Long Rebuilds Are For Prey, Not Predators

One year ago, the Nashville Predators needed to change. In the summer of 2023, they’d just missed the playoffs for the first time in nine years and had completed a perfectly neat rise-and-fall arc. But rather than blow up the roster right away, they gave their off-ice personnel a dramatic makeover. Barry Trotz, the former Nashville head coach who went on to find success in Washington and on Long Island, was hired as just the franchise’s second-ever GM. Andrew Brunette, who achieved regular-season success as the Panthers’ interim coach in 2021–22 but didn’t get the permanent gig, became the new man behind the bench.

Both these moves were head-turners, but that first year felt like a transitional one—a prelude to the team we’d see after they’d really been able to put their stamp on the Preds. True to those expectations, Nashville made a push in the latter part of the season to earn the seventh spot in the West, then were KOed by Vancouver. The roster, as it stood, was not that of a team on the rise. Of their top three skaters by ice time, the youngest was 33, and the same went for three of their top four goal-scorers. Particularly after they dealt Ryan McDonagh, one of those old ice-time guys, for draft picks, the Preds looked ready to grab some prospects, suffer some down years, and eye the long and difficult climb back up.

But then the Predators got their big knifey teeth into the free-agent market. Whereas some teams made one big move, and some others made a handful of medium moves, the Preds grabbed a trio of pricey veteran players to cement themselves as the destination for people in their 30s. Turn up the Arctic Monkeys and MGMT on your iPod Touch—it’s a new kind of party in Nashville.

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Going in ascending order of average annual value, the Preds’ least burdensome add was Mr. Vegas himself, Jonathan Marchessault. I can’t help but feel a little melancholy about the Knights losing one of their last original “Misfits,” but he commanded a lot of executives’ attention after a career-best 42-goal year at age 33. While there’s no reason to believe he can better that mark, Marchessault’s iron-man season at least indicates that the lovable winger has more miles left in him.

Down at the blue line, the Preds got a sought-after defenseman in Brady Skjei for seven years at $7 million per. That’s a lot to be paying a guy until he’s 37, but at least in the short term, Skjei is a replacement for McDonagh’s minutes, bringing offensive pop and a steadfast mindset from a Hurricanes team that held the league to fewer shots on goal than any other.

Those two signings would have been a full week for any GM, but the real splash is Steven Stamkos. A lifelong Tampa icon who scored 555 goals with the club, the 34-year-old Cup-winning former captain answered the questions about his future with a four-year, $32 million contract that’ll help defray his moving costs. Stammer racked up yet another 40 goals with the Bolts this past year, but he was beginning to look more one-dimensional than ever—an elite power play sniper and a defensive liability. It’ll be on Brunette to find the right fit for him in his lines, but as a leader, he’s the ideal.

Stamkos’s celebrity also helps the Predators in a task that’s secondary to winning a Cup but still hugely important to the franchise: keeping the fans engaged. Teams like Chicago and Detroit, whose existence predates the birth of all of their supporters, have a little more leeway to string fans along through lengthy stretches of irrelevance as they rebuild through the lottery. The Preds, on the other hand, didn’t win a playoff series until 2011; they can’t necessarily operate on the faith that their fans will want to hang out with them for an extended stretch in the basement. There are plenty of other ways to have fun in Nashville, after all.

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So there’s value in giving the city a team full of name-brand talents, with the newcomers adding to the electric goalscoring of Filip Forsberg and the beautiful defense of Roman Josi and the typically masterful goaltending of Juuse Saros, who just re-signed for the next eight years. Within the organization there’s already an excitement that all the savvy second-round choices in the world can’t bring.

“I asked our scouts at the draft last year to get us guys that get people out of their seats,” Trotz said on Monday. “If I say that to the amateur (scouts), then I think I owe it to them to take our shots on the pro side. Let’s take our shots.”

It’s a refreshing attitude to display in comparison with the slow conservatism of a team like the Red Wings, who have yet to make any significant adds this summer even after an eighth straight season without a playoff berth. But of course, it requires Trotz to stick out his neck—what he has of one—and tie his fate to a roster that’s committed to more money in 2025–26 than any other franchise. Nashville’s attempt at a turnaround is going to play out right in front of fans’ faces, and it will pass or fail based largely on the contracts handed out this week.

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