Ten weeks and four days ago, it was hard to envision a scenario where the Nashville Predators qualified for the postseason in a top-loaded, makeshift Central Division.
General Manager David Poile was perhaps the only person bold enough to still call Nashville a potential playoff team at that point. That was reflected in his decision to hold onto the team’s few trade assets at the trade deadline, pushing all of his playoff chips to the middle of the table.
Yes, the Predators' 20-7-1 run over the final 28 games to resurrect their season was quite impressive. And sure, giving the No. 1 seeded Carolina Hurricanes everything they could handle in a playoff series they were supposed to lose quickly — but ended up dragging into overtime in Game 6 — was impressive as well.
But where the franchise goes from here and which players are invited back next season — six of them are unrestricted free agents while another eight are restricted — will determine if Poile and the team have learned anything.
“I think there’s a lot of optimism around here, or there should be,” defenseman Ryan Ellis said. “From where we came the last couple of years to the identity we have now, the way we play now, we just hung with (the third-place team in the NHL) punch for punch and we showed that we’re a contending team and that we deserve to be in the playoffs.”
While a full-scale rebuild that many — including myself — were calling for a few months ago probably isn’t necessary, there’s no question that more than a few minor changes need to be made.
“We’re close; we’re very close,” center Ryan Johansen said. “I think from game 15-20 on, we saw the resilience come out throughout our whole lineup… It didn’t matter what our record was, we were just going to keep pushing. I’m just really proud of our group and the character we showed. It was fun.”
Poile would be wise not to get swept up in the enchantment of the Predators’ backs-against-the-wall march to the playoffs and take a real, hard look at the team’s roster. Nashville has two players — Mikael Granlund and Erik Haula — who have more than earned contracts next season, if they want them.
Granlund locked down Nashville’s No. 2 center position over the final two months of the year, outplaying Matt Duchene, and oftentimes Johansen, too. If the team can get out from under one of those centers' $8 million-per-year contracts, re-signing Granlund in the offseason to an extension in the $5 or $6 million per year range would make more sense both dollars wise and from a production standpoint.
“That’s another time, to think about (my future with the team),” Granlund said after Thursday's loss. “But I mean, I’ve been trying to do my best and it’s been fun to play for (John Hynes) and for this team. We’ll see what’s going to happen.”
Poile also needs to address the other elephants in the room, specifically where — or if — Duchene, Viktor Arvidsson, Dante Fabbro, Rocco Grimaldi and Ryan Ellis fit in to the team’s long-term future.
It seems all but certain that one of Johansen and Duchene will be on another team next season, potentially the expansion Seattle Kraken. Taking on such an inflated salary will surely cost the Preds a few other assets to sweeten the deal. A draft pick or two seems the likely route, but perhaps Fabbro, who sat for the series against the Hurricanes, could be what makes the deal worthwhile.
Like Fabbro, Grimaldi sat for the Carolina series as well. Many times, we’ve seen Grimaldi and his Energizer Bunny-like work ethic spark the team when they needed a little extra motivation. It was a bit of a head-scratcher to see the player tied for the fourth-most goals on the team sit in a playoff series where Nashville needed all the goals it could get. Perhaps Grimaldi could be of more use to another team.
It’s difficult to picture a Predators team with Arvidsson, but given how the last two years have played out, he has either regressed from the player he was in 2018 or all the beatings and net-front muggings he has endured over the years are catching up to him. He has missed substantial time in each of the last three seasons and just isn’t reliable enough at this point to justify taking up a top-six roster spot.
Ellis is the intriguing piece here. He by no means played poorly against Carolina; the opposite, in fact. His trade value is at or near its peak and the assets he could bring back in a trade may be too much for Poile to pass up. If Fabbro is in Nashville’s plans for next year, Alex Carrier’s emergence could make one of Ellis and Mattias Ekholm expendable.
Ekholm at times is the Predators’ best defensemen and losing him would weaken the team more than losing Ellis. The Preds desperately need an impact, top-six forward and Ellis could potentially fetch that.
Then, of course, Nashville has to find roster spots for Eeli Tolvanen, Tanner Jeannot, Mathieu Olivier, Yakov Trenin, Carrier, Jeremy Davies, and potentially Philip Tomasino and Rem Pitlick. All of them played vital parts in Nashville’s second-half resurgence that got the team to the playoffs.
The groundwork was laid this year. Now all Poile and head coach John Hynes have to do is not mess it up.
“The next (step) is you’ve got to win,” Hynes said. “We want to be able to win these series and continue to move on. So, I think there’s some things we can certainly take from (the season turnaround) but otherwise, as I continue to say, we have to get to another level to be able to get through these series and move on and compete for the Cup.”
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_