The desired culture shift of of Nashville Predators general manager Barry Trotz coupled with the north-south, offensive style of play under new head coach Andrew Brunette have been two of the most-discussed topics of the NHL offseason.
But questions still remain as to how Trotz plans to mesh the acquiring of new blood with developing the talented stable of prospects he currently has to bring to Nashville a Stanley Cup.
Trotz’s idea of building a winning culture has been discussed ad nauseum over the summer, but what does his new iteration of “the Predator way” look like and what types of players match that philosophy?
“We’re trying to draft those players (who fit Brunette’s fast-paced system),” Trotz said in a recent radio interview with 102.5 The Game. “A good example is a guy like (Tanner) Molendyk — a guy that we drafted this year. The kid can really skate. The kid has been exceptional in the rookie tournament, he’s been exceptional in his game at the pro level.”
Molendyk is one of the most promising players in Nashville’s pipeline. Don’t be surprised if this is his last season playing in the Western Hockey League with the Saskatoon Blades. The 18-year-old blue-liner made quite the impression during training camp, and it’s possible he could be fighting for a spot on the Predators opening-night roster next season.
Trotz is well-known for his patience with developing players and not wanting to rush them into certain situations before they’re ready, but players like Molendyk may just force his hand.
Trotz admitted sometimes it’s hard for him to contain his excitement when he’s asked about young draft picks like Molendyk and 2019 19th overall pick Fedor Svechkov, who also impressed during his stint at training camp as well. It’s clear the duo are important pieces of Nashville’s future.
“Right now, if I was to say a couple of prospects who’s popped…Molendyk and Svechkov,” Trotz continued. “Right away, my voice changes a little bit (talking about them). Those guys look like they’re going to pop, and that’s great. As a general manager, you’re looking at that and going ‘OK, we’ve got a centerman coming.”
The Predators have always had a reputation for being a defense and goaltending factory. But offensive talent — especially finding and developing a coveted No. 1 center — has always evaded them.
David Legwand, Jason Arnott, and Ryan Johansen are just a few of the players who were believed to be top-line center material but never fully reached that mark. Free-agent addition Ryan O’Reilly will occupy the 1C role this year, but Trotz is still looking for that franchise centerman Nashville has always coveted.
A bona-fide No. 1 center is a much-desired commodity by Nashville’s front office, and while it’s not known if Svechkov can be that guy just yet, Trotz is optimistic that the young Russian may be a part of the solution at center ice.
“Svechkov has gotten better and better basically daily, which is really encouraging,” he said.
Some of Nashville’s other younger players may be further away from making their NHL debut, but have still shown promise, according to Trotz. Zachary L’Heureux is among them.
His presence at training camp this year provided him with a lot to work on, but he’s now had a glimpse of what it means to be a professional.
“One guy that I had concerns about is Zach L’Heureux,” Trotz said. “He started off very physical in the rookie showcase … He was a guy that I thought was going to take some time, now all of a sudden I’m getting excited.”
In the event L’Heureux can tie together his physicality and gritty style of play with further offensive capabilities, he will be a serious threat to contend with at training camp next year or the year after.
L’Heureux will cut his teeth in pro hockey this year with the Milwaukee Admirals. It’s a shift that can be overwhelming to many players because of the increased speed and physicality.
Another young player that Trotz has had his eye on since he first began evaluating the team last season is Juuso Parssinen. Trotz had high hopes for the 22-year-old Finn based on his performance last season before he got injured.
He also suffered an untimely injury at the beginning of camp this year. After missing a few days, Parssinen returned to the ice against the Tampa Bay Lightning over the weekend. He’s likely to play a key role in Nashville’s remaining two preseason games against the Carolina Hurricanes.
“I really like Parssinen,” Trotz said. “…He’s a person I was extremely confident in. We’re in that wait-and-see mode with Parssinen. I think he’s going to be a hell of a player. But now — all summer — he’s been injured, he’s missed (some of) training camp, and I’m getting that anxiety of I want to see him again. I want to see that good player again. I know he is, and he’ll get there, but you want to see it for your own eyes.”
The confidence that the front office and coaching staff have in Parssinen, not to mention his speed, skill, and size, make him a possible candidate to join Filip Forsberg and O’Reilly on the top line.
Many expect Luke Evangelista and Philip Tomasino to make Nashville’s opening-night roster. Both are promising young players that the first-time GM has high hopes for.
Evangelista shined down the stretch toward the end of last season with Nashville in the playoff hunt played on a line with Tommy Novak and Keifer Sherwood.
“A guy that’s performed extremely well is Luke Evangelista,” Trotz said. “I said to everybody, a young guy like him or [Tomasino], ‘You’ve got a really good future, but I want to keep you off the team. I want to put enough in front of you so you can grow, then you’ve got to go and take (a spot) from someone.'”
The Predators have always had high hopes for Tomasino, but he was held back last year under former head coach John Hynes. Whether he simply did not fit into the physical, defensive style Hynes was presenting, or he simply isn’t the talent many had hoped he would be will likely be determined this season. This is his moment to prove he can work with a clean slate.
When it comes to potentially keeping both Evangelista and Tomasino off the 23-man roster in Nashville to start the season, the two are presenting a strong argument for their extended stay Music City.
“Is Tomasino going to get back to the area and produce at the level that he’s capable of doing?” Trotz questioned. “I think he is. Is Luke Evangelista’s 20 games last year, is that sustainable with this group this year? I think it is.”
Follow Clay Brewer on Twitter/X: @ClayBrewer10