If the Nashville Predators want to make it back to the playoffs after a two-year hiatus, it’s going to have to find a way to upgrade down the middle as it will be without Mike Fisher the first few months of the season. Fisher suffered a ruptured Achilles and underwent surgery to correct it. The Predators revealed the bad news Monday and for a team that was already thin down the middle, Monday’s news is as just short of crippling as one can get.
The summer started with the organization’s first change at head coach when it replaced Barry Trotz after 15 years with Stanley Cup-winning coach Peter Laviolette. Laviolette promised to bring a more offensive-minded approach to the stingy Predators. It didn’t take a Mensa member to figure out that the Predators were going to need more firepower up front, especially down the middle, if they wanted to get back among the elites in the West.
Even before the injury to Fisher, Nashville Predator general manager David Poile was working feverishly to acquire a number one pivot and reportedly had a deal in place for Jason Spezza before he exercised his no-trade clause and vetoed a trade to the Nashville Predators. After the deal was nixed Nashville was able to trade Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling for winger James Neal. Neal is a talented scorer but needs a center to get him the puck in order to maximize his ability. We don’t know if Neal would have been acquired if Spezza didn’t nix the trade, but Predator fans can only dream of what could have been for a top line with Neal and Spezza.
Again, this team was going to struggle before Fisher went down. Now they are left with a center group of Craig Smith, John Cullen, Paul Gaustad, Olli Jokinen, Colin Wilson and maybe a kid like Calle Jarnkrok. Outside of Smith, who can step into a top 2 pivot next year and deliver enough to hang with the big boys in the West? Getzlaf and Kesler in Anaheim. Kopitar and Carter in L.A. Spezza and Seguin in Dallas. Smith and Jokinen in Nashville. Which one is not like the rest?
So where can they go from here? Derek Roy’s corpse is still available in free agency, as is recently bought out Mike Ribeiro. Unfortunately for Roy it’s not 2009 and unfortunately for Ribeiro there isn’t a trunk big enough to carry all his baggage. The rest of the unrestricted free agents are a mix of has-beens, never-was’, or just plain bad. I know Predator fans…this is the kind of talk you need to hear to get pumped for the upcoming season.
How about the trade market? Poile has positioned the team to be able to absorb a cap-hit casualty if it chooses. Does a 34-year old Vinny Lecavalier get the juices flowing? Yes he only put up 37 points in 69 games last year for the Flyers, but he just never seemed to fit into the roster. With top-six minutes could he give you a respectable 55+ points? It’s possible. And the cost to acquire him should be minimal since Philly is already over the cap. Of course that wouldn’t stop the Flyers from finding a way to use that savings and give it to another terrible defenseman. It’s been about 3 months so far since they last did that, so I think under the CBA they are required to do it again soon.
Taking a look around the rest of the league, there just doesn’t appear to be a heck of a lot of potential top-two centers on the trade market for what the Predators would most likely be willing to offer. Plus other teams realize how bad of shape the Predators are in down the middle and wouldn’t be looking bail out Poile cheaply.
The other interesting route is to
stop colluding with each other and take a look at the restricted free agent market. Poile is all too familiar with perils of it after the Flyers broke the unwritten code of giving offer sheets to other teams restricted free agents and signed Shea Weber to a monster contract two years ago. Realizing that Shea Weber’s don’t grow on trees, Poile had no choice but to ante up for his franchise defenseman. Sure, Nashville would have received a handful of draft picks from Philly if they chose not to match. But it also would have crippled the franchise who has developed Weber into the stud he has become.
If you’re the Predators and in desperate need of a number one center you can have for the next decade, do you tempt fate and offer either Ryan O’Reilly or Ryan Johansen a monster deal and try to steal one away from Colorado or Columbus, respectively? They’re both in their early-20’s and both coming off their most productive seasons to date. Do you offer them deals that may require you to forfeit three or four 1st round draft picks? Hell, when you’re the Nashville Predators and aren’t known to be a free-agent’s top choice, can you afford to give up four 1st round picks for one player, no matter how good he is?
These are the decisions that Dave Poile is going to have to make the next few months before the season starts. The only thing we know now is that the Nashville Predators don’t have the talent up front to compete with the top teams in the West and will be facing a third straight playoff-less season if they can’t correct the situation in a hurry.