The Nashville Predators season isn’t technically over, but with the NHL in temporary suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic, there doesn’t seem to be signs that the league will return soon.
It’s probably safe to assume we won’t see the Preds on the ice again until next fall.
In preparation for the inevitable, we’ve begun looking ahead at the pending summer decisions David Poile will have to make for this Nashville Predators team. This could one of the most important off seasons for Poile, as he has to make a number of crucial roster decisions with a very small budget margin.
One of those decisions is how to fix the Preds’ blueline, which has been disappointing for large stretches of the season. Save for Roman Josi, the entire group of defensemen has seen both injury and poor play on the ice, enough to warrant a considerable makeover from the front office.
That makeover probably starts with allowing Dan Hamhuis and Yannick Weber to walk away from the team this summer. It may also include relying on some young faces from Milwaukee next year, guys like Frederic Allard and Jeremy Davies.
But there’s a chance David Poile will go out and sign at least one defenseman on the free agent market. If so, here are three options.
Ben Hutton, LHD
2019-20 with Los Angeles: 4g, 12a in 65 games
Hutton left Vancouver, the team that drafted him, for Los Angeles last summer on a one-year, $1.5 million free agent contract after the Canucks failed to give him an qualifying offer. The Kings are in a constant state of rebuilding these days, so taking a chance on a cheap young defenseman was smart. It paid off as Hutton improved on some of his underlying analytics and was a consistent offensive defenseman for them all season.
Hutton is no Roman Josi or Ryan Ellis, but he can move well enough with the puck to keep defenses honest. He’s a much more well balanced defenseman than either Hamhuis or Weber right now, which I realize isn’t saying much, but is still true. Hutton is also further along in his development than Fabbro and will turn 27 later this month.
Given an increased role with the Kings, Hutton produced well. He was one of LA’s best defensemen all season in terms of generating and preventing expected goals, even better than Drew Doughty and many current Nashville Predators defensemen.
Hutton’s abilities in the defensive zone are not going to win him a Norris Trophy anytime soon. He has flaws in his game. Even with a sturdy 6’2″ and 206 pound frame, he gets out-muscled sometimes, and isn’t the best at defending the front of the net. But that’s something Dan Hamhuis has struggled with all season and at least Hutton isn’t an offensive vacuum.
The Predators could probably sign Hutton for around $2-3 million per year and he would instantly upgrade the Predators’ bottom pairing.
Dylan DeMelo, RHD
2019-20 with Ottawa & Winnipeg: 10 assists in 59 games
I thought there was a chance the Preds might be in on Dylan DeMelo at the trade deadline this year. Instead, they traded for Korbinian Holzer, who isn’t a difference maker and will not likely be on the team for long.
The Senators traded DeMelo to the Jets for a third round pick, which I thought was a steal for Winnipeg. DeMelo had been solid all year for the Senators, even with virtually no supporting cast. Somehow he managed 10 assists from the blueline while playing on the 5th worst offense in the league.
DeMelo has improved his game every year since being drafted by the Sharks back in 2011. He’s now a very serviceable two-way defenseman and is about to turn 27 years old, the prime age for a blueliner in this league. Here’s a look at his isolated summary from Hockey Viz (red = good on offense, blue = good on defense).
If you were to pull up Dan Hamhuis’ same visual from this season, you would see a starkly different picture. DeMelo would be a significant improvement based on the underlying shot-based numbers, not to mention he’s younger and probably looking for a new hockey home.
For what it’s worth, I doubt the Jets will be able to keep DeMelo in Winnipeg. They have around $4 million to sign their 15 upcoming free agents, so they have some tough choices to make. The Nashville Predators could probably sign DeMelo for around the same dollar amount as Ben Hutton, maybe $2-3 million per year.
Jon Merrill, LHD
2019-20 with Vegas: 2 goals, 5 assists in 49 games
The oldest of the three options in this article, Jon Merrill was drafted in 2010 by the New Jersey Devils. He struggled for his first four years in the league, likely not helped by a weak front office that did very little to improve the team save for the Taylor Hall trade in 2016.
Vegas selected Merrill in the 2017 Expansion Draft, thrusting him immediately into a great situation. The Golden Knights rode a hot offense and a hot goaltender all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. Merrill was only a role player on that team, but managed to find his game the following season, putting up a career high 15 points in 2018-19.
This past season, Merrill solidified himself as one of Vegas’ best defenseman in terms of limiting chances by the opponent. He had the lowest rate of expected goals allowed among regular contributors in Vegas, as indicated here by Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey).
At 6’3″ and 205 pounds, Merrill would also be a size upgrade for the Predators. Even average sized forwards were able to over power Hamhuis and Weber in their own zone at times this year, something the Preds have had issues with for a few years now.
Merrill’s weakness is in generating offense, but if the Preds were able to pair him with someone like Dante Fabbro or Ryan Ellis, that might not matter. They could use someone to come in and stop the bleeding in the defensive zone and Merrill is a good option. I’d say they could sign him for less than DeMelo or Hutton, probably $1.5 million or $2 million at most.
There’s no shortage of options for the Nashville Predators on the free agent market this summer. They are only limited by their cap space, which is significantly less this summer than last summer, but there are still plenty of cheap options. David Poile could easily spend less than $4 million on his blueline this summer and go into the 2020-21 with a markedly improved group. The only question is: will he do it?
— Salary cap information from Cap Friendly. Featured image via James Carey Lauder/USA TODAY Sports —