Nashville Predators could fix forward issues from within
After acquiring James Neal in a trade and then losing Mike Fisher to injury, the Predators may have to dip in their increasingly rich prospect system to fix their depth problems.
When it comes to making the Nashville Predators a competitive team in the NHL, there are certain challenges. A lack of national exposure, a smaller, non-traditional market and a franchise history that includes just two playoff series wins don't offer the greatest advertisement. Efforts to improve the team through free agency have often been stymied, possibly due to unfair perceptions about the organization and city.
That's why when general manager David Poile acquired James Neal, the bona fide goal scorer the team has sorely needed for years, eyebrows across the league were raised. Poile was not going to sit idly by after a season in which the Predators finished sixth in the Central Division while scoring just 2.61 goals per game.
Before that, however, the Predators were reportedly ready to pull the trigger on a deal that would have brought former Ottawa Senators captain Jason Spezza to Nashville. The team also needed a true No. 1 center to bolster the offense. Spezza, however, would not waive his no-trade clause to join the Predators. Poile publicly shared his frustration in the aftermath of that news becoming public.
Here are just a few of Poile's comments on the Spezza situation, via Yahoo! Sports:
"I don't get it. When you talk about winning and losing, I know you want to go to a team to win a Cup, but we're as committed as anybody. Who knows, maybe we're closer than anybody thinks," he said.
"You have to sell your team all the time. But there are teams that are national TV or major markets. I get that. But what we have on the ice, what we have off the ice, no state taxes. There's a lot of advantage to playing in Nashville. But you can ask Peter Forsberg what he thought about Nashville, or Paul Kariya, just to drop a few names of players who might be going to the Hall of Fame."
It was a real kick in the teeth, but Spezza merely exercised his right that was granted him by his contract. Matters were made worse when Spezza agreed to go to the Dallas Stars, right in the same division as the Predators, with a similar non-traditional market, but a more recent playoff appearance.
In his recent introductory news conference in Dallas, Spezza explained that he accepted a deal to the Stars because he felt they were committed to winning.
If Poile is to be believed, the Preds are serious about winning, too. His aggressiveness at the draft proves as much. The difference is that the Stars had competent goaltending last season and two electrifying NHL talents at the top of their lineup in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. They looked more attractive on paper and that's where Nashville lost out.
The issues facing the Preds only got worse in the days after free agency opened.
Veteran center Mike Fisher went down with a ruptured Achilles tendon during training. He has already had successful surgery and will be out four to six months. That would place a rather conservative estimate for his return at about mid-November, if not a little later.
Without many improvements made to the roster in free agency despite adding veteran Olli Jokinen, the Preds were already out of luck on making helpful additions to offset that injury.
The options left on the free-agent market include veterans Mike Ribeiro and Derek Roy, though both are coming out of rather disappointing seasons with the former being unceremoniously bought out by the Arizona Coyotes.
"We're not going to sign a player for the sake of signing," Poile told the Tennessean. "It has to be a fit."
That's probably the right approach, especially considering that the Predators are starting to build a more fruitful farm system.
With all of the issues that face the Predators when it comes to attracting established players, there needs to be more support coming up from the prospect pipeline. The Predators have been excellent at developing defensemen and have homegrown players like Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Seth Jones, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm all part of the big club.
It's the players at forward that have left little to be desired, led primarily by former No. 7 overall pick Colin Wilson. His 33 points in 81 games last season were beyond disappointing, but that has been the norm for him throughout his young career.
The disappointment surrounding Wilson is at least offset a bit by the success of Craig Smith, a mid-round selection in 2009 who posted his first 50-point season in 2013-14 and looks to be getting even better heading into his fourth professional campaign. Beyond that, though, the Preds have been searching for that high-impact draft pick at forward that helps change the team's fortunes.
That said, the club has been noticeably making a more concerted effort to build the forward crop with high-skill players as opposed to the burly center prospects that are more versed defensively and lighter on offensive output. There have been an awful lot of those.
The team acquired gifted Swedish-born prospects Filip Forsberg and Calle Jarnkrok from the Washington Capitals and Detroit Red Wings in deals that sent franchise staples the other way in consecutive years.
Forsberg, a talented winger who was the primary piece in the trade that sent Martin Erat to the Capitals, put up 34 points in 47 games at the AHL level last year. He also dominated the World Junior Championship and very well could earn a spot on the big club at wing after injuries limited him a bit in the 2013-14 season.
Meanwhile Jarnkrok shined in his NHL debut after the trade that sent David Legwand to the Red Wings. The 22-year-old Swede had seven points in a 12-game stint with Nashville before putting up nine points in six games with Nashville's AHL affiliate in Milwaukee.
The Preds also went high-skill at the draft last month in landing Swiss prospect Kevin Fiala with the 11th overall pick. The impressive youngster had 11 points in 17 games in Sweden's top professional league last year, but he'll likely need a few years before he's NHL-ready.
There's also reason for optimism about 2011 second-round pick Miikka Salomaki, who had 50 points for the Milwaukee Admirals in the AHL last year. At 21, he may not be terribly far away from contributing on the big club and he can play at center or wing.
As good as it is to have the young players, it doesn't exactly lend itself well to the Predators being especially competitive in 2014-15. That's even after the addition of Neal, which was supposed to signify a more immediate plan to compete for a playoff spot.
The reality that meets the Predators now is that the Central Division got even tougher after free agency, while the Preds are only marginally better than the team that finished sixth last season. What they do have is a group of young players that should help in the coming years, which is more than some teams in similar situations can say.
Quick-fix options like a possible trade for Vincent Lecavalier or signing a subpar free agent probably aren't the right routes to go. To block the paths of those young players who very well could garner some particularly helpful experience next season wouldn't be good for the long-term health of the organization.
The Preds don't necessarily have to punt next season, but patience is going to be the key.
Neal is under contract through 2017-18, their defense is essentially set for at least the next few years and they have a true No. 1 goaltender in a hopefully healthy Pekka Rinne under contract until 2019. They also have players like Fisher, free-agent acquisition Jokinen, Paul Gaustad and Matt Cullen, who will occupy center positions at various parts of next season will eventually give way to Jarnkrok, Smith and other youngsters like Colton Sissons, Miikka Salomaki and Austin Watson, perhaps. Add Forsberg and Fiala and that could eventually give Nashville a legitimate top six in the very near future.
Things are changing in Nashville, but it's going to be a process and the results probably won't be immediate. As long as the franchise stays the course, though, it seems like better days are ahead for an organization that wants to prove it is committed to winning. And who knows, maybe the Predators are only a few years away from changing perceptions and becoming a destination big-name players don't turn away from so frequently.
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