For the past three years, the Nashville Predators have been known for their “Big Four” defensemen: Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm.

But this summer, the “Big Four” became the “Big Three” when David Poile sent P.K. Subban to the New Jersey Devils in order to clear up cap space to sign Matt Duchene to a seven year contract.

The result is a massive change to the Preds’ blueline. What has been a consistent strength for them ever since Peter Laviolette arrived in 2014 is now going through a bit of a transition. With that transition comes a list of new questions.

How much will the removal of P.K. Subban affect the defense? How much will Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm have to step up their game? What will the top four pairings look like next season? Can Dante Fabbro take the next step in his development?

As we look to preview the Nashville Predators’ blueline, those questions will be lingering in the back of everyone’s minds.

Nashville Predators: Who’s Here

The Predators will enter the 2019-20 season with probably eight defensemen in tow. Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, Dante Fabbro, Dan Hamhuis, Yannick Weber, Matt Irwin, and Steven Santini.

Of those, only Steven Santini is in his first year with the Preds.

Defense Strengths

Right now, the strength of this team is probably veteran leadership. Here’s the number of career NHL games for each blueliner, in descending order:

  1. Dan Hamhuis — 1088 games
  2. Roman Josi — 563 games
  3. Ryan Ellis — 478 games
  4. Mattias Ekholm — 470 games
  5. Yannick Weber — 456 games
  6. Matt Irwin — 323 games
  7. Steven Santini — 114 games
  8. Dante Fabbro — 4 games

That’s a ton of NHL experience on the defense and something that the coaching staff will rely heavily upon all season. Having five defensemen with over 450 games experience is something not a lot of teams can count on.

Defense Weaknesses

The defense just lost a perennial Norris Trophy caliber defensemen. That’s obviously tough to replace. And one of the pieces they got in return, Santini, will be a bottom pairing defenseman at best, and likely be scratched to make room for guys like Weber and Irwin on occasion.

But overall, the weakness of this defense is probably in it’s primary task: defending their own zone. Ekholm is probably the strongest pure defender, not to mention the biggest, of the group. Josi is average in his own zone, but makes up for it on the other end.

Ellis had a tough year defensively. He took too many risks going the other direction and shot an unfortunately low percentage (4.7) in the offensive end. He needs a bounce back year, even though he did have a career season in assists (34).

Hamhuis and Santini are defense-first players and will likely see a number of tough defensive assignments, but can’t do hardly anything with the puck. Depending on which forwards are out there with them, that could be a tough situation for those two. It’s much the same with Irwin and Weber.

Breakout Player

It has to be Dante Fabbro.

The young stud defensemen came over from Boston University late last season and didn’t take long to adjust. He even started all six games in the playoffs for the Predators, notching one assist.

It should be no secret that Fabbro’s arrival was part of the reason David Poile felt comfortable trading Subban. Not that Poile thinks Fabbro can replace Subban, at least not yet, but the possibility of replacing blueline production with a younger player probably made the trade a bit easier to make.

Here was Peter Laviolette on possibly increasing Dante Fabbro’s role at the end of last season:

I think Fabbro makes the leap and then some. He put together a great career at BU, looked very promising in his first 10 games with the Predators, and has looked right at home in training camp so far. He’s also in a great position with a number of veterans to guide him through his transition to being an every day player.

Position MVP

Early on last season, there was talk that Mattias Ekholm was the Preds’ best defenseman. He put up 37 points in his first 51 games and was playing excellent defense on the back end. But then he finished with only 7 points in his final 29 games. He still had a great year when you look at it overall, but he wasn’t as consistent as he needed to be.

Roman Josi, on the other hand, has been the Predators most consistent defenseman for the past few years. And that will continue this year.

By the end of the season, he will probably lead the blueline in time on ice, shots, goals, assists, blocked shots and power play points. If that’s not MVP caliber, I don’t know what is.

Likely Defense Pairings

We are still over two weeks away from the season opener, but here’s how I see it right now:

Roman Josi – Ryan Ellis

Mattias Ekholm – Dante Fabbro

Dan Hamhuis – Yannick Weber

Extra: Matt Irwin, Steven Santini

— Featured image via Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports —
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