The Nashville Predators’ defensive corps is arguably the best in the NHL right now. With the combined forces of Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, Roman Josi, and P.K. Subban, the first and second pairs have put on a show already.
The Four Horsemen have put together 56 total points. There’s no wrong defensive pair with these four, but with the pairs they have, a multitude of blending elements contribute to their success.
P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm- the ostentatious Canadian and the subtle Swede.
Subban, a notoriously rambunctious and offensively driven defenseman, and Ekholm, a quiet and rather defensively oriented defenseman, have spent about equal times on the ice this season so far (22:46 minutes averaged). Subban has missed six games due to an upper body injury, but his power play contributions are not amiss. With 4 man advantage assists, he is second only to Ryan Johansen, and has also tallied a short handed goal.
Since Subban was placed on the IR, Ekholm has occupied his spot on the man advantage. Ekholm has been magnificent at both ends of the ice, as his +/- rating lands at right at +11, along with 12 assists (8 at even strength, 4 on the power play).
Both Ekholm and Subban are no strangers to the penalty box; Subban has served four minors, while Ekholm has racked up six minors, and a five minute major for fighting.
They sharply contrast one another yet mix very well. Subban, a known agitator on the ice, prefers not to fight. He even admitted it to Colorado Avalanche forward Nikita Zadorov in Nashville’s 4-1 victory on November 11th. (“You’re right, I wouldn’t fight you, but you’re a terrible hockey player” could very well be the quote of the year). Ekholm, more of a discrete benefactor on the ice, does not hesitate to accept fights. He threw hands with Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler in a 3-0 Predators win. Who’s to say who won?
Who does the elaborate celebrations and takes the big slapshots? It’s Subban. Who normally cleans up after Subban’s defensive blunders and finds ways to get the puck to better shooters, such as his partner? That would be Ekholm.
Case in point. It didn’t matter which defenseman who took the shot; Henrik Lundqvist was screened by two Ranger forwards anyways, but Ekholm gave Subban the shot. They’re not exactly the yin and yang of the Predators, but they do work very well together.
That’s not to say Ekholm can’t score when called upon and Subban can’t play well in front of the net. As a matter of fact, since Subban has missed six games due to injury, Ekholm has scored one more goal than him. Better yet, Subban’s +/- rating is +8, and only two less assists than Ekholm. Maybe Ekholm wants to score more and Subban might appreciate the power of teamwork this year, right?
Well…. Subban has taken 46 shots in 18 games while Ekholm has taken 37 shots in 24 games.
Like I said, blending elements.
FUN FACT: Of P.K. Subban’s 16 goals in the 2017-2018 campaign, 3 of them came from behind the Predators’ blueline: 2 one hop strikes from behind Nashville’s cage, and 1 from the midline. Subban’s shorthanded goal this year was also the first of his career.
This would be the yin and yang of the Predators, as referenced earlier.
Josi has been an extremely crucial part of the Predators’ early success. Offensively, with 5 goals and 12 assists, he leads the defensemen in points and goals. Defensively, he is third in defensemen for most hits at even strength with 20 (Anthony Bitetto has registered 24, and Yannick Weber has 22), has blocked 32 shots, and averages 25:22 on the ice.
Ellis has been producing as well, as he has 1 goal and 11 assists. He is second only to Josi in average time on ice with 24:50, leads the team in shots blocked at even strength with 47, and has registered 19 hits at even strength. Josi has served three minor penalties, while Ellis has served four.
Josi has turned the puck over 21 times this year while only taking the puck away from his opponents 10 times. Interestingly enough, Ellis has taken the puck away from his opponents 21 times while also giving it away 20 times.
Josi leads both the defensemen and the forwards in total shots taken with 86. On the other hand, Ellis has only taken 48 shots.
Something odd about Josi this year is where he’s generating offense; he’s taking more shots in high danger areas this year. In the 2017-2018, he netted five goals from high danger areas, with two of those goals on the man-advantage. Ellis wasn’t really the same way, as he scored most of his goals from above the face-off circle or near the blue-line. Both are known for one-timers from the outside on the man-advantage, but it’s Josi who could slice through the defenses and get to the gritty areas.
This year, all four goals from Josi are from medium to high danger areas, including two game winners; Ellis’ lone goal also came from a high danger area (even if it was an empty-netter).
FUN FACT: Neither Josi or Ellis has scored an empty net goal in over two seasons. This year, both of them have recorded one each.
Back to the point, they are dangerous together, understand each others’ tendencies, and overall can cover each other at both ends of the ice. The comradery is on full display almost every night, but there’s one big example of this: Josi’s goal against the Winnipeg Jets.
Seeing how Ellis was trailing Ryan Hartman and Calle Jarnkrok, Josi laid back with Ryan Johansen to prevent any breakaway attempt. Ellis called for the puck when Hartman was in the face-off circle; had he received the pass from Hartman, Ellis would have had a one-time attempt from right above the right face-off circle (his favorite shot). Hartman tried to pass to Jarnkrok, and it was smothered by Dustin Byfugelin. Ellis retrieved the loose puck and skated into the face-off circle and allowed Josi to skate down from the blue line. Ellis slid the puck over, Josi slammed it home, and suddenly the Predators had a 2-0 lead.
No doubt Ellis will eventually heat up offensively, and when he does, it will be Josi who finds ways to get him the puck.
But for now, enjoy the Captain’s outstanding offensive efforts. He almost went full Bobby Orr against the Boston Bruins.
It appears Josi has caught the clutch bug this year, as the captain needs only one more game winning goal to match his total from last year. Ellis was fully infected by the clutch bug last season, as six of his nine goals tied games up, and two were game winning goals.
Josi’s special teams contributions have been apparent yet spotty, as it was his first power play goal of the year pushed the Predators into overtime with the Dallas Stars, and his two power play assists helped Turris and Jarnkrok find the back of the net against the Los Angeles Kings. Ellis recorded two assists against the Los Angeles Kings as well, even if only one was on the power play. In addition to that, he recorded the Predators’ third shorthanded goal this year against the St. Louis Blues.
Josi has done an awesome job this year, and this is the making of his best year yet if he can sustain his strong play. And if his contributions wane away, the Bearded Treasure will be right there to strike.
It’s obvious the Four Horsemen are extremely productive, but one would be mistaken to diminish the complete effort of the Nashville defense team. Comparatively speaking, how are all of the Predators defensemen facing up to their Central Division competition?
Central Division Defensemen Group Combined +/- Rating and Point Totals Through 24 Games:
Nashville Predators: +46, 66 points
Minnesota Wild: +14, 57 points
Colorado Avalanche: +32, 53 points
Chicago Blackhawks: -14, 50 points
Winnipeg Jets: +14, 47 points
Dallas Stars: +8, 44 points
St. Louis Blues: -4, 35 points
Every single Nashville defenseman that has played thus far has recorded at least one point, and none of them have a +/- rating below +1. It isn’t surprising, but people sometimes forget how dangerous the Predators defensemen really are.
They own the Central Division right now, but how about the rest of the league? Here’s how they compare to the top four teams in the NHL. Also included is the San Jose Sharks, who is the only team to beat the Predators twice this year.
Combined Defensemen Group Point Totals and +/- Rating Through 24 Games:
Nashville Predators: +46, 66 points
Tampa Bay Lightning: +30, 59 points
Buffalo Sabres: +8, 54 points
Toronto Maple Leafs: +33, 56 points
San Jose Sharks: -4, 56 points
Individual players such as Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks (24 points, +2) or Morgan Reilly of the Toronto Maple Leafs (27 points, +9) can light up a crowd, but as whole, the Nashville Predators have the most complete defensive group in the Central Division and the NHL right now.
It’s up for debate on who has been the best defenseman for Nashville thus far, but the top four has undoubtedly propelled the offense. The Predators have been very successful thus far, and it’s safe to assume the defensemen have played a vital role in their early dominance.