In the aftermath of the Nashville Predators thoroughly disappointing first round exit in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs to the Dallas Stars, it is definitely time for some change.

I already wrote about the one change the Preds shouldn’t make, that being the removal of Peter Laviolette as head coach. That would be a mistake and you can read about why here.

But there’s no way this team emerges from this summer unscathed. Changes, and some of them very big, need to happen.

Including this one.

Break Up The “Big Four”

The axiom “defense wins championships” has yet to ring true for the Nashville Predators. Though the Preds did their best to build a modern, effective blueline that can transform a hockey game, it is time to reconsider that strategy.

Ever since David Poile traded for P.K. Subban in June of 2016, the Predators were hailed as the “best defense in the NHL” and for good reason. Subban was a Norris Trophy winning defensemen, and he joined a trio of Norris caliber players in Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis.

The first season with the “Big Four” was excellent. The Predators were among the league’s best when it came to shutting offenses down in their own zone, even if their goals allowed average wasn’t great.

But since then? Everything has been trending downward.

Nashville Predators
A look at where the Preds’ defense ranks in key categories since 2016. Green = top 10 in the league, Orange = middle 10, Red = league average. Via Natural Stat Trick.

The Predators have become a much more average defensive team in the last two seasons. They are allowing more quality scoring chances on their own net, many of which are of the high danger variety.

This is despite some impressive individual results over the last two years. It took a Vezina winning campaign by Pekka Rinne to manage such a low goals allowed per game average in 2018. Not to mention a Norris caliber season from P.K. Subban.

Then this past year, Roman Josi had by all accounts an excellent season, and the team still struggled defensively. Sure, they finished 4th in goals allowed, mostly because of Pekka Rinne’s first two months and Juuse Saros’ stellar play as the backup.

In short, the defense, as it is currently aligned, just isn’t working as well anymore. Teams have figured out its tendencies and ways to exploit it. Knowing that the defense is so mobile and ready to pinch in the offensive zone at a moment’s notice, opposing offenses are very capable of counter attacking on the Nashville net.

Playoff Results Not Any Better

As we saw this April, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are a totally different animal from the NHL’s regular season. With the added pressure of a playoff series, the Predators defense has been getting worse every year.

Here’s a look at the same metrics as above, but for each playoff run in that year:

Nashville Predators
Green = top 5, Orange = middle 5, Red = bottom 6. Stats via Natural Stat Trick.

This past playoff series with the Dallas Stars was particularly bad. The Preds allowed eight more scoring chances per game and nearly three more high danger chances per game to the Stars than they did in the regular season. No wonder the Stars’ offense looked so good.

Again, the trend here is what’s concerning. The Predators had a good thing going in the 2016-17 season, and the numbers show that. They were a good defensive team that season.

But the NHL and the Stanley Cup Playoffs are a moving target, and the Predators have essentially been standing in the same spot for two seasons. Other more talented teams have developed more sophisticated attacking systems and have bypassed the Preds’ defensive framework.

How Do You Fix It?

That’s going to be David Poile’s job this summer, but here is one idea.

Trade away at least one of the top four defensemen in exchange for an offensive player who can counter balance the porous defense at the other end. This may seem counter productive, but teams have a hard time scoring goals on you when they are busy picking the puck out of their own net.

The most likely trade targets would be Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, or P.K. Subban. Of those, Subban has the least tradeable contract, so he is probably staying. And Ekholm’s contract is still quite team friendly.

That leaves Ryan Ellis. Despite his new $50 million contract not kicking in until next season, his contract is still a tradeable one. Plenty of teams could use a top four defensemen locked in for eight more seasons. I could see Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Buffalo, and Detroit as potential trade destinations. All of those teams have tempting young offensive players that the Predators could get in return.

Whatever David Poile decides to do, he would do well to make improving the Nashville Predators’ defense his top priority this summer. Breaking up the top four might be the best way to do that.

— Featured image via Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports —

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