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Mailbag: Is Egor Afanasyev NHL-bound? Are the Predators Tanking?



Predators forward Egor Afanasyev
Photo of William Nylander, left, and Egor Afanasyev by John Russell/Nashville Predators

Nashville Predators general manager Barry Trotz tried to warn everyone that 2023 could be a bumpy ride. Through 15 games, the Predators are 5-10 tied with the Chicago Blackhawks for last place in the Central Division.

While some fans are fine with the underwhelming results a little over a month into the season, others have some serious reservations about where this Predators team is heading.

You had questions and I have answers for you in this week’s Nashville Hockey Now mailbag:

MG: I don’t see Yaroslav Askarov being called up unless there’s an injury or illness to either Juuse Saros or Kevin Lankinen. And honestly, if either of those things happen anytime soon, my money is on Troy Grosenick being recalled first simply because Askarov has been injured since Nov. 4. The Milwaukee Admirals recalled Gustavs Grigals from the ECHL’s Atlanta Gladiators to back Grosenick up in his absence. I believe Askarov is at a point in his career where he needs to play as much as possible, so it would do him little good to call him up to Nashville unless he was going to start. What I could see happening if Saros continues to struggle, however, is Lankinen getting a few more starts here and there.

MG: While, yes, the record looks bad, as does the goal scoring (or lackthereof), there are still plenty of things to be optimistic about from the fan perspective. Before he got injured, Tommy Novak was on a tear and he looks to be the (new) real deal, sorry James Neal. Novak turning into a top-six center has to be a pleasant surprise. Additionally, Luke Evangelista looks like to be a building-block piece for the team. You’d like to see a few more goals out of him, but the fact that he’s sixth among rookies in scoring — ahead of guys like Leo Carlsson, Marco Rossi and Matthew Knies — is highly encouraging. And I’d also throw Dante Fabbro in there too. Among Predators defensemen, he is first in goals above expected, he’s tied for first in takeaways, and he’s second in goals and blocked shots. Fabbro gets a lot of hate, and I just don’t understand why exactly.

MG: There’s no shortage of players across the NHL who could benefit from a change-of-scenery trade, but from what sources have told me, trading Tomasino right now is not on the table. The organization wants him to succeed (despite healthy scratching him for half the season so far), but the problem is they haven’t been patient enough with him. I did a story about where Tomasino stands with the team last week (it’s a subscriber-only story but can be read here), and my takeaway from writing it is the coaches are trying to challenge Tomasino because they know he’s capable of much more than what he’s shown so far. As far as it making sense to trade him, I don’t believe he has enough value right now to bring back anything significant. After the Eeli Tolvanen debacle, this organization can’t afford to lose another highly-touted former first-round pick for nothing.

MG: You don’t. The Predators shortcomings have nothing to do with Josi’s leadership. I get it, when the team isn’t performing well, the captain is usually the first person people want to assign blame to, but he’s not the one in net allowing nearly 3.5 goals per game. He’s not any of the centers who collectively win barely 50% of their faceoffs. He’s not drawing up plays, and he’s not switching up the forward lines on a game-by-game basis. The Predators issues have more to do with goaltending and coaching than they do regarding anything concerning Josi’s leadership.

MG: The thing is, he is a better option than Foudy and McCarron, he’s just not getting the same opportunities they have. I agree that the situation doesn’t make sense. How can the coaches demand improvement from Tomasino while not playing him enough to 1- show them said improvement, and 2- develop any kind of consistency with linemates or getting into a rhythm. I suspect with Novak being out for the next month Tomasino should see a spike in playing time.

MG: I chalk it up to being in better environments with coaches that either know how to use them properly or give them more opportunities to prove themselves. Kevin Fiala was never going to become a 30-goal, 80-point player under Peter Laviolette or John Hynes. But put him in a system like the Wild or Kings, which is better suited to his particular skillset, and he’s thrived. Eeli Tolvanen was never going to play with better line-mates than Nick Cousins or Kiefer Sherwood or consistently play in the top six under Hynes either. But drop him in Seattle and give him line-mates like Yanni Gourde and Oliver Bjorkstrand (both former 20-goal scorers), and he’s found his mojo. Connor Ingram was never going to get the opportunities to start in Nashville like he has in Arizona (he’s started 37 of his 38 appearances).

MG: That one is 100% on the coaches. The best way I can describe this is players revert to their old habits in times of adversity or frustration. Taking questionable penalties, making errant passes, taking shots from bad angles, not hustling back into the defensive zone quick enough in transition — those are all bad habits they have to unlearn and the new coaching staff has to be the ones who break those habits. As far as the scoring — the Predators actually rank in the top half of the league in Corsi and high-danger shots for, they just unfortunately haven’t cashed in on many of the scoring chances they’ve had.

