In an offseason that has seemed to drag on for years, the Predators added a few names of note to their 2020-21 roster that could redeem them from their qualifying round loss to Arizona in August. The Preds' future has, at times, appeared increasingly grim as more separation occurs between the 2018 President's Trophy-winning season and the present. Fortunately, it also appeared that David Poile began to understand that reality this fall, ditching his marriage to player performances of yesteryear and overhauling the roster more than he has since about 2015.
Though Nashville's future might not be as stout as, say, Ottawa's, there are a handful of young Preds prospects due to arise in 2020-21 that certainly make it brighter. Looking more immediately, however, the acquisitions of Luke Kunin, Erik Haula, Nick Cousins, Brad Richardson, Matt Benning, and Mark Borowiecki will need to trend positively the minute the puck drops on Jan. 14, when the Preds will begin competing in a realigned, arguably more competitive Central Division.
In exchange for 32-year old Nick Bonino, the Preds acquired 23-year old Luke Kunin in an Oct. 7 trade with Minnesota. Losing Bonino (to the same trade) and Craig Smith, with their 18 goals apiece in 2019-20, will be a significant offensive adjustment for the Preds. The Wild's 2016 first round draft pick, who will slot in at third or fourth-line center, will be primarily charged with increasing his goal total of 15 in 2019-20. Kunin took the fourth-most shots on the Wild last season, but his shooting percentage (accounting for his shot-to-goal rate) sat at 11.7 percent- ranking ninth on the team. Kunin's defensive abilities appear weak after finishing last season with a -10 on-ice rating; to his credit, however, Minnesota concluded their season with the seventh-worst penalty kill unit (77.18 percent) and the tenth-most goals-against (217) in the league.
One potentially problematic aspect of Kunin's game is his high penalty count. Last season, Kunin accrued the second-most PIM (55) on the Wild. The Preds finished 2019-20 with the third-lowest penalty kill percentage in the league (76.06), so adding a player with a record of getting boxed often raises a few red flags. Nashville did shed the offensive liability of Austin Watson (65 PIM) in the offseason, so the thinking could be that Kunin will offset his penalties with positive production on the forecheck. Overall, Kunin looks to be more of a steal than a risk; at a cost of just $2.3 million AAV for two years, the young Missouri native has space to grow and thrive with a fresh start on a new team.
The late addition of Erik Haula to an already flooded center pool on Dec. 23 (one-year, $1.75 million) was an odd choice by the Preds' front office; luckily, Haula can slot into pretty much anywhere on a forward line and succeed. Haula could turn out to be the Preds' biggest sleeper hit of the offseason. He is finally fully healthy after enduring a nagging knee injury for two seasons in 2018-19 and 2019-20, moving from Vegas to Carolina to Florida in the meantime. In 48 games last season (41 with CAR, seven with FLA), Haula put together 12 goals and 12 assists, maintaining the Hurricanes' third-highest shooting percentage (15.4) in his time in Raleigh. However, it's Haula's 2017-18 campaign with Vegas that most captures the eye. To date, Haula's 55 points in 76 games during the Golden Knights' inaugural season is the best of his career. It goes without saying that, ideally, the Preds would have Haula match or exceed that point total in 2020-21; 55 points would have ranked Haula second-highest on the team in 2019-20.
Having Haula potentially on the same line as Mikael Granlund- who just happens to be Haula's close personal friend- could be a true lesson in chemistry for the Preds. In their final season together in Minnesota in 2016-17, Haula and Granlund combined for 95 points before Haula was selected by Vegas in the 2017 expansion draft. The pair of Finns are both sneaky puckhandlers with a knack for threading needles in passing and shooting lanes. Also, Haula and Granlund alone have experience playing in three of the seven team systems the Preds will be facing exclusively in the 2020-21 regular season- Minnesota, Carolina, and Florida.
Signing Nick Cousins to a two-year, $1.5 million AAV contract in October was a move primarily made to bolster the bottom forward line. The losses of Watson, Colin Blackwell, Kyle Turris, and Craig Smith left plenty of vacancies on the roster; though he's not much of an obvious improvement, Cousins doesn't present much liability either. He's played nearly full seasons every year for the last three years, sharing time with Arizona, Montreal, and Vegas. With 25 points in 65 games in 2019-20, Cousins took more shots (115) than Nick Bonino (104), Ryan Johansen (101), Turris (88), Colton Sissons (52), and Watson (50). The 27-year old is joining a Preds team whose shot total (2,287) finished fifth in the league last season, so he'll be expected to keep up a consistent shot pace even on the bottom forward line. Cousins' 2019-20 offensive zone start percentage of 52.5 would rank him seventh on last season's Preds roster, beating out the likes of Johansen, Ryan Ellis, and even Roman Josi. A positive oZS% is desperately needed on the Preds' lower lines; they faced off roughly 60 percent of the time in the defensive zone, leaving them more susceptible high-danger shots against.
