Nashville Predators: Next Stop After The Playoffs, Questionville

Nashville Predators goaltender Juuse Saros (74) meets with goaltender Pekka Rinne (35) after an overtime loss against the Carolina Hurricanes in game six of the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Nashville Predators goaltender Juuse Saros (74) meets with goaltender Pekka Rinne (35) after an overtime loss against the Carolina Hurricanes in game six of the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports /

The positivity train for the Nashville Predators came to a crashing halt Thursday night following Jaccob Slavin’s point shot deflected by who else but Sebastian Aho. Another season, another first-round exit for the Predators. However, something about this year just felt different.

Maybe it was the 56 game season. Perhaps it was the fact that the Predators’ season was on life support in early March and was resurrected on the back of freshly minted franchise goaltender Juuse Saros. Maybe, just maybe, it was the reemergence of “Smashville” after a year and a half without fans in NHL buildings.

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There’s a lot of questions and mystique around the year that was. One thing is for certain. This team was special.

Although it did not result in the raising of the big silver mug, it did result in some newfound hope that this team is going to be okay.

Much like any team in the NHL, Nashville has questions to be answered in the offseason, but this team is not done yet.

Let’s aim to answer a few of the most pressing questions facing the Predators this coming off-season.

Superstar Forward Time In Smashville?

One thing is for sure as I enter my 16th season as a die-hard Nashville Predators fan. This team will never be bad enough to draft a superstar caliber forward.

Okay, maybe not never, but for the foreseeable future. Despite recent criticisms, some warranted, GM David Poile knows how to do one thing, compete.

Since 2010, the Predators have never drafted higher than 4th Overall in 2013. Nashville spent that draft pick on Seth Jones, who was subsequently traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Ryan Johansen.

At the time of the trade, Johansen was trending towards being an upper-echelon NHL forward. However, since his arrival in Smashville, counting on “Joey” to show up in the regular season consistently has been a bit of a struggle.

Come playoff time, though; you get a gamer. However, the point remains the same. Johansen is not a consistently elite player that can take this team to the mountain top.

Matt Duchene, Poile’s well-documented “white whale,” now has a signature moment under his belt in gold after a thrilling Game Three double-overtime winner to give Nashville a chance against the Hurricanes.

Beyond that moment and the optimism surrounding his play when united with Johansen, and the biggest scoring threat on the team, Filip Forsberg, there isn’t enough excitement surrounding Duchene and his $8 million per year price tag over the next five seasons.

With a career-high of 70 points to his name, Duchene is not quite in the category that would be defined as a “game-breaker.”

Elliotte Friedman communicated on the 31 Thoughts: The Podcast this week that the salary cap is not expected to go up for another five years.

This means that if the Predators want to have flexibility with their cap, in addition to retaining some key pieces due for extensions and raises (Saros, Forsberg, and Mattias Ekholm), they must decide on one of Duchene or Johansen. Especially if neither can be the difference maker that this team needs for the amount they tie up in salary.

The easiest play here is to hope that Seattle Kraken GM Ron Francis highly covets one of these two guys to help build the culture and center depth for the soon-to-be-released Seattle Kraken. See what I did there? Release the Kranken. Anybody? Is this thing on?

The more likely scenario is that Poile will have to entice Francis to take on one of these contract obligations from the Predators. That enticement would likely start with a 2nd round selection in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft, possibly even a 1st rounder in what has been defined as a weaker draft where the Predators will likely select in the middle of the 1st round.

This leads me back to my initial point. The Predators have been a good hockey team for the past seven seasons. With that label of “good” also comes “offensively challenged,” “starved for goals,” and a myriad of other ways of saying this team struggles to score goals. This missing element has plagued them for several seasons.

My solution, get Jack Eichel. Just let that marinate for a second or a month, my fellow fans. We will reevaluate how and why they should do this a little further into the off-season. For now, start plugging those scenarios into NHL 21 and see what the package looks like.

Nashville is filled with country music superstars. It is now time for the hockey team to have one upfront for the first time since 2007 when Paul Kariya was in navy and gold (it still feels odd to say the main base of the color scheme was navy back then).

Star Status Extension For Saros?

One question unequivocally answered was that the crease is Saros’ for the foreseeable future. With the numbers he put up, resilience he showed, and a chance at advancing past the first round, Saros has earned a big payday.

With the goaltending landscape the way it is in the NHL and the aforementioned flat cap a factor for a bulk of what this next extension could look like for Saros, it is not a question of if he is worth whatever money the Predators decide to give him. It is a question of how much he is hurt by the current market conditions and how much of a “team friendly” deal he wants to take to do his part while the Predators navigate through some uncertain economic times.

One thing is certain. The Predators must absolutely lock up Saros long-term and buy out some unrestricted free agency years. The Predators have a track record of keeping their Finnish netminders happy and wanting to keep them career-long Predators should their performance warrant so.

If I were to predict today what the final number will look like come signing time, I could see two scenarios playing out.

Saros could sign a bridge deal much like his expiring contract (3 years, $4.5 Million, $1.5 Million AAV) to protect himself and see where the market goes. He could also sign a long-term deal that would make him a top-ten goaltender in regards to salary.

  1. A bridge deal could come in as a three-year, $12.74 Million contract (cause that’s just fun). That nets Saros a significant raise and buys out two years of unrestricted free agency for the team.
  2. For the long-term, I could see him inking a carbon copy of his mentor Pekka Rinne‘s seven-year, $49 Million deal if the Predators truly believe Saros is the guy to carry them forward.

A concern is that Saros has yet to win a playoff series in his limited opportunity as the team’s starter. However, his performance against the Hurricanes certainly indicates he can handle himself in the big moments.

Another question to consider in a long-term extension for Saros is what happens with the highly-touted 2020,11th overall pick Yaroslav Askarov? Keep that Eichel trade possibility in the back of your mind.

Poile’s Protection Plans?

The league is expanding from 31 to 32 teams on July 21, when the Seattle Kraken selects the team members to take the ice for their inaugural 2021-22 season.

This puts Poile and his Hockey Operations department in a rather precarious position for the second expansion draft in a row. Although I am sure he wanted to, Poile refused to give up assets to the Las Vegas Golden Knights to keep perennial 20+ goal scorer James Neal in a Predators sweater.

With the evolution of the Nashville roster since Vegas has come into the league, the same test will be put to Nashville’s front office as they decide to go with the same mix of protecting four forwards, four defensemen, and one goaltender.

Alternatively, have they found enough optimism in their forward group to go with the much more popular seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goaltender?

The Predators are one of the top clubs across the entire league at drafting and developing defensemen. With the current log jam on the back end and mounting questions on Dante Fabbro‘s status with the team, and the emergence of Alexandre Carrier, it becomes likely that the Predators will remain in the minority of teams who elect the 4-4-1 format for this upcoming expansion draft.

That leaves four forwards that would need to be protected. It’s safe to say that Forsberg is safe. Beyond that, we will see how Poile and Head Coach John Hynes handle the names that will have guaranteed roster spots next season.

With that said, a lot can happen between now and then. How management chooses to handle this expansion draft could have implications for years to come depending on which direction they decide to go. There are also implications on future plans that depend on which Nashville player Seattle chooses.

Will Pekka Rinne Return?

That’s it, that’s the question.

That’s all I got for now, my fellow fans. What do you think are the most pressing questions facing the Predators this coming off-season? Were you encouraged with the team’s play down the stretch and in the playoffs enough to believe their competitive window is still open? Would they, or should they go after Jack Eichel?

I look forward to seeing your thoughts below in the comment section!

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