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Close to return, Ellis and Bitetto provide stability to Nashville's defense

It doesn't seem like that sentence would've been uttered at the beginning of the 2015-16 season, but in reality it's a very accurate portrayal of how Nashville's defense works now.

Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Prior to Seth Jones being traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the deal that landed Nashville acclaimed center Ryan Johansen, the Predators boasted one of the most sound defensive corps across the NHL.

Even with the absence of Jones from the blue line, Nashville's defense is still pretty legit. With the likes of Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and even Barret Jackman, it'll continue to excel for the foreseeable future.

When looking back at the line pairings before the trade, the consistency almost made it a tad boring to even report what they were:

  • Weber and Josi
  • Ellis and Ekholm
  • Jones and Jackman or Volchenkov (this year and last year, respectively)

After Jones' departure, it was a bit subject to change on any given night -- depending on which of Anthony Bitetto or Petter Granberg was in the lineup. You'd either see Ellis paired with Jackman and Ekholm with Granberg or the usual Ekholm and Ellis combination alongside Jackman and Bitetto.

Each pairing has their obvious upside and downside, however Nashville should count its blessings for the defensive prowess that they have.

Seeing that Bitetto will likely return sometime in the final three games, if at all before the first round of the playoffs begin, it begs the question as to where the pairings needs to be when Nashville starts its journey towards the Stanley Cup.

Between Bitetto, Granberg and the freshly recalled Stefan Elliott, Bitetto has been the better of the trio -- and that doesn't really say all that much.

All three haven't really been that exciting to watch in the Predators lineup, but the team wasn't going to have six blazing defensemen for long if they wanted to succeed.

The reality, though, is that they've been making due for Nashville and that's exactly what's been needed. Granted, when you're trying to pick who's better between the aforementioned three, it's almost like trying to pick the best participant in a Kindergarten shoe-kicking contest.

Ultimately, if the Predators do plan on utilizing Bitetto for the playoffs, which entirely seems