Depth hasn’t been too big an issue in Nashville in recent seasons, but the Nashville Predators’ bottom six is a little shallower today than it once was. The pieces for an effective if not necessarily star-powered top six are still here in Nashville, especially if Colin Wilson or Craig Smith can develop as hoped. But the bottom half of the forward corps, the fourth line in particular, is a bit of a concern at the moment.
A lot of the work done on the bottom line is of the “eat up some ice time so the top six can rest.” It used to be that Nashville’s grinders were a point of pride for the team, but no longer. Right now the job is being held down mostly by guys who have picked up as waiver acquisitions. Rich Clune, Brian McGrattan, and Brandon Yip were all cast off by other teams during the last year. Waiver acquisitions can be useful as stopgap measure, and sometimes you’ll even get lucky and take advantage of another team’s mismanagement to find a guy who fits perfectly with your team.
The current cast of bottom-liners doesn’t really fit that bill. McGrattan, though popular, hasn’t even played
a minute 15 minutes of hockey yet this season. They’re one-dimensional players who don’t do a lot to help the Preds compete. The Nashville Predators need an upgrade here, and they could take a tip from the New York Rangers.
Doing a little reading around FanSided’s NHL division, I discovered this piece about a New York Rangers-Pittsburgh Penguins trade yesterday. Then this afternoon the Rangers made another pickup:
Arnott and NYR agree to contract. 1 year. Cap hit around $1.6 -$1.7.Contract being finalized now. Arnott en route to NYC.
— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) January 26, 2013
Suddenly their fourth line is looking a whole lot better with Jason Arnott and Benn Ferriero. And the best part is that it comes at very little cost to them. In return for $1.6 million and a five-year AHL veteran, the Rangers brought in a Stanley Cup-winning veteran center and an energy-line winger who doesn’t take a lot of penalties and even chips in with a goal here and there. It’s like New York shored up the their chances of making a Cup run by clipping coupons. Nobody would’ve made that move before the season, but the shifting realities of playing in a lockout-shortened season make these good moves.
Now, obviously the Nashville situation is a little different in that we’re not expecting a Cup Final berth the way the Rangers are. But we do expect to make the playoffs. David Poile’s idea of clipping coupons thus far has been the acquisition of Rich Clune, so the need for depth is still very much there. So what are the options?
There’s a chance that Brad Winchester could still serve as an upgrade in this spot for the Preds similar to Arnott. Milwaukee signed him on a professional tryout contract earlier in the week and he’s scored a goal and added three assists in two games for them so far. He could double the veteran presence alongside Paul Gaustad, and they could be put together with Matt Halischuk for some extra hustle. But there’s still no definitive sign that Winchester would be interested or that the Preds are even considering an offer to him.
The other free agents on the market who would be worth signing are getting fewer and further between, even on a one-year contract. If David Poile is eager to avoid calling up too many players from Milwaukee so they can continue their development against AHL competition, a trade like the Rangers-Penguins deal might be in order.
The one spot where Nashville has lots of organizational depth is center. One of the biggest holes of NHL-ready depth is on the left wing, that’s where I would start. Someone like Chris Mueller, who has been great in Milwaukee but hasn’t performed as well in a different type of role in Nashville’s bottom six when he’s been called up, might be a better fit with another franchise. He’s set to be a UFA at the end of the season, but he’s dirt-cheap at $550K, would likely be easy to re-sign for a modest raise. He could be packaged with a low draft pick to get a serviceable energy/grind-line player in return. If not Mueller, there are other options who could bring a useful return at center and, if necessary, defense.
Of course, David Poile could be looking at making a move for a top-six forward and just bump somebody down into the bottom six instead of looking for an upgrade there. That’s likely to be an expensive move, especially in a shortened season where the playoff race will stay tight for longer and a lot of teams will overvalue their chances of making the post-season. Everyone is going to demand more in a trade than they might otherwise. And thanks to the new CBA, the potential of taking on salary as part of a trade is there too; the Preds are just about $16 million under the cap right now. A cheaper and less flashy move, earlier in the season, could be the better route to fixing the problems with the Nashville Predators’ bottom six forwards.