The NHL Expansion Draft hit the Nashville Predators hard, as James Neal is headed to Las Vegas as a member of the brand new Golden Knights.
Neal will be missed. He was the franchise’s second leading goal scorer over the last two seasons (53), in which the Preds had the best two years in franchise history.
NHL General Manager of the Year, David Poile had to make a difficult decision to leave Neal unprotected from Vegas’ expansion draft. It was a move he told the Tennessean’s Adam Vingan was a “business decision“.
That business decision is a big blow, but one I agree with. Neal was a beloved Predator in the three years he spent in Smashville and one fans will miss.
Thank you so much to the Predators organization, staff, fans and my teammates for the past three years!
— James Neal (@jneal_18) June 22, 2017
Nashville is a true hockey town and I’m so grateful for my time here. I wish we could’ve paraded Stanley down Broadway!!
— James Neal (@jneal_18) June 22, 2017
Me trying to sleep knowing that James Neal is no longer a Pred pic.twitter.com/kGTZYYW9a8
— Everything TN (@Everything_TN) June 22, 2017
Nashville’s hockey club must move on, as will Neal. With that, here are three Preds who must continue to evolve their game to make up for the loss of James Neal.
Calle Jarnkrok – Center
Jarnkrok will forever be attached to Neal’s departure from Nashville. It was the 25 year old center that Poile decided to protect from the expansion draft over Neal. That’s where the “business decision” comes into play.
Jarnkrok’s contract goes through the 2022 season and sits at a very team friendly cap hit of $2 million per year. Neal’s deal expires at the end of next season, already making his future in Nashville unknown. Now, Poile can use the $5 million cap space that is freed up, with Neal going to Vegas, elsewhere.
On the ice, Jarnkrok must produce more. In the last two seasons he has 61 points (31 goals, 30 assists). But it’s the intangibles that make the Swede valuable. He’s one of the best face-off centers the Preds have. He fits in nicely as the team’s second center, behind Ryan Johansen. But, Jarnkrok can also play on the wing in a bind. He spent time on the top line as a winger in the past. Special teams are also strengths for Jarnkrok, as he excels on both the power play and penalty kill.
Simply put, if Jarnkrok develops into a consistent top six forward, continues to improve in the scoring column and wins important face-offs, the loss of Neal will feel better. Poile, even with the GM of the Year award, needs this to play out this way.
Craig Smith – Right-Wing
Some fans will laugh at Smith being on this list. However, if you don’t think the Predators need Craig Smith to be ultra-productive next season, you’re fooling yourself.
Smith has the talent to be a 20 goal scorer in the NHL. He did it two seasons ago as the team’s third leading goal scorer with 21. For whatever reason, Smith had a down year in 2016-2017, scoring only 12 goals.
He bounced back in the Stanley Cup Final, while battling a sprained ankle. Preds fans saw a familiar version of Smith when he scored a goal and had an assist in back to back games against the Penguins. If the speedy, well-finishing version of Smith can show up for the most part of next season, he can help replace some of Neal’s 23 goals from this past year.
Kevin Fiala – Left-Wing
The 20 year old rookie looks to be the next rising offensive weapon the Preds have waiting in the wings. Fiala scored eleven goals in only 54 games this past season. And, he got off to a hellacious start to the playoffs with two goals in the first five games.
The problem is, Fiala is coming off a devastating broken femur. The injury happened in game one of the second round playoff series against St. Louis. It’s impossible to know if Fiala will be able to get right back on the same track Preds fans saw early this postseason, even though reports have been positive about his healing process (according to his girlfriend).
He’s an incredibly skilled offensive player, and was on the opposite wing of James Neal on the second line. Kevin Fiala was the hero in the game three overtime win vs Chicago – the first home game of the Stanley Cup Final run. Fiala flashed brilliance in that series sweep. Preds fans just hope the injury won’t derail his potential.