The Nashville Predators were the talk of the National Hockey League for a solid three months. Unfortunately, you want those three months to be April, May and June when you have the opportunity to play for the league’s coveted Stanley Cup. However, the Predators were garnering their accolades in November, December and January. They went streaking into mid-February as the league’s elite, sitting atop the league’s standings and looking as if they would be in the running for numerous team and individual awards.
Rookie forward Filip Forsberg, acquired by General Manager David Poile in a steal-of-a-deal with the Washington Capitals (for veteran Martin Erat, who quickly moved on to Arizona) was a revelation once solidifying his position on the top line. Paired with center Mike Ribeiro, winger James Neal (and later Craig Smith) the line remained effective through most of the season. Goaltender Pekka Rinne was certainly having a banner season and in the end despite the team’s drop off, did garner a finalist nomination for the Vezina (best goaltender) trophy. The talk of a Hart (most valuable player) nomination all but disappeared after both his injury (causing him to miss eight late January/early February games) and a reasonable drop off in production over the final 20 games of the season.
Then there was the captain, Shea Weber, the all-star defenseman seemed a shoo-in as a finalist for the Norris (best defenseman) trophy, but alas, Drew Doughty (LA), Erik Karlsson (OTT) and P.K. Subban (MTL) ended up as the top three vote-getters in that category. High marks should also go to Weber’s blueline partner, Roman Josi, who statistically bested the captain’s output over the course of the season. Weber’s season, as noted here in recent columns, ended in tragic fashion with a dislocated kneecap in Game Two of the team’s playoff series against the Blackhawks. He is scheduled for immediate surgery and should be just fine for the team’s training camp in September.
With the players exiting Bridgestone Arena, saying their goodbyes to each other and the coaching staff, it’s left to Poile to piece together what will be your 2015-16 Nashville Predators. While this team does not spend “to the (salary) cap,” which is presumed to be in the 71-72 million dollar range next season, there are unrestricted free agent decisions that will need to be made. Let’s have a look:
MIKE FISHER – A solid citizen who rehabbed an off-season injury to return in late November and provide the team more than may have been expected of the 34 year old center. His marriage to country music superstar Carrie Underwood aside, Fisher is a virtual lock to re-sign in Smashville, as Poile has already commented that he has no intention of letting this asset walk.
MIKE RIBEIRO – The veteran center was brought in on a low-dough ($1.05 million) deal, as he had been cast off by Arizona as a “problem child” and was told by Poile in no uncertain terms that this was his “last chance.” Ribeiro made more than the best of it and was a model citizen both on and off the ice. His puck distributing skills gave Forsberg room to move and his 47 assists led the team. Ribeiro has a “pass first” mentality but still netted 15 goals and should be in line for a generous pay raise in the off-season. He says he’d like to stay and the team has not indicated it feels differently, so if Poile can find the right number, we should see “Ribs” back in gold next season.
MATT CULLEN – Will be 39 in November and has not shown any signs that he CAN’T contribute to an NHL team next season. He averaged about 13 minutes of ice time in the regular season and his playoff number went up to about 17 with the injury to Fisher. It also can’t go without mention that Laviolette relied heavily on the player he had coached to a Stanley Cup in ’06 with Carolina. Cullen is a nice piece to have as he is versatile and performs his duties with class and a veteran’s maturity. Whether Poile thinks it’s a good fit for next season remains to be seen. Young players from Milwaukee, the team’s American League affiliate may be knocking on that door.
ANTON VOLCHENKOV – Started the season as the regular partner for sophomore defenseman Seth Jones and arguably performed his job well enough considering the team’s success to mid-February. However, a trade with Toronto brought in Cody Franson, and Volchenkov was shuttled to the press box, with only occasional sightings due to injury. The 33 year old defenseman is not fleet afoot and may consider a return to hockey overseas. He is a veteran of close to 700 NHL games and plays a solid physical game. The old adage “you can’t hit what you can’t catch” may be catching up with Volchenkov.
MIKE SANTORELLI – Acquired with Franson in an early deadline deal in February, Santorelli returned to the city that gave him his first NHL opportunity back in 2008. Unfortunately, in 22 regular season games with Nashville, Santorelli chipped in a lone goal and just three assists. He’s been on five teams, and his resume would indicate there will be a sixth that will come calling, so expect his second stay in Nashville to be considered almost as forgettable as his first.
CODY FRANSON – When Poile made this deal, he created the preemptive strike that would keep the hulking defenseman off the roster of many of the teams looking to acquire a solid blueliner at the deadline. Originally drafted by the Preds, Franson spent two years on the blueline in Smashville, before moving on to Toronto for four seasons that bolstered his stock as he toiled for a team that was woefully inept for large stretches. The thought that being re-inserted into a more structured, successful Preds lineup would give him the road map to greater heights. Unfortunately, he did not perform well enough to merit more than third-pairing minutes and was often benched for stretches late in games. Franson, however, is 27 years old, a large man at 6’5, and skates well enough that he will get a reasonably solid contract from an NHL team. It’s unlikely that Poile will be in the hunt, as he has recently publicly admitted that the trade backfired, and was a risk that went awry.
JOE PISKULA – Also in the unrestricted free agent category is this veteran minor league defenseman . Piskula was the captain of the Milwaukee Admirals and performed more than admirably. He is a solid positional player who can come up to an NHL team and fill in capably when an emergency injury strikes. I’m sure the team would love to have him back and with the number of young defensemen the Preds have in their system, Piskula is a mentor, a leader, and an invaluable asset on that level. That being said if an NHL team offers him a solid chance to become a No. 6 or No. 7 guy on a big-league roster, the lure might be great enough for him to sign elsewhere.
Restricted free agents include some very familiar names, most of whom will surely be back in Preds uniforms next season. That list includes forwards Craig Smith, Colin Wilson and Calle Jarnkrok. Tougher decisions will be made on roster players Gabriel Bourque and Taylor Beck. Minor leaguers like Austin Watson and goaltenders Marek Mazanec and Magnus Hellberg should all return as well.
There will be a few new faces on the opening night roster next year, including last year’s first round draft pick out of Sweden, Kevin Fiala. Fiala came to North America in mid-season and showed flashes of brilliance in Milwaukee during his 33 games there (11 goals, 9 assists,) earning single game “look-sees” in both the regular season and the playoffs here in Nashville. Fiala turns 19 in July and is a highly skilled young man who should be ready to make NHL strides at some point during next season.
More to come during the off season. As always, follow Sports & Entertainment Nashville on Twitter and Facebook, and my Twitter as well for even more Preds coverage. I want to thank you all for supporting our efforts to bring you insight into the Nashville Predators season and promise to keep you up-to-date on all Preds news as we look forward to training camp in September and the new season in October!