The Nashville Predators announced Wednesday that retired captain Mike Fisher will return to the active roster. Fans should have a few concerns.
Flashing his dazzling white smile, Mike Fisher sat with David Poile and Peter Laviolette, behind a microphone. By now, the news had already spread across the continent: Fisher is returning to hockey. Most surprisingly, he’s returning to play hockey, once again, for the Nashville Predators.
Early in the press conference, he mused, “It always kind of bugged me, guys that came out of retirement.”
Even in all the chaos of a huge decision, a seemingly minor detail caught my attention. The comment came from General Manager David Poile:
"We reached out to Mike and there were a few conversations. … I’m sure it was a combination of a lot of things that got Mike over the hump to make this decision."
Contrary to my original assumption, the organization reached out to Fisher, not the other way around. Supposedly, the team had discussed their future direction and decided that his presence would boost their performance.
If that sentiment becomes realized on the ice, more power to the team, and, more importantly, to Fisher himself. However, I have my concerns about the decision.
The first question one needs to ask is whether the team needs a change in the first place. In terms of the percentage of available points earned, the Nashville Predators have the second best record in the central division, and the fifth-best record in the NHL. In their last ten games, which have represented a weaker stretch for the team, Nashville is 6-2-2. As many fans of other teams asked on Wednesday, “why does this team need to change at all?”
In my opinion, the team does need to make some big adjustments. True, the standings make it difficult to criticize. However, its problems can be illustrated by a seemingly positive statistic. Through 48 games, the Nashville Predators boast a five-on-five save percentage of 93.5%. To put that in context, only one team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, is posting a higher value (93.8%).
So what does this have to do with Mike Fisher? It speaks to the performance of the team he is rejoining. Right now, the league average for save percentage at five-on-five is 92.4%. My point is this: with league-average goaltending, the Nashville Predators would likely be sitting out of a playoff spot.
Subconsciously, everyone should know this already. How many times this season have we thought, man, Rinne/Saros stole that game?
With that in mind – yes, a change is necessary. Obviously, the difficult part is identifying the specific problem. Nashville easily has a top-ten group of forwards, and, in my opinion, the best defensive roster in the entire league. However, take a look at how those factors are combining on the ice. Below, the first image represents Nashville’s offense, and the second image represents the defense.
Offensively, the team is extremely below average in high-danger areas. There is a slight red area right in front of net, but the rest of the slot (the area between the faceoff dots) is painfully subpar. Rather, the team is taking shots from the outer faceoff circles. From those areas, NHL goaltenders will save the shot roughly 95% of the time.
Defensively, high-danger areas have been a sore spot as well. Look at that deep red area right in front of the net. That’s representing an extreme weakness, relative to other defenses in the NHL. When you see that glaring issue, and remember that Nashville is enjoying the second-best goaltending in the entire league, you see just how perilously close to mediocrity the Nashville Predators are.
Obviously, Mike Fisher will not be expected to revolutionize this team on the ice. Yes, Fisher led an impressive NHL career, gaining legendary status in both Ottawa and Nashville. For Predators fans, he is best remembered for this moment:
At age 37, and after spending the past several months comfortably retired, it’s hard to see him being an impact player. Our most recent example of his abilities came from the Ottawa Senators’ alumni roster, which took the ice against Montreal’s old men. Yes, Fisher looked sharp on the ice, but, come on, it’s an alumni game.
If his on-ice talents aren’t the focus of his return, then, it must be his locker room presence. I’ll admit that his presence will be considerable, evidenced by the fact that the players wanted him back in the first place.
The team’s core is certainly youthful. Hell, the captain of the team is just 27 years old himself. Around playoff season, the presence of a smart, experienced veteran will only be a positive.
At what cost?
You can’t ignore, though, that at some point, Fisher will have to step on the ice and play the game. As much as everyone likes to say “the team got him for free,” that’s simply not true. Somebody will have to get cut from this roster. Most likely, that will be Pontus Aberg.
I know what you’re thinking: Aberg has been all but invisible this year. Certainly, he has been disappointing after an impressive showing last year. He’s collected just six points in thirty-three appearances. Even with 58% of his faceoffs in the offensive zone, he’s below average in nearly every possession category.
Aberg can’t be sent down to the AHL without clearing waivers first. At this point in the season, I guarantee that a young plug-and-play forward with NHL experience will get picked up by somebody. If that is the case, the Nashville Predators would let go a current roster piece for free, which is always less than ideal.
If the team manages a trade for Aberg in the meantime, the return will be minimal at best. Based on his point production (or lack thereof) this season, the return will be something like a fifth-round draft pick. That is, unless you call Peter Chiarelli, who might give you Rasmus Dahlin.
All that said, it’s simply incorrect to say that the Nashville Predators are getting Mike Fisher back “for free.” Yes, his intangible impact could be a boost for the team, but it will cost them a player.
All in all, I agree that the acquisition of Mike Fisher likely won’t hurt. Chances are, it will be a positive move. However, for essentially the first time, I have real concerns about the management of this team.
The Nashville Predators are dropping points against opponents they should put away, and have been all year. Even the wins they do have are often unconvincing. The deepest concern is that this team’s weaknesses will be exposed dramatically in the postseason, making for a very disappointing playoff run.
Because of the talent contained in this roster, you have to look elsewhere to find the issue. More than likely, it’s mental. The team’s mental fortitude, in my opinion, is the responsibility of a single person: Peter Laviolette. A coach’s role, at the end of the day, is to draw out the best in each of his or her players. What you’ve seen all year, with very few exceptions, is far from this team’s best.
It worries me deeply that their answer for this issue is Mike Fisher. Again, I recognize that he is a franchise legend and all-around great guy. I certainly like Mike Fisher. Look at it objectively, though. Rather than toughen up and hold already-present individuals accountable, the response of the organization is to bring back a retired 37-year old center?
That’s not thinking outside the box; it’s David Poile and Peter Laviolette refusing to do their jobs.
Time will tell
Obviously, if the Nashville Predators win a Stanley Cup this year, I will eat my words. More likely than not, I will be parading around Broadway, still yelling about how this team’s high-danger ratio was abysmal all year.
Certainly, I will owe Poile and Laviolette an apology. It is frustrating, simply, to see a team consistently underperform. Especially a team with a roster as talented as that of the Nashville Predators. Obviously, the credit for that roster belongs to the very individuals I have been criticizing.
Because of David Poile’s mastery, this move is even more concerning. He’s willing to risk his life’s work, a brilliantly crafted NHL team, because he is unwilling to criticize his coworkers.
Mike Fisher’s return, while potentially lucrative, is a distraction. In reality, this team should be dominating opponents on at least a somewhat consistent basis. Instead, we’ve seen it just once this season – last night against Los Angeles. For those of you who are tempted, please don’t attribute that performance to this acquisition.
Welcome back, Mike, and Godspeed.