On Tuesday night, the Nashville Predators schooled the Vancouver Canucks en route to a 4-2 win.
Nashville could also do the Canucks a favour by teaching them an off-ice lesson.
The Predators’ surprising turnaround is one of the biggest surprises in the NHL this season. They snuck into the playoffs in 2021, but many prognosticators expected them to take a step back this season.
Some oddsmakers had them with the fourth-worst odds of winning the Stanley Cup in the Western Conference in 2021-22.
Against the odds, Nashville heads into the All-Star break with the second-best record in the Western Conference, trailing only the Colorado Avalanche.
There’s a reason why Preds general manager David Poile is the league’s longest-tenured general manager.
Here’s a look at lessons the Canucks can glean from Poile’s quick retool, where he helped the Preds shed salary and improve on the ice.
Trade veterans before their value plummets
Poile accomplished this on a couple occasions in recent years.
In what looks like a steal now, the Predators traded P.K. Subban to the New Jersey Devils for a package of futures in the summer of 2019.
That deal saved Nashville just under $9 million on the cap.
Then, last offseason, Poile traded Nick Bonino and his $4.1 million contract to the Minnesota Wild in a package for Luke Kunin.
Kunin then signed a two-year deal worth $2.3 million per season, meaning that Poile turned a declining asset into a cheaper, younger player.
Polie also traded veteran Austin Watson and his $1.5 million salary to the Ottawa Senators for a fourth-round pick before the 2020-21 season.
Sign vets to short-term, inexpensive deals
Look at these six UFA contracts that Poile signed during the 2020 offseason:
- Matt Benning, D (two years, $1 million cap hit)
- Nick Cousins, C (two years, $1.5 million cap hit)
- Mark Borowiecki, D (two years, $2 million cap hit)
- Brad Richardson, C (one year, $1 million cap hit)
- Erik Haula, LW (one year, $1.75 million cap hit)
- Mikael Granlund, C (one year, $3.75 million cap hit)
Compare that to some of the current Canucks contracts on the books, where the previous regime signed Jason Dickinson (three years, $2.6 million cap hit) and Tucker Poolman (four years, $2.5 million cap hit) for more term and money that they’re worth.
Even with smart moves, Nashville was still in a bind
Although Poile did his best to shed salary and keep the team competitive, his efforts seemed futile.
Nashville finished 2020-21 as a fringe playoff team before getting ousted in Round One.
And, they finished the season with the highest payroll in the NHL.
At that point, most figured the Predators were headed for a rebuild.
Instead, Nashville’s rocketed up the standings while maintaining one of the lowest payrolls in the NHL.
Don’t be afraid of trading for futures
Poile made two bold moves this summer to free up cap space while acquiring future assets.
The first move wasn’t a surprise. Viktor Arvidsson was traded to the Los Angeles Kings for a second and a third-round pick.
That deal saved the Preds $4.25 million in cap space.
Poile used the 40th overall pick acquired in the deal, along with his own second-rounder, to trade up into the first round and select Zachary L’Heureux.
Now, the imposing L’Heureux is one of the most productive players in junior hockey.
That’s a prime example of how the Canucks can take assets acquired in a deal, and further use them to improve the future prospects of this team.
However, trading Arvidsson wasn’t Poile’s only bold move.
His most surprising deal was trading defenceman Ryan Ellis, who was only two years into an eight-year extension, to the Philadelphia Flyers in a three-way deal.
Nashville received depth defenceman Philippe Myers and former sixth overall pick Cody Glass in return.
That trade, while making the Preds worse on paper, saved them another $3.7 million in cap space.
“We had to make some tough decisions,” Polie said in an interview with Sportsnet. “I’d like to tell you everything that happened this off-season was unanimous, but it wasn’t.
“Moving on from fan favourites is very painful. But that is the job.”
The Canucks mess is tricker than Nashville’s
While Nashville did a masterful job of freeing up cap space, there are a few things that differentiate their situation from the Canucks.
1. Nashville was able to shed four of their top eight most expensive cap hits from last season.
Two of those came from trading Arvidsson and Ellis. The other two came from Erik Gudbranson’s $4 million cap hit expiring and Pekka Rinne retiring at the end of his contract, which paid him $5 million.
No such relief like that is coming to the Canucks this offseason.
2. Nashville didn’t have as many problem contracts as the Canucks.
That’s not to say they had none. Poile was wise to get out of the Subban and Bonino deals, but he did have to stomach a Kyle Turris buyout.
However, the Preds have never had a salary cap mess like the Canucks.
Tyler Myers and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, while they’ve played well, are massively overpaid and will be problem contracts for the Canucks.
Dickinson, Poolman, Tanner Pearson, and Travis Hamonic are all signed beyond this season as well.
By limiting their bad contracts and drafting well, Nashville was able to inject young players such as Eeli Tolvanen, Tanner Jeannot, Yakov Trenin, Philip Tomasino, Dante Fabbro, and Alexandre Carrier into the lineup.
3. It doesn’t matter what you do unless your top players perform.
Granlund, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Johansen have all bounced back from dreadful 2021-22 campaigns.
If they all continued to struggle, Nashville’s story would be much different.
“We’re not going anywhere if the drivers and leaders of our team, our best players, are not our best players,” Poile said to Sportsnet.
This is a reminder that no matter how many shrewd moves the Canucks make, the likes of Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, and Bo Horvat up front need to do a better job of driving play.
They need to be the team’s best players.
But hey, if Duchene can bounce back, why can’t Pettersson?