With close to 30 veterans and rookies vying for a spot on the Nashville Predators opening-night roster, first-year general manager Barry Trotz has his work cut out in identifying his initial 23-player lineup will look like when the team opens the regular season Oct. 10 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Trotz gave his “State of the Predators” assessment during a radio interview with 102.5 The Game on Wednesday, all but suggesting each player’s fate is in his own hands over the next 12 days.
While the preseason hasn’t been kind to Nashville, Trotz conceded that he is trying to build a foundation with first-year head coach Andrew Brunette of a team that moves the needle. Trotz mentioned the process will take some time to unfold as he and Brunette redefine the system, adjust certain player tendencies and build a winning culture.
“I don’t think we’re in a rebuild, we’re not in a reset; we’re somewhere in between,” he said. “I don’t even have the word. The one thing people have to understand: We’ve had ‘Smashville.’ We’ve had a bigger team, maybe a little slower team, probably a little more physical than some teams, and now we’re asking them to play fast, faster. We’re trying to put the groundwork in place with Andrew, with those players who haven’t played that way for [years].”
At the close of last season, Trotz spoke with every player during exit interviews about his expectations for them heading into 2023 while presenting challenges for each to take into the summer and work on.
The 61-year-old GM divulged that everything he’s asked the players to do, they have done, but the real challenge lies in showing it against other opponents and not just against their own teammates.
With a new focus on playing faster and pushing the pace, Trotz said plenty of opportunities have been presented for some of the younger players, and he’s been watching the ones who have seized those opportunities like Luke Evangelista, who Trotz all but confirmed will find himself on the opening-night roster.
“Some of the younger players, I challenged them to be a little quicker to take a spot — not wait for a spot but go and take it,” Trotz said. “There’s a couple guys that have. There’s a couple guys I’ve challenged to go and take a spot and they haven’t, but I see them inching that way but they just haven’t taken it yet.
“…I think [Evangelista] had a really consistent camp, he was our best player in the rookie showcase, he was one of the more dynamic players down there. In his exhibition game, he was the one guy who was creating a lot. He would be a guy that has shown well through.”
Other youngsters like Philip Tomasino have had a lot put in front of them but haven’t quite nailed down their spot in the lineup yet. Trotz stated that Tomasino may be a player he keeps off the roster at first as a way to push the former first-round pick to go take it.
Brunette seconded Trotz’s comments about Tomasino following Wednesday’s 2-1 preseason loss to Tampa Bay Lightning, where Tomasino had numerous chances (four solid scoring chances including a breakaway) but failed to put any in the back of the net.
“If you get chances, they go in and [Tomasino] is getting chances,” he said. “…I think when he moves his feet, when he drives the pace like he did tonight, I thought he played a really good game tonight, snake bitten on a few chances in these first two games he’s played. Hopefully he’s not squeezing [the stick] too hard. The way I look at things is if you get chances, they will go in sooner or later, and if he plays that way, he’ll get his chances.”
Many pundits believe the Predators will be carried by their young guns, and Trotz says having so many near-NHL ready prospects is beneficial because he has a lot of flexibility as he trims the roster down to 26 or 27.
“We’re in a little different situation because we have a lot of guys that don’t need waivers, so our roster can expand more than some,” he stated. “There’s teams that are pretty well locked. They might have…one spot on D and one spot at forward, but we have a couple of spots in the forward position and we may have a spot or two on defense.”
There appears to be two or three spots on defense and a handful at forward that could be up for grabs. Trotz says that the cream always rises, so the better players will begin to separate themselves from the rest as they execute consistently.
Trotz is not fearful of shaking things up and making necessary moves, however. A clean slate has been the M.O. throughout training camp, and there are multiple forwards and defensemen who find themselves on the roster bubble as opening night approaches.
Non-waiver exempt players are eligible to be claimed by other teams prior to clearing and being assigned to the Milwaukee Admirals. Trotz’s reference of waiver exemptions and roster flexibility suggests that many of Nashville’s younger players might get a shot at the beginning of the season to see if any of them stick.
The presence of many #Preds players being waiver exempt provides Trotz a lot more flexibility in deflecting a roster and tinkering with lineups this season.— Clay Brewer (@ClayBrewer10) September 27, 2023
Teams have also probed at trade possibilities with Nashville due to their existing cap space.
Nashville Hockey Now has chronicled the chances of several waiver-exempt players making the Predators roster including forwards Tomasino, Evangelista, Juuso Parssinen, Egor Afanasyev and Joakim Kemell, plus defensemen including Spencer Stastney, Jake Livingstone and Marc del Gaizo.
Other roster questions still need answered. Can Cody Glass take the next step in his development? Was Tommy Novak’s 2022 season a flash in the pan or can he consistently score like a top-six forward?
With approximately $7.9 million in cap space available, Trotz admitted he’s also open to using a roster spot on a player not currently under contract with the Predators. He’s already shown he’s not afraid to make a move if he believes it will make the team better.
“We’ve already had a couple of discussions with teams that I would say they’re probing,” he said. “They’re saying would you consider something like this? There’s teams that are probing. Our job…we’ll sit down and look at a couple of things that have come across in those probing positions and say, ‘OK if we’re to do that now, how will that affect us going forward?’ Do we do something like that now? Or do you wait a little longer and get something bigger?”
Follow Clay Brewer on Twitter/X: @ClayBrewer10