Expansion Draft Preview: Nashville Predators

This is one in a continuing series of articles outlining the options available to the Seattle Kraken during the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. To learn more about the draft, please see our Expansion Draft Primer.

Check out articles like this one for every NHL team on our Expansion Draft Previews page.

The Nashville Predators went on a 7-2-1 streak to end the season, scratching and clawing their way into the fourth and final playoff spot in the Central Division, then fell behind 0-2 to Carolina in the first round. Scrappy to the last, they tied the series on Sunday and are not out of the picture yet. But beyond the first-round drama and the potential for continuing on in the playoffs, the most significant milestone on the horizon for the Preds is the expansion draft — and the possibility that one of their marquee forwards will be shopping for a new home in Broadmoor this summer.

The crux of Nashville’s problem is this: they have two formerly dominant forwards signed to long-term, $8 million AAV contracts. Those players combined for just 35 points and a minus-12 ranking last season. One is under-performing so severely that he is currently logging minutes on Nashville’s 3rd line — not what you’d call optimal cap utilization.

So the Predators will be asking — more like, begging — Seattle to help reduce the impact of this huge mistake. The question becomes, is Seattle willing to play ball, and if so, at what price? But then if not, who from the Predators would be available and suitable in a situation where a deal can’t be arranged?

Let’s Make A Deal

The two forwards in question are Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene. Johansen is still a key part of the Predators’ offense, centering the top line and playing net-front on the #1 power play unit. The 28-year-old is a playmaker rather than a scorer, nearly always notching more assists than goals. His top-tier days are not that far in the rear view mirror, either: in 2018-19 he put up 14 goals and 50 assists in 80 games, maintaining a plus-7 rating in the process. But last season’s 22-point performance over 48 games is not worthy of his $8 million salary — which he will earn for the next 4 seasons.

The bigger of the two problems for Nashville is 30-year-old Duchene, who looked like a sure bet when he arrived as a free agent signing in the summer of 2019. The previous 3 seasons he had racked up 170 points, and while his plus-minus numbers were dismal, defense was not what he was being signed for. His first season in Nashville was middling — 42 points in 68 games. But the 2020-21 season was limited to 34 games due to injury, and saw Duchene post just 6 goals and 7 assists. He’s an annual nominee for the Lady Byng Trophy, a feather in his cap to be sure; but they don’t hand out $8 million contracts for sportsmanship — the amount Duchene gets paid for the next 5 seasons.

The one area where both of these players have, and still do, excel is at the face-off dot. Both have career win percentages at or above 53%, and in particular Duchene regularly outpaces that rate even though his point production is lax. And while face-off win percentage isn’t going to allow coaches (or fans) to overlook otherwise sub-par performance, that aspect of their play means there is at least some measure of utility for the Kraken should they decide to absorb one of their disproportionate contracts.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that, of the two, Nashville would prefer to be rid of Duchene rather than Johansen. So let’s proceed on that assumption. What will it take for Seattle to take Duchene off their hands? Well, for starters, Kraken GM Ron Francis has made it clear that the minimum price for such a deal is a first-round pick. Secondly, Nashville is not getting off with having Duchene be Seattle’s expansion draft selection; they will have to trade Duchene to Seattle, and eat half his salary. Then they can send over their choice of either Calle Jarnkrok or Mattias Ekholm. And finally, we’re taking Connor Ingram as our choice in the expansion draft.

Preds fans will howl at this list of demands, but they’re delusional if they think the actual list will be any less. Taking on what amounts to a useless player and his untradeable 5-year contract comes at a price; and in the flat cap era, that price is steep. So, yes, we’re taking your backup goalie, your first round pick, and one of your top skaters — or, you can suck it. We can take Ekholm or Ingram whether or not we help you out with your Duchene problem. Seattle would be doing you a $20 million favor, and they will definitely not be doing it for free.

Protected List

If there is no deal to be made, then the Kraken are looking at a number of viable options at all positions, believe it or not. The emergence of two of Nashville’s young defensemen combined with Roman Josi’s NMC means that there is a high probability the Predators will use the 8-and-1 protection scheme. Based on that assumption, we predict the following players will be protected:

Forwards: Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, Colton Sissons, Calle Jarnkrok

Defensemen: Roman Josi (NMC), Ryan Ellis, Dante Fabbro, Alexandre Carrier

Goaltender: Juuse Saros

We’ll note here that forwards Eeli Tolvanen and Mathieu Olivier, who have put up some promising numbers with Nashville this season, are exempt from the expansion draft. Furthermore, there are several players approaching free agency that will be neither protected nor selected: that list includes forwards Mikael Granlund, Erik Haula, and Brad Richardson; defensemen Erik Gudbranson and Luca Sbisa; and goaltender Pekka Rinne, who will likely hang up the skates at season’s end, following a career that encompassed 13 complete seasons and allowed him to establish franchise records in nearly every category imaginable.

