Perhaps the biggest question surrounding the Nashville Predators heading into this season was how they would replace Ryan Suter on defense. We all knew it would take a committee-style approach to backfilling the 26 minutes a night that Suter contributed, but who would have guessed that the committee would have 7 members instead of 6?
For the last three games, Barry Trotz has dressed an extra defenseman, which has not only given Jonathon Blum a chance to get on the ice, but has also perhaps made better use of this group collectively. Even though some guys may not be getting the 20 minutes a night they'd prefer, this alignment seems to allow Trotz to use each defenseman to the best of his ability.
Take a look at the following chart, which lays out the total ice time per game for each Preds blueliner (click for a bigger version):
The bottom line is that since no single guy can replace Suter's all-around effectiveness, we see a number of players being used in very specific roles.
- Hal Gill is the penalty-killing specialist, getting 3rd-pair minutes at Even Strength.
- Jonathon Blum is the opposite of Gill, getting in some Power Play work and marginal even-strength time, but not a second on the PK.
- Kevin Klein is the right-side PK leader, and faces a steady diet of Top Six competition at even strength as well.
- Roman Josi has taken the biggest hit since the shift was made to go with 7 D, as his Even Strength ice time has dropped by about 5 minutes per game.
- Ryan Ellis has also seen his EV ice time dip by about 4 minutes, but he and Josi are also major figures on the Power Play.
- Scott Hannan has recently stepped up onto the top Even Strength pair alongside Shea Weber, but the only increase in his ice time (about a minute per game) has been due to increased Penalty Killing work of late.
- Shea Weber, as always, is soaking up minutes in all key situations.
What we see is that Jon Blum's opportunity to play is coming at the expense of Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis, but that's not at all a bad thing. Nashville is famously patient with the development of their young defensemen, and as long as the players are comfortable with the amount of work they're getting, this is probably the best way to make use of a group of specialists.
For example, you generally like to have four offensively capable blueliners to man your power play. Weber, Josi and Ellis are obvious choices, but Gill, Hannan or Klein? Not so much, so Blum adds a dimension that keeps both power play units humming along.
Similarly, on the penalty kill you have Weber & Klein on the right side, alongside Gill & Hannan, who are more suited to such work than Josi, Blum or Ellis are at this point.
To fill 8 primary special teams roles on defense (4 PP, 4 PK), you have only one guy (Shea Weber) who you'd really feel comfortable filling two of them. Until someone steps up and demonstrates that they can provide that kind of all-around effectiveness (likely candidates being Josi on the PK, or Klein on the PP), Barry Trotz might be best served to keep dressing 7 defensemen for quite a while.