When asked about the Nashville Predators’ number one goal as a defensive unit this year, captain Roman Josi’s answer probably won’t surprise you.
“Playing well defensively. That’s our job as the D corps,” Roman Josi said after practice on Saturday. “We are a pretty active group, wanting to jump into the play and join the rush, but first of all we’ve got to play well defensively.”
— Alex Daugherty (@AlexDaugherty1) September 30, 2018
Like I said, not that surprising. And Josi is right, playing well defensively should be their number one goal as a unit, even despite their offensive prowess.
But this group’s ability to control play in their own zone came under some scrutiny late last year in the playoffs. The team allowed 3.23 goals per game in the playoffs last year against the Colorado Avalanche and Winnipeg Jets, which was drastically higher than their 2.49 goals per game allowed in the regular season.
Numbers aside, it was obvious to anyone watching the playoff games last year that the defense simply wasn’t carrying its weight. What was happening in the defensive zone to cause so many breakdowns? Why were so many fast, agile forwards provided so much time and space to move the puck in dangerous areas?
I’m not sure anyone, including the players themselves, could give you an answer.
But with only one significant change from last year’s group, the Predators will roll into the new season with essentially the same defense corps as they finished with last year. And the success of this year’s team may hinge on whether this unit can return to its usual dominant form.
The Top Four
Here comes the easiest team roster projection in hockey history: the top four defensemen for the Nashville Predators will be P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis.
It’s not necessary to distinguish which is the “top pair” and which is the “second pair.” Think of them as a whole unit of four players rather than two sets of two players.
Projecting a team’s defensive unit based on traditional “top pair-second pair-third pair” categories can lead to some counter-intuitive player rankings, like in the following example:
Red = below replacement level
Blue = at or just above replacement level
Green = secondary star
Yellow = elite pic.twitter.com/rq02MYXyoL
— Alex Daugherty (@AlexDaugherty1) September 29, 2018
P.K. Subban is a secondary star? Mattias Ekholm is elite? Roman Josi is a secondary, middle pairing defenseman? What’s going on here?
In that model, (which is a very respected, very solid model) Sean Tierney is placing players in roles or “bins” based on a “goals above replacement” model by Evolving Wild. But these bins are based on the more traditional “top pair-second pair-third pair” structure.
While it’s common to refer to a team’s defensive unit as a three tiered system of two players each, some teams, Nashville included, are more accurately categorized as having a top four and then a third pair. Their top four defensemen receive similar ice time, albeit with different roles, and achieve equally valuable production on the ice.
Nashville’s top four defensemen are all equally valuable within the context of the team. They have certain strengths in certain areas of the game that all play off of one another. Subban and Ellis are both excellent in transition and in the offensive zone with their shooting ability. Josi is very strong on the puck in his own zone, is an excellent skater, and has a wonderful left-handed shot that sneaks up on goalies. Ekholm is among the better passers in the game and is a force along the boards and in front of the net.
The Third Pair
Most likely the Preds will start with Dan Hamhuis and Yannick Weber as the third pairing. Hamhuis signed on as a free agent in July and comes in with over 1000 NHL games in his career. Assuming he can match the level of production he saw in Dallas the last two years, he should be a lock in the lineup every night.
Weber on the other hand is merely the best option among a set of not great options. You could argue that Weber really only finds himself slotted into the 3rd pair because he’s the only remaining right handed defenseman. He doesn’t provide much consistency at either end of the ice, but perhaps with Hamhuis he might find some. Anthony Bitetto and Matt Irwin are left handed defenseman who will back up Hamhuis and Weber, probably receiving spot starts throughout the season.
Return To Dominance?
The Nashville Predators have been known for their dominant defensive units for several years now. They’ve got perennial Norris Trophy candidates in P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, and Ryan Ellis. They’ve got solid veterans like Mattias Ekholm and Dan Hamhuis. They have replacement level depth players like Irwin and Bitetto in case of emergency. Given this, I like their chances to reclaim their place among the most elite units in the league.
— Featured image via Bleacher Report —