Who’s Left?

The 8-and-1 protection scheme means there are more forwards available than on most teams, however don’t expect offensive explosions from anyone on this list. The more likely options are on defense and in goal.

RW Luke Kunin, $2.3 million AAV, signed through 2022. You don’t notice Luke Kunin on the ice until he shoots — and MAN what a shot. His sweet spot is the deep slot, and his lightning fast release and pinpoint accuracy fool even the best goaltenders in the league. Currently logging minutes on the 2nd line for Nashville, he is the forward the Predators wish they could protect.

LW Rocco Grimaldi, $2 million AAV, signed through 2022. Let’s set aside the amusement of having a player named “Rocco” on the team; this 5’6″ utility forward is a pleasant surprise. Good speed, soft hands, accurate and deceptive shot from in close, and sneaks in behind defensemen to get open for back-door shots on goal. He’s never going to be a top-six forward, but he earns his kibble every night.

LW Nick Cousins, $1.5 million AAV, signed through 2022. Though this journeyman/agitator has plenty of fight highlight reels to choose from, he is still a decent play-making winger, 2nd-unit power play grinder, and shut-down line anchor. He excels at very little, but doesn’t disappoint in any category either.

LW Yakov Trenin, $725,000 AAV, signed through 2022. A lumbering winger with good size, Trenin will surprise you with quick pick-pocket moves and soft hands. You wouldn’t expect somebody with his ability to level such crushing checks to reside consistently in the ‘plus’ column every night, but he does. Below-average speed is likely the thing keeping him from advancing to middle-six duty.

LD Mattias Ekholm, $3.75 million AAV, signed through 2022. The 6’4″, 215 lb. Swedish defenseman has the following totals through 586 regular season NHL games: 51 goals, 219 points; 442 hits; a combined plus-90; and a staggering 744 blocked shots. Add to that 31 points in 68 playoff games, with another 72 hits and 91 blocks. It’s going to be hard for Seattle to pass on this middle-pairing stalwart, and I’m not sure they should.

LD Mark Borowiecki, $2 million AAV, signed through 2022. If you’re looking to get your flank steak tenderized, this is the guy: 397 NHL games, and an eye-popping 1,630 hits. Very little more, and definitely overpriced for what he brings to the table.

RD Matt Benning, $1 million AAV, signed through 2022. Benning’s time in Nashville hasn’t been as productive as his four years in Edmonton, but he can contribute a defensively-responsible 15 minutes a night and log some time on the penalty kill for a budget-friendly price.

G Connor Ingram, $733,333 AAV, signed through 2023. Ingram has yet to make his NHL debut, having dressed as a backup twice but not seen any action. He has 95 games logged in the AHL to date, with a 56-26-10 record and a combined .922 save percentage. He’s the choice for flipping to a team looking for a young 3rd-string netminder on a budget.

So Many Choices

I’d say that the chances of Seattle negotiating a deal involving Duchene are probably below 50/50. With the Predators exposing a consistent performer such as Ekholm there’s a disincentive to even discussing taking on an albatross contract. But if it does happen, expect the take for the Kraken to be as big as outlined above, if not bigger. It’s been clear to this point that Ron Francis is not messing around.

Few top-six forwards under the age of 30 will be made available, and that fact alone is going to make it difficult to pass over the 23-year-old Luke Kunin, especially with his 2-goal performance against Carolina this past Sunday. But my guess is that Ekholm will be the choice for the Kraken, and if he delivers in his remaining year I expect he’ll be re-signed. He is Niklas Hjalmarsson at a 30% discount, and he would be a solid anchor for the Kraken defense in its inaugural season.

You can check out everyone on this list (save Borowiecki, who is on injured reserve) when the Predators’ series against Carolina continues. The puck drops for Game 5 from Raleigh tonight at 5pm Pacific, with the action airing on CNBC.

Author: Tim Currell

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