NHL 31 in 31 Season Review: Nashville Predators
Next up in our 31 in 31 season review is a look at the Nashville Predators. The team won the President’s Trophy for most points in the NHL but thanks to the current playoff structure lost to the league’s second-best team in the second round. The team has to be disappointed by how the season ended but they can easily bring back the same team to try again next season. They even have the cap space to make a big splash this offseason.
Season Bright Spots
If you have been reading along, you know the drill by now but if this is your first season review you are reading, first, I would like to welcome you. Second, I want to make sure I state that just because a player doesn’t appear in this section it doesn’t mean they had a poor season. Instead, I have been reserving this section for players who were truly exceptional or performed above the level expected of them. The same is true for the major disappointment section. Just because the players don’t appear, it means they had good seasons, it means they performed around what was expected. For example, I’m not going to discuss a 4thline player with poor possession numbers because that is basically what is expected of them.
With that disclaimer, I would like to start this section with Kevin Fiala. Fiala is only 21 years old and was the team’s second-best possession player during 5v5 play. When Fiala was on the ice, the Predators controlled the shot rate 6.11% better. He also was the fourth highest scoring player during 5v5, scoring at a rate of 1.94 points per 60. The fact that he was a healthy scratch during the playoffs was inexcusable as he was the team’s best possession player during 5v5 play in the playoffs. The fact that there were narratives thrown out around Fiala being a poor defensive player seems a little off basis. When Fiala was on the ice, the team had to spend much more time in the offensive zone than the defensive zone based off his possession numbers. However, since he doesn’t bring the grit and toughness that teams seem to think is critical in the playoffs, he must’ve seemed like the obvious player to scratch for Scott Hartnell. It also didn’t help that he only scored 1.28 points per 60 during the playoffs during 5v5 play.
The next player I want to highlight is Craig Smith. Smith was the player right above Fiala in the measures I previously discussed. Smith did finish one place behind Fiala in playoff scoring, which was way off the pace of what he did during the regular season. For his salary, Smith was a pretty solid player for the Predators. He produced at a top level while only counting $4.25M in salary cap and playing on the second line. The Predators don’t necessarily need to clear salary this offseason but if they want to in order to make a major addition, Smith could be an attractive piece for many teams. He only has two more years left, taking him to age 30 and that cap hit is fair if not a bargain for his level of play.
Finally, I think I need to acknowledge how good Kyle Turris was after coming over from Ottawa. Yes, Turris didn’t score at the pace that was expected from him in the playoffs but he continued to dominate the shot metrics during 5v5 play. Are we seeing a theme here? Anyways, Turris was a force during the regular season. He was the Predators’ third best player behind Fiala and Smith. Turris didn’t come cheap but he was exactly what the Predators needed. The team desperately needed another top end center that could be trusted in all situations and that was exactly what Turris brought. The team had to get Turris locked up long-term given the price they paid but inking Turris for six years might come back to bite them. The good news is Turris is signed to a fairly reasonable $6M per season.
The obvious place to start is the team failed to win the Stanley Cup after being the top team in the regular season. If you read the bright spot section you would have seen a theme. The team’s top players still put up strong possession numbers but Fiala, Smith, and Turris struggled to put up points. I highly doubt the same would be the case next year if they are in a similar situation. The Predators were one of the best teams in the playoffs but ran into a force in the Winnipeg Jets.
It’s hard to say there were many disappointments when you finish with the most points in the NHL, but I will highlight two things quickly. During last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs where the team lost in the finals to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team’s weak bottom pair defense was exposed. The Predators added Alexei Emelin this offseason to try to solve the issue. Well the issue still existed. Matt Irwin seems to be fine as the Predators didn’t really see a drop in play when he was on the ice versus when he was off during 5v5 play in the regular season. However, in the playoffs, he was shelled. The combination of Emelin, Yannick Weber, and Anthony Bitetto, who were the other players to play on the bottom pair this offseason, were terrible all season and into the playoffs. This is clearly still a weakness for the team that probably should be addressed this offseason.
The Predators paid Nick Bonino, a third-liner at best $16.4M over four years to come in and help allow the team to roll three balanced lines. Well he didn’t do that. The team was 5.14% worse when Bonino was on the ice versus off. Acquiring Turris probably should have been a decision completely independent of Bonino because Turris is a far superior player but Bonino’s weak play had to make acquiring Turris that much more important. The Predators don’t have many (if any) regrettable contracts on their books but Bonino could quickly trend that direction. I wonder if he is someone whose name comes up this offseason in trade talks.
