When then-Predators captain Mike Fisher announced his retirement in August 2017, he explained that the decision was made all the more difficult knowing that Nashville had come so painfully close bringing home the Stanley Cup. But Fisher said he believed the 2016-17 post-season run, one that fell two wins short of the sport’s greatest prize, wouldn’t be the last for the Predators. He wrote in The Tennessean that he believed the organization would bring home a title and that no one would “be happier than I will be to see it happen.”
As of Wednesday, though, Fisher’s reason for that happiness could be somewhat different, because instead of cheering from the sideline and waving a rally towel with the rest of the gold-clad Predators’ faithful inside Bridgestone Arena, the 37-year-old is coming out of retirement and has his sights set on having a front-row seat as an active member of the Nashville roster.
On Wednesday, Fisher took his first step towards his return, skating at the Predators’ home rink in the first of what could be many workouts before he signs a contract with the team. Fisher’s goal is to ink a deal with the club ahead of the Feb. 26 trade deadline, but only after getting into game shape through individual workouts and practicing with the team. That hasn’t stopped Fisher from getting the competitive juices flowing already, however. “I watched a video this morning and I was ready to play tomorrow,” he laughingly told reporters at a press conference Wednesday. “But like (GM David Poile) said, there’s no real timetable. I’m going to see just how I feel, skate on my own for a bit and get in shape.”
And make no mistake, there is no doubt that Fisher will be in shape at some point before the Feb. 26 deadline. Not from Fisher himself, not from coach Peter Laviolette and certainly not from Poile, who didn’t question for a second whether or not the comeback bid would work. “I’m completely confident Mike is going to play,” Poile told reporters. “We don’t start the playoffs for two months, so we’ve got a long time. We’ll let him do his thing for the next few weeks and see where it takes us.”
Shocking as it may be that Fisher has decided to return, though, that he’ll enter the Predators’ lineup again more than six months after he officially announced his 1,000-plus game career was over is only one aspect of his comeback. The other — and almost inarguably the more important aspect — is how his return impacts Nashville's roster and their position as Stanley Cup contenders.
The most obvious impact, and the one felt most instantaneously, will be the added depth that Fisher gives the Predators. Repeated time and again was that he would be willing to play whatever role was offered to him, and his willingness to play some tough minutes as a bottom-six forward will make an already deep Nashville forward group that much deeper. If Laviolette chooses to play Fisher down the middle, he’ll be able to run a four-center group that consists of Ryan Johansen, Kyle Turris, Nick Bonino and Fisher. Even accounting for Fisher’s lengthy absence, that’s a group that’s much more solid and far more experienced than the one Nashville rode to a Western Conference championship last season. And that’s without mentioning the potential for Calle Jarnkrok or Colton Sissons to play down the middle, as well. However, if Laviolette wants to limit Fisher’s responsibilities and add some versatility to the lineup, he’s more than capable of slotting onto the wing with either Bonino, Jarnkrok or Sissons taking draws.
There’s little doubt Fisher will also find himself skating special teams minutes at some point, as well. After all, he was the Predators’ most heavily utilized forward on the penalty kill and skated the fourth-highest average ice time on the power play up front for Nashville last season.
Laviolette might want to think twice before utilizing Fisher even nearly as heavily on the penalty kill this time around, though. Because while he’s experienced and will likely throw his body in front of any and all oncoming shots, Fisher was the arguably the worst penalty-killing forward in Nashville last season. He averaged more shot attempts against than any other center or winger who saw at least 50 minutes down a man. But beyond that, there’s no reason to add him to an already stellar Predators penalty kill. It’s tied for eighth-best in the league. There’s no need to add Fisher, unless he’s working as a fill-in when another top penalty killer is in the box.
The same can’t be said for the power play, however, as Nashville will almost certainly give Fisher a shot at skating with the man advantage. Last season, he had seven goals and 17 points on the power play, leading the team in the former and trailing only Johansen in the latter. Not only that, but Fisher’s shot attempt generation on the man advantage was significant. Of the nine forwards to skate at least 50 minutes on the power play, Fisher had the fourth-best shot attempts average and no forward was on ice for more goals per 60 minutes on the man advantage.
But Fisher isn’t coming back simply to be a warm body in the bottom six or a power play specialist, nor is that what the Predators are expecting. Last season, Fisher scored 18 goals and 42 points, and while it was somewhat of a resurgence for a player whose statistical production had been on a steady decline, he’s not all that far removed from a 20-goal season. He can still chip in and the understanding of where to be and how to make plays doesn’t disappear overnight. He’s still going to be a clever two-way player with some offensive acumen, even if his best days are behind him and even if his zero-goal, four-assist performance in the playoffs would hint that his offense has dried up.
The goal for Nashville has been and continues to be going all-in on this season, and bringing in a veteran who’s familiar with the Predators’ systems, is willing to take the role given to him and can be utilized in multiple positions makes an already rock-solid group, one that was already a Stanley Cup favorite, that much better.
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