Thanks to some fantastic drafting and some shrewd business moves by the Nashville Predators, their defensive corps is one of the envies of the league.
Captained by Shea Weber, the up-and-comers Roman Josi, Seth Jones, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis are not so up-and-coming anymore. They have all had several seasons under their belts and have developed into some incredible young defensemen. Even better? They still have more growing to do.
Nashville should have one of the highest scoring backends in the league this year, if it isn't number one. But they'll also make life for opposing forwards a nightmare, and should make Pekka Rinne's job a whole lot easier. As the year starts, there's only two words to describe these guys: Get Hype.
As heralded as Nashville's blue line is, it doesn't have much in the way of NHL-ready depth beyond the main roster. Not that it's a pressing issue, because even if there were players challenging for roster spots, there would be nowhere for them to go. It's something to keep an eye on, though. If multiple injuries should occur, Nashville may be plugging in career 7th defensemen and guys with hardly any experience.
Anthony Bitetto saw seven games with the big club last year and may be the first go-to call ups again. His ceiling is likely bottom pair at best. 21-year-old mountain Jonathan-Ismael Diaby should get a solid look in training camp, though he may still be a year or so away from being given an opportunity to make his mark.
The Preds also signed Kristian Nakyva to a one-year, entry-level deal last April, and he'll spend the year getting used to North America. If it goes well, (he had plenty of success overseas) Nakyva could be looking at signing for a couple more years.
Don't expect many minor league call ups this year. If there are multiple players being brought up for extended stays, it means injury has decimated the Nashville defense, and there are bigger problems to worry about.
As a hockey player, Bartley has shown us everything there is to see. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, is strictly a judgement call. The 27-year-old from Ottawa has spent the better part of the last three years stepping into the final defense spot, depending on injury and coaches decisions. He does a mostly adequate job of that, not standing out as better or worse than any other fringe defenseman.
On a healthy roster he's bound for the press box and, no offense to him, that's the hope for majority of the season. He'll get his minutes in at some point, but as a pending free agent, it may be time to start giving some other internal options a quick looks as well.
We've already covered in depth what the former St. Louis Blue can bring with him to Nashville. While it still remains to be determined in training camp, on paper Jackman is a virtual lock to play with Jones. The textbook definition of a grizzled veteran, Jackman will provide another dynamic in the locker room, help bring along the budding defensive stars, and be a solid rock on the back end.
The signing should pay dividends for Nashville, and Jackman is a (knock on wood) reliably healthy player, whom you can just about set your watch for about 14 points every year.
Ekholm is going to feel every eye in Nashville burning into the back of his jersey this year. The soon-to-be RFA has spent the last couple of years blossoming into a fantastic and underrated player. His on-ice partnership with Ryan Ellis is almost a perfect match, and the two were tasked with some big assignments last year after being sheltered early.
With the contracts that Ellis and Josi signed, Ekholm's is going to be curious to see this saga develop. Unless the plan is to trade him for pieces that Nashville is still lacking, the organization should make every effort to re-sign him. The growth he's shown from the days of Barry Trotz calling him "horrible, just horrible" is immense. I mean:
Expectations (for better or for worse) should be high for the Swede this year. Not in the sense that he should be blowing up the scoreboard every night, because he won't. But he should exceed with his deployment and lay it all on the line in a contract year.
This time last year Ellis was still an unsigned RFA who missed the first part of training camp. Of course, that delay resulted in a five-year deal with an AAV of an extremely team-friendly $2.5 million. The way he played throughout the season, that contract looks like an absolute steal for Nashville.
Virtually every player that stepped foot on the ice with Ellis performed better than when they were apart, and he and Ekholm feasted on the offensive zone starts Laviolette gave them. However, those cushy assignments evened out as the season got older and coach leaned on them more and more.
Ellis has become a possession dynamo, and for long stretches of the season he was the best on the team. Even better than wunderkind Colin Wilson. Despite missing significant time to a lower-body injury, Ellis still managed to match his career-high point total in 22 fewer games.
