When I consider the Predators' chances at a deep playoff run, the defensemen really give me pause. The forwards, as presently constructed, aren't an impressive bunch--a banged-up, hodgepodge of weird line combinations. But they're not supposed to be a strength of this team. The Predators--as a team, a system, and a franchise--rely on their defensemen. And while the top pair remains absolutely peerless, the remaining four leave a lot to be desired. Talent can always be better. Maybe, though, usage is equally to blame. Trotz has either overestimated or misevaluated the talent of his defense corps. And in so doing, has forced a dated template on a new and different group.
The Status Quo
I covered a lot of this ground in a prior post, but it bears repeating, as people still defend Klein and Bouillon dogmatically.
The above stats pretty succinctly illustrate the talent and usage of the Predators' defenseman this season. In this table, the players are ranked by the quality of competition they face--with Weber and Suter being a clear 1-2, Klein solidly #3, Bouillon and Sulzer close at 4-5, O'Brien a step down, and Franson clearly the most babied. OZone%--another measure of usage--shows the % of times the player takes a draw in the offensive, as opposed to defensive, zone. Corsi rating, for the uninitiated, is like a plus/minus for shots. As it's expressed in the table, it's average difference per 60 minutes.
This season, arguably the Predators' biggest weakness has been its second defense pairing, which typically draws the opponent's best forwards for the first two periods, before taking a back seat to Suter/Weber in the third. The fundamental failing of the Predators' management this off-season was deciding Francis Bouillon could replace Dan Hamhuis. Granted, they probably didn't think he would completely replace Hamhuis, but even trying amounted to a surefire losing-bet. Bouillon played just decently in Bounty-soft 3rd line minutes last year.
I understand why the Predators like Bouillon so much. He's tough and vocal on the ice, and great in the dressing room. He can hit and fight. In many ways that appease fans and coaches, he's the anti-Dan Hamhuis. But he also is in one unfortunate way--he can't run with tough competition. He simply lacks the tools to consistently challenge the puck-carrier.
Kevin Klein has his own problems. Greg Zanon-Dan Hamhuis survived on the strength of Hamhuis' puck-moving ability. Who's the puck-mover in the Klein/Bouillon partnership? Klein panics nearly every time the puck is on his stick (and so do I). Hamhuis was a "jack of all trades, master of none." Kevin Klein is a jack of no trades, master of only his domain. "He faces top competition" is a perfectly valid (and conceded) argument as to why Klein is better than he seems. It doesn't change the reality, however, that the team, in its current configuration, sucks when he's on the ice.
Most fans have a hard time conceding the culpability of the second-pairing for the Predators' defensive-woes. After all, Klein and Bouillon were a positive +/- together, at the beginning of the season. Those stats, however, are entirely flukey. Klein and Bouillon just happened to be on the ice for an unusually high number of goals scored.
Shots-prevented is the truest measure of defense and these two hemorrhage shots. Every study on the subject concludes defensemen do not appreciably alter shot quality. Besides, to argue that Kevin Klein, who semi-regularly let's an opponent drive straight to the blue paint, is unique among all NHL defenseman in his ability to limit shot-quality, is a great laugh.
In all fairness to Barry Trotz, the usage of his defenseman has changed a bit with the personnel over the years. In '07-08, Ryan Suter and Shea Weber were used closest to how Sulzer has been this season, exposed to tough forwards, but protected in many situations. Dan Hamhuis' excellent play as a shut-down defenseman allowed Trotz the flexibility to slowly assimilate the young stars. In '08-09, Hamhuis stayed on the shutdown-pairing with Zannon, and while they weren't that great, Weber/Suter turned in a monster two-way performance (30 goals, 98 total points).
The 2009-2010 season saw Weber and Suter take on the tough minutes and the two-way responsibility. Cody Franson got partnered with a veteran (Bouillon) to take advantage of his offensive ability in 3rd-line minutes. And Hamhuis, despite his non-existent chemistry with Klein, managed to keep it all together, by soaking up a lot of tough minutes.
Now Weber and Suter take both Hamhuis' defensive responsibility and drive the offense like they did in 2008. They literally almost do everything. O'Brien and Franson do fine as a third-pairing. And if one of Klein or Bouillon were just half the player Hamhuis was, we'd really have something here.
Interestingly, though, when Bouillon suffered a concussion, Trotz made another small change that has paid huge dividends. He started using Klein-Sulzer as the shutdown pairing, but favored Klein-O'Brien on defensive faceoffs and Sulzer-Franson on offensive faceoffs. This little change, combined with Sulzer's ability to move the puck, made the bottom pairings much more dynamic. Unfortunately, the team's clear favoring of Bouillon over Sulzer probably makes these improvements only temporary. But I want to take them even further.
Problem and Solution
In the simplest terms, the Predators stuck with their '09-'10 defensive model, because they thought they had two able defensive defenseman on the roster. David Poile's drafting strategy, however, has shifted the organizational talent vastly toward offensive defenseman. I'm proposing the following steps:
1. Split up Weber and Suter, at least for the first two periods of every game.
2. Scratch Bouillon every game.
3. Pinch like crazy; regularly send four on the rush.
1. O'Brien (L) Weber (R)
2. Suter (L) Klein (R)
3. Sulzer (L) Franson (R)
O'Brien-Weber and Suter-Klein can more equitably split the shut-down duties in the first two periods, allowing Suter and Weber to take more offensive risk. O'Brien and Weber establish a crushing physical presence, wearing down the opponent's top lines. Weaker competition and O'Brien's willingness to make high-risk, cross-ice passes, opens up shooting lanes for Shea.
Suter makes Klein look better in the defensive zone and gives Klein a puck-moving teammate without Sulzer's defensive shortcomings.
Franson and Sulzer rekindle their chemistry as Milwaukee's top power-play unit with little defensive responsibility.
By abandoning the shutdown-pairing, the team can find more offensive consistency and more closely mirror the forwards, who, when healthy, don't really have a strict checking-line anymore. This system would also allow the team to seamlessly graduate Josi and Blum next season:
My goal here is: A. raise awareness among fans of the current paradigm's problems and B. start a discussion about the future of a defense-first organization that is loaded with offense-first defenseman.
I don't think the Predators would ever go for my plan. If Bouillon returns, though, and Trotz immediately reverts to the opening-night pairings, the team will be worse much off. Trotz needs to keep Sulzer in the lineup, or short of that, at least find ways to put more responsibility on Weber and Suter, and less on Bouillon-Klein.