NASHVILLE — The Nashville Predators believe general manager David Poile has found the right combination that means a reset and not a complete rebuild for the NHL franchise that played for the Stanley Cup just four years ago.
Veteran forward Filip Forsberg is all in on the roster updates as the Predators prepare for their Oct. 14 season opener, a home game against the expansion Seattle Kraken.
"Obviously there's been some changes this offseason," Forsberg said. "But the guys that we brought in ... I believe a lot in. And I've seen them play obviously for their previous teams and also during pre-camp here when we've been skating together. So I'm really excited, and it's going to be a fun one."
After Nashville fought its way into the postseason this past spring, the Predators lasted six games in an exciting first-round series with the Carolina Hurricanes (four games went beyond regulation time) before being eliminated. And then Poile — the only GM the Predators, who began competing in 1998, have ever had — went to work.
He traded forward Viktor Arvidsson for a couple of draft picks, then sent 30-year-old defenseman Ryan Ellis to the Philadelphia Flyers for younger players. Also, goalie Pekka Rinne retired after 15 seasons and Calle Jarnkrok was claimed by Seattle in the expansion draft.
Those key players who helped Nashville win the 2017 Western Conference championship are now gone, creating space for younger, cheaper players. The players who remain include Forsberg, captain and 2020 Norris Trophy winner Roman Josi, center Ryan Johansen, defenseman Mattias Ekholm and forward Colton Sissons.
"Yeah, this team looks a lot different than the team that went to the (Stanley Cup Final) in '17, but it's not necessarily uncommon or a bad thing, because it happens so often," center Matt Duchene said. "And those changes are necessary sometimes."
The biggest change is in net with Rinne retired. Juuse Saros is coming off a career-high 21 victories last season and was at his best down the stretch while carrying the Predators to the playoffs. He led the NHL over his past 23 games with a .945 save percentage and his three shutouts since March 23, second most in the league in that span.
Johansen called the 26-year-old Saros the "Juice Box" who has his teammates' trust.
"It's definitely different, but we're excited to move forward and start the new chapter," Johansen said.
After two straight seasons in which the coronavirus pandemic altered the NHL's schedule and setup, Duchene and Johansen hope to benefit from a full training camp. Johansen said he tweaked his diet and meal plan and workouts to be faster and more flexible after finishing eighth on the team in scoring last season with 22 points in 48 games.
"That's my mindset, is a big bounce-back year with my standards and what I expect of myself," he added.
Duchene had just 13 points last season, when injuries limited him to 34 games. He has just 50 points in 100 games since signing a seven-year, $56 million deal in July 2019. He had three points in the playoffs, though, and believes he can build on that performance. Duchene said all that has happened since he signed is bizzare but that he's "excited to hopefully get some continuity and again kind of get to the level I want to be at to help this team win."
Forward Eeli Tolvanen is among the young Predators expected to play more this season. Defenseman Philippe Myers brings size at 6-foot-5 in his role in the Ellis trade, and Nashville hopes the change of scenery helps forward Cody Glass (6-3), the No. 6 overall pick in 2017.
Ekholm and Forsberg are both going into the final seasons on their current contracts. Poile has made clear he wants to sign both to new deals, but nothing had been done by the time they reported for training camp.
Forsberg is making $6 million this season and prime for a big payday at the age of 27. Ekholm, 31, is making $3.75 million, and at 6-4 and 215 pounds, he brings much-needed size to the defense corps.
One thing that will bring the Predators and the rest of the league back to normal is the restoration of traditional divisions. Nashville returns to a Central schedule that includes the Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues and Winnipeg Jets once again.
But the Predators will have to play the Tampa Bay Lightning — the reigning Stanley Cup champions — and Carolina of the Metropolitan Division only twice after losing the 2020-21 season series to each 6-2. The home date with Tampa Bay on Feb. 26 will also be the first NHL Stadium Series game in Nashville. Nissan Stadium, the home of the NFL's Tennessee Titans, will house the outdoor ice rink.