The Nashville Predators have been looking for a dominant No. 2 center for ages. Have they finally found the answer? Here's everything you need to know about the Preds heading into the 2019-20 NHL season:
The big question: Is Matt Duchene the missing piece?
After advancing to their first Stanley Cup Final in 2017, the Predators have not been able to live up to expectations since. In fact, over the past two seasons, it felt as if their product got stale -- especially in the playoffs, when the Preds fizzled out in back-to-back years. We know Nashville has long had its heart set on a dependable No. 2 center.
When it became apparent that Kyle Turris wasn't going to be that guy, GM David Poile attempted again. This time, Poile signed Duchene, a player he had long coveted, but the cost was significant. To free up cap space, Poile shipped defenseman P.K. Subban to New Jersey. Duchene told ESPN he doesn't think he'll be compared to Subban because it's not as if they were traded one-for-one ... but it's hard not to draw a correlation. (The team also has to save cap space for an eventual Roman Josi extension).
Offseason comings and goings, cap situation
The offseason can be summed up thusly: Subban is out, Duchene is in. Other than that, we're looking at a very similar team that we saw at the end of last season.
To replace Subban in the lineup, the Predators acquired Steven Santini. In no way is Santini expected to replace Subban's production. With Subban's absence, though, Dante Fabbro should get a featured spot in the top four. Wayne Simmonds and Brian Boyle -- both acquired during last season -- did not return. The team has $1.3 million in projected cap space.
Nashville wins the Stanley Cup. This group has the talent, depth and coaching to make it all the way. It just needs to get over the hump -- specifically, the mental hump of crumbling come playoff time. Duchene certainly will help facilitate things on the second line to get depth scoring. The defense isn't as strong as it once was, but it's still pretty darn good. So why not Nashville?
Breakout candidate: Mikael Granlund
OK, so Granlund has been in the league since the 2012-13 season, and has proven NHL success, so he's not like most players in this category. But he will be a breakout star for the 2019-20 Predators team. With a full training camp and starting the season with the team, we expect him to look much more comfortable. He could hit his first 30-goal season.
The top four defensemen. As previously mentioned, the loss of Subban hurts. The team that once boasted the most talented top four in the league now only brings back three of them. Still, those three -- Josi, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis -- would be No. 1s on many other teams. Fabbro has enough promise that the team might not skip a beat.
The power play. The Predators' power play was bad last season. Like last in the league, worse than the Montreal Canadiens bad. Even after acquiring Boyle and Simmonds -- two big bodies to put in front of the net -- the team couldn't figure it out. Until we see anything to suggest otherwise, this is a major weakness.
Predators in NHL Rank
23. Roman Josi, D
43. Filip Forsberg, C
The Preds have had to raid the prospect (No. 20) and draft pick supply lately to fortify the NHL roster (No. 4), but there is faith in the owner/GM/coach (No. 5), and the way Poile in particular has structured the cap/contracts (No. 11).
Pipeline ranking: 19
Fantasy facts to know
Despite finishing atop the Central with 100 points in 2018-19, the Predators ranked 19th in league scoring and dead-last in power-play production (12.9%). The offseason signing of Duchene should provide some remedy here, benefiting all involved, including Ryan Johansen, Forsberg and defenseman Josi. Not to mention Duchene himself, as a projected front-of-net presence with the extra skater.
While the curtain is slowly drawing closed on goaltender Pekka Rinne's NHL career, the lights haven't dimmed quite yet. The 36-year-old appears determined to see through the final two years of his contract with Nashville, hoping for another legit shot at a Cup. Still, with Juuse Saros waiting in the wings, the days of the veteran netminder playing in 60-plus games are undoubtedly over. If Saros plays well, Rinne could top out at near 50 games. Not your best fantasy option among the league's top crop of netminders.
No, he's not the next Subban, certainly not yet anyway, but Fabbro nonetheless faces some outsized expectations as early as this season. With only four games and one goal on his NHL résumé, the 21-year-old is already being asked to make an impact as a top-four defenseman and on the secondary power play. The Predators are really keen on this young blueliner, who already qualifies as a fantasy consideration in dynasty leagues. -- Victoria Matiash