The Predators will likely have around $12M in cap space this offseason with few free agents to sign, with the only two of note being restricted free agents in Ryan Hartman and Juuse Saros. Miikka Salomaki is also a restricted free agent and could be a player to bring back to play a fourth line role, though his salary shouldn’t be anything of major significance. I would imagine retaining those players likely won’t cost more than $4M – $5M, leaving them with, at worst, $7M in cap space, which likely would be enough to bring in an impact player if they desire. They also should have next offseason in mind with Kevin Fiala and Ryan Ellis needing new contracts.
I think the Predators would be smart to not panic and dramatically change their core of players. Their top priority this offseason should be to get clarity on Fiala and Ellis. If they can get those players locked up long-term, they will know exactly how much cap space they will have going forward. With Rinne’s contract also up next offseason, the team should have plenty of cap space to work with. The team will have a tough decision on Rinne but I think the only way they extend him is if he takes a pay cut. Saros seems to be the team’s goalie of the future so committing serious money to Rinne seems impractical.
I wanted to outline everything I just did to demonstrate the team has the ability to add a high-quality player this offseason. If I’m Nashville, my eyes are set on Erik Karlsson. Any deal likely starts with Mathias Ekholm (maybe Ryan Ellis if a contract extension is worked out) and a quality forward. I wonder if the team would be willing to part with one of Arvidsson, Fiala, or Tolvanen. If they could get Karlsson signed to an extension, I think they would have to consider it. The snag might be the Predators’ lack of draft picks this offseason.
If Karlsson doesn’t pan out, I think the Predators should put their free cap space to use. I have no clue what will happen with James Neal, but he could always be brought back on a short-term deal, though I think there are better options out there. One player that could make lots of sense for the Predators is Joe Thornton if he decides to leave San Jose. Not many teams in the league will give Thornton a better shot at a Stanley Cup and Thornton could still likely help the Predators and likely wouldn’t demand more than a one or two-year deal. Rick Nash is another player that fits this mold. These players shouldn’t come in and replace any of the team’s top players but help either push the players down in the lineup or be quality depth players themselves.
The team also could look to improve their blueline depth as a consistent bottom pair has been a struggle for the team recently. Sure they have the best top four in the NHL but with open cap space, the team could look to improve that bottom pair. After doing very brief research, I think there are four players who could fit that bill. All of them had positive or even Corsi For Relative %, meaning the team shouldn’t see a major drop in play when they are on the ice. Those players are Andrej Sustr (RD), Ian Cole (LD), John Moore (LD), and Michael Kempy (LD). Out of those four players, Sustr would likely bring the most value after he fell out of favor in Tampa but looks to be a good bottom pair defenseman. Kempy’s value might never be higher as he was a key contributor on the Stanley Cup Champions, Washington Capitals, and should look to cash in on that. Moore and Cole also might be looking for more than Nashville could offer but they would really offer the team some tremendous depth and further strengthen the best unit in the NHL.
Overall, the Predators can have a successful offseason if they do nothing but work out new contracts for their players needing them. They have come close and tweaked their roster the past couple years. They should do the same and maybe look at some in-season addition as they see how the roster is doing for the second year in a row. They can’t let the loss to Winnipeg dramatically alter their course as they were a few big saves or bounces away from winning that series. They weren’t dramatically outclassed.
Please be sure to check in again tomorrow as we take an in-depth look at the Tampa Bay Lightning. If you enjoyed this review, please follow us on Twitter, @afpanalytics, and share it with your friends!
Stats have been pulled from NaturalStatTrick.com and Corsica.hockey. Salary info from Capfriendly.com.
KYLE STICH is the Director of AFP Analytics. In addition, Mr. Stich is a tax specialist and Director of Operations at AFP Consulting LLC, whose clientele include professional athletes performing services on three separate continents. Mr. Stich earned his Master of Science in Sport Management with a Concentration in Sport Analytics from Columbia University in 2017. He earned his undergraduate degrees in Accounting and Sport Management from St. John Fisher College in 2015, where he has served as an adjunct professor teaching Sport Finance and Baseball Analytics.