He will likely see the same type of role again this year. If he can stay healthy, there's no reason not to believe Ellis will shatter his previous production benchmarks, and he an Ekholm will be one of the best 2nd defense tandems in the league.
This may be the breakout year for Seth Jones.
He'll turn 21 right before the season starts, and has had two seasons to adjust to life in the NHL and learn his role on the team. Jones has had his fair share of groan-inducing growing pains, but they've always been layered under jaw-dropping skating and some highlight reel goals here and there.
Game of Jones
Game of Jones
Lavy gave the world a glimpse of Jones' future with how he used him during the series against the Blackhawks. In the absence of Weber, Jones was vaulted to the top pair, and skated huge minutes against the eventual Stanley Cup champions. It shouldn't have been a surprise, as he stepped up and succeeded when both Ellis and Ekholm lost time on the injured list.
Given the hype preceding his draft, there were certainly some expectations for him to immediately produce. Those may have been a too little lofty, though. Not everyone can be Aaron Ekblad. Notching 25 and 27 points to start a career may not seem like much, but consider Roman Josi scored 16 and 18 points in his first two before exploding for 40 in his third year.
Jones is already suppressing shots (and helping send them on the other net) at the rate of a top-pair defenseman. He's just waiting for his point totals to match up with all the other tools he has. As one of the the big RFAs this year, it wouldn't be a stretch to expect a huge year.
Every so often on this website, a nugget of actual honest-to-goodness intelligence rears its head, whether intentionally or not. Over a year ago, after what seemed like an emergence season for Josi, we had this to say about his best case scenario for 2014-15:
He builds off his impressive performance last year, scoring in the neighborhood of 50-60 points, while continuing to be a mainstay on the power play. Even gets some serious chatter about being a Norris Trophy dark horse. Josi would never get nominated, of course, but maybe one or two smart people give him a vote anyway.
Now the conversation has drifted away from "can he continue?" and has entered the realm of "is he (going to be) better than Weber?" Obviously it's too early to really answer that question, but the fact it's being asked is a testament to Josi's development.
Josi does get shelled with shots (whether they're on goal or attempts), which is still probably a symptom of eating tons of defensive zone starts against the oppositions top lines. But he produces at an insane rate and is now entering his prime years. If Nashville's power play is any sort of competent in 2015-16, it's he could crack 60 points.
Once again, he'll be tasked with the toughest assignments and the biggest minutes. Since 2012, only four players have skated more minutes on average than Josi: Ryan Suter, Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson and Shea Weber. Get used to #59, because you're going to be seeing a ton of him for then next several years.
This has been a hot-button topic for most of the summer. Some would say the captain (now in his third decade) has passed his most productive years. That of course leads to talk about shipping him out for a hefty haul. All of that has been discussed at length and in circles, and isn't relevant here.
The fact of the matter is Weber is still the Predators' top defenseman, and he will be until he isn't anymore. Nashville has relied on him for so long, because it was just him and The Tall Guy That Stops the Puck. They were the only superstars on the team. He'll always be revered in Music City because of that, no matter if he loses a bit of luster because of analytics.
But no longer does he have to score 20 goals and 60 points for the Preds to have a chance of succeeding. There are new and talented forwards that can replace any loss of production. He doesn't even have to be the best defenseman anymore, because there are two guys right behind him with 1D potential.
In a few years, age will catch up with him and Weber will find himself falling on the depth chart. But for now, he'll still skate 25 minutes a night against the best the league has to offer. He'll do it with no emotion, and back it up with his sonic boom of a slap shot. Predicting a "return to form" this year might be a little bit too much. But if we set his point total at 45 this year, would you take the over?
This defense may just be the deepest in the league, with apologies to Calgary. They are going to score a bunch of goals, assist on a ton more, and help Pekka Rinne keep pucks out of the net.
It's still a very young group, but they've already been around the block a time or two. Josi, Jones, Ekholm and Ellis are only going to get better from here.