Leading up to the NHL Entry Draft we’ve been examining each Western Conference squad’s offseason priorities, emphasizing points-only pool production with some peripheral considerations, and highlighting potential breakout candidates. We started in the cellar points-wise and are moving up as we go. We’ll tackle Vegas shortly after the expansion and entry drafts. Last week was Anaheim and Minnesota. This week we’ll (mostly) wrap it up with the first Western Conference playoff seed Chicago Blackhawks and Stanley Cup Final runners-up Nashville Predators.
Nashville Predators – 41-29-12 (94 points)
Stanley Cup Finals loss to Pittsburgh
Greatest needs: adding scoring forwards/center depth, losing as little as possible to Vegas
After a stirring and largely unanticipated playoff run, Nashville will look to build upon momentum and further fortify while managing expansion losses to Vegas. Their defense is among the best, and adding to/upgrading a few of their forwards should have them again competing until late May or June in 2017-18.
You can’t ask for much more from the Predators’ top-line. Filip Forsberg continued as the squad’s young offensive leader, recovering from a slow start to register 31 goals and 27 assists. Entering his fourth full campaign in Nashville, the 22-year old just missed hitting 60 points for the third straight year, but had plenty of help with Ryan Johansen’s 14 goals and team-best 47 assists, which was also tied for 7th in the West. At age 24 and year seven of his career, the now RFA fit in perfectly with the Pred’s young offensive core and was a tough injury casualty in game four of the Finals.
Viktor Arvidsson (also an RFA) broke out after a 16-point 2015-16 to tie Johansen as Nashville’s leading scorer with 61 points (31 goals, 30 assists) and complete one of the league’s best lines at left wing. From there, the forwards get a little thinner and stand to get more so after the expansion draft.
Nashville may still be working on a deal to prevent Vegas from selecting unprotected James Neal in the expansion draft. While most teams protected seven forwards and three defensemen, the Predators’ top-four defensive core may be the best in the game and they were only able to shield four forwards in keeping that blue line intact.
Losing Neal and his 23 goals, his ninth consecutive campaign over 20, with six in the postseason and 41 total points would be a hit, as would unrestricted free agent center Mike Fisher’s hinted retirement. At age 37, Fisher finished fourth among Nashville forwards in scoring with 42 points, just ahead of Neal.
Craig Smith ($4.25M/29 points while falling below 14 minutes TOI per game) and Colin Wilson ($3.94M/35 points and gritty play) carry significant cap hits and haven’t provided the greatest returns on investment recently. As both were left unprotected, either could depart. Protected Calle Jarnkrok at third-line center hasn’t been the most prolific with just 31 and 30 points the past two campaigns, albeit in mostly even-strength work and limited ice time (15:43 last year, 16:59 in the postseason), but stands to grow with the Preds as his $2M cap hit through 2022 is quite reasonable. He could be worth investing in from a fantasy standpoint with increased playing opportunities seemingly on the horizon.
With Fisher possibly out of town, Nashville’s need for middle-six center upgrades may grow more urgent. Possessing a little over $17.7M in projected cap space, expect them to scour the free agent market for center reinforcements such as Martin Hanzal, and wings in the league of T.J Oshie and Patrick Eaves.
Austin Watson’s physical, gritty presence could be more on display in 2017-18 but he doesn’t register many points (five goals, twelve assists in 12:25 TOI). He has been exposed to Vegas though. His peripheral contributions are solid for multi-category poolies however, leading the club with 99 penalty minutes and finishing second in hits with 143 and in plus-minus among Preds’ forwards with a plus-14.
Several prospects should have opportunities and might be good fantasy adds depending upon how the summer plays out. Promising and unprotected Colton Sissons came up big in the postseason, particularly after Johansen’s departure, but hasn’t yet hit his scoring stride. Young forwards including Kevin Fiala – with two goals in five postseason contests before the broken femur, Vlaidslav Kamenev, Frederick Gaudreau, Yakov Trenin, Thomas Novak and Pontus Aberg (also exposed) may be able to fill depth roles at minimum in the not-too-distant future.
