Predators’ Recent Struggles Highlight Need for Defensive Depth

The month of January started tremendously for the Nashville Predators, winning five consecutive games during a span that included games against the Vegas Golden Knights, Los Angeles Kings, and Colorado Avalanche. Those teams are all in the mix for playoff positioning, much like the Predators. The run propelled them into the top spot in not only the Central Division but the Western Conference. As the saying goes, “What goes up must come down,” and Nashville’s recent struggles have brought them to a crashing thud.

In just a matter of three games, the Predators have gone 0-2-1 and have been leapfrogged by the Avalanche and St. Louis Blues, dropping them to third in the division. Losses to the Blues, Boston Bruins, and Buffalo Sabres have left many questioning what has gone wrong, specifically on the blue line. The team managed seven goals during that span, have seen contributions from all four lines, and welcomed Filip Forsberg back after he missed the previous four games.

Ekholm and Fabbro Absences Felt

The biggest hurdle that the Predators have had to overcome is the absence of both Mattias Ekholm and Dante Fabbro. Ekholm was added to the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol on Jan. 15, forcing him out of the last two games against the Bruins and the Blues. Fabbro, who made his return from COVID-19 protocol, was injured in the game against the Bruins on Jan. 15, and he did not return for the third period of that game. He is currently considered week-to-week with an upper-body injury. In their absences, Nashville has leaned on depth defensemen Ben Harpur and Philippe Myers to fill the void.

Mattias Ekholm Nashville Predators
Mattias Ekholm, Nashville Predators (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Despite an uncharacteristic start to the season for Ekholm, he had begun to turn things around towards the end of 2021 and into the new year. Logging between 22-27 minutes per night, he was starting to find his groove, playing more physical, positionally sound, and chipping in offensively from time to time. It was monumental to the team’s surge up the NHL standings, and Ekholm’s confidence started to blossom, both with and without the puck. Fabbro stepped into a full-time role during the 2019-20 season and has become a stabilizing presence in the Predators’ three-pairing rotation. Whether he plays top-pairing minutes with Roman Josi or fills in on the bottom pair with Matt Borowiecki, he continues to flourish at every situation he’s put into.

Related: Blues Can’t Afford to Get in on Jakob Chychrun Sweepstakes

Unfortunately, the team has had to rely on their depth defensemen which have shown signs of being susceptible to defensive gaffs, exposure in high-danger chances, and gap control upon zone entries. While Harpur’s ability to step up for downed teammates is refreshing, the remainder of his game leaves much to be desired. Against the Blues on Jan. 18, he often lost his assignment and appeared confused, leading to scoring chances against. Myers’ role is primarily on the bottom pair with Borowiecki, and the tandem can cause chaos with their bone-rattling body checks but hemmed in their own zone, and the duo is left exposed. Benning has given an honest effort in a top-4 role, but his increased workload has confirmed that he’s better served as a sixth or seventh defenseman on a good Predators team.

Third Period Scoring Woes Continue

As a team with an immense amount of talent, the Predators have had problems closing out third periods with the same effort and persistence they showed in the previous two. Their top-six is among the best in the west, their third line consisting of Colton Sissons, Yakov Trenin, and Tanner Jeannot has come up big, and they’ve depended on the back-end efforts of Josi all season, yet the team has been out-scored 45-38 in the final frame. The differential may not seem too concerning at first glance, but the glaring issues go beyond.

Colton Sissons, Jonathan Quick
Nashville Predators center Colton Sissons watches for the puck as it slides past Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Known to get off to slow starts on most nights, Nashville has out-scored the opposition 37-26 in the opening frame, despite a close 379-378 shot differential in favor of the opposition. In the second period, they tend to take control of possession, out-shooting the opposition 412-407 and out-scoring them 40-33. The first 40 minutes of the game, statistically, are when the Predators build up a lead, force errors in the neutral zone, and clog up passing lanes when defending. It’s the final 20 minutes where they are outshot 414-341, which is often due to a team defending a lead. In Nashville’s case, this appears to be the trend, however, they’re also limiting their own chances at an aggressive counter-strike, which has been something head coach John Hynes has focused on.

