Photo by Taylor Stephenson / Lifestyles Editor
When the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs began, the Nashville Predators found themselves in a tough spot. Not only were they the eighth seed in the western conference, but they were also the last of the 16 teams that qualified for the postseason.
Add in the fact that they had a first-round date with the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks, and it was a recipe for a very quick postseason appearance for the Preds.
That’s what it looked like, until Viktor Arvidsson scored the only goal of game one and Pekka Rinne shut out one of the NHL’s best offenses to take a 1-0 series lead. This led to a dominating 5-0 win in game two, and Nashville went on to shock everyone by making a run all the way to their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance in franchise history.
This run included a dominant 4-2 series win over the St. Louis Blues and a hard-fought 4-2 series against the Anaheim Ducks in the conference finals. After a slow start in the first two games of the finals against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Predators rallied for two scintillating victories at home to tie the series at two games apiece.
Ultimately, it wouldn’t be enough and the Penguins took home their second consecutive Stanley Cup in 4-2 fashion. Though the sting of defeat hurts, what it didn’t do was overshadow the newfound love of hockey in Nashville and the bright future the Predators clearly had in store.
Enter the offseason and the team has changed in many ways.
With new leadership on the ice and some new players in the locker room, Nashville looks poised to make another run in the tough Central Division and make it back to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Expansion Draft leads to Neal’s departure
With the addition of the Las Vegas Golden Knights to the league, one event every team planned for was the Expansion Draft. Because they could only protect so many players, every organization was prepared to likely lose a difference-maker for their team in the draft.
The Predators were no exception. They chose the route that many expected them to go, using the “4-4-1” strategy. By doing this, they were able to protect four defensemen, four forwards and one goalie. In Nashville’s case, the four defensemen were no-brainers. General Manager David Poile chose P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm and protected what many people believed to be the core of the team.
The Preds also had an easy choice to make for goalie, as they protected Pekka Rinne after his contributions to the team’s postseason run. This left them with an interesting decision to make in regards to the forwards they would protect.
The first three were expected, as Poile protected the now-famous “JOFA” line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson. With only one spot left, many wondered what the team would do. Most believed that the team should protect perennial 20-goal scorer James Neal, while others thought that younger talent should’ve been given more priority.
With the team’s future in mind, Poile decided to protect Calle Jarnkrok over Neal for his versatility and potential. As to be expected, Las Vegas took advantage of the decision and chose Neal as their selection from the Predators unprotected list.
While excited for the new opportunity, Neal took to Twitter to express his gratitude for all the support Nashville gave him during his run with the team.
Thank you so much to the Predators organization, staff, fans and my teammates for the past three years!
— James Neal (@jneal_18) June 22, 2017
Nashville is a true hockey town and I’m so grateful for my time here. I wish we could’ve paraded Stanley down Broadway!!
— James Neal (@jneal_18) June 22, 2017
New faces add experience and physicality to Smashville
With over $20 million in cap space, the Preds were expected to be big players in free agency. Within the first few hours of the signing period, they did not disappoint.
Nashville added to their center depth by signing Nick Bonino to a four-year contract just after Bonino won two Stanley Cups with the Penguins. As the third-line center behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Bonino scored 18 goals and 37 points overall last season.
While those numbers aren’t indicative of an all-star level player, his numbers were likely stagnated by playing behind two future hall-of-famers and he could benefit from more time on ice. Bonino is expected by most to take over as the second-line center.
The Preds also reunited with a familiar face, signing forward Scott Hartnell to a one-year deal. Hartnell played for Nashville from 2000-2007 and scored 93 goals in his time. While he may not be a 30-goal scorer anymore, he will give the team solid third-line production and adds a physicality that the team needs.
Hartnell scored 13 goals and contributed 37 points last season for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The final addition the Preds made was via a trade with the Golden Knights when they sent a draft pick to Las Vegas for defenseman Alexei Emelin. While he isn’t much of a goal-scorer (14 career goals in 380 games), he brings an aggression on defense that is a change of pace from the other Nashville defensemen.
If Emelin had played for Nashville last season, he would’ve led the team in blocks and hits by far over the other defenders. The 31-year-old will bring physicality that could push the team over the top next season.
Preds resign young talent, reload for 2017-18
While the new faces bring a lot to the table, it’s the younger talent that the Predators resigned that has Smashville looking forward to the future.
The first domino to fall was forward Pontus Aberg, who was signed to a two-year deal after he stepped up in a big way for the team in the playoffs. After only scoring one goal in the regular season, Aberg scored multiple crucial goals for the Predators in their run. None were bigger than his go-ahead goal against the Ducks in game five of the Western Conference Finals, as it gave the Preds a lead they would not relinquish in a 3-1 victory.
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) May 21, 2017
Aberg also came up big in game two of the Stanley Cup Finals, with his opening goal that had many fans in awe and wonder for what he could do in the future.
Pontus Aberg with NASTY goal to walk around the Penguins defense pic.twitter.com/Q6tm8rQYyv
— Bar South N Celly™ (@BarSouthNCelly) June 1, 2017
The next player signed was center Frederick Gaudreau. Much like Aberg, Gaudreau wasn’t much of a factor during the regular season, but he came up huge against the Penguins. He became the second player ever to score his first three career goals in the Finals.
The goal that clinched it for him was interesting because it wasn’t initially ruled a goal. After a close play, the horn sounded, and the NHL requested a review. Gaudreau was rewarded with the game-winning goal in a 4-1 game four win against Pittsburgh.
Frederick Gaudreau sneaks one in for his 3rd NHL goal and 3rd of the Cup final (the rookie doesn’t even have a stall in the dressing room) pic.twitter.com/ua6kxZWFtb
— HockeyNightInCanada (@hockeynight) June 6, 2017
Next, forward Austin Watson was signed, adding to the forward depth for the team. Watson played mainly on the fourth line this past season but when injuries struck in the playoffs, he became a key contributor.
His biggest goals came in the series-clinching victory over the Ducks in game six. After scoring a goal to get the Predators on the board, Watson closed the scoring with an empty net goal to give the Preds a 6-3 lead and end the Ducks’ season.
— Thomas Willis (@TomAWillis) May 23, 2017
The final two signings were Nashville’s biggest of the entire offseason. First was Arvidsson. After a breakout campaign that saw him tie for the team lead with 61 points, the man fans call “Arvy” was rewarded with a seven-year, $29.75 million contract.
Fans are hoping that the young forward continues to grow in his career, and next season could be a big step. When he’s at his best, Arvidsson is a goal-scoring machine and is unstoppable when he gets going at full speed. With goals like his breakaway score in game four of the Finals, it’s easy to be excited for the future.
Viktor Arvidsson goal call was *only* two games early…
— Thomas Willis (@TomAWillis) June 6, 2017
Finally, Nashville locked up their number one center for years to come when they signed Ryan Johansen to an eight-year, $64 million deal for the largest deal in team history. When the team lost Johansen to injury in the conference finals, his absence proved to be very detrimental to the team as they didn’t have the depth to keep up with the Penguins.
When healthy, Johansen contributed 14 goals, 61 points and a career-high 47 assists during the regular season. With him and Arvidsson signed long-term, the “JOFA” line will be a scoring threat for years to come.
— Zach Stratton (@Zach_Stratton29) May 15, 2017
With young talent in place and crafty veterans leading the way, the future is brighter than ever for the Nashville Predators. David Poile has put together a team that can contend right now, and as many fans expect, will be parading down Broadway with a Stanley Cup in the near future.
To contact Sports Editor Rusty Ellis, email email@example.com.