It was clear in the offseason that one of David Poile’s main goals was to improve the Nashville Predators’ defense.

And it seems as if, at least through four games, he’s done that.

Despite the awful 7-0 loss to the Dallas on Friday night, in which their main weakness was special teams (another article for another day, perhaps), the Predators have managed to improve their even strength defense considerably from last season.

Last season, the Predators allowed 2.67 goals per sixty minutes at even strength. This season, that’s down to 2.24. Their expected goals rate has gone down as well, from 2.39 per sixty minutes last season down to 2.00 goals this season.

Improving the defense was paramount after last season, when the team struggled to finish games in which it held a lead, and managed to not qualify for the playoffs for the first time in six years. It seems so far like David Poile has done that.

Their offense is still a bit suspect, but there are signs of that improving as well. Time will tell, but I think you can call this roster improved from last year. At the very least, it’s a different roster.

But perhaps more importantly, the Nashville Predators are also preserving one of their most important assets: Roman Josi.

Saving Roman Josi

John Hynes mentioned after Saturday’s 5-2 win over Columbus that the team’s defensive depth seems better this season. He specifically mentioned the addition of Mark Borowiecki and Matt Benning as the key to the rotation.

“It gives you six defensemen that you can play in multiple situations, both guys have done a good job on the penalty kill, and that can save us up some hard minutes for other players.”

Those other players, most importantly, would be Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis.

Roman Josi won the Norris Trophy last season, not only because he was the league’s best defenseman, but because he was the Nashville Predators’ most important player. He led them in points and ice time, and he was the most consistent player in a very inconsistent season for the Preds.

Even though Josi is capable of winning the Norris in any season, it would still be prudent to save Josi’s “hard minutes” for when the team really needs it. Like during the playoffs, or even during a particularly tough stretch of the season (like they may see a lot of this year).

Which is where Borowiecki and Benning come in.

Through the first four games, Roman Josi’s average ice time is down nearly two full minutes off his average from last season. Last year, he averaged 25:47 time on ice, this year only 23:54.

Most of that decline is because he’s not having to serve as much time on the penalty kill. Last year, Josi averaged 2:00 per sixty minutes on the penalty kill. This year? Only 34 seconds per sixty minutes through four games.

That’s a huge relief on Roman Josi.

Penalty kill minutes are some of the toughest minutes an NHL defenseman can take on. Instead of skating up and down the ice, moving the puck with ease, Josi has to body up forwards in front of the net and block shots. These are things that he can do well, but you wouldn’t call them his strength.

Josi’s strength is in driving offensive play, scoring goals, and in outskating the opponents over the full length of the ice. With less penalty kill minutes to wear down his legs, Josi will remain fresh later in the season to do more of that.

Mark Borowiecki showing Preds his value

Any defensive zone skills that Roman Josi lacks are, however, the strength of Mark Borowiecki.

If you’ve watched any of the Nashville Predators’ first four games, you’ve noticed plays like the one above. Borowiecki is big, physical, and smart when playing the boards. He leads all defensemen with seven hits in four games.

Last year, Borowiecki averaged well over two minutes on the penalty kill with Ottawa. So far, he’s averaging 2:14 with the Nashville Predators this season.

Friday night’s debacle notwithstanding, Borowiecki and Benning have done their part to help relieve the team’s top defenseman of tough minutes. And they look like they are quickly gelling into a bona fide bottom pairing that the team can skate in almost any situation.

Take a look at the usage of Borowiecki and Benning as displayed on this usage chart from Hockey Viz:

Using those two to help hold a lead says a lot about their defensive abilities. Any good 3rd pairing in the NHL will be in that upper left quadrant of the graph: they aren’t typically guys who scoring goals to tie up the game or start a comeback, they are guys who help prevent disasters.

Speaking of disasters, take a look at where last year’s third pairing wound up on that same chart:

Yikes. Dan Hamhuis really needed to retire. Yannick Weber wasn’t much better. And Matt Irwin was worse than both of them, yet played almost 12 minutes per game until he was traded to Anaheim.

So far, the Predators have some issues to work out. Their special teams are a veritable disaster, as they have been for the last five years or so. They cannot score on the power play, despite bringing in multiple coaches to fix just that problem. They showed early signs of an improved penalty kill, but then they allow five power play goals in one game to the Dallas Stars (which tied the franchise record).

The Predators also need to improve their consistency in scoring goals. Matt Duchene, Roman Josi, Ryan Johansen, and Ryan Ellis have yet to score a goal. The team needs that to change quickly.

But of all the complaints from coaches, players, management, and fans of the Nashville Predators from last year, the even strength defense was the biggest one. So far, so good.

— Featured image via Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports —


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