MG: Knowing Barry Trotz, he will never outright tank for a draft pick, even if that player was as talented as Connor Bedard or Macklin Celebrini. And I don’t think there’s a “pull-the-plug” point to the season either because, let’s say they trade Ryan O’Reilly, Gustav Nyquist and Tyson Barrier anytime between now and the trade deadline. The players likely getting called up to fill those spots are any combination of Egor Afanasyev, Joakim Kemell, Fedor Svechkov and Denis Gurianov — all young(ish) players that you’d like to get in the lineup anyway to further evaluate how they fit into the club’s future. A high draft pick might result from trading such players, but the Predators won’t outright tank as long as Trotz is in charge.

MG: Look, I get it. Watching Kemell play during rookie camp, training camp and then the preseason, it’s hard not to get excited about how good the kid can be and the kind of goal scorer he seems destined to be. But I’ve said this before, and I’ll keep saying it, he’s not NHL ready yet. He’s scored three goals and six points through 10 games with the Admirals. That’s a promising start, but he needs more seasoning and he needs regular playing time. Unless there’s a serious long-term injury, or he just goes on an absolute heater and looks like he’s bored in Milwaukee, I just don’t see him getting called up any time before the trade deadline.

MG: So. Many. Things. If you listen to “The Gold Standard” podcast I do every week with Braden Gall on 440 Sports, we talk about most of them pretty frequently. The coaching seems to be lacking right now. The goaltending is inconsistent. The offense is lacking much firepower outside of Filip Forsberg and Ryan O’Reilly. The team can’t convert their scoring chances into goals. Their second-best goal scorer is on the shelf for 4-6 weeks. Most of the lines haven’t played together long enough to develop any chemistry. Injuries. Should I go on?

MG: Honestly, I haven’t been impressed. Sure, it’s evident the kid is fast and that’s probably his greatest asset. But in eight games since joining the team, Nashville has lost six of them, and he’s only had five shots on goal. Tomasino, Cody Glass and Samuel Fagemo (who’s no longer with the team) have all played in fewer games and have more shots on goal than Foudy does. At this point, he’s taking away a roster spot from a more deserving player. If I were Trotz, I’d cut my losses and put him back on waivers. If he makes it through, then playing in Milwaukee with the bounty of talent there might do him some good.

MG: A heck of a lot more than Connor Garland, that’s for sure. I don’t think the Predators have any interest in trading Fabbro now or anytime soon. Sure, if a team called with a trade proposal too good to turn down, then of course they’d listen. If the Canucks really wanted Fabbro, then my guess is it would probably cost them a good prospect like forward Jonathan Lekkerimaki or defenseman Hunter Brzustewicz plus a draft pick like a third-rounder.

MG: I think Saros is very much in Trotz’s long-term plans for the Predators, so unless a team comes in and offers multiple first-round picks plus their 2-3 best prospects, or a game-changing forward like Nathan MacKinnon, then I don’t foresee him going anywhere. Trotz has already said multiple times that he’s spoken with Saros’ agent about a hammering out a contract extension in the summer. He’s a notoriously slow starter, so I have faith he will get things turned around soon. As far as going after serious talent next season, I do think they could make another splash in free agency — especially if guys like William Nylander, Sam Reinhart and Jake DeBrusk make it to the open market — but I think the strategy is to keep funneling talent from Milwaukee to Nashville. Guys like Afanasyev, Kemell, and potentially Fedor Svechkov could be ready for full-time roles next season, and Trotz seems eager to get some of those former first-round picks to the NHL.

MG: I think everyone who wanted McDonagh gone during the offseason is probably realizing just how important he actually is to the Predators now. It’s certainly no coincidence the team is 1-4 and riding a four-game losing streak since he’s been injured. Despite missing five games, McDonagh still ranks third on the team in blocked shots, and he’s Nashville’s top penalty killer and the defenseman with the greatest number of shifts starting in the defensive zone.

As far as the call-ups, Afansyev should be the first one. With Novak out 4-6 weeks, I think Afanasyev has earned a look for at least a few games. As previously mentioned, Kemell shouldn’t be called up unless there’s a serious long-term injury and he’s playing well. Jankowski likely won’t get called up unless there’s an injury in the bottom six. Gurianov is an intriguing one. He’s playing really well in Milwaukee and it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s recalled at some point during Novak’s absence.

MG: Tomasino didn’t do anything to Brunette, per se. I think it’s more or less Brunette is trying to find the right formula of players and line combinations that work and Tomasino hasn’t produced the kind of results he’s looking for right now. As I mentioned earlier, the organization wants him to succeed. The coaches want him to succeed. I think right now there’s just too much pressure on the kid because everything he does if magnified. Every shot he misses is scrutinized and every goal he nearly scores is used as some sort of evidentiary truth to prove that he’s a bust. Again, I think with Novak out for a while Tomasino draws into the lineup on a more regular basis going forward.

MG: I do. After spending the last two seasons working on fine-tuning his defense (at the insistence of the Admirals coaching staff), Afanasyev is finally letting his offense shine. He leads the Admirals with six goals in 10 games, including a hat trick not that long ago, and shots. He seems to have improved in certain areas of his game like his positioning, his shot quality, and just being around the net at the right time. He’s narrowly missed out on making the opening-night roster the last two years, and after a brief NHL stint last season, I think he should be rewarded with a call up.

Follow Michael Gallagher on X/Twitter @MGsports_

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