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Predators may have found cultural solutions but now they have a talent problem

Barry Trotz has only officially been the general manager of the Nashville Predators since July 1, but it’s already clear what he’s prioritizing.

He opened his press conference after the first day of free agency by saying that when he came back to Nashville he wanted to change the culture and find “serial winners.” He did that by signing Ryan O’Reilly and Luke Schenn, buying out Matt Duchene and sending Ryan Johansen to the Colorado Avalanche.

You can quibble with each of the moves on their own merits. O’Reilly seems like solid value, while Schenn’s three-year contract is lengthy for a player who turns 34 later this year and possesses limited speed. Getting off half of Johansen’s deal was probably the best Nashville could do. Buying out Duchene seems odd when he might’ve had more value than Johansen and a similar deal might have been available.

None of the big moves are awful in a vacuum, but the end result is the Predators got far slower and less dangerous offensively, even with the addition of middle-six winger Gustav Nyquist.

Filip Forsberg (9) and Roman Josi (59) will have to do some heavy lifting for the Predators next season.  (Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Filip Forsberg (9) and Roman Josi (59) will have to do some heavy lifting for the Predators next season. (Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The rationale for the moves also strains credulity, particularly with Schenn. Explaining his signing of the defenseman, Trotz told the following story from the 2019-20 playoff series between the New York Islanders and the Tampa Bay Lightning, when he was New York’s coach:

“I thought we were starting to take the series over in the bubble. We were the physical team. We were the team that had that identity where we were getting under Tampa’s skin. We were pushing some of the key guys maybe out of the series. and getting momentum, and Luke was a guy that recognized that and, to me, changed the whole series. He came over and established a presence. He has a great way to identify those moments.”

The problem with that story is the Islanders were never taking over the series, which they started 0-2 and never led. New York got as close as 2-1, but lost Game 4 by a commanding 4-1 margin.

Schenn literally had the least per-game ice time of any player that appeared for the Lightning (10:53) in the six-game series. It would be unfair to say he had no effect, but the claim that he changed the series feels like a stretch.

As is the implication that a driving force behind his signing was a six-game stretch he played three years ago when he was 30.

On the subject of age, Trotz indicated that Johansen and Duchene did not fit the team’s window but that O’Reilly and Schenn did, which is confusing considering the new guys are older.

Not all of Trotz’s comments can be taken as precise indications of his entire thought process, but it seems clear the Predators are going all-in on intangibles and it’s unclear where that’s going to leave them — particularly offensively.

O’Reilly projects to be the Predators’ top-line center and he’s coming off an age-32 season that saw him produce 0.57 points per game. Not one player on the current roster produced 20 goals last season. Filip Forsberg is likely in for a bounce-back campaign — and there are some younger players who could step up like Luke Evangelista and Cody Glass — but this was the 27th-ranked offense in the NHL in 2022-23. Without Duchene and Johansen, it got less explosive.

None of this would be much of an issue if the Predators were in the midst of a genuine rebuild, but that’s not where they’re at. Juuse Saros could fetch a massive haul on the trade market, but there have been no rumblings of the star goaltender going anywhere in the last two years of his contract.

Roman Josi remains one of the NHL’s top defenseman, but he’s 33. With a no-movement clause in hand he doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, which means there’s pressure to win while he’s around. The team traded for 34-year-old defensive stalwart Ryan McDonaugh just over a year ago. This isn’t a teardown job.

Based on how the Predators are behaving, they ought to be judged on their ability to win now. Unless Saros plays out of his mind, it’s hard to see that happening in 2023-24. O’Reilly and Schenn aren’t bad players, but it’s tough to envision them moving the needle in a profound way — and they seem to have been targeted for reasons only tangentially connected to on-ice success.

After all, having that pair of “serial winners” around didn’t catapult the Toronto Maple Leafs to a championship in 2022-23, even if they’d both hoisted the Cup before.

Right now it seems like the plan in Nashville is to cultivate a constructive atmosphere to bring young players along over time while doing some winning along the way. The Predators may achieve the first goal in part due to their new signings, but the second one could be out of their reach.

With at least $8.805 million in dead money on their cap in each of the next three years — largely due to the Johansen and Duchene moves — it’s not going to be easy for Trotz to maximize the Josi-Saros window, no matter how many “winners.” “he gets.