It took the Nashville Predators 15 games to go from full-blown sellers to firmly on the fence in their approach to the 2021 NHL trade deadline.
Holding a decent lead for the Central Division’s final playoff spot over the Chicago Blackhawks — who coincidentally traded a couple of players to contending teams on Monday — the Predators had an opportunity to purge themselves of some expiring contracts and build up some draft capital without drastically hurting their playoff chances.
General Manager David Poile chose to do none of that.
Instead, he elected to go the route of keeping everyone and sliding all his chips to the center of the table for an all-in playoff push. Well, he did trade for a depth defenseman. This is Poile we’re talking about, after all.
“We’re very happy that we made one acquisition,” Poile said. “The way the team is playing, with all of the young players playing more prominent roles, I really like where we’re headed, and I didn’t think there was any need to make any more changes.”
Poile could have had the best of both worlds. He could have set up the future of his club with more draft picks while trading away players not integral to Nashville’s playoff push. But as Poile has shown us before, he values making the playoffs more than he does acquiring future assets.
Comparing trade packages around the league to what the Predators could have gotten for some of their players — namely Mikael Granlund, Nick Cousins and Erik Haula — it’s puzzling to understand why Poile didn’t consider moving any of them.
Columbus got first- and fourth-round picks back for Nick Foligno. Chicago received second- and third-round picks for Mattias Janmark. Buffalo acquired a second-round pick and a prospect for Taylor Hall. There’s no reason to think Granlund wasn’t worth — at minimum — a second-round pick, arguably even a first-rounder.
Cousins and Haula aren’t players the caliber of Granlund, but they could have fetched fourth- or fifth-round picks that would have given Nashville three or four additional draft picks this year or next.
So why not pull the trigger?
“It just makes more sense to keep the team together versus what I could have gotten in a couple of draft choices or what have you," Poile said.
“In my heart, I was not open to it because of how I believed in this team and wanted to give them a chance. But as a manager, I was taking calls and I was listening, because I think that’s free, and why wouldn’t I? But I had pretty well made up my mind a little while ago based on how things were going that it would have to be something that would be really different than anything that I had heard or had been brought up to me to make me want to change where we are right now."
Poile is clearly banking on the Predators keeping up their 12-wins-in-15-games pace the rest of the season. He’s clearly hoping Juuse Saros will continue to be the same goaltender who has led the NHL in wins (9), save percentage (.961) and goals-against average (1.26) since returning from injury on March 18.
But what happens when many of Nashville’s injured players return and the “youth movement” is paused again?
The Predators’ recent hot streak is a byproduct of Poile’s own stubbornness. Injuries forced his hand. He had no choice but to play the rookies who he spent the entire offseason hyping but instead chose to keep on the bench or stashed away in the AHL in favor of some underachieving veterans.
The result has been a resurgence and a climb from being 10 points out of a playoff spot to holding all the cards for the remaining 13 games of the year.
However, the Predators are likely to get Filip Forsberg and Matt Duchene back relatively soon, and Eeli Tolvanen, Dante Fabbro, Alex Carrier, Mark Borowiecki, Luca Sbisa and Mathieu Olivier could make their returns anytime in the next month.
Duchene will likely retake his spot on the second line, bumping Granlund back to the wing. Forsberg and Tolvanen will rightfully take their place back on the top line, bumping Calle Jarnkrok and Viktor Arvidsson down the lineup as well. And once Olivier is healthy enough to come back, that likely means either Rem Pitlick or Tanner Jeannot comes out. Defensively, Fabbro and Carrier returning would likely take Jeremy Davies and Ben Harpur out of the lineup.
All this to say: The team that has gone on the impressive 15-game run since March 18 won’t be the same team playing the stretch run into the playoffs.
Poile acknowledged the Preds may not even make the playoffs this year and they are no Stanley Cup contender. Should the Predators reach the playoffs, they’d have to face one of the Carolina Hurricanes, Tampa Bay Lightning or Florida Panthers, against whom they have a combined 3-13-1 record this year.
“The top three teams in our division have been dominant in terms of us playing against them,” Poile said. “We’ve got to get there, and we’ve got to beat those teams … to get in the playoffs and then to have the confidence to beat them in the playoffs.”
Poile admitted that when he’s playing poker, he likes to be all in. It's a fitting metaphor for him because, by not acquiring any future assets for players that Nashville will lose in the offseason with no return, Poile is quite literally gambling on the Predators' season.
“It’s really reaching for it to say that we’re a Stanley Cup contender right now,” he said. “We need to make the playoffs first. That would be a significant step from where we were to get there … I’m not talking Stanley Cup right now because that’s not on the radar right now. We have 13 games to go to play our best to get into the playoffs. That may happen, I think it’s going to happen, but it may not happen.”
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_