Nashville is the envy of most when it comes to defense, particularly with Mattias Ekholm; P.K. Subban’s rapidly progressing pairing upping his game; high-scoring Roman Josi, along with Ryan Ellis’ defensive prowess and increasing point production, off a career-high 23:57 per game that may have dragged down his relative possession numbers. They would all again be welcome additions to any fantasy squad.
Pekka Rinne’s demise is not entirely upon us, and we all saw what he had left during the Predators’ long postseason run, but at 35 shortly after 2017-18 begins, age will likely begin taking a greater toll. Luckily effective backup Juuse Saros just turned 22, and has loads of promise that fellow Finn Rinne is helping to mentor. He’ll gradually transition from backup to at least 1B status as Rinne approaches UFA status in 2019.
Chicago Blackhawks – 50-23-9 (109 points)
First round playoff series loss to Nashville
Greatest needs: Cap compliance, bridge depth to the prospects, number two goalie
After finishing with the West’s best record Chicago was swept by Nashville, eventual Cup runner-up and “16th seed” if we take the entire league into account. After years of gutting their roster to fulfill costly contracts to their top players, the Predators wore them out and their young depth didn’t do well on the big stage.
They face this familiar financial dilemma this offseason as well and are seeking inventive ways to address it via several means surrounding the expansion draft. Currently projected as roughly $2.5M over the cap, they have a rumored Vegas deal in place to shave Marcus Kruger and Trevor Van Riesmdyk’s collective $3.9M numbers off the books. With the now-increased salary cap to $75M perhaps Kruger (and his near $3.1M hit) is the only one to go, but both have been left unprotected.
Top veteran forwards Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Artem Anisimov, and young star Artemi Panarin will all be back and productive unless a blockbuster deal occurs to shed salary and bring back acceptable value.
Richard Panik’s dramatic scoring increase to 22 goals and 22 assists, right wing role on the Toews line, club-leading 147 hits, and new two-year $2.8M deal bode well for his future in Chicago. Kruger’s un-heralded value as a defensive specialist providing sheltered minutes to their scoring front lines includes skillfully killing penalties, and exerting significant positive influence on puck possession. He’s the type of player every team needs. The Blackhawks can’t afford to keep him and his near $3.1M cap hit though.
At 22-years-old, Ryan Hartman totaled 19 goals, 12 assists and a plus-13, finishing second in Blackhawk hits with 121, while leading them with 70 penalty minutes in his first full NHL campaign. He meshed at left wing effectively with Hossa, looks a top-six future staple, and would be a wise fantasy investment.
That along with RFAs Dennis Rasmussen (unprotected) and Tomas Jurco (protected), as well as unprotected vet Jordin Tootoo don’t represent a great deal of depth to compliment promising younger talent including Tyler Motte, John Hayden, Nick Schmaltz, Tanner Kero, Vinnie Hinostroza and perhaps even OHL-dominant Erie Otter Alex DeBrincat. With a negative balance, it will be interesting to see how GM Stan Bowman addresses the issue.
Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are core defenders with no movement clauses, as is hits resource Niklas Hjalmarsson who has a ten-team tradable list along with a $4.1M cap hit. Hjalmarsson is a rumored trade candidate for the same cap reasons as Kruger. Trevor van Riemsdyk and Michael Rozsival are both signed and unprotected. The obvious better pick here for Vegas is TVR (via trade or draft) as the 38-year-old Rozsival’s limited 2016-17 role and late-season facial surgery don’t bode well for next year.
Corey Crawford was on fire early last year, sporting a .927 save percentage in his first 20 games, prior to appendicitis. He was a more human .914 the rest of the year as 18-5-5, 2.38, .924 Scott Darling tended net while he was away and effectively provided needed starts. Monitor Crawford carefully as he should still carry good value, but entering his eighth campaign at age 32 might show signs of wear and tear.
Darling’s gone to Carolina. Currently 32-year-old AHL Rockford Ice Hogs goalie Jeff Glass is second on the roster, with 29-year-old RFA Lars Johansson also tucked away in the minors after a long, successful run in Sweden. He might be their best option considering the money crunch, but particularly after his injury and declining production towards the end of 2016-17 they likely want more NHL experience behind Crawford. Whomever gets that number two job might be worth a handcuff fantasy roster spot.
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