The Nashville Predators’ strengths were as obvious as their weaknesses during the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. On defense, they had a stacked top four led by P.K. Subban and Roman Josi. Between the pipes, they had Pekka Rinne back in form. But at center, they had ... Colton Sissons and Mike Fisher.
The Pittsburgh Penguins had Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. It ultimately shouldn’t have been too surprising which team came out on top.
Injuries to Ryan Johansen, Colin Wilson, and Craig Smith were a big part of Nashville’s problems, but the team was also ill-equipped to handle those absences. Sissons, an overmatched 23-year-old who did an admirable job, never should’ve been playing such a big role in such important games.
But the Predators didn’t have anyone else when other forwards went down. Their depth on defense didn’t exist up front. So a player with 20 points in 109 regular season games was playing top-six minutes with a Stanley Cup on the line.
Soon, Sissons won’t even be playing center anymore because of the work that general manager David Poile has done. The Predators have rebuilt their center depth to such a degree that the man who matched up against Crosby and Malkin more than anyone last spring will no longer be needed at the position.
Between the extension for Johansen, the signing of Nick Bonino, the trade for Kyle Turris, and, now, the return of Fisher from temporary retirement, the Predators have been aggressive in addressing their biggest problem over the past eight months. They’ve turned one of their lack of center depth into a potential strength.
Before and after
For Game 6 of last year’s Stanley Cup Final, the Predators’ top four centers were Sissons, Fisher, Calle Jarnkrok, and Frederick Gaudreau. Here’s what their lineup could look like for the start of the 2018 playoffs if everyone is healthy:
Filip Forsberg — Ryan Johansen — Viktor Arvidsson
Kevin Fiala — Kyle Turris — Craig Smith
Scott Hartnell — Nick Bonino — Calle Jarnkrok
Pontus Aberg — Mike Fisher — Colton Sissons
What a difference a year makes. The Predators could conceivably have their top two centers and a first-line winger from the 2017 Cup Final skating together on the fourth line this postseason. That would be the result of major improvement in the quality of players ahead of them on the depth chart.
Fiala has successfully replaced James Neal on the second line. Turris has lived up to the billing with 21 points in 33 games since being acquired. Smith and Jarnkrok have had very solid seasons as secondary options.
And there’s little doubt that Forsberg-Johansen-Arvidsson can be a top line for a Cup contender. Last postseason, those three combined to post a 57.6 percent Corsi and plus-9 goal differential in nearly 169 minutes of 5-on-5 action together, per Natural Stat Trick. Many of those minutes came while matched up against the likes of Jonathan Toews and Ryan Getzlaf.
The problem back then was that the Predators didn’t have the depth, and that was exacerbated by injuries. However, the additions of Turris, Bonino, and Hartnell, the return of Fisher, and the development of Fiala put the team in a much stronger position this time around.
Big improvement at a reasonable cost
Improving at forward wouldn’t have meant nearly as much to the Predators if it meant taking away from the team’s strengths, but Poile managed to navigate the situation with his strong defense and goaltending intact. He also locked up a bunch of players without breaking the bank to do so.
The contracts for Johansen and Bonino may be a bit rich for the taste of some, but they’re luxuries the Predators can afford right now with guys like Arvidsson, Forsberg, Josi, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis signed so affordably.
The costs of acquiring and locking down Turris — defenseman Samuel Girard, forward Vladislav Kamenev, a second-round pick, and a six-year, $36 million extension — seem worthwhile for a good No. 2 center.
And bringing back Fisher, who recorded 42 points in 72 games last season, is a no-brainer given it’ll presumably be a cheap deal that expires this offseason.
All in all, when you consider what it took for the Predators to overhaul their center depth, it seems difficult to see how they could’ve done better. They’ve committed a good bit of cap space and gave up a trio of solid assets, especially Girard, but that seems worth the improvement to the team’s chances of winning a Cup in the near future.