Pundits across the league claimed the Nashville Predators had the best defensive unit entering this season. Roman Josi and Shea Weber headlined the first defensive pair, while Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, Barret Jackman and Seth Jones solidified the depth on the back-end.
Rarely do teams stay the same throughout the treacherous 82-game year, however.
Seth Jones was traded to Columbus Blue Jackets on Jan. 6 in exchange for Ryan Johansen. While the move was necessary, Predators general manager David Poile admitted it was difficult to give up the 21-year-old Jones.
Losing Jones allowed Mattias Ekholm to rise up in the depth chart, which he has done admirably. But an injury or two could essentially deplete Nashville’s once deep defense.
Ellis has missed the past two games with an “upper-body injury” and is listed as day-to-day after taking a puck to the ear from the stick of Dallas Stars Tuesday night.
— Mark Harris (@MCHisTweeting) March 30, 2016
Additionally, rookie Anthony Bitetto, who has played 26 games this season, has missed the last eight contests with a “lower-body injury.”
The Predators were forced to recall Stefan Elliott under emergency conditions from Milwaukee (AHL) prior to Thursday’s game versus the Pittsburgh Penguins.
That leaves Nashville’s defense as the following until Ellis returns: Josi-Weber, Ekholm-Granberg and Jackman-Elliott.
And that core looks a lot less intimidating than what the Predators had to begin the season.
Among Nashville defensemen this season, Ellis ranks third in time on ice per game with 20:49. Without Ellis in the lineup, much of that time has been allotted to Granberg, who logged his highest ice time in 15 games Thursday with 19:13.
Scoring has not been a major problem as of late for the Predators, which is a rarity for the franchise. Instead, it is the current depth at defense and inconsistency in net.
Pekka Rinne has been pulled in two of his last three starts and has posted a 5.41 goals-against average and a .839 save-percentage.
If Rinne is not going to be on his ‘A-game,’ than the defense has to be.
With the Stanley Cup Playoffs beginning in a little less than two weeks, Ellis’ return to the lineup is all the more important for the Predators.