camp and slot into a middle-six role and secondary powerplay time. 22 year old Pontus Aberg lead Milwaukee with 25 goals and could also be a candidate for a roster spot. Young defenders Trevor Murphy (32 points in his rookie season with Milwaukee), and Jack Dougherty (52 points in the WHL, will start next season with the Admirals), could make NHL impacts in the future, but not likely in 2016/17.
The Predators are losing only two notables to free agency this off-season: fourth line centre Paul Gaustad and back-up goaltender Carter Hutton. Gaustad was one of the biggest anchors in the league, with almost zero offensive production, mixed in with the worst scoring chance differential on the team. While he is no doubt a great glue guy and a tremendous leader, his actual on-ice abilities will not be a loss for the team. Hutton is an average (at best) back-up, and should be easily replaced with Marek Mazanec in the short-term.
Cap-wise, the Predators are coming up roses. Of their top 11 players (top six forwards, top four d-men, and goalie), eight are signed for at least two more seasons, six of whom are at $5 million per season or less. Only Ribeiro is likely to be lost during this timeframe.
This off-season will see priority one set on re-signing Forsberg, who slots in as an RFA for the first time. He will be commanding a hefty increase on his entry-level deal, likely in the neighbourhood of $4m for a bridge deal, or $6m-$7m for a longer-term contract. Fortunately, thanks to contracts like Gaustad ($3.25m) coming off the books this off-season, and the combined $10.3 million of Ribeiro, Mike Fisher, and Eric Nystrom expiring next season, either option should be easily achievable. Outside of Forsberg, Nashville has two notable RFAs in Calle Jarnkrok and Gabriel Bourque, both of whom should be relatively quick and painless re-signs.
Four of Nashville’s six defenders are locked up for at least two more seasons at (mostly) reasonable deals, and all six are signed for next season. A huge boon for the team is having Josi, Ekholm and Ellis signed for 3+ more years at ridiculously team-friendly deals. Josi’s $4m per year contract continues to be one of the best bargains in the league. While Weber isn’t a top defenseman anymore, he still is going to be used like one, and he still at least puts up points. His contract, which runs for another ten years(!!!), isn’t hampering the team right now, but most certainly will end up being one of the worst contracts in the league within the next few seasons as age catches up to him.
The Nashville net belongs to Pekka Rinne for the next three seasons. The 33 year old, however, did not perform up to par with his reputation or contract. Rinne’s even strength save rate of just 92.04% placed him 33rd of 48 goalies with 1000+ minutes played in 2015/16. While it is reasonable to think that Rinne can improve on that number next season, it’s also sensible to believe that Rinne’s best seasons are behind him, and that 92.04% is more likely to be carried forward than previous Vezina-quality performances. 21 year old Jusse Saros may be Rinne’s heir apparent, as he posted a strong 92% save percentage with Milwaukee in his rookie season, but he’s probably not quite NHL-ready yet.
(chart via Carolyn Wilke of Today's Slapshot)
Up front, the Predators have almost a full fleet of forwards, but should look to improve on them, especially in the middle six. It would be easy to assume that all but Gaustad would be considered a returning player. But if ownership wants to improve on 2015/16, there is space to go out and improve their depth, especially in the middle six. The bottom six is home to many younger players, it might be wise to bring in a more steady, veteran hand. There are a ton of free agent wingers available, but not much in the way of impact top sixers. The few that fit that bill are going to be scooped up at massive overpayments for way too long. If the price is right, players like Teddy Purcell, Jason Chimera, PA Parenteau, or Lee Stempniak could work as third liners, with the ability to step up to a top six role on occasion. The best bet for the Preds would likely be to explore the trade market in hopes of landing a second line winger. With the impending expansion of the league, and the cap likely to stay at a similar point to this year’s number, there will be a lot of teams looking to dump salary this off-season.
Though the Preds are already set with six NHL defenders, they have the cap space to sign another bottom-pairing defender to shore up the blueline, if they so choose. They could go in the direction of a stay-at-home, physical, penalty killing option, or stick with their top four-style two-way blueliner to complement their elder statesman in Barret Jackman. Targets could include players like aging but useful ex-Pred Marek Zidlicky, Yannick Weber, or a more unproven but cheap option like Zach Redmond.
In net, Marek Mazanec will likely get the nod as the back-up to Pekka Rinne. The 24 year old hasn’t been lights-out in the AHL, but has some NHL experience (27 games played between 2013-2015) and is cheap.
Smart cap management, bargain deals, and a burgeoning young core featuring players entering or at the apex of their primes years have put Nashville in a position to succeed. Management will now have the task of accentuating the positives of their current roster with the adequate depth and additional scoring ability needed to get the team over their hump. The Predators’ window of being a serious contender is open. Now it’s up to them to take the next step.