Can the Nashville Predators build on last year’s strong finish, or is the end of an era inevitable? (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

Smashed – The Best Era In Predators History Is Ending: 2021 NHL Previews

This preview marks the last one for teams that qualified for the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’s fitting the Predators is the last among those to be recognized, as you could argue they are the least likely to go back. It’s not something that Nashville is used to; the Predators have made the playoffs six of the last seven seasons, and the one miss was a Qualifier Round loss to the Coyotes when Nashville was the #6 seed in the West when the regular season shutdown due to COVID.

But even if you disagree with that assertion, it’s hard to argue the Predators aren’t a team on the downswing. After winning their first pieces of hardware in team history with a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2017 and a President’s Trophy the year after, Nashville hasn’t won so much as a single series in the last three seasons. Three constants of the core that made up the best era in Nashville’s existence said goodbye this summer; one to retirement, two in trades with returns focused on the future.

Two more players from that core are set to be unrestricted free agents in July 2022, putting Nashville at a crossroads that seems to have an obvious path to go down. There are still some solid pieces here, both old and new faces; there’s a reason the Predators made the playoffs and gave the league’s third-best regular-season team (Carolina) a heck of a push in Round 1. Unfortunately, when a veteran team’s upside is a hard-fought first-round loss, it often signals the beginning of the end. There should be no shame for that; the Predators took their best shot but came up just short during their glory years. As the 2021-22 season begins, those days look to be firmly in Nashville’s rearview mirror, even if rock bottom might still be a little bit away; maybe even far enough to sneak in one last unlikely playoff trip.

Forwards (New Players in Bold)

Filip ForsbergRyan JohansenMatt Duchene
EelI TolvanenMikael GranlundLuke Kunin
Nick CousinsCody GlassPhilip Tomasino (R)
Yakov TreninColton SissonsTanner Jeannot (R)

One of the biggest reasons for Nashville’s decline is how little they’ve gotten out of their two $8 million men, Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene. In two years with Nashville, Duchene has 55 points in exactly 100 games, a 45-point pace over 82 games, marking a stark decline. Johansen falls in a similar boat; over the same time, he has 58 points in 108 games, a 44-point pace. Considering neither player is elite defenders or play-drivers, that just isn’t good enough (and even if they were, it probably wouldn’t be). Maybe playing together will help turn things around, but consider me skeptical. And with both players starting to exit their primes, this is a situation that only figures to get worse. Especially considering they gave Mikael Granlund a 5-year, $20 million contract after a down season.

The team traded shoot-first winger Viktor Arvidsson to L.A. over the summer and another key piece on the wing may be departing soon in Filip Forsberg. He’s undoubtedly Nashville’s best forward, though health is a concern, as Forsberg has missed at least 15 games in three of the last four seasons. When on the ice, Forsberg is a dangerous offensive talent and a well-rounded forward overall. Last year he scored 32 points in just 39 games, a would-be-career-high 67-point pace. Calling him a game-breaker is a bit of a stretch, but he’s undoubtedly a top-line caliber player. He would fetch a much better return than Martin Erat and Michael Latta, who Forsberg was infamously traded for eight years ago. Nashville must take advantage of his value if they’re out of a playoff spot at the deadline.

There is some promise on this unit here, thanks to a plethora of young players filling in the gaps around the aforementioned veterans. Nashville has long been known for its ability to develop defenders and not forwards, but if that trend continues, it won’t be for a lack of trying. The biggest name of the bunch is former #6 overall pick Cody Glass, acquired as part of essentially a three-team trade with Vegas and Philadelphia that we’ll talk about more below. Glass is a talented player with excellent junior hockey, but his skill set hasn’t translated over to the pro game. At 22 years old, this is a big year for him, especially since the “change of scenery” card has now been played.

Perhaps if given the chance, he could thrive alongside another 2017 1st rounder in Eeli Tolvanen. The once highly regarded sniper prospect finally established himself as a full-time NHLer last year. The 3-year, $4.35 million contract he signed over the summer has the chance to be a steal if he keeps progressing. Since Glass is known as a playmaker, it’s probably something coach John Hynes should consider. Both should play fairly big roles this year with quality depth pieces Calle Järnkrok and Nick Bonino departing in the Seattle expansion draft and free agency, respectively.

