With the 2023 NHL Draft just two weeks away and the start of free agency just 48 hours later, Nashville Predators general manager-in-waiting Barry Trotz has made two things clear: he’s searching for offensively-skilled players and he’s willing to spend as much of the team’s projected $15.5 million in cap space to acquire them.
Headlined by 34-year-old Patrick Kane and 31-year-old Vladimir Tarasenko, the 2023 free agent class is perceived to be weaker than most, and Trotz confirmed that Nashville is unlikely to go the free-agent route to find what he’s looking for.
“I don’t think we’ll be big players in free agency,” Trotz said. “I think the free agent list this year is a little bit lean. [And I want to add guys] that fit our culture.”
The first piece of puzzle came into focus with the hiring of offensive-minded head coach Andrew Brunette, a Predators OG who coaches the style of hockey that Trotz enjoys, one he described as “an entertaining, offensive brand of hockey that fans could enjoy watching.”
As Trotz and Brunette begin the roster construction part of the offseason, it’s no secret what they’re after: scorers, needle-movers, players who keep fans on the edge of their seats. And while those players can be found in the draft, that wasn’t exactly why Trotz attended the NHL Combine in-person last week.
“All the general managers are here, so it’s a great way to…pick their brains a little bit on what they may be looking for, what we might be able to offer, or whether we might be able to maybe swing a deal either before the draft or right at the draft floor,” Trotz said. “So it’s a lot of prep, a lot of notes, a lot of phone calls. … It was a great opportunity to run into different hockey people to really assess what we may be able to do.”
Since the regular season ended on April 14, Trotz divulged that he’s been busy working the phones. He confirmed that he’s been pitched multiple trade offers from various teams looking to clear cap space — exactly the kind of deals he’s looking for.
There are currently three teams with less than $1 million in cap space — Montreal, Tampa Bay and Vancouver — and several others who may be looking to swing a deal to move a player with a sizeable cap hit to create some flexibility. Those are the teams Trotz wants to speak with.
“There’s some top teams right now that are going to have trouble re-signing guys or whatever or they won’t have the cap room because guy’s contract sometimes increase yearly or they try to make a move,” he said. “I’ve got cap space, I may give you a little sweetener to get the player that I want with the right term that could fit in our culture. That would be perfect scenario for me.”
Names to watch:
Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes
Top prospect Logan Cooley’s decision to return to the University of Minnesota for another year was impacted by the Coyotes’ rejected arena proposal in Tempe, which just may start creeping into the minds of other players as well. Keller’s agent reportedly requested to meet with the Coyotes to discuss the team’s future — likely indicating that Keller may be debating if Arizona is where he wants to be long-term.
While he hasn’t asked to be traded, that doesn’t mean it’s not in the back of his mind. If Keller were made available, the Predators would likely be at the front of the line to acquire the 24-year-old forward who scored a career-high 37 goals and 86 points in 2022. Nashville can easily accommodate his $7.15 million salary over the next five seasons, and with 13 picks in this year’s draft and nine next year, Trotz certainly has the capital to swing a deal.
Alex DeBrincat, Ottawa Senators
The Senators have approximately $17 million in cap space, however, DeBrincat is an RFA who’s arbitration eligible with a $9 million qualifying offer. That would eat considerably into a large chunk of Ottawa’s cap space, and with six unrestricted free agents and four other RFAs on the NHL roster that need re-signing, moving the 25-year-old forward makes a lot of sense.
Per The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun, Nashville is likely a team that DeBrincat would OK a trade to, so the dots are easy to connect here. Trotz has not been shy about his desire to find a game-changing scorer and DeBrincat is just one year removed from a 41-goal, 78-point season. He’s also scored 30 or more goals and topped 65 or more points three times in six years. David Poile built up Trotz’s war chest for a reason, perhaps it was for a situation exactly like this.
Alexis Lafreniere, New York Rangers
This one is less about being up against the cap (New York has $11.7 million in cap space) and more about cutting bait with a high draft pick that hasn’t worked out. Just 21, Lafreniere has failed to live up to the expectations of a No. 1 overall pick three years into his NHL career. And while he has scored double-digit goals each season, he’s never reached the 20-goal or 40-point marks.
However, he’s still young enough that an offensive-minded coach like Brunette could help unlock some of his untapped potential and develop him into the top-of-the-lineup player he was supposed to be in New York. Lafreniere’s trade value is not astronomically high right now, and he could likely be for at a reasonable price if the Rangers decide to move on from him. Hiring Peter Laviolette as the team’s next head coach likely signals a belief the Rangers are in their Stanley Cup window, so perhaps a swap for an established veteran who can contribute immediately like Colton Sissons, plus a draft pick or two, could get this deal done?
Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks
With -$668,750, the Canucks have the worst salary cap situation in the NHL. It’s no secret they will need to move some pieces and Boeser and his $6.65 million salary could be a good place to start.
The 26-year-old forward has scored 20 or more goals in four of the last six seasons and he’s never scored fewer than 45 points in any season. While he may not be the game-breaking scorer that DeBrincat or Keller is, he could be an intriguing option to solidify Nashville’s second-line scoring.
William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs
The Maple Leafs have 10 unrestricted free agents to re-sign with just a little over $9 million in cap space to do so. Clearing Nylander’s $6.96 million salary would go a long way in giving Toronto some much-needed flexibility and also replenish the team’s severely depleted draft capital; Toronto traded away its 2023 second-, third- and fourth-round picks and it has just three picks this year (Rounds 1, 5 and 6).
Nylander has just one more season before he hits unrestricted free agency next year and he has a 10-team no-trade clause that kicks in on July 1, so if the Maple Leafs want to move him, now would be the time. This would likely be more of a blockbuster deal than the others, but not one that’s entirely off the table.
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_
(Photo of Sean Henry, left, David Poile, center, and Barry Trotz by John Russell/Nashville Predators)