It was no secret what the Predators plan was heading into this year’s NHL free agency period. With a world-class goalie and a young, talented group of defensemen already in place, General Manager David Poile went public about his pursuit of a top-six forward for his hockey team.
July 1, the start of free agency, began with a bang. In the first few hours Forty-four unrestricted free agents signed contracts with new teams around the league during free agency’s first day. Despite the flurry of signings Poile remained patient and watched from afar as teams engaged in high-priced bidding wars.
“With all due respect to the other teams out there, there were really no bargains,” Poile said. “I participated in that last year and you pay a lot. The good news for us is that we didn’t have as many holes this year. We we’re trying to be very specific and focused on what we wanted to get.”
Poile waited until July 2 to make his move and signed veteran forward Olli Jokinen to a one-year, $2.5 million contract.
“I think this is a significant addition to our hockey club,” Poile said. “His record speaks for itself. He’s a guy that’s scored a lot of goals in his career and will help us increase our offensive production significantly.”
With the so called, “arms race” taking place in the Western Conference, with All-Star centers such as Paul Stastny and Jason Spezza joining teams in the Central Division, Poile felt it was important that the Predators did some upgrading of their own.
“We needed to get better at center ice and we certainly did that with Ollie,” Poile said. “He’s a big physical player that can play against the best players in the NHL. He’s been a guy that has played on the top two lines for his entire career.”
While Jokinen has spent most of his time at center, he is open to playing the wing if that’s where Head Coach Peter Laviolette see’s him fitting in most effectively. A possible fit with James Neal on the team’s top line is surely a possibility.
“Olli gives us flexibility,” Poile said. “I certainly think he’s a guy that can play with James Neal; he’s certainly played with top players in the past. Peter Laviolette will do some experimentation in training camp and hopefully he can find the right combinations that lead us to more offensive production.”
At a news conference Saturday, Jokinen admitted that Laviolette was a big reason why he chose to sign with Nashville.
“When I played against his teams in the past I would always think to myself, ‘I would love to play for this guy’,” Jokinen said. “The high-tempo style creates a lot of chances, something you look for as a forward. I got excited just talking to him. His excitement and passion for the game was one of the biggest reasons why I decided to come here.”
Jokinen also acknowledged the role that his fellow countryman and Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne had on his decision. Jokinen was teammates with Rinne this year at the IIHF World Championship in Minsk, Belarus.
“I talked to him a lot during the World Championship,” Jokinen said. “With Pekka being here for so long he was able to tell me a lot about the team and the city. He told me how things are run with class here, and gave me a lot of good information.”
Jokinen, who is 35 years old, has played with seven different teams before signing with the Predators. Poile believes Jokinen can provide veteran leadership in the locker room to the team’s crop of young talent. He also believes Jokinen can still contribute at a high level on the ice despite his age.
“Olli feels very strongly about how he takes care of himself,” Poile said. “He really talks the game of hockey and knows what his strengths and weaknesses are. We got a guy here that loves to play hockey and will continue to play hockey for a number of years.”
While Jokinen admits he has enjoyed moving in the past, he says he is now ready to settle in with one team for a few years if the situation is right.
“Hopefully I can stay here for a long time and not do any more moving,” Jokinen said. “I think my kids are at that age where they want to settle in one place for more than a few years.”
With the signing of Jokinen and the acquisition of Neal, Poile has now added two top-six forwards to the roster this summer. With a few free agents still on the market Poile has not said he is done trying to improve the team but is also satisfied with the current composition of the roster.
“Right now I think we’re in a great position,” Poile said. “We’ve got a good balance of some young guys that can push some of the veterans. I think we’re heading in the right direction.”
Poile and the Predators believe that these moves will help them improve their chances of competing for a playoff spot. Jokinen, who played for Winnipeg the past two seasons, hasn’t made the playoffs since 2009.
“We both had the same sort of background the last couple of years of not making the playoffs,” Poile said. “That is something I know he wants to do. He can really help us get there.”
Jokinen made it clear that when he was choosing a team to sign with, he looked for a team that had serious playoff aspirations.
“This was my best option,” said Jokinen. “To come to a team that wants to get into the playoffs was important. I want to help them go far.”