Over the course of the past decade, the Nashville Predators have been one of the most consistently good teams in the NHL. Notwithstanding a bad showing in the lockout-shortened 2013-14 campaign, the Preds have always been in the mix, getting to the Stanley Cup final in 2017 and only missing the post-season twice – at the end of the Barry Trotz era.
But this season has been a mighty struggle for Nashville, where the Predators are skulking at the bottom of the Central Division with Detroit, nowhere near the other six teams when it comes to points percentage. The team has a couple of key injuries right now in centre Ryan Johansen and defenceman Mattias Ekholm, but the pair hasn’t been out that long.
Nashville has three wins in its past 10 games and the team has some ugly contracts that would be hard to unload. So what do you do if you’re long time GM David Poile? I think it’s time to tank.
Now keep in mind: players don’t tank and neither do coaches – it’s not in their DNA. But management can send a team into a rebuild based on roster moves and this would be the most prudent scenario for Nashville.
If you can believe it, the Predators have only picked in the top-five of the draft twice in franchise history. In Nashville’s very first draft back in 1998, they grabbed David Legwand second overall (Vincent Lecavalier went first to Tampa Bay). Then you have to go all the way to 2013, when the Predators grabbed Seth Jones at No. 4, before eventually trading him for Johansen.
Luckily, Nashville has made some great picks later on in the draft, from franchise icon Pekka Rinne in the eighth round (the draft only goes seven rounds now) to current captain Roman Josi, plucked out of Switzerland in the second round. So they’ve had the scouts and decision-makers to put together a team that did come close to a championship.
But now they need the blue-chippers for more than one reason.
The most obvious is scoring punch, since the Predators don’t have any up front, with the exception of Filip Forsberg. Now, the 2021 draft class is so far known more for blueliners than high-scoring forwards, but there will be some intriguing options in the top five, including Dylan Guenther from the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings, Sweden’s William Eklund and the University of Michigan pair of Matty Beniers and Kent Johnson.
The big haul actually predicts to be in 2022, when OHL Kingston phenom Shane Wright is available. Wright was granted Exceptional Status to join the major junior league a season early and despite being the youngest player in the OHL, he rang up 39 goals and 66 points in 58 games to lead the Frontenacs in scoring and earn OHL and CHL rookie of the year honours. He’s probably the best prospect to come out of the OHL since Connor McDavid.
And if the Preds don’t get Wright, there’s also Matthew Savoie, currently ripping it up in the USHL with Dubuque, or Brad Lambert, who looked awesome at the world juniors for Finland. All three would give Nashville an elite dimension the team just doesn’t have right now – though I am high on Phil Tomasino’s potential as well.
So let’s say for the sake of argument that Nashville lands Beniers and Wright (yes, you’re allowed to fan yourselves right now, Preds faithful). Both could be in the line up by the 2022-23 campaign and could not only contribute, but just as importantly would do so on entry-level contracts – giving Nashville precious, precious cap space to fill holes elsewhere.
And there will be holes. Rinne is currently in the twilight of his career and while he’s having an average year compared to his peers, the younger Juuse Saros has statistically been one of the worst in the NHL, ranking 53rd in Goals Saved Above Average. The Predators have some nice prospects coming down the pipeline in Yaroslav Askarov and Tomas Vomacka, but at this point it feels as though a stop-gap will be needed for at least a year or two.
Then there’s the current line up, which hasn’t been getting the job done. Johansen and Matt Duchene each have monster contracts and haven’t been putting up the commensurate numbers. Neither have a no-trade clause, but finding a trade partner would likely require giving up more assets and/or retaining some salary. The Seattle expansion draft will take someone off the roster, but will it be one Nashville wants to see go?
Which brings us back to the present: tanking.
Given how the Preds are playing right now, you don’t have to do much to get yourself in position for a high draft pick. Useful players on moveable contracts such as Mikael Granlund, Calle Jarnkrok and Erik Haula could be traded before the deadline in return for future picks and prospects and heading into next season, you probably re-sign pending UFA Rinne to a one-year pact – because he has to retire in Nashville; it’s only proper.
Next year, you make sure kids like Tomasino, Eeli Tolvanen and Yakov Trenin get a chance to prove their worth, while simultaneously putting yourself in a position to get another high draft pick. There hasn’t been much pain in Nashville in the past decade, but the Predators need a shake-up. A couple years of tanking could do the trick – and hopefully get the team back near the top of the Western Conference.