Budget constraints are a way of life with the Nashville Predators, and given the likely departure of high-salary blueliners like Dan Hamhuis and Denis Grebeshkov via free agency, what does that mean for the Preds' defense in 2010-11?
After the jump let's take a look and see what it looks like...
#6 / Defenseman / Nashville Predators
Aug 14, 1985
2010-11 Salary: $4.5 million
|2009 - Shea Weber||78||16||27||43||0||36||7||0||3||0||222||7.2|
#20 / Defenseman / Nashville Predators
Jan 21, 1985
2010-11 Salary: $3.5 million
|2009 - Ryan Suter||82||4||33||37||4||48||2||0||1||0||125||3.2|
#8 / Defenseman / Nashville Predators
Dec 13, 1984
2010-11 Salary: $1.35 million
|2009 - Kevin Klein||81||1||10||11||-13||27||0||0||0||0||67||1.5|
#52 / Defenseman / Nashville Predators
May 30, 1984
2010-11 Salary: $700,000
|2009 - Alexander Sulzer||20||0||2||2||4||0||0||0||0||0||15||0.0|
Weber & Suter are obviously top-caliber defenseman, while Kevin Klein struggled at times in a Top 4 role alongside Dan Hamhuis. Given his new 3-year contract, I'm guessing that Klein will get another shot at playing major ice time again this fall, while Sulzer's status is likely as a 3rd-pair/healthy scratch option.
Needing New Contracts
#51 / Defenseman / Nashville Predators
Oct 17, 1975
2009-10 Salary: $750,000
|2009 - Francis Bouillon||81||3||8||11||5||50||1||0||1||0||86||3.5|
#32 / Defenseman / Nashville Predators
Aug 08, 1987
2009-10 Salary: $525,000
|2009 - Cody Franson||61||6||15||21||15||16||1||0||3||0||90||6.7|
Francis Bouillon did pretty much everything one could ask for in filling Greg Zanon's old role, and should be resigned before July 1. Pencil him in on the 3rd-pair at even strength, and lots of PK work. If someone higher on the depth chart gets injured, Bouillon can fill in admirably as a stopgap.
Cody Franson is a restricted free agent, and put up excellent numbers in relatively limited ice time - the key there is that Barry Trotz put him in position to succeed. Looking at Behind the Net numbers, for example, Franson's impact on Goals For & Against in 5-on-5 play was tops on the Nashville defense, but he had the most favorable teammates on the ice with him, and faced the cushiest opposition.
The next step for Franson is keeping up the production while taking a step forward as an NHL regular, which is by no means guaranteed. After all, During the 2007-8 season another young defenseman put in a very similar performance to Franson's, with 17 points in 48 games. In the two years since, Ville Koistinen has only managed 45 games at the NHL level, and couldn't crack the Florida lineup after Thanksgiving.
Assuming new contracts for Bouillon and Franson, that leaves the Preds with 6 legitimate NHL defensemen, but perhaps with a gap in the Top 4 category. Suter & Weber are locks, but between Bouillon, Klein and Franson there's a bit of risk assuming that your second pairing is all set.
Special teams is another area of concern. There's room to give Cody Franson more ice time on the power play, but a proven PP quarterback could solve an ongoing problem for Nashville. The PK is likely set with Bouillon, Klein, Suter & Weber getting the bulk of the action.
With pricey free agents off the menu, you're looking at guys like Teemu Laakso and perhaps Jonathan Blum getting some work with the Preds next season. Blum is drawing solid reviews for his professional and physical development, and might well make an impact in the Black & Blue this fall.
Expecting Ryan Ellis to make the jump from junior hockey to the NHL is probably a bit much, even with his superb resutls, so plan on him spending next season in Milwaukee.
One idea I'd like to see investigated would be to break up the Suter/Weber pairing on a regular basis, and allow each to anchor one of the top two pairings, going with a lineup like Klein/Weber, Suter/Franson, Bouillon/Sulzer. Often coaches prefer to match a lefty & righty defensemen within a given pair, which would yield something different like Bouillon/Weber, Suter/Klein, Sulzer/Franson.
In a pinch, you can always reunite Suter & Weber as needed, but perhaps having one of them on the ice for 35-40 minutes a game might serve Nashville better than having them both out there together for 20-25.