On Jan. 17, in a 5-3 loss to the Blues, the Predators faced a two-goal deficit heading into the final 20 minutes. A timely goal from Trenin reduced the lead to a goal but couldn’t capitalize on some high-danger chances in the final five minutes of the game. Despite the late push, Brayden Schenn would score his second of the game to regain their two-goal lead with 2:35 remaining in the game, ultimately putting an abrupt end to any late-game heroics.

Potential Trade Targets Could Help Depth

The late-period goal from Schenn, along with the efforts against the Bruins and Sabres, have introduced general manager David Poile to a problem that was heavily masked by his potent offense and the stellar play of Josi; the depth on the blue-line isn’t what it was all cracked out to be. With both Ekholm and Fabbro side-lined, the team has looked weak on the back-end, specifically when implementing Hynes’ rush-based attacks, which utilize the defense pinching up. As the mid-season point approaches, the trade deadline soon follows, and it gives Poile a prime opportunity to bolster his defense and make a push for the team’s first Stanley Cup in their 22-season franchise.

Related: 5 Canadiens Who Should Be Moved at the 2022 Trade Deadline

Perhaps one of the biggest pieces on the defensive side is Montreal Canadiens’ blue-liner Ben Chiarot. The 30-year-old, 6-foot-3 defenseman is in the final year of his three-year deal, and he’s playing on the league’s worst team. Newly-named general manager Kent Hughes will be busy with phone calls at the trade deadline and the weeks leading up to it, and one of the names he’ll get the most inquiries about is Chiarot. The Predators could use his stability in their top four, potentially pairing up with Ekholm and allowing Fabbro to be utilized in a lesser role, and giving the team a consistent three pairs. His presence on the penalty kill would be a much-welcomed asset, with the Predators’ current penalty kill sitting in 12th (81.2%). The cost may prove to be too much for Poile, as Chiarot should return a package starting with a first-round pick and a prospect.

Ben Chiarot Montreal Canadiens
Ben Chiarot, Montreal Canadiens (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Another option is 39-year-old Mark Giordano, who is also in the final year of his contract and is a pending unrestricted free agent. Giordano joined the Seattle Kraken during their expansion draft and has been one of the team’s better players, but the expansion struggles have hit Seattle, and the team has plummeted to the near-bottom of their conference. If Nashville acquires someone like him, it could cost them their first-round pick and potentially another asset or two. General manager Ron Francis isn’t shy to play hardball when it comes to netting a return he deems acceptable, and there is no doubt multiple teams will be calling for the veteran’s services. It is worth noting that Giordano has a 19-team trade list.

Should the Predators fall out of the running for names like Chiarot and Giordano, and the higher-rated names like John Klingberg and Jakob Chychrun fetch behemoth-sized returns, there are still a few options remaining. Names like Brett Kulak and Travis Dermott stand out as viable options for different reasons. Like his teammate in Chiarot, Kulak is playing on a team set to rebuild after a disastrous season. Unlike Chiarot, however, Kulak won’t cost nearly as much and is still a complimentary piece to a team in need of an upgrade. Dermott, who plays for one of the league’s best in the Toronto Maple Leafs, might become a casualty of a team figuring out their salary cap. Should Toronto seek to move the 25-year-old, he could be acquired for no more than a draft pick.

The date of March 21 is likely circled on Poile’s calendar, but a trade could happen before that if he feels the Predators need that extra push to keep afloat in the Central Division. Battling the likes of the Avalanche and Blues is no easy task, and with the Minnesota Wild knocking, it may only be a matter of time. The Predators have some problems they need to iron out, otherwise, it may force their general manager’s hand into making some changes.

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