The Predators may be forced to make a very tough decision ahead of the NHL Expansion Draft.

By 4:00 p.m. CST on Saturday afternoon, 30 teams will submit their protected players list to the NHL ahead of the expansion draft and those lists will be made public Sunday morning at 9:00 a.m. CST. Vegas will have until 9:00 a.m. CST on Wednesday to make their selections and the Golden Knights will choose one player from each team’s roster not on the protected players list. Vegas’ roster will be announced at the NHL Awards on Wednesday night.

The Predators will without question go the route of protecting eight total skaters and one goaltender. Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros are both safe and when it comes to the eight skaters, there are seven players that we can safely presume will be on the protected list: P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and Ryan Johansen.

This leaves just one more player that can be protected and that list includes some pretty impactful pieces: Colin Wilson, Craig Smith, Pontus Aberg, Colton Sissons, Austin Watson and of course two of the biggest remaining pieces Calle Jarnkrok and James Neal. Between the young center and goal scoring winger, one of Jarnkrok and Neal should be the last forward protected by the Predators.

It does sound like the Preds are trying to work out a deal with the Golden Knights to take a player they want to keep in Nashville, but the most recent report by TSN’s Darren Dreger says not a lot of progress has been made on that front. Plus, if you think of this situation from Vegas’ perspective, why would you consider making a deal instead of instantly making your team better with an experienced yet still developing two-way center in Jarnkrok and a consistent goal scoring winger in Neal?

Why The Preds Should Protect Jarnkrok?

The simplest argument to make on why the Preds should protect Jarnkrok, and also the most truthful argument to make, is the team’s lack of center depth. Nashville certainly has its clear-cut No. 1 center in Ryan Johansen, but that’s really its only threat up the middle. If the Preds decided to leave Jarnkrok unprotected they lose a very capable top-six center. Plus, if Mike Fisher does decided to retire, that only weakens the center group and losing Jarnkrok could have an even more negative impact.

Jarnkrok, who will turn 26 in September, has virtually played everywhere for the Preds since being traded over from Detroit back in 2014. He is coming off of the best regular season of his career with 15 goals and 16 helpers in 81 games and also had two goals and five assists during Nashville’s 21-game Stanley Cup Final run.

The young Swede averaged 15:43 of ice time during the regular season and is a staple on both the Predators power play and penalty kill. He averaged 1.65 shots on goal per game to go along with a 11.2 percent shooting percentage.

From a possession numbers standpoint, his numbers won’t jump off of the page, but more good than bad happens with him on the ice. During 5-on-5 play this season, Jarnkrok posted a 51.52 Corsi For percentage. When he was on the ice, the Preds did have a high-danger Corsi For differential of 155-109 which is an impressive stat.

There is no doubting that Jarnkrok is a legitimate two-way center in the NHL and that he is one of the more disciplined and just overall one of the smartest players on the Preds roster.

Jarnkrok is signed through the 2021-22 season and carries an extremely friendly cap-hit of $2 million.

Why The Preds Should Protect Neal?

Scoring goals is a pretty large part of winning hockey games and Neal knows how to put the puck into the back of the net.

Coming off of a 31-goal campaign last season, Neal followed that up by scoring 23 goals in 70 games this year to go along with 18 assists. He also had six goals and three assists during the Preds Cup Final run.

Neal, who will turn 30 in September, is a goal scoring power-forward and there really isn’t much arguing that point and there really isn’t much to argue about just how much he brings to the table offensively. He averaged 17:41 of ice-time per contest during the regular season including 2:44 per game on the power play which was the third highest total among all Preds skaters. Neal’s five power play goals this season were the fourth most on the team.

When it comes to shooting the puck, Neal pulls the trigger on his elite-level shot at a high-rate. He finished fourth among Preds with 202 shots (2.88 shots per game) to go along with a shooting percentage of 11.4 percent. One aspect of Neal’s game that is a bit overlooked is his ability to create turnovers. He finished second only behind Filip Forsberg in takeaways as he had 40 in 70 regular season contests.

Neal’s advanced numbers weren’t too different from Jarnkrok’s this season, but he does have a slight edge in the Corsi For department with his 52.47 percent mark. With Neal on the ice during 5-on-5 play the Preds managed 956 total shot attempts while the opposition had only 866. Neal’s +90 differential was better than Jarnkrok’s of +50; but both are impressive and positive numbers to say the least. Plus, with Neal on the ice, Nashville created 162 high-danger shot attempts during 5-on-5 play, seven more than with Jarnkrok on the ice.

Neal is set to become an unrestricted free-agent after next season and will carry a $5 million cap hit this year.

The Consensus

Scoring is a premium in this league and Neal scores goals. A Predators roster without Neal means a Predators roster down a legitimate sniper and down one of their premier threats on the wing.

While Neal’s future may be up in the air after this season and Jarnkrok’s contract is as friendly as they come, losing Neal would have a much larger impact on this team than Jarnkrok. Experienced wingers that consistently score 20+ goals every season are hard to come by. Capable top-six centers aren’t easy to find either by any means, but losing Neal and his scoring touch would have a much bigger impact on this team than losing a two-way center in Jarnkrok.

When it comes down to it, the Predators need a James Neal on their roster to continue to be this offensive team they have become and going out and finding another Neal would be a much more difficult and expensive task than finding another Jarnkrok.

David Poile has a very difficult decision to make, that is for sure.

Stats via Natural Stat Trick.



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