With the Nashville Predators continuing their "two steps forward, two steps back" dance near the bottom of the Central Division standings, it has become clear that the formula being used this season is not a winning one. Just as I feared in the wake of the free agency signings, "Harder To Play Against ≠ Harder to Beat". Yes, at times this looks like a typically gritty, hard-working Preds team, but the odd defensive gaffe and familiar lack of scoring leave them on the losing end of the scoreboard more often than not, and injuries have exposed a lack of experienced depth on defense.
What can be done about it at this point?
Unfortunately, not a heck of a lot, absent a blockbuster "Jack Johnson for Jeff Carter" type of trade that gives the roster an injection of talent. Instead, we must look to the players already available, and consider whether they might be utilized better. I noted in last night's recap my disdain for rolling out the Paul Gaustad line to open games and periods (something I'll dig into separately), but there's potential on the blueline to squeeze more production out of this lineup as well.
Seth Jones, Olympian?
In professional sports, when you can't sell success, you sell hope, and we're getting plenty of that this fall with the hype around Seth Jones. Much of this, of course, is completely understandable - his pedigree is fascinating, he appears to have all the tools to make a great pro, and he combines the typically understated demeanor of a hockey player with a refreshing dose of personality.
We have to remember that he's still just 19 years old, however, and casting him as a leading presence on a competitive NHL team is premature at best. If that's not enough, David Poile has quite publicly pumped up Jones's candidacy to play for Team USA at the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
The estimable Tyler Dellow weighed in briefly on this issue on Twitter yesterday afternoon, throwing cold water on the notion that Jones is already a star-quality NHL player:
Seth Jones October Corsi%: 50.9% (really good for a teenager!) Seth Jones November Corsi%: 41.7% (really good for a teenaged Ryan Whitney!)— mc79hockey (@mc79hockey) December 3, 2013
Leaving the Olympic question aside for now, my concern is how ice time is getting doled out on the Nashville defense, and the fact that Ryan Ellis waits for scraps to fall from the table while the rookie Jones gets all he can handle, and then some. This season, Ellis is playing just over 13.5 minutes per game, the lowest of his 3-year career, while Jones ranks 32nd in the league at 23:42.
The problem is, Ellis' performance screams for more ice time, while Jones appears to be faltering under the strain.
Consider the following comparison of the two young blueliners this season (prior to last night's Vancouver game), stitching together conventional data with Quality of Competition, Quality of Teammates, 5-on-5 Points per 60 Minutes and Relative Corsi numbers from Extra Skater:
|Player||GP||TOI/GM||QualComp||QualTeam||Goals||Assists||5-on-5 Pts/60||Corsi Rel|
|Ryan Ellis||25||13:39||135th||133rd||1||7||1.27 (11th)||+5.3% (12th)|
|Seth Jones||27||23:43||38th||59th||3||6||0.49 (100th)||-0.7% (84th)|
|QualComp, QualTeam, 5-on-5 Pts/60 & Corsi Rel ranked out of 137 NHL defensemen w/22 Games Played|
Ellis is piling up points at a prodigious rate in 5-on-5 play, which is supported by stellar possession numbers - quite simply, the Predators are doing better in the shots battle during his ice time, and the goals are following as well. Yes, those results are coming against relatively soft competition, but that's an argument in favor of letting him wade out into deeper waters, and play with stronger teammates.
Those numbers aren't a fluke, either - he's put up outstanding puck possession results in each of the last two seasons. Ellis is a proven commodity as a puck mover, and is capable of providing the kind of jump start that the league's 24th-ranked offense can use more often.
Jones is certainly faring well in his first NHL campaign - but not to the extent that he needs to be force fed Ryan Suter-like levels of work at the expense of capable alternatives.
Is Ellis the consummate all-around NHL defenseman? Of course not, he's prone to getting out-muscled given his diminutive stature, but he makes up for it in other ways. Put frankly, I don't care how he looks when he gets beat, as the result is no different than someone losing track of an opposing forward or making an ill-advised outlet pass that gets picked off.
If Ellis coughs up an extra scoring chance defensively each game, but creates two offensively, I'll take that trade happily - and that, in a nutshell, is what his results over three seasons tell us is happening. There may be some moments that make you want to pull your hair out, but on balance, the good outweighs the bad.
Since Kevin Klein is on the shelf for at least the next two weeks, there is an ample amount of ice time available on the right side of the defense, and Ryan Ellis should receive a healthy portion of it. Even if some among the Predators' leadership aren't true believers in his ability to handle the load, it would be good for them to see how he handles it, considering the fact that he's in the final year of his current contract.
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