Cousins' Corsi rating is the most notable standout on his stat sheet. With a 54.6 CF% in 2019-20, Cousins would have tied Matt Duchene for the second-highest Corsi rating on the Preds last season (among players who skated in over 40 games). This is an enormous addition to any lower forward line, as it displays Cousins' ability to maintain puck possession for the majority of the time he is on the ice. Positive Corsi ratings are relatively uncommon among teams' bottom lines. Cousins dazzled in the Preds' two televised team scrimmages on Friday and Sunday, scoring a handful of goals and displaying wonderful hustle in the process.
Much like Nick Bonino's defection from Pittsburgh in July of 2017, Brad Richardson took the phrase "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" and did pretty much the opposite. Richardson's Coyotes not only eliminated the Preds from the qualifying round of the 2020 playoffs, but Richardson himself was the one who drove the stake through Nashville's heart, scoring the series-winning goal in overtime of Game 4. Two months later, the 35-year old center signed a one-year, $1 million contract with the Preds. Signing Richardson doesn't make a whole lot of sense for the Preds, however. Already over-capacity with centers, adding an older and unspectacular guy with a career -30 on-ice rating seems, at most, like a way to bring in a veteran presence. Richardson won the Stanley Cup in 2012 with Los Angeles, making him the only current Predator to have reached the NHL's ultimate prize.
Richardson's 29.5 oZS% is a glaring stain on his stats from 2019-20. As opposed to his potential future linemate- Cousins- Richardson's ability to maintain puck possession for his team leaves a lot to be desired. Second only to Michael Grabner (among players skating in at least 40 games), Richardson's 42.5 Corsi rating was Arizona's worst. Basically, when Richardson was on the ice, the Coyotes were least likely to be dictating the offense. Richardson's CF% hasn't always been as bad as it was last season, but it hasn't been positive (over 50 percent) since 2012-13.
Matt Benning and Mark Borowiecki will likely be the ones designated to balance out the combination of Yannick Weber and Jarred Tinordi on the bottom defensive pairing. 26-year old Benning was acquired in the October trade that sent Kyle Turris to Edmonton and was subsequently signed to a two-year, $2 million deal. Benning is a young player who hasn't put up incredibly impressive offensive numbers thus far in his career, but is a reliable and steady presence on the blue line. The Edmonton native's ice time was cut significantly in 2019-20; in the 43 games he was slotted in, Benning recorded a goal and seven assists, as well as a +8 on-ice rating. As a matter of fact, Benning has yet to finish a season with a negative rating- compiling a +32 in his four NHL seasons. Compared to his replacement- Weber- at right defenseman, Benning is most definitely the better of the two. Benning has played in just 25 more games than Weber from 2016-17 to now, but has compiled 61 points in that time- compared to Weber's 24.
Following the Preds' truncated training camp, it is expected that Weber will be placed on the "taxi squad", meaning he'll practice and travel with the team but will be a healthy scratch most nights. This clears the way for Benning to pick up those minutes and prove his value as an addition to a team with a stout top four on the blue line.
Much like Matt Benning, Mark Borowiecki arrives in Nashville from several years of playing only for his hometown NHL team- Ottawa, in Borowiecki's case. "Boro-Cop" and Benning are quite similar in their consistency and reliability on a bottom defensive pairing. In 53 games last season, Borowiecki recorded seven goals, 11 assists, and a +1 on-ice rating. The 31-year old's positive rating, though only one over zero, is notable because of the Senators' 238 goals allowed- ranking them just under Detroit for the most goals allowed in 2019-20. This means Borowiecki was not among the frequent participants in Ottawa's defensive lapses, showing an ability to defend his zone and provide his goalie with some relief in front of him. Additionally, Borowiecki finished the season with a 61.5 defensive zone start percentage (dZS%)- technically not a great percentage, but with a +1 rating, it shows the defenseman's knack for clearing his zone and preventing the opposition from setting up an attack.
The biggest concern with Borowiecki's game comes with his high accumulation of PIM. In 2019-20, Borowiecki sat in the penalty box for a total of 58 minutes; only Austin Watson recorded more PIM (65) for the Preds last season. He used to be in there a lot more, too; Borowiecki has brought his PIM total all the way down from 154 in 2016-17 and 89 in 2018-19. To reiterate, the Preds claimed one of the worst penalty kill units in the league last season, so Borowiecki needs to reel himself in so that his team isn't constantly shorthanded when he comes off the bench.
The Preds' aforementioned taxi squad is going to have to take on some extra names during this COVID-altered season- players are bound to get sick right from the jump, so replacing them on a week-to-week basis will be the team's healthy scratches. This could mean any of these five players could see their roster spot temporarily filled by the likes of Eeli Tolvanen, Yakov Trenin, Mathieu Olivier, Tanner Jeannot, Philip Tomasino, or another prospect due for some NHL action. For Kunin and Benning especially, it's going to come down to who outperforms whom.