Predators’ Blue Line on Verge of Being Overcrowded

The Nashville Predators are suddenly occupying the fourth and final playoff position in the Central Division, a spot which not many people could have envisioned mere weeks ago. Fans, media, and even some of my own Hockey Writers colleagues were calling for a rebuild and putting together ideal trade packages.

Names like Mattias Ekholm and Mikael Granlund still remain atop some trade deadline asset rankings, but with the Predators now in a playoff position it puts general manager David Poile in a bind. Does he activate a reboot of the franchise, and trade a couple of players for draft picks and prospects? Or does he keep the team intact and possibly even look to add pieces?

Trade debates and discussions aside, the fact remains that if Ryan Ellis returns to the lineup in the near future, it could create quite a log-jam of defencemen. This is a position the Predators were seemingly patching together with duct tape only a few games ago with Ellis, Roman Josi, and others missing time due to injury.

Here are how the blue line could look depending on some of the plausible roster makeups moving towards and past the trade deadline on April 12. Note that all of these possibilities are under the working assumption that Ellis gets inserted back into the lineup soon and the unit stays healthy (cue Predators fans everywhere knocking furiously on wood).

Scenario 1: Ekholm Gets Traded

This feels like the most likely of situations – Ekholm has been the center of trade discussions since early in the season, and even though he has one year left on his contract at what seems like a discounted $3.75-million, it still feels like Poile could pull the trigger on a trade this season. Should this transpire, it leaves a void on the second defensive pair.

Josi and Dante Fabbro have developed some good chemistry playing together recently, and Josi has looked like his old Norris-winning self since returning from injury. I don’t think this is a coincidence, as Fabbro has been the subject of many “wow look at his improvement” tweets from the start of the season until now. The young defenceman has become a solid partner for Josi, perhaps allowing the latter to rediscover a form that seemed almost invisible in the first half of the season.

Alex Carrier is another young blueliner who has really impressed over the last month or so, playing with Ekholm quite often. A healthy Ellis could jump seamlessly into Ekholm’s vacated spot, as they have similar skill sets, and Ellis still provides a steady veteran presence next to a young, budding defenceman in Carrier. However, head coach John Hynes really loves the duo of Josi and Ellis, so while the above pairs are ideal to me, I feel like he’ll reunite that pair the second Ellis is back in the lineup.

Alexandre Carrier Milwaukee Admirals
Alexandre Carrier, seen here in with the Milwaukee Admirals, has played his way into deserving top-four minutes with the Predators (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

The third pair becomes very interesting, as Matt Benning and Jeremy Davies have both seen plenty of game action recently, but as I proposed several weeks ago, a veteran pair of Ben Harpur and Mark Borowiecki could be really physically imposing. Consistent physicality is something that has been missing from much of the Predators’ blue line all season, especially with Harpur not being a regular in the first half of the season and Borowiecki being hurt for part of the second half. Benning and Davies are entirely adequate backup options should injuries hit the team again, but the veteran poise of the two former Ottawa Senators shouldn’t be overlooked.

Scenario 2: Ekholm and Borowiecki or Harpur Get Traded

I can’t help but feel like Borowiecki could become a trade asset if he becomes healthy before the trade deadline. I’ve mentioned before that veteran, physical defencemen can be very sought-after commodities for teams looking to make a playoff push, and both Borowiecki and Harpur could find themselves on the move in this situation. Harpur in particular may have played his way into being a trade asset with how good he has looked lately.

If two of the names from this section header get traded, Josi and Fabbro should absolutely remain the top pair, with Ellis remaining on the second pair with Carrier. The third pair now has a gaping hole no matter if it is Harpur or Borowiecki who gets dealt.

Dante Fabbro Nashville Predators
Dante Fabbro is a candidate for Nashville’s Most Improved Player (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

I think Davies has played well offensively and certainly has shown a great deal of composure with the puck. However, he does have less experience than someone like Benning, who has become a lineup regular this season. I could see a platoon happening with the two youngsters rotating alongside either Harpur or Borowiecki, but Hynes has shown extreme reluctance to platooning or rotating players in the lineup, so this could end up being unlikely at the end of the day.

Scenario 3: Ekholm and Fabbro Traded

Fabbro’s name has been bandied about in some circles as a name who could be on the move around the trade deadline. Granted, this was prior to the Predators surging up the standings, but the fact remains Fabbro could be a good young asset set to become a restricted free agent this summer, so it is not outside of the realm of possibilities he could be on a different playoff-bound team this spring.

Ryan Ellis, Flyers vs Predators, Dec. 19, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

A potential Fabbro trade would open up the door for a Josi-Ellis reunion, which would be interesting because this is the partnership that seemed to almost shackle Josi in the first half of the season. Perhaps it had nothing to do with chemistry and more to do with early-season rust. Knowing Hynes at this point, it seems that a Josi-Ellis pair would be right in line with how he wants his defensive unit to look.

The second pair would then be completely remodeled under this scenario, leaving Carrier to get paired probably with Harpur based on minutes played. Harpur averages just over 17 minutes a game, ranking fourth among the “remaining” Predators in this scenario, and is a natural fit alongside Carrier within the framework of roster players.

Another remodeling is required for the third pair, but I can see Borowiecki being locked in with Benning again. This has been Hynes’ preferred third pair for most of the season, so it feels inevitable that he would reunite these two again. This pair did not average many minutes through the games they have been paired for, averaging nearly half the time on ice as the top pair. Unfortunately, this scenario leaves Davies once again on the outside looking in.

Scenario 4: Nobody Gets Traded

This feels unlikely but is now a feasible possibility with Nashville back in the thick of the playoff race. If this happens I think Hynes resorts back to his original defensive pairs across the board.

Josi-Ellis seems inevitable in any circumstance in which either Fabbro or Ekholm stay on the roster, and the latter two were merely a functional second pair before Ekholm got injured early in the season. Fabbro has improved leaps and bounds since then, and in a few games with Ekholm as the top pair while Josi and Ellis were both injured, looked very good. Both Ekholm and Fabbro have top-pair potential, so this could be a very comfortable second unit to alleviate some of the pressure from the dynamic top pair.

Juuse Saros Mark Borowiecki Nick Foligno
Nick Foligno of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Mark Borowiecki and Juuse Saros of the Nashville Predators (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

I’ve already outlined the Borowiecki-Benning pair above, and while this scenario creates Hynes’ preferred defensive pairs throughout much of the season, it does come with its downsides. For example, Harpur and Carrier would both be left out of this scenario, leaving a lot of talent in the press box. Both have looked really solid over their tenure in the lineup, and it would be a shame to see one of them as the odd man out, let alone both of them.

While only time (and Poile) can control what happens with the Predators’ roster moving forward, there’s no question that Ellis returning to the lineup will create an inevitable overpopulation of the blue line unit. Considering where the defensive corps was only a few weeks ago, with Josi, Ellis, Ekholm and Borowiecki all out of the lineup, this is an incredible problem for Nashville to have, especially now in the midst of a heated Central Division playoff race.

Do you have any preferred defensive pairs you have liked or would like to see as the schedule winds down? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!