NHL.com is examining where each team stands in preparation for the 2021-22 regular season, which starts Oct. 12. Today, five questions facing the Nashville Predators:
1. Is Juuse Saros ready to be a full-time No. 1 NHL goalie?
Saros began to get more playing time than Pekka Rinne during the 2019-20 season, but with Rinne retiring July 13 and Saros signing a four-year contract Aug. 16, there’s no question the Predators’ net belongs to Saros.
He tied for seventh in the NHL with 21 wins last season and his 2.28 goals-against average was tied for ninth among goalies to play at least 20 games. However, his 35 starts were an NHL career high, and that number is expected to rise significantly this season.
“Based on his resume and what we’ve seen in ‘Juice’s’ progress and how he played last year, I’m pretty comfortable that Juice is going to be a really strong goaltender to inherit the No. 1 position from Pekka,” Predators general manager David Poile said.
2. Who plays center?
When the Predators signed Matt Duchene to a seven-year contract July 1, 2019, they envisioned him and Ryan Johansen forming a potent 1-2 punch through the middle.
It didn’t work that way last season. Johansen (22 points; seven goals, 15 assists in 48 games) and Duchene (13 points; six goals, seven assists in 34 games) each struggled, and Nashville ended the season with Johansen at center and Duchene at right wing on the top line.
If Nashville starts that way this season, other options at center could include Mikael Granlund, Cody Glass, Philip Tomasino and Colton Sissons. Granlund tied for the Predators lead during the Stanley Cup Playoffs with five points (two goals, three assists) in six games. Glass, acquired in a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights on July 17, scored 10 points (four goals, six assists) in 27 games last season and is fully recovered from knee surgery in March 2020. Tomasino, the No. 24 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, was third among rookies in the American Hockey League with 32 points (13 goals, 19 assists) in 29 games. Sissons likely will center the fourth line but has played higher in the lineup.
3. Is Tomasino prepared for the NHL?
Tomasino accelerated his development with a strong season in the AHL as a 19-year-old, an opportunity he received because the Ontario Hockey League canceled its season due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
The confidence he gained from succeeding against older, more developed competition has him confident he can be an impact NHL player this season.
“I feel like I’m ready to make that step, and not only make the step but I feel like I can make a big difference on the team [in 2021-22],” Tomasino said during Predators development camp in August.
4. Will Mattias Ekholm and Filip Forsberg be part of the future?
Ekholm and Forsberg are members of Nashville’s core, but each is entering the final season of his contract with Nashville looking to get younger.
Ekholm, a 31-year-old defenseman, scored 23 points (six goals, 17 assists) and averaged 22:52 of ice time in 48 games last season. Forsberg, a 27-year-old forward, was second on the Predators with 32 points (12 goals, 20 assists) in 39 games.
Nashville would would like to keep each player, but Poile said he needs to make sure they are on board with the Predators’ plan moving forward.
“They have to believe in the organization and what we’re doing and where we’re going,” Poile said. “… I certainly need to see how they see themselves fitting in because those type of players need to be our best players. They need to be leaders for us, and so they need to be totally bought in or it’s not going to work for them or for us.”
5. Can Eeli Tolvanen take the next step?
Tolvanen led the Predators with six power-play goals last season, but the 22-year-old averaged 14:48 of ice time per game, eighth among 14 Nashville forwards to play at least 20 games, and was scratched from Games 1 and 6 against the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup First Round.
The departures of Viktor Arvidsson (Los Angeles Kings), Calle Jarnkrok (Seattle Kraken) and Erik Haula (Boston Bruins) creates a need for more offense and an opportunity for more playing time. The Predators hope Tolvanen, who signed a three-year contract on Aug. 30, can win the trust of the coaching staff and produce.