For the first time during his Nashville Predators’ tenure, head coach John Hynes can no longer say he hasn’t had a full training camp with the team.
The Predators begin their 2021 training camp on Wednesday, kicking off the era of the competitive rebuild. Nashville is tasked with replacing a handful of core players — Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Ellis, Calle Jarnkrok and Pekka Rinne — and the team has several new faces looking to cut their teeth in the NHL.
With the first on-ice testing sessions beginning on Thursday, here are the top storylines to watch heading into the 2021 season:
5. Who will be the sixth defenseman?
Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, Alex Carrier, Dante Fabbro and Phillippe Myers occupy the top five spots, leaving a six-man battle for the last spot on the third pairing. Matt Benning and Mark Borowiecki are the likely frontrunners, with Ben Harpur, Matt Tennyson, David Farrance and Jeremy Davies looking at an outside chance.
Benning makes the most sense as the most experienced option in Nashville’s system. However, his one goal, four points, -3 rating, and 43 shots failed to make a strong impression in the 53 games he played last year. Borowiecki plays a more physical game, and he would be a welcomed addition to the new “Predator way.”
Harpur had seven points in 34 games last year and he offers more size at 6-foot-6 and 231 pounds. Tennyson likely has more of a depth role, similar to Erik Gudbranson last season. Davies and Farrance are the wild cards. Both saw limited action last year during the team’s rash of injuries and both present younger, cheaper options with higher offensive upsides than any of the other four.
Benning likely wins the job with Borowiecki serving as a seventh defenseman, but don’t be surprised to see Farrance become more of a factor toward the end of the season.
4. Will Philip Tomasino make the opening night roster?
General Manager David Poile clearly wants Tomasino to earn a top-six role in camp. The 20-year-old led the Chicago Wolves in points (32), plus/minus (+20) and shots on goal (91), while adding 13 goals in 32 AHL games. He was also named to the AHL All-Rookie team.
Tomasino’s offensive skill plus his natural playmaking ability could be a missing ingredient for a Predators offense that ranked in the bottom half of the NHL in goal scoring. He’s looked sharp during rookie camp, forming a nice 1-2 punch with Egor Afanasyev. An impressive training camp could land Tomasino on Nashville’s second or third line to start the season.
3. What role does Cody Glass play?
The former No. 6 overall pick in the draft, it just wasn’t working for Glass in Las Vegas. Poile clearly saw something in Glass’ game that he liked, trading former No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick, who was part of the Ryan Ellis trade, to bring Glass into the fold.
At just 22, the best-case scenario would be for Glass to take over as Nashville’s No. 2 center this year and eventually transition to the top line in the next two to three years. A threat in the offensive zone, Glass could have the hockey IQ, ice vision and puck skills needed to turn Nashville’s second line into a scoring threat.
With whom Glass could possibly center on the second line is equally intriguing, as there are plenty of top scorers to choose from such as Mikael Granlund, Tolvanen, Matt Duchene, Luke Kunin and Tomasino.
2. Is 2021 Eeli Tolvanen’s breakout year?
Tolvanen burst out of the gate like a fireball last year, singlehandedly bringing Nashville’s power play from No. 25 into the top 10. He looked like an early candidate to at least be in Calder Trophy consideration, but an injury derailed his promising season.
In 40 games, Tolvanen tallied 11 goals (third-most on the team) and 22 points while leading the Predators in power play goals (six) and game-winning goals (four) and finishing third in power play points (12). His 22 points were the most scored by a Predators rookie since Filip Forsberg’s 63 points during the 2014-15 season.
Among rookies, Tolvanen finished second in power play goals, third in power play points, tied for the seventh in goals and 10th in points.
After signing a three-year, $4.35 million contract, the Predators clearly have sent Tolvanen the message they expect him to take the next step and turn into the elite goal scorer they drafted him to be.
1. Where does Matt Duchene fit in?
After trying desperately to move both Duchene and Ryan Johansen during the offseason, Poile is stuck with them both. Johansen at least still has some perceived value, but Duchene has been more of a lightning rod than anything else.
If Nashville is bound to Duchene for five more years, the team is best served making the best of a bad situation. To get the most out of the 30-year-old forward, the Predators may have to move him from center to the wing. Beyond that, they may have to suck it up and put him on the top line with Johansen and Filip Forsberg, where he played sporadically last year.
Duchene, Johansen and Forsberg played together in 20 regular season games last year, controlling play in several areas including shots, scoring chances, high-danger chances and offensive-zone faceoff percentage. Moving him to the top line would save the Predators the embarrassment of playing an $8 million per year player on the third line and still give the team a dangerous No. 1 line.
Training camp is likely where Hynes and the coaching staff will move Duchene around before settling on his permanent place in the lineup.
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