Updated: Sep 18
As the NHL's modified free agency start date approaches on Oct. 9, it's safe to say the Predators are not in a position to remain stagnant.
The roster we all thought would move mountains in 2018 has now fallen short of the ultimate goal for three straight years- this year in an almost embarrassing fashion. The Preds' front office envisioned a wide window for the team's reign of success, but that tenure seems to be rapidly ending.
Blame it on a variety of factors, if you wish: the franchise's one and only General Manager whose management has become static, forwards who are failing to produce equitable numbers to their paychecks, or the captain- a defenseman- who shouldered the team's entire offensive burden all year. Any way you look at it, the Preds' system is failing, and something's gotta give. With Mikael Granlund and Craig Smith hitting the open market in October, along with Kyle Turris and Nick Bonino acting as moderate trade meat, there's no reason David Poile shouldn't be willing to inject some life into the second and third forward lines.
A lot of the Preds' offseason forward moves are going to hinge on the major turnarounds of Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen- two guys whose $8 million/year salaries will create a giant vacuum in the team's cap space if they don't improve. Defense and goalies shouldn't be too looming of a concern for the team, so forward acquisition needs to be the name of the game. The Preds own the 10th-least cap space in the league at roughly $8.2 million in signage room.
Let's look at some viable free agent options the Preds' front office should be giving a look come Oct. 9.
Craig Smith- one of the Preds' longest-tenured, most quietly reliable assets- will become available on the open market the day free agency begins, and it would be in the team's best interest to re-sign him. Smith and Nick Bonino tied each other at 18 goals for the second-most on the team this season, and the 31-year old's 11.7 on-ice shooting percentage (oiSH%) was the highest it's been in his career in 2019-20. Smith also leads the Preds in Fenwick-For percentage (FF%) with a 56.3 percent rate- meaning the Preds are controlling the puck most often when Smith is on the ice.
If Poile opts to re-sign Smith, it will have to come at a cost. Smith last signed a contract in July of 2015 for $21.25 million over five years, earning him $4.25 million annually. He could be willing to take a pay cut given his declining numbers and rising age, but if the Preds are to offer Smith a similar contract, it will cut into about half of their current cap space.
Since Mikael Granlund has made it known that he plans to test the open market, the Preds are going to need a plan for replacing him on the wing. Vladislav Namestnikov could be a suitable replacement for him. Tampa Bay's 27th overall pick in 2011 went through three different organizations during the 2019-20 season, finishing with an aggregate total of 31 points over 65 games with New York, Ottawa, and Colorado. Namestnikov is a relatively steady producer, accounting for his highest season point total (48) in 2017-18- during which he was traded from Tampa to New York.
The 27-year old played his final nine regular season games in Colorado and tallied six points in the process, and given the Avalanche's plethora of cap space and lofty potential, they could realistically offer Namestnikov a deal he can't refuse. The Avs likely won't sign him for any more than the Rangers did in 2018 ($4 million annually over two years), but if the Preds want to make a realistic pitch to Namestnikov, they need to prepare to fork out at least $2 million per year.
Gunning for the young Jake Virtanen could pay dividends for the Preds. Vancouver's sixth overall pick in 2014 likely played his last game as a Canuck on Sep. 4; the relationship between Virtanen and Vancouver has deteriorated (publicly, too) after the forward failed to produce as expected since his debut in 2015-16. Though overshadowed by the likes of Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, and Bo Horvat in Vancouver, the 24-year old still has a high ceiling in the NHL. His best season thus far in his career came in 2019-20, wherein he notched 18 goals and assists each.
On the open market, Virtanen will probably command more than his current $1.25 million annual salary. He's also a restricted free agent, meaning that if the Canucks were to match an offer made to Virtanen by a different team during free agency, he would have to stay with the club. Given the circumstances of the Virtanen-Vancouver relationship, however, it is not likely the Canucks will try to match any offer. The Preds need to get younger, and Virtanen would be a great pickup if Mikael Granlund and/or Craig Smith leaves Nashville. He hasn't dropped any jaws in the league yet, but Virtanen may just be in need of a change in scenery.
The Panthers have the sixth-most cap space in the league ($21 million), but they also have 11 free agents to commit to on Oct. 9. The likes of Evgenii Dadonov, Mike Hoffman, Mark Pysyk, and MacKenzie Weegar are up for pay days, so it would be a good strategy for the Preds to try and target Erik Haula, who played just seven regular season games in Florida this season. Haula finished 2019-20 with 24 points in 48 games after missing a majority of the 2018-19 season with a lower-body injury. His best career season occurred the year prior in 2017-18, when he racked up 55 points in 76 games with Vegas.
The 29-year old has yet to play a full season in the NHL, and with his recent injury flare-ups, Haula could be willing to negotiate for less money on a longer-term deal. Haula's three-year, $8.25 million ($2.75 million annually) deal he signed with the Golden Knights in 2017 seems a little pricey now, so he can't be expecting the same kind of money after playing just 63 games in the last two years.