If nothing else, Predators get bargains with RFAs like Tolvanen

Trace it back to the Matt Duchene contract, or most likely some time before that, but the Predators’ stock has plummeted in recent years. We’re fairly deep into the point where it’s fair to wonder if David Poile should still serve as Predators GM. Yet, with signing Eeli Tolvanen, there’s one area where the Predators remain adept: signing RFAs to low-risk, possibly high-reward contracts.

In the case of Tolvanen, the Predators confirmed it’s a three-year contract with a cheap $1.45 million cap hit.

Tolvanen contract low-risk for Predators; what kind of reward should we expect?

At Evolving Hockey, the most likely projected contract for Tolvanen was two years at a $1.442M cap hit. Expanding the 22-year-old’s deal to three years would bump that to $1.715M.

By that measure, this is a modest bargain. But to actually get pen to paper on a contract with such a modest cap hit, especially for medium term? That’s a pleasant contract for the Predators.

Considering that low dollar amount, it’s not the end of the world if Tolvanen simply doesn’t work out. It’s exciting, however, if he breaks out.

To be fair, that remains a pretty significant “if,” but the potential is tantalizing.

Frankly, it’s hard to believe that Tolvanen is just 22, because it feels like he’s almost made an impact for Nashville for what seemed like so long. After the Predators drafted Tolvanen 30th overall in 2017, he flirted with a quick jump.

Instead, he couldn’t quite make a mark in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Tolvanen ended up playing:

  • Three games in 2017-18, following that 2017 NHL Draft (again, 30th overall).
  • Four games in 2018-19.
  • Tolvanen didn’t make any 2019-20 appearances for the Predators.
  • Finally, in 2021-22, Tolvanen stuck with the Predators, scoring 22 points in 40 games.

When Tolvanen couldn’t quite crack the Predators’ lineup, it was frustrating. In an ideal world, he’d be the balm for a power play unit that never seemed to find answers. But, in reality, he wasn’t even putting up particularly strong AHL numbers.

It would be dangerous to daydream too much about possibilities if this was a big-money contract. Since it’s not, such hopes seem more reasonable.

Consider that Tolvanen’s production (again, 22 points in 40 games) came in fairly modest ice time (14:48 minutes per game). With more reps, maybe he can become a more prolific scorer?

Granted, the Predators would have to ask if it would be wise to really roll out Tolvanen for much more than 15 minutes per night. Luckily, it’s not that big of a deal if the answer is “no.”

Predators continue to use RFA leverage shrewdly

Again, the Predators have done a lot wrong in recent years, but they’ve gotten RFA deals right.

The elevator pitch with Tolvanen is that it’s a low-risk contract, possibly with medium or high rewards.

It wouldn’t be a first if this deal paid off. Over the years, the Predators inked RFAs to deals that ended up looking great, sometimes almost immediately.

That’s impressive stuff, and the Predators could continue their RFA successes with Tolvanen and Juuse Saros.

Yes, the Predators had RFA leverage to wield with both Tolvanen and Saros. Yet, it’s still promising that they mixed term with reasonable cap hits in each case. Considering the sort of contracts that older, less-accomplished goalies received as UFAs, 26-year-old Saros’ $5M cap hit (for four seasons) stands a strong chance of being a tremendous value.

If not, it’s at least not the sort of price tag that would sink a team.

They don’t make up for the Predators’ other mistakes, though

… Unfortunately, the Predators no longer have windows like super-steals for Ellis and Josi. They’ve also made center mistakes in stereo with those $8M albatross deals for Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene.

Last season, Saros dragged the Predators to a postseason appearance with a Herculean finish to the regular season. Asking him to do that again probably won’t be too reasonable.

You could talk yourself into certain things breaking better this time around, mind you. Maybe Forsberg will put together a healthy season.

Still, subtracting Arvidsson and Ellis only stacks the odds against the Predators. By committing a baffling four-year deal to Mikael Granlund ($5M cap hit), the Predators aren’t quite cheap this season, either.

Is residing somewhere in the playoff bubble really worth it for the Predators? Truly, it might be better to rebuild, even if the Duchene/Josi/Johansen contracts may limit it to “reloading.”

Forsberg’s either due that same $6M, or a raise. Mattias Ekholm‘s been another remarkable steal ($3.75M), but he’s 31 and also entering a contract year.

[What’s next for the Predators after offseason changes?]

If contending for a Stanley Cup was the genuine priority, the Predators would probably need to keep selling, starting with Forsberg and Ekholm. Truly, that great Saros value might make more sense if Nashville eventually sells high in a trade.

(Considering that they invested a 2020 first-rounder in a goalie, wouldn’t the plan be to move on from Saros sooner or later?)

In what’s been a bitter offseason, the Predators landed some sweat deals with Tolvanen and Saros. Those contracts won’t wash away their other mistakes, but they could be something to build on.

There’s also the middle ground: keeping the Predators from sagging too much, without really giving them a high ceiling.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.