Unless you’ve been completely disconnected from hockey news this offseason you will know that the Nashville Predators finally secured Matt Duchene, general manager David Poile’s white whale if you will. All the Predators’ talk this summer has been analyzing the addition of Duchene and examining the best fit for the all-star forward.
However, what has somewhat been brushed under the rug was the other additions the Predators made. Steven Santini was acquired via the P.K. Subban trade, in essence, the prelude deal for the Duchene signing. The Predators also acquired Jeremy Davies in the trade. However, Davies most recently played for Northeastern University and will most likely kick off his pro career with the Milwaukee Admirals. On July 1, the Predators signed Daniel Carr to a one-year, $700,000 contract for the 2019-20 season.
Related: Seven Things About P.K. Subban
New Faces in Town
So, who are these new additions and what can they bring to the Predators? Let’s focus on Santini.
Santini was originally drafted by the New Jersey Devils in the second round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. The Mahopac, New York native made his NHL debut on Apr. 9, 2016, against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Santini has bounced between the NHL and AHL level, seemingly struggling to gain a firm grasp on a full-time NHL gig. However, his inconsistent playing time is not necessarily an indication of the 24-year-old’s play.
Heading into the 2018-19 season, Santini had high hopes that he would finally be able to make his mark and become a permanent fixture in the NHL. Unfortunately, during his first game of the season against the Philadelphia Flyers, Santini was struck by the puck and suffered a broken jaw, resulting in him missing 18 games.
As Predators fans know all too well, when it comes to injuries it can be hard for players to jump straight back into the lineup without experiencing rust or looking a step behind. This was the case with Santini, being a bottom-four defenseman, it was difficult to crack the lineup again after missing so much time.
But, those tough times are behind him and Santini can look forward to competing for a job with the Predators. With Nashville having one of the most talented and deep blue lines in the league, it’s fair to say that the competition Santini is about to face will be far more fierce than what he might be used to.
However, a spot on the third defensive pairing is certainly up for grabs as Predators’ head coach, Peter Laviolette, has not committed to a consistent third paring for some time. Yannick Weber and Matt Irwin have been competing for minutes for the past three seasons. Both players offer something different with their style of play, Weber is smoother puck mover, while Irwin is better known for his physical style.
Santini has been described as someone who can carry the puck, but also play that physical style when needed. The Predators lost a lot of flair from their blue line when Subban was dealt, a style that would be hard to replicate if you had your pick of every defenseman in the league. Although less exciting, Santini was awarded NCAA (Hockey East) Best Defensive Defenseman for the 2015-16 season, which may mean fewer breakaways and odd-man rushes given up, but also less spin-o-ramas.
Despite playing 114 NHL games, it seems that the former Boston College Eagle is still finding his way. Santini’s head coach, John Hynes provided this criticism of the young defenseman to Abbey Mastracco of northjersey.com, “He needs to get an identity, he needs to accept the identity he needs to play with,” Hynes said. “There needs to be a strong physical presence, shutdown D, tough along the wall, box out. A guy that the other teams don’t want to play against.” (from ‘NJ Devils’ Steven Santini trying to make the most of limited season, northjersey.com, 03/13/2019)
Let’s be honest, Santini was never brought in to put up jaw-dropping numbers – defensemen never are. Nor was he brought in to add an element that the Predators have been missing. He is, in essence, a piece that the one team willing to eat all of Subban’s salary was willing to give away, but of course, in the kindest way.
During his short, three year NHL career, Santini has recorded 21 points. He set his career high in 2017-18 when he scored 2 goals and added 8 assists for 10 points.
The offense from the back end is already there. Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm love to jump in the rush and get involved in the cycle, with Ryan Ellis being able to shoot the puck with the best of the best, that’s what they’re good at. Santini will not be relied on to do any more than just limiting his own mistakes, shutting down the opposing team’s third and fourth line, as best as possible, and not leaving Pekka Rinne or Jusse Saros out to dry. This is evident from what the Predators received from one veteran blueliner, who was regularly part of that third pairing last season, Dan Hamhuis.
The Predators never saw a single goal from Hamhuis last season and although he missed time with an injury, he never suffered the fate of losing his spot when he returned. Why? Because the coaching staff knew exactly what they were going to receive from him. Hamhuis was a great mentor to Dante Fabbro because he knew his defensive assignment every game and never deviated from it.
Hamhuis finished last season with a minus-two rating, but it’s his calming presence, as described by his mentee, Fabbro, that the Predators feel so comfortable with when he’s on the ice. The reliability and experience is a quality the player nicknamed “Hammer” brings every night and Santini needs to deliver his best asset, no matter how minor it may seem when compared to the talent comprising the top-four defense corps.
Hamhuis never tries to give you more than what he’s capable of or what is needed. He knows who the Predators have in their top-four and leaves the offensive, up-tempo, Laviolette-style of game to them. If Santini can understand that’s all that is being required from him, he could very well find himself patrolling the blue line with the 36-year-old Hamhuis on a nightly basis.
Santini will not be expected to produce a ton of points, although if he can chip in here and there it would certainly help. But, one of the Predators’ newest additions can learn from Hamhuis that less than 10 points is okay, he just needs to give the coaching staff a reason to put him in the starting lineup to keep him there. Developing that “identity” head coach Hynes criticized Santini for lacking will become crucial for him to sustain any sort of success while in the Music City.