Over the offseason, the Nashville Predators’ defense unit got a lot of attention for the acquisition of P.K. Subban from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for Shea Weber. Much of the talk was about how Subban would impact the top pairings and what he’d bring to the unit.
However, the more interesting dynamic on the defensive end might come from the defensemen not named Subban.
In the past few seasons, Nashville’s defense pairings have been fairly set in stone: Shea Weber would play with Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm would play with Ryan Ellis and a veteran defenseman would play with a young guy trying to push onto the roster. This season, every single pairing seems to be up for grabs and in flux.
There are seven defensemen vying for six spots: Subban, Josi, Ekholm, Ellis, Bitetto, Matt Carle and Yannick Weber. The final decision on who gets paired with who might not come until a few games into the regular season, as the coaching staff continues to try out different pairs.
It’s a unique and good problem to have in the NHL: a surplus of skilled defensemen that could earn ice time.
As of this week, upon Josi’s return from the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, he began playing in practice with Subban. Before that, Ekholm had played with Subban. Pairings seemed to change practice to practice, and even period to period within preseason games. Head coach Peter Laviolette said that training camp is a time to experiment and tinker with defense pairings.
“We’re trying to look at the pairs of what might fall out towards the defensemen that play under guys like [Josi] and Ekholm and just to see how they look together,” he said after practice on September 30. “So, we’re just trying different situations and different pairings and putting him in different situations where they can show what they can do.”
The Predators boast plenty of new defensemen other than Subban, including veterans Carle and Weber. Early in camp, those new guys saw a lot of ice time with Josi and Ekholm still at the World Cup, and Ellis nursing an injury.
Weber said he has taken advantage of the time in camp to show his strengths and make his case for playing big minutes.
“It’s time to work on things, but also time to show what you’re capable of,” Weber said after the Predators’ preseason loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets this week. “It’s still a long year, and a lot of things happen, and everybody gets the chance to show what they can do and be ready when the chance comes.”
Another player that is in a unique circumstance this season is Anthony Bitetto. Entering his second season, he is battling for ice time with veterans like Weber and Carle. After playing a season with veteran Barrett Jackman, he’s ready to keep learning.
“Jax helped me a lot last year,” Bitetto said. “There were a lot of ups and downs last year, and I give a lot of credit to playing with him in my first time playing in the NHL. He was a big part, and obviously, Matt Carle’s been in the league for a long time. He’s another guy that has been around, so you kind of pick his brain a little bit. It’s good to have those guys on your team.”
Laviolette has liked what he’s seen from Bitetto so far, and wants to make him a fixture on the team.
“Bitetto is looking to take the next step,” Laviolette said. “He’s looking to become a permanent fixture, so we’ve got to put him in opportunities to see whether or not he’s ready for that and whether or not he can handle that.”
As for one of the bedrock pairings of the past two seasons, Ekholm and Ellis, both are happy with each other, but ready to split up if that’s what it comes down to.
“If it’s me and Ekholm, we’ve been together for two and a half years, and I think we’re used to each other by now,” Ellis said at the start of camp. “If it’s me and someone else, I mean, camp is a great chance to get used to each other, but you learn quick.”
“The guys that we have on our team this year, they’ve been around the league for awhile, they’ve played in the league for awhile, so it might take a bit longer than a guy you’ve played with for the last couple years, but I don’t see it being a big factor in anything, really.”
Ekholm came to camp late after Sweden was eliminated from the World Cup, and was paired with Subban in his first practice.
“We’ll see what happens,” he said. “With whoever I’m playing with, I’m trying to be my best and work on my game every day. If it’s Ryan, I think we’ve had a tremendous few years together, and I would love play with him, play with P.K., or play with whoever they put me with.”
In the end, as many players have alluded to, the coaching staff and management will have the final word on what defensemen get paired up, and which one has to sit as the seventh defenseman.
“Their play is what we’re evaluating, and we haven’t pulled any punches on that from the start,” Laviolette said. “We said that training camp is for a lot of different reasons, and one is to evaluate.”
“Ultimately, it comes back to a decision-making that I’ll make and David Poile will sit-in and the assistant coaches will try to figure out what the best personnel and best lineup is for our team.”