Let’s just forget about Game 7, shall we?
Nashville’s 5-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks on Thursday night may have ended the season for the team, but it didn’t define the Predators.
In fact, it was a fairly successful campaign for a team that’s building toward Stanley Cup contention. They went deeper into the playoffs than ever before. They won a playoff round for just the third time in franchise history, knocking off Stanley Cup favorites Anaheim in the process. They showed their resiliency by winning three games when facing elimination and won their first-ever Game 7 – on the road, no less.
In that way, and so many others, the Preds took a step forward this season. The experience they gained brings them closer to their ultimate goal.
But it also revealed just how far they have to go, and sets up general manager David Poile for a potentially active summer.
That said, the lineup you saw in Game 7 is pretty much what you'll see at the start of next season as well. Poile has nearly $59 million tied up in 18 returning players, including 11 forwards, his top-six defensemen and starting goalie Pekka Rinne. But that doesn't mean he'll be idle over the summer. There's no room for complacency in the cutthroat Central division.
His biggest concern up front is signing forward Filip Forsberg to a new contract. The restricted free agent had a disastrous playoffs (one assist, -9 against the Sharks), but was Nashville’s leading scorer in the regular season and projects to top the charts for years to come. Ideally he’d sign a bridge deal coming off his entry-level contract, leaving Poile some wiggle room under the cap, but that’s not likely to happen. Expect a long-term deal with a cap hit somewhere in the vicinity of $6 million.
There’s a chance Poile retains Paul Gaustad. The UFA center is still a whiz in the circle—his 59.4% success rate was tops in the playoffs among centers with at least 100 draws—but he’d have to come in at the right price. That means less than half his current $3.25 million cap hit, or he can be replaced.
He might also look to clear out some dead weight. Mike Ribeiro has a year remaining on a deal that pays him $3.5 million, but its hard to see how the center fits in moving forward. No doubt he can still make plays, but he’s unreliable and undisciplined. Even without the benefit of cap relief, this would be addition by subtraction. Eric Nystrom ($2.5 million) is another buyout candidate.
Ideally, prospects Pontus Aberg, Kevin Fiala and Vladislav Kamenev would be ready to step up and fill in those vacancies, but all might be better served by another year in Milwaukee. In that case, Poile could look to add two forwards over the summer, either through free agency or trade. Best case, he adds top-six capable players, but bringing some two-way skill to the bottom-six and increasing depth isn’t a bad fall-back.
The D corps is all but locked in, with only depth defender Petter Granberg needing a new deal. The 23-year-old RFA, picked up on waivers from Toronto, brings a safe, simple game and could spell Barret Jackman part-time next season. There have been rumblings that the Preds would like to add another mobile, puck-moving type, but they're not likely to commit to that kind of expense (or to trade Shea Weber, despite his disastrous Game 7 and crippling $7.86 million cap hit that runs through 2026).
Rinne had an up-and-down season, but he’s shown he can still be an elite goalie in this league. The key will be working in more rest for the 33-year-old during the regular season. That could mean signing UFA Carter Hutton for another stint, trusting third-stringer Marek Mazanec to make the leap or searching for a new backup. However he plays it, Poile has to provide someone that coach Peter Laviolette can trust to play 25 games.
The pieces may not all be in place before the season starts, but Poile's shown he can be bold when the opportunity is right (Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen ring a bell?). Don't be surprised if he goes big.