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Rydburg: 3 Free Agent Defensemen The Predators Should Target 

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Photo of Roman Josi by John Russell/Nashville Predators

As the Nashville Predators prepare for the upcoming season, most fans will focus on the forward group, but the situation with their defense is a major point of uncertainty. 

Following the departure of Ryan McDonagh to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Alexandre Carrier’s future as an unrestricted free agent still hanging in the balance and Tyson Barrie’s imminent departure, the team is left with a lot of question marks going into the 2024-25 NHL season.

At the time of publication, the Predators only have four defensemen under contract for the upcoming season, not including Spencer Stastney and Marc Del Gaizo, both of whom are vying for full-time roster spots. 

Jeremy Lauzon, Dante Fabbro, Roman Josi and Luke Schenn remain the only players currently under contract, none of whom are listed at 6-foot-3 or above.

It’s evident that the Predators will need to make moves to reinforce their blueline, be it through a trade or signing free agents.

During its playoff series against the Vancouver Canucks, Nashville struggled to clear the crease at crucial times, leading to back-breaking goals that ended up costing it the series. As general manager Barry Trotz enters his second year at the helm, it’s no secret he will need to retool the blueline in order for the Predators to compete for a playoff spot.

Here are three players the team should consider signing in free agency:

Brett Pesce

At age 29, Brett Pesce aligns well with Trotz’s vision of maintaining a competitive team while collecting young talent to extend the team’s championship window. Pesce has been a rock for the Carolina Hurricanes and is one of the NHL’s elite shutdown defenders.

Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour has trusted Pesce with some of the toughest assignments in the league, easily logging over 20 minutes a night and playing a crucial role in the Canes’ top-ranked penalty kill unit (86.4% during the regular season).

Pesce would also be a perfect fit for the Predators on the right side along with Josi, a perennial Norris Trophy nominee. Josi is a top-three defenseman in the league and could benefit from a responsible partner like Pesce so he can jump into the rush.

While Pesce doesn’t have the booming slapshot of Shea Weber, fans of the Predators would easily be able to see some similarities in their style of play. Pesce has never scored more than 30 points in a season, but he posted a 58.40 Corsi For Percentage (CF%), eighth-best in the NHL for defensemen.

Carolina will be keen to keep the stalwart defenseman, but it may struggle to solidify its cap situation with more than six NHL full-timers needing new deals heading into next year.

Pesce could prove pivotal in fortifying the Preds’ defensive lineup effectively and giving Josi an elite partner on the right side for years to come. Pesce also is 6-foot-3 and would provide a physicality boost to the blueline the Preds have needed.

He also brings a lot of playoff experience from a Hurricanes team that has advanced past the first round for the past four seasons.

Pesce probably will command a deal somewhere between $6.5 and 7 million per season on a five-to-seven-year contract.

Nikita Zadorov

Another option for the Predators could be Nikita Zadorov, a physically imposing defenseman with a two-way playing style who caused Nashville headaches in its first-round exit this year.

Zadorov’s aggressive approach and sound defensive skills could align well with the Predators’ two-way game, making him a possible candidate to replace Barrie or Carrier in the lineup.

Elliotte Friedman implied last week on his 32 Thoughts The Podcast that the Canucks want to keep the physical defenseman, but he may be on the move this offseason due to cap constraints.

Zadorov, 29, posted a 51.02 CF% during the regular season (56th in the NHL for defensemen) but has become a folk hero based on his playoff performance (eight points in 11 games played), including two huge goals in the series against the Predators in which offense was at an absolute premium.

The Predators saw first-hand what a player like Zadorov could provide on the blueline as he was a physical force against Nashville’s forecheck during the playoffs, winning board battle after board battle with ease. The 6-foot-5 D-man provides size on the backend while providing positive energy the team’s leadership group could use.

Zadorov would help solidify the left side of the Predators blueline and would be a valuable contributor to a playoff push in 2024-25. He would also provide the size the Predators have needed on the backend since the departure of Weber and Mattias Ekholm.

Because of his playoff performance, Zadorov could command anywhere from $5.5M to $7M in free agency on a seven-year deal.

Dylan DeMelo

Dylan DeMelo, an often-overlooked defenseman, is poised to enter the free agent market this summer. Despite not being a marquee name in the NHL, he has consistently delivered solid performances in a top-four role, showcasing dependable defensive skills and the ability to log substantial ice time during his stint in Winnipeg. 

These attributes could make him a sought-after asset in the upcoming offseason, especially for a team like Nashville.

DeMelo, 31, is a right-handed defenseman who is responsible in his own end and can break out of the defensive zone, posting 31 points last season in Winnipeg while playing a pivotal role on the penalty kill. He played over 200 minutes short-handed between the regular season and playoffs.

DeMelo is a steady veteran who could provide leadership and poise on the Predators blueline, especially if they go into next year with Stastney and Del Gazio on the left side. 

DeMelo’s excellent play will most likely command $3.5 to 5M in salary. He could get four to seven years based on his age.

Others to watch

These are only three names the Predators could explore, but it remains to be seen what Trotz and company have up their sleeves. A few other names to add to the watch list include Chicago’s Nikita Zaitsev, Detroit’s Shayne Gostisbehere and Tampa Bay’s Matt Dumba. 

Free agency may be the easiest way for the Predators to improve their defense corps. Nashville sits around the top of the league in terms of projected cap space at approximately $26 million, half of should be dedicated to improving their blueline.

Doing so will be key to the Predators continuing their strong defensive history and setting themselves up to contend with the Western Conference’s top offensive teams.