Philip Tomasino scored at over a point-per-game pace in the AHL as a teenager last season; the 2019 1st rounder could be ready to make an NHL impact this year. His arrival would certainly add some upside to this group. Yakov Trenin and Tanner Jeannot both got their feet wet with respectable auditions in 2021 (Trenin’s season was a bit more than that, as he played in 45 NHL games). And this projection doesn’t even include Rocco Grimaldi, who is two years removed from tallying 31 points in 66 games. There’s depth to this forward group; ut unless all of Nashville’s highest-paid forwards (not just Forsberg) play at a first-line level, the overall unit looks rough.

Defensemen

Roman JosiAlexandre Carrier
Mattias EkholmPhilippe Myers
Mark BorowieckiDante Fabbro

After spending the entire first half in the rumor mill, Mattias Ekholm is somewhat surprisingly still here. That doesn’t mean the team kept all of their big-name defenders; the club notably sent Ryan Ellis to Philadelphia in the offseason. He wasn’t at peak powers last year due to a broken knuckle, but when healthy the 30-year old is one of the game’s most underrated blue-liners. Nashville will sorely miss his steady and smooth play in all situations, and it will be interesting to see how Roman Josi fares without his long-time partner. To be clear, Josi is an elite defender in his own right who will probably be fine, especially with a promising analytical darling set to fill Ellis’ void in Carrier. He’s no Ellis, of course.

We’ll find out if the reliable Ekholm is the next out the door, another outstanding defender who the casual fan probably doesn’t respect enough. Like Forsberg, he would certainly fetch a pretty penny if this indeed the year for Nashville to tear it down. As someone who saw him play a lot in Philadelphia, Phil Myers seems like a potentially great fit alongside Ekholm. He’s a very aggressive blue-liner, which sometimes gets him into trouble, but the potential is certainly there. Right-handed 6’5” defensemen who can skate and move the puck don’t come around often; I certainly don’t blame David Poile for betting on his skillset in the Ellis trade. Whether Nashville got enough overall is a different story, but Myers is someone Nashville fans should be excited about.

Goaltenders

Juuse Saros
David Rittich

If there’s one part of Nashville’s team to be excited about, it’s their goaltending situation. It only figures to get better moving forward, with top prospect Yaroslav Askarov likely coming over in the near future. For now, the crown jewel is Juuse Saros, easily the biggest reason for the team’s second-half breakout last year. At the end of February, Saros had a disappointing .898 save percentage, failing to take the torch being offered to him by aging franchise face Pekka Rinne. He was a new man from there out, posting a .939 save percentage from March 1 out, best in the league for goalies with more than ten games played; a sparkling performance to say the least. Overall, Saros stopped 13.2 goals above expected, the fifth-best mark in the league. Saros won’t be that good throughout 2021-22, but goaltending figures to be a strength for the Preds moving forward.

This season marks the first one since 2007-08 that Pekka Rinne isn’t between the pipes for the Predators. Maybe Roman Josi challenges him in a few years, but for now, Rinne is the best player in franchise history, putting up outstanding numbers year in and year out for over a decade (except for an injury-plagued 2013-14 season). His last two years weren’t as pretty, though; retiring was probably the right call for the 38-year-old. Longtime Flame and brief Maple Leaf David Rittich comes in on a cheap 1-year, $1.25 million contract; he should be a serviceable backup to Saros, keeping the seat warm for Askarov.

The Verdict

The end isn’t totally here yet for Nashville, but it’s pulling up to the station any day now. Other than last year’s second-half surge, the Predators haven’t looked like true contenders since 2019. While they were able to stave off a rebuild with that incredible run last spring, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to do so for much longer. Their once-vaunted defense is more just good than anything, resulting from a mediocre right-side. It’s hard to imagine how they’ll generate nearly enough offense unless Johansen and Duchene throwback the clock to 2015. Saros should keep them from truly bottoming out. But with almost every other club in the Central improving (or already being elite, in the case of Colorado), it’s hard to see how the Predators keep up.

Check out another Central Division team who went out in Round 1 last year, the St. Louis Blues.

One of the worst things a team can do is pretend their contention window is open years after it shuts. Sadly, the Predators will likely have to face that reality over the next several months. While they could hypothetically extend Forsberg and Ekholm and try a quick pivot, it’s hard to imagine that succeeding as long as the albatross contracts of Duchene and Johansen are still on the books (buying out Johansen is probably the team’s best bet if that’s the road they travel down). The Predators already have some solid prospects; it’s probably best to keep adding to that system over the next few years and look towards building another core that can close the small yet agonizing gap that separated Nashville’s departing core from championship glory.

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All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5 unless otherwise stated and via Natural Stat Trick; Salary Cap Info and Depth Chart via CapFriendly