Even before the free agency addition of Ryan O’Reilly, the thought of Luke Evangelista starting the 2023-24 season with the opportunity to play on the Nashville Predators top line was starting to make total sense.
With a true top line center in O’Reilly, and a refreshed and healthy Filip Forsberg on his way back, Evangelista just makes too much sense to be the third player to make up the Predators’ initial top line.
Ever since the “JoFA” line disbanded, finding that reliable top line has been challenging for the Nashville Predators, mostly due to the elusive nature of finding a true top line center.
The second of three pieces of the “JoFA” line, Ryan Johansen, is elsewhere and Forsberg remains.
With Matt Duchene now in Dallas after the surprising buyout that sent shockwaves not only across the Nashville Predators spectrum, but around the entire NHL, the path is paved for Evangelista to get a top line opportunity right out of the gate.
Evangelista Didn’t Miss a Beat during first call-up with Nashville Predators
First off, you have to think that Evangelista is here to stay. It would take a pretty significant dip in play and something really off for him to be sent back down to the minors, although he does remain on his ELC and waivers exempt until 2025-26.
Evangelista wasn’t even expected to make his NHL debut last season, but injuries and the trade deadline made up for plenty of roster room to give the young talent a chance, and did he ever respond to the call. In fact, often times he looked like a seasoned veteran with effortless skating and even drawing penalties.
It’s very common for players during their first call-up to the NHL midseason to find themselves out of position and needing time to adjust to the NHL game. Evangelista never really showed that, and one way that illustrates that is how he drew 14 penalty minutes from opposing teams but only took six penalty minutes himself.
Another metric for just how aggressive and comfortable a younger player is looking in their first stint of NHL action is their takeaways and if they’re finding ways to get shots on goal.
For Evangelista, he managed 15 takeaways to only nine giveaways. A pretty solid ratio for a player getting their first taste of the NHL.
As for shots on goal, Evangelista averaged 8.15 shots on goal per 60 minutes, good for third on the team while amassing a total of 54 shots on goal in just 24 games. Another strong indication that Evangelista was incredibly prepared for the often bumpy transition to the NHL.
This all on top of only getting a short stint in the AHL with the Milwaukee Admirals. Evangelista was in the midst of his first season in the AHL when getting the call-up to make his Nashville Predators debut on February 28.
How can Top Line Minutes Benefit Evangelista and the Team?
Starting with how it can benefit Evangelista, playing with two seasoned veterans in Forsberg and O’Reilly could really bring out the best in Evangelista’s offensively gifted game right out of the gate.
This could actually be a great combination for O’Reilly as well taking on the mentor role, with reports that he didn’t want the enormous stage in Toronto, per TSN’s Bryan Hayes:
"“Now he’s in Nashville, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he lives 40 minutes outside of the rink. I think that being in Toronto and being a Leaf, that can be overwhelming for people. And you can’t know it until you do it. ” – Bryan Hayes, TSN"
Evangelista was moved around the Nashville Predators lineup playing throughout March and April as the team miraculously clung onto their postseason hopes. They came up short, but Evangelista’s 15 points and quick adaptation to NHL play was quite the development.
Now we will hopefully get to see what Evangelista can produce in a full NHL season. He fell just shy of the 25-game limit to not be considered a rookie, so this will count as his rookie season.
Of course Connor Bedard will be the runaway favorite along with what is a stellar 2023 draft class coming out, but Evangelista will be in the rookie conversation at least.
O’Reilly in particular can be a major boost to Evangelista’s game as a true center who has been through the battles in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and is a former Conn Smythe winner with over 700 career NHL points.
Finally, I really don’t see any other better options than Evangelista for your top line winger with Forsberg. Perhaps you can make an argument for Thomas Novak if you don’t want him as a center, but I would suspect they’d much rather keep him at center on the third line and move Colton Sissons down to the fourth line.
Philip Tomasino needs to prove more before being ready for top line minutes, but I wouldn’t completely throw out that possibility. Still think Evangelista has a more dynamic offensive game, even this early in his career, to be placed on that top line over Tomasino.
With all of that laid out, here’s a look at my way-too-early Nashville Predators projected line combinations for the forwards:
Forsberg/ O’Reilly/ Evangelista
Parssinen/ Glass/ Nyquist
Trenin/ Novak/ Tomasino
Sherwood/ Sissons/ McCarron
Scratches: Smith, Jankowski
I say you let the young phenom fly and see how far he can take you. You can always make a switch if needed to Nyquist, but much of this season for the Nashville Predators is going to be trial and error.
A lot to be sorted out in training camp, but with where we sit right now in early July, Evangelista has to be the front-runner for the top line with O’Reilly and Forsberg on opening night 2023-24 when they’ll take on the Tampa Bay Lightning on the road.