After a rousing and surprising postseason run Nashville’s expansion strategy is clear – protect that blue line. The Predators’ top-four defensive core may be the best in the game, and they’ll need to adopt the eight skaters/one goalie protection plan instead of shielding seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie to keep it in tact.
Four forwards – Filip Forsberg (31 G, 27 A), James Neal (23 G, 18 A with great possession numbers and one year removed from 58 points), and RFAs Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson who tied for the club lead in scoring with 61 points, will all be protected.
The Predators’ remaining forwards are not bad either, but who would you rather protect? D-man Mattias Ekholm and his tough, stingy game with offensive upside or three of Colton Sissons, Craig Smith, Colin Wilson, Austin Watson, Cody McLeod, Miikka Salomaki and Calle Jarnkrok? Mike Fisher is a UFA, but he’ll either retire or re-sign and spend his 18th NHL campaign back in Tennessee.
In spite of their decent middle-six contributions, Smith ($4.25M) and Wilson ($3.94M) carry significant cap hits and haven’t provided the greatest returns on investment recently. Nashville likely wouldn’t mind shedding one of these contracts should Vegas select, or be incited to select with a deal, accordingly.
Jarnkrok is also in this middle ground with a smaller $2M cap hit, so I’d venture him a bit more likely as a Golden Knight. RFA Austin Watson’s physical, gritty presence would also be missed, but that blue line is first priority.
Despite his six-goal, six-assist playoff success, the promising Sissons hasn’t yet proven as essential as any of their top four defenders, and there are several young, non-draft-eligible forwards to fill out these depth roles now and in the near future including Kevin Fiala, Vladislav Kamenev, Yakov Trenin, Thomas Novak and the Pontus Aberg story. They’ll try to get something in a deal for one or more of the above eligibles before submitting their protection list.
Ekholm, P.K. Subban’s rapidly progressing pairing, as well as Subban of course will be protected. Keeping the high-scoring Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis’ defensive prowess and increasing point production are also gimmes, leaving journeyman Matt Irwin and infrequent participant Anthony Bitetto unprotected.
Pekka Rinne’s no movement clause means he won’t go anywhere. Not that they’d send the franchise cornerstone away, particularly as effective backup Juuse Saros just turned 22, has loads of promise that fellow Finn Rinne is helping to mentor, and isn’t expansion eligible. The Preds will instead leave AHL Milwaukee goalie Marek Mazanek exposed.
Predicted protected players and their cap numbers
Viktor Arvidsson – restricted free agent, arbitration eligible
Filip Forsberg – $6M through 2022
Ryan Johansen – restricted free agent, arbitration eligible
James Neal – $5M through 2018
Mattias Ekholm – $3.75M through 2022
Ryan Ellis – $2.5M through 2019
Roman Josi – $4M through 2020
P.K. Subban – $9M through 2022
Pekka Rinne (NMC) – $7M through 2019
Top two options on who they would most likely lose
Calle Jarnkrok or Colin Wilson.
If Nashville were to make a trade with Vegas to select/not select a player, who would it be and why?
Scoring will likely be at a premium in this year’s expansion draft, so I’m not sure they’ll need to twist Vegas’s arm much to select 27-year-old perfectly good, and sometimes very good middle-sixer Colin Wilson.
His nearly $4M cap hit through 2019 outpaces recent production (35 points last year), particularly considering 25-year-old Jarnkrok with 31 and 30 points over the past two campaigns earns half of that with a $2M annual hit until 2022. If the added incentive is low, a Wilson deal insuring Jarnkrok, Watson and Sissons stay makes sense.
A Craig Smith deal, shipping his larger and longer $4.25M hit through 2020 could also be feasible, but the incentive seemingly would need to surpass that for Wilson. If not, Nashville may pursue peddling him instead.
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