Yesterday I talked about the Winnipeg Jets’ baffling decision to make almost no changes to a roster that largely disappointed last season, despite having lost a couple of key pieces.
The Nashville Predators, who finished a point ahead of the Jets to win the Central Division but crashed out of the playoffs early and ugly, are taking no such chances. The question is whether those changes are actually going to help get them back to where they feel they need to be.
The thing with the NHL is that if you get to a Cup Final, you naturally assume that if you don’t change much about the group, you should continue to be able to do it. But 2016-17 feels like a long time ago, and while the Preds lost in that brutal second-round series to Winnipeg (now seemingly content to wander in the wilderness), this past season’s no-show against Dallas might just be how it is going forward.
But David Poile was nothing if not aggressive this summer. He swapped out formerly All-World defender PK Subban for almost nothing — he’s seemingly betting 2016 first-rounder Dante Fabbro steps right in after playing in college last season — and added Matt Duchene on a big ticket via free agency. Where the team apparently wasn’t optimistic about a bounce-back year from Subban, it’s willing to roll the dice that Kyle Turris will play more than 55 games and net more than seven goals and 23 points. That seems like a good bet.
There were, assuredly, a lot of factors in the team’s underperformances last season, most notably the low shooting percentage (8.8 percent, seven points below the league average) and the putrid power play that finished in the neighborhood of 13 percent but also had some pretty decent underlying numbers. It appears the team is hoping those things sort themselves out with the addition of Duchene and the arguable addition-by-subtraction of Subban-into-Fabbro.
It might not be a bad bet, because Turris’s season was uncharacteristically bad and he’s only turning 30 in August. He also didn’t have great linemates for the bulk of last season (Kevin Fiala and Calle Jarnkrok) but he won’t have to carry the load if Duchene lives up to the contract. Plus, it’s not like you can expect a team to shoot under 8.3 percent — the second-lowest number in the last 12 seasons — over a long enough timeline. If the Preds had even been historically average in this regard, they’d have finished with a lot more than 100 points.
They’re also probably hoping to get more injury luck, as Filip Forsberg (64 games), Viktor Arvidsson (58), Fiala (64), Subban (63), Turris (55), and more were sidelined for good-sized chunks of the season.
The thing is, though, as Craig Custance noted yesterday, most teams’ windows to win come within the space of three or four years, max, unless they have something really special, like Chicago or Tampa. The Preds probably don’t have that, and might not have many more miles of tread left with this group at all.
A lot of the guys on this team are good but not great — Ryan Johansen seems like the dictionary definition of that, doesn’t he? — and perhaps there should be concern about when the wheels fall off for Pekka Rinne, who’s coming off his third straight good season, but is also pushing 37. There’s wiggle room there if you happen to think Juuse Saros is ready for prime time, but in that case, $5 million is a good chunk of change to spend on a guy who might be your backup for the next two seasons.
It will be interesting how things go with this group because I look at the roster and say, “Yes, that’s a solid group,” but how the money is apportioned, and to whom, is weird. Almost everyone who isn’t Rinne is under 30 and that’s probably going to keep them afloat. But there isn’t a ton of high-end talent here, either. Nobody where you’re like, “He’s a five-time All-Star, for sure.” A few maybes there: Duchene, Roman Josi (if you don’t think he’s overrated, which I do), and Forsberg. And again, a few guys that are certainly nice to have: I have a lot of time for Johansen, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm. They might even get a bounce-back year from Mikael Granlund.
But to be a reliably elite team in this league, you need elite talent, and it’s hard to see much on this roster even if you think Duchene will be exactly as good as he was last season. The good news, though, is that very few teams in the West have a roster as top-to-bottom solid as Nashville’s is, which is why even in a down year it still had 100 points. And on the whole I think the team probably improved a smidge this summer. It might even have the cap room (though not necessarily the roster space) to add some depth help.
Where that leaves them in pursuit of a Cup is hard to say, because they got pretty close with a similar group a few years ago. Because of that lack of truly great players, however, one suspects they’ll be on the outside looking in unless things go as right for them next season as they went wrong last season.
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