The 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs are underway, so you know what that means: top defensemen around the National Hockey League are getting absurd amounts of ice time each night, even in late-night overtime games.
Except for the Nashville Predators, apparently.
While players like Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson (30:23 time on ice per game), St. Louis’ Alex Pietrangelo (29:51 TOI/GP) and Minnesota’s Ryan Suter (29:06 TOI/GP) are carrying the defensive weight for their respective teams, the Predators have been able to spread out the ice time a little bit more.
In 2017, all six of the Predators’ defensemen are averaging at least 11 minutes per game, but no more than around 27 minutes per game, and that is thanks to their skilled and reliable third pairing, Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber.
While neither of them have a point in this series, their impact has been felt throughout the team’s defense. With Irwin and Weber eating important minutes, the entire defense corps can stay rested and stay consistent throughout the playoffs.
“You see that a lot of the games have gone to overtime, and I think that’s where it’s going to pay off, where you can roll your six defensemen,” Irwin said. “Obviously, there’s guys that are going to get some more time on special teams and stuff like that, but if you can roll six d-men as much as possible, it’s just going to benefit the group as you get into the later stages of the game or overtime.”
Nashville has just two defensemen in the top 20 in the NHL in terms of TOI/GP in the playoffs. Roman Josi sits in seventh with 27:14 TOI/GP and Ryan Ellis is in 16th with 25:49 TOI/GP. In addition, you’d have to scroll all the way down to #23 in those rankings to find Predators star P.K. Subban, averaging 25:17 TOI/GP.
Compare that to the 2014-15 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when Josi led all playoff defensemen with 31:36 TOI/GP, Subban (then with the Canadiens) sat in eighth among defensemen, and the Predators featured five defensemen in the top 20 in that category. It is worth noting that then-Predators captain Shea Weber missed the last four games of that playoff run, yet he was still in the top 20 in terms of minutes.
The Predators’ defense has undergone dramatic change since that 2014-15 run, one of which is the addition of a third defense pairing that can ease the burden on the top four. Weber recognizes how important that is to the team’s success.
“I think you don’t want to overdo it, and I think the coaching staff, they trust everybody enough to play them a certain amount of minutes,” he said. “I think if you have the luxury to not overplay certain guys, I think it’s good to have, because you don’t want them to be tired when it comes down the stretch. I think everybody has his role on this team and I think the coaches know when to play who and I think they’ve been doing a good job with that.”
Irwin and Weber have averaged around 11 minutes of ice time per game throughout the playoffs, easily the lowest amongst the team’s defensemen. However, that doesn’t mean that they don’t understand how important those 11 minutes are, and what they mean for the rest of the defense corps.
“[Laviolette] gets our shifts in and if you play 10 or 15 or 20 minutes, you never feel like you don’t play much,” Weber said. “I think you always feel like you’re in a good rhythm. We’ve been doing that all year, so we definitely maybe have a little bit of a smaller role beside the top four, but we definitely feel like we have a good rhythm and we feel we’re part of the game.”
That defensive parity will be crucial against a St. Louis Blues team in the second round that plays a tough, heavy game. Four of their players stand 6’4” tall and weigh over 22o pounds. Weber said his team is prepared to go toe-to-toe in a gritty battle.
“We know they have a really good team,” he said. “They played a good series against Minnesota. We know what’s coming at us, and we know what we can do. But, we know it’s going to be a little bit more heavy. I know they play a little more physical game than maybe Chicago did. It doesn’t matter if it’s a physical game, or a speed game, I think we’re comfortable with either one.”
Defenseman Ryan Ellis agreed, but thought that the Blues’ kind of game is not unique to St. Louis.
“Playing in the West, it’s almost every game that we see a team that likes to hit and likes to play heavy,” he said. “I guess you could say we’re used to it.”