The Nashville Predators and David Poile helped to shake up the hockey world this week in a three-team trade that brought centerman Kyle Turris to Nashville. In exchange, the Predators sent Samuel Girard, Vladislav Kamenev and a second round draft pick in 2018 to the Colorado Avalanche. Say what you will about the price tag, but the addition of Turris will boost the Predators’ offensive output and provide stability at the center position.
While the Predators offense needed this face lift, the defense has historically been a strong point for the team. Even still, when the Predators announced Ryan Ellis would be out with injury, likely until 2018, many wondered how the team would fare without one of its most valuable players. After some early season experimentation, and a brief Roman Josi injury, the Predators seem to have struck on defense pairings that they are pleased with. In the team’s last 10 games, they are 6-3-1, and the stabilized performance of the defense is largely to thank for that.
After some juggling, the Predators seem to have settled on Roman Josi-Mattias Ekholm, P.K. Subban-Alexei Emelin, and Matt Irwin-Yannick Weber as their three defensive pairings. At five-on-five, Emelin and Subban lead the team in minutes played with 173.1 over 14 games. Josi and Ekholm follow with 139.7 five-on-five minutes in 12 games. Irwin and Weber bring up the rear with 62.9 minutes in eight games. Apart from these six, Anthony Bitetto and Samuel Girard each played several games. Bitetto is currently recovering from injury. Girard played well enough in his seven game debut to make him a desirable asset for Colorado.
Of the three defensive pairings, one stands out as the most productive offensively and most stout defensively. Josi and Ekholm, visually, are the most cohesive blue line unit the Predators have going right now. In Saturday’s game, during a four-on-four sequence at the end of first period, Josi showed off his ability to play with the puck. He wheeled around the offensive zone, searching for a pass or shooting lane. After long possession in the zone, the sequence ended with a fantastic chance for Ekholm, who rang it off the post.
Both Josi and Ekholm are legitimate scoring threats when on the ice, making it harder for opposition to defend against the Predators. This season, Josi has four goals and four assists in 13 games. He has been dangerous at both five-on-five and the power play. Ekholm has been productive as well, with one goal and six assists in 16 games. While providing offense, Josi and Ekholm have also been mostly effective in shutting down opponents. The shot-based stats bear this out. So far this season, this duo boasts a Corsi-for percentage of 54.9 at five-on-five. This means that of all of the shots on either net taken when Josi and Ekholm are on the ice, 54.9% of those shots are in favor of the Predators. 13 games is not a great sample size, but these numbers are consistent with (only marginally better) than what each player has done the past few seasons, so it’s fair to assume they can and will maintain this level of performance.
On the other hand, the Predators second unit in Subban and Emelin are seeing less-than-favorable results. In 15 games as a pair, this duo has a Corsi-for percentage of 47 at five-on-five. More shots on net are going the way of the opponent while this pair is on the ice. They have also been outscored by three goals, with five for and eight against. Again, a 15 game sample is not much. These two could reasonably turn things around and drive possession for their team. But for the sake of argument, it’s worthwhile to note Subban’s Corsi-for percentage, five-on-five, last year in 66 games with Mattias Ekholm: 55.26.
So what’s the deal here? Was Ekholm holding up Subban last year, showing that Subban is not that good, or is Emelin dragging him down. Likely the answer lies more in the latter scenario. The Predators acquired Emelin to be a physical presence on the back-end, and he’s certainly provided. The problem is, he often pursues a hit to the point where he pulls himself out of good position. While he is busy finishing his check, the play has gone on without him, and the opposition is busy getting a scoring chance. Throughout his career, Emelin has never been a strong possession player. His five-on-five Corsi-for percentage over the past four seasons is 49.31, and he’s played with solid partners the likes of Shea Weber and Subban (both in Nashville and previously in Montreal). Subban’s over the same stretch of time: 52.79.
Subban is still good at doing Subban things. His laser shot on Saturday, a point shot on the second period power play, gave the Predators a 2-1 lead. He has four goals and eight assists in 16 games. But he’s still a liability in the areas he has always been. He takes risks, and Emelin does not have the skating ability nor the consistent level of play that Ekholm provided to balance that out.
Finally, the bottom pairing of Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber has seen a lot less ice time than the top two pairs. With nine games together this season and just over 70 minutes played as a pair, the data is not as useful, but the tandem does have a Corsi-for percentage above 50 at five-on-five. Last season as a pair, in 340 minutes together, their Corsi-for percentage, five-on-five, was 48. This is probably more a realistic representation of their ability should these two remain together. Optically, this pair has ranged from “not great” to “fine.” Both Irwin and Weber have had their fair share of mistakes. Irwin seems to be particularly struggling when handling opponents one-on-one. Even still, given the limited minutes they play, averaging less than 10 minutes of ice time per game, they are a passable bottom pair for now.
Admittedly, there are more factors at play than the ones named here, but the purpose of this article is to provide a snapshot of what is going on for the Predators on defense. So, for now, the Predators seem to have defensive lines they can feel comfortable with. The loss of Girard hurts organizational depth, but the offensive support provided by Turris should be worth it in the end. And after all, Ryan Ellis is not gone forever. When he returns, he should fit right back with his old partner Josi. Subban will then reunite with his buddy Ekholm. Emelin will displace either Irwin or Weber on the bottom pair, a role he is much better suited for where he will play less minutes against lighter competition. At that point, the rest of the league should be worried. It looks like the current Predators defense can play well enough until then to keep the team in the running for a playoff spot.