“Defense wins championships” is how the saying goes and if the Nashville Predators’ defense is any indication, they could bring home the big prize at the end of the season. Over the years, general manager David Poile has done a miraculous job at uncovering defensive gems that develop in the Predators’ farm system.
Whether the young prospect ultimately develops into a permanent fixture in Nashville or is utilized as a trading piece to address more critical needs, Predators defensemen are becoming an established entity in the league. In the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs, Nashville’s defense shined with a combined 53 points over 22 games.
The defense has played a major role in the team’s success so far even without Ryan Ellis, a key piece of the puzzle. Here’s a look at how Nashville’s blue line stacks up against other top teams in the league to uncover why they are regarded as one of the best.
The League’s Best Scoring Defensive Unit
It’s no secret that the Predators’ defense is a highly regarded group. In an article by NBCSports, Nashville was said to be “a formidable contender in the Western Conference for the foreseeable future.” With their top defensive players largely locked up through the 2020-21 season, that’s bad news for the rest of the West.
Sitting just behind the seemingly unstoppable Tampa Bay Lightning, the Predators are fifth in the league in goals allowed with 110. Over the last several years, the Preds have sat in the middle of the pack in goals allowed, but their high rank this season serves as evidence of their success.
Not only do they keep the puck out of the net but they also put the puck in their opponent’s net quite often. Of the top five teams in goals scored, the Preds’ defense accounts for nearly 23 percent (29 out of 128 goals) of their offense with the next closest defensive unit being the Lightning with 19 percent.
The speedy, mobile defensemen that Nashville has developed are capable of taking the puck 200 feet to generate scoring chances that other teams would salivate over. In a time when their top scorer is injured, the team must be thankful for their high-octane defensemen that can add some extra punch to their attack.
Superstar Players Doing Superstar Things
Prior to the acquisition of P.K. Subban from the Montreal Canadiens, Nashville’s defense was largely kept under the radar even with the booming rocket of a shot that Shea Weber had. Once Subban stepped onto the ice of Bridgestone Arena, however, the attention that the Predators received seemingly shot through the roof.
This season, P.K. Subban is second on the team in total points with 32 (9 goals and 23 assists) which is good enough for fifth overall amongst defensemen. While he hasn’t eclipsed the numbers he posted towards the end of his time with the Montreal Canadiens, Subban continues to impress as demonstrated by his second consecutive All-Star nomination in which he is captain (again) of the Central Division team.
Not far behind Subban is captain Roman Josi, who, in his inaugural season of captaincy, has contributed eight goals and is on pace to at least tie his career high of 15 goals from the 2014-15 campaign. Importantly, Josi is coming through on the man advantage and tied for the league-lead with five power-play goals and is doing what a captain should, taking control of the game whenever he can.
Largely regarded as Nashville’s most underrated defensemen, Mattias Ekholm is only two goals away from tying his career high only halfway through the season. While he has always been appreciated by the Nashville faithful for his defensive game, he has burst onto the scoring scene this season and should easily eclipse his previous career highs for goals and total points.
Contributions From the Bottom
In a move likely to ease the sting of losing Ellis to injury, the Predators acquired the short-lived Vegas Golden Knight Alexei Emelin. Initially surprising, adding Emelin made sense given his playing history with Subban and Yannick Weber while in Montreal. Emelin hasn’t made a large impact on the scoresheet, but he is second on the team with a career-best plus-10 rating.
Past Emelin, it has been a revolving door of players consisting of Weber, Matt Irwin, and Anthony Bitetto all of whom were recently signed to ensure defensive depth. Of the three, Irwin has been the most successful with seven points (two goals and five assists) and a plus-3 rating. While he isn’t the player he once was with the San Jose Sharks, he remains a solid player and provides stability on the third-pair.
Weber and Bitetto serve as defensive reserve appearing here and there throughout the season. Both players have three points (one goal and two assists) but haven’t seen as much playing time as Irwin. With the return of Ellis, it seems that Weber has won the remaining slot because of his past with Emelin despite that Irwin has the numbers advantage.
The Return of Ryan Ellis
Predators fans rejoiced when the calendar turned to 2018, not just because a new year means new opportunities, but also because Ellis returned to the ice. After missing nearly half of the season following knee surgery, the Hamilton, Ontario native is looking to stay healthy and help Nashville reach the Stanley Cup Finals for the second year in a row.
Prior to his injury, Ellis posted career-highs in goals (16), assists (22), plus-minus (+17) and average time-on-ice (23:57) during the 2016-17 season. In addition to a phenomenal regular season, he also had a monster post-season tallying the third most points on the team with 13 (five goals and eight assists). These numbers among other reasons are why the Predators rewarded Ellis with the title of associate captain.
— Thomas Willis (@TomAWillis) February 27, 2017
With four games under his belt and steadily increasing his total ice time, Ellis has recorded one goal and one assist while on the top-line with Josi. He provides more than steady offensive production, his commitment to sell-out to a play is second to none (see above). Whether it is a game-saving stick save or a last-ditch dive to thwart a breakaway, Ellis gives it his all. But hey, the scoring is nice, too.
Ben is an Ohio State alum born and raised in south Jersey. Currently calling Nashville home, he has been covering the Nashville Predators since 2014. Initially drawn to hockey as a kid by the FoxTrax puck, he now despises the idea of such a thing.