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Rydburg: Win-Now Window Open For Predators

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Photo of Steven Stamkos by John Russell/Nashville Predators

Last summer, Nashville Predators general manager Barry Trotz famously said, “I don’t want you to come to Nashville to retire. I want you to come to Nashville to win.”

After the Predators’ franchise-record spending on July 1, the question has to be asked: Why not both?

No team made a larger splash in the young offseason than Nashville, locking up Steven Stamkos, Jonathan Marchessault and Brady Skjei to a combined $108.5 million in contracts. 

“It’s huge because it’s a statement, I think, for the rest of the league,” Trotz said Monday. “These players see what we’re doing with our franchise. We have lots to offer, and we’re very determined to win. We’re committed to that.”

Both Stamkos and Marchessault will be 38 when their contracts expire, and Skjei will be 37 at the end of his deal. While it’s possible any of these players may be able to contribute at that point, it’s exceptionally rare for NHL players to continue playing at those ages.

Last season, only 14 skaters played in the NHL who were 37 years or older.

The reality is this trio of players is very likely to end up retiring in Nashville, but they also have a chance of bringing the Stanley Cup to Music City between now and then. 

The Predators are coming off a surprise playoff appearance last year. Trade deadline moves for Anthony Beauvillier and Jason Zucker may have been cheap acquisitions, but proved not enough for Nashville to move beyond the first round of the playoffs. Many around the hockey world thought the Predators were going to retool and continue to give the youth on the roster more prominent roles.

The expectation heading into next year was the Predators would be a bubble team while opening up more roster spots for young players like Cody Glass, Egor Afanasyev, Yaroslav Askarov and Philip Tomasino.

But Trotz clearly has other plans.

These veteran players join a solid core of perennial Norris Trophy finalist defenseman in Roman Josi, elite left winger Filip Forsberg and recently extended franchise goalie in Juuse Saros. Trotz has pushed the Preds’ championship window wide open for the next few years while not mortgaging the future.

The Predators also inked veteran netminder Scott Wedgewood to a two-year, $1.5M AAV deal on July 1.

Wedgewood will most likely back up Saros next year, ensuring that Askarov continues to get starting time with the Milwaukee Admirals while probably getting some NHL games next season.

Here’s what each free-agent signing brings to the Predators:

Steven Stamkos

Stamkos brings championship pedigree to Smashville like Ryan O’Reilly, who the team signed the previous offseason.

The 34-year-old forward spent his entire 16-year NHL career with the Tampa Bay Lightning. During his captaincy, Stamkos lead the Bolts to two Stanley Cup championships, while also becoming the franchise’s all-time leading scorer.

In Stamkos, Nashville got its coveted franchise forward.

Stamkos, who netted 40 goals for the Lightning last season, is considered one of the premier power-play forwards in the NHL. Last year alone, Stamkos notched 19 PPG, good for fourth-best in the league.

The Preds’ power play last year only tallied on 21.6% of their opportunities, good for 17th in the league, while Stamkos helped fuel the league’s top-ranked power play (28.6%), especially with his lethal one-timer from the left circle.

With 555 goals in 1,082 career games, he ranks third among active players in total goal-scoring. Stamkos has achieved the milestone of scoring 30 or more goals in nine seasons, and 40 or more goals in seven seasons.

While many thought Stamkos and Tampa would never separate, the elite forward and Tampa Bay could not come to terms, paving the way for Nashville to sign him as a free agent.

“I’m not going to lie, it was difficult. When you’ve been in one organization your whole career, as lucky as I’ve been to be in Tampa for 16 years, by no means did I ever envision that a day like today would happen,” Stamkos said during his first press conference with the Predators. “But you know, it did and I don’t want to take away from the excitement that we have for coming to Nashville. But it was certainly a tough pill to swallow when it really started to materialize that it wasn’t going to work in Tampa.”

There is very little doubt that Stamkos will enter next year with a chip on his shoulder. He immediately slots onto the second line and the top power play unit on the left side, where his lethal one-timer can be most effective.

Jonathan Marchessault

Not dissimilar to Stamkos, Marchessault also will have an axe to grind entering the 2024-25 campaign.

One of the original Vegas Golden Knight expansion choices, Marchessault has been one of the faces of Vegas’ team since its inception in 2017. Marchessault is the Golden Knights’ franchise leader in goals (192), points (417), games played (514), shots (1708) and game-winning goals (32).

After capturing the Conn Smythe en route to a Stanley Cup victory just one year ago, Marchessault notched 42 goals this past season (69 points) and is a dynamic winger who likes to shoot the puck.

Marchessault rifled 266 shots last year (24th-most shots in the NHL) and posted a 15.8% shooting percentage, one of the best in the league for players who registered more than 200 shots on goal.

The Golden Knights and Marchessault couldn’t come to an agreement, with the winger commenting that Vegas did not try hard to keep him.

Marchessault will immediately slot into a top-six forward role, most likely alongside Stamkos.

Brady Skjei

With the trade of Ryan McDonagh, the Predators found it necessary to strengthen their defensive lineup.

Brady Skjei, a younger alternative to McDonagh, is expected to contribute both offensively and defensively. Skjei recently had an impressive season with the Carolina Hurricanes, recording 47 points and 1.10 points per 60 minutes. 

Skjei, standing at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, combines size and scoring, which is a dynamic Nashville needed following its loss to the Vancouver Canucks in the first round.

The 28th overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft by the New York Rangers, Skjei has played for the Carolina Hurricanes for the last five seasons. Over the past three seasons, he has maintained an average ice time of more than 21 minutes per game, consistently producing nearly 40 points per season while matched against some of the league’s top talent.

Skjei will be a top-four defenseman for the Preds and slot into all special teams situations. 

Scott Wedgewood

Amidst the big names joining the team, it’s easy to miss the Predators’ signing of Scott Wedgewood to a two-year contract valued at $3 million.

Last year, Wedgewood participated in 32 games, starting in 28 of them, and posted a record of 16-7-5 with a 2.85 goals-against average and .899 save percentage with the Dallas Stars. Throughout his career, he has accumulated a record of 48-48-22, maintaining a .906 save percentage and a 2.98 goals-against average.

The larger benefit to adding Wedgewood is it gives Trotz flexibility in goal heading into next year.

Assuming Wedgewood backs up Saros, Askarov is slated to get the lion’s share of starts in the AHL with the Admirals. While some fans and Askarov himself may not like the move, being a backup and playing just 20-25 games a year wouldn’t help his development when he could be getting 50-55 starts in the AHL.

Askarov is also waiver-exempt, meaning the Predators are free to call him up to start a few games and send him down without fear of losing him for nothing.

If Askarov performs well, as expected, and Wedgewood has a solid season, it could create an intriguing scenario leading up to the trade deadline where Askarov becomes an appealing trade chip for the team to acquire a forward or defenseman. Much like the team moved coveted prospect Seth Jones for centerman Ryan Johansen when it had too much depth at the blueline, Trotz could pull a similar move with Askarov now that he has Saros locked up long-term.

At the same time, Wedgewood could be an attractive trade piece for an Eastern Conference team in need of an additional goalie for a playoff run. It’s a win-win situation for the Predators organization going into the 2024-25 campaign.

Nashville’s future is bright…

What’s incredible about what Trotz did this week is he secured not only the team’s immediate future with a revamped forward group, but he also maintained the team’s stable of prospects and draft picks.

The team (at the time of publication) still holds Askarov and two first-round picks, two second-round picks and three third-round picks in the 2025 NHL Draft.

While it remains to be seen what these moves mean for the long-term future of some of Nashville’s youngsters, one thing is clear: someone has to go for cap flexibility.

One of Glass, Tomasino, Juuso Parssinen or Dante Fabbro are most likely on the move to provide the team enough cap flexibility to carry an extra forward and defenseman going into next season.

Additionally, it’s apparent the Predators believe their next wave of NHLers isn’t with these players, but with prospects like Joakim Kemell, Zachary L’Heureux, Tanner Molendyk and the recently acquired Andrew Gibson.

By the time Stamkos and other veterans have their contracts expire, this next wave of players will be ready to step up for their chance to win a Stanley Cup.

But the expectation is to win now

With $111.5 million committed to free-agent signings on July 1, the Preds became the first NHL team to surpass $100 million committed to new players in free agency since the Florida Panthers five years ago.

The same Panthers team that won the Stanley Cup this year. 

That’s the team’s gamble for the next four years. Now the pressure is on for the Predators to bring the Stanley Cup to Nashville.