The Nashville Predators had an enviable stretch of year where they made the playoffs and even advanced to the second round. That run was ended last year, and ended cruelly with a lottery placing. If you’d asked most hockey observers before the season what their best and worst case regular season finishes would be they’d have topped around fourth in the west, and bottomed out at ninth or maybe tenth. A 14th place finish in the conference was literally inconceivable.
Last year has past and all things have some silver lining. The team managed to bafflingly leave the draft with its biggest prize in Seth Jones as three teams bungled their future. Colin Wilson accumulated another 25 games of NHL experience, and Craig Smith added 44 of his own. They added Victor Stalberg after the season. Ann Arbor’s native son Austin Watson got his first season of professional experience including four crucial playoff games for the Predators AHL affiliate, and 2009 second round pick Zach Budish finished his fourth year at University of Minnesota before diving into the AHL and getting immersed in nine regular season games and a half dozen second season contests.
When you come down to it there are two things that need to happen for the Predators to hunting in the second round, and perhaps beyond. The first is an offensive upgrade. There is certainly some young talent with upside on the roster, and one or two more who will push for a spot. But none of them are likely to make the impact of a veteran forward, with skill, grit, and something to prove. The second is finding a way to get Pekka Rinne enough rest to be fresh when the playoffs come without sacrificing too much playoff position by playing an untested backup.
Austin Watson and Zach Budish, even Taylor Beck can come in and dazzle Music City fans from October to May, but is any of them going to satisfactorily fill the leadership void with both Hal Gill and Ryan Suter gone? And while Magnus Hedberg had a very good season in Milwaukee last year that was his first dose of hockey on this side of the pond. Even less experienced in North America is Marek Mazanec who hasn’t even played one game in the AHL, ECHL or CHL in his career. What’s a playoff hopeful club to do?
Fortunately there are two ready made solutions available. In goal we know that most goalies playing sixty five or more games a season just run out of steam sometime in late April or early May. So a veteran goaltender who doesn’t have to be jollied along and who can pick up 25+ games or so during the season and let Rinne, who may also be headed to the Olympics in Sochi, relax would be ideal. A two time Vezina trophy winner, Jennings Trophy winner, multiple time All Star, and Conn-Smythe winner would count as veteran in anyone’s book right? It just so happens one Tim Thomas who additionally owns a Stanley Cup and spent time in playing in Finland is between gigs. If there’s any goalie in the world who history tells us performs better with his back to the wall and something to prove than Thomas, I don’t know who they are.
At forward the solution is even less risky. The pride of Belarus, Mikhail Grabovski was bought out with reasons that could only make sense to a member of whoever is currently in the Maple Leafs brain trust. A gritty forward who owns a personal single season goal total higher than every Predators forward not named Hornquist, and who has proved his proven he belongs in someones top six with a tough nosed , two way game that has earned him respect in both his own and rival fan bases.
Given that both men absolutely have something to prove and Grabovski at least has his buyout money firmly in pocket, it is unlikely the total cost of signing the pair would cost north of four million for a year. Thomas and Grabovski would insulte the development of young players, add leadership and on one or two year contracts be as close to risk free as the NHL gets. The upside of each could be quite high. and if they are only average at the deadline they can be flipped for picks or prospects from a team who thinks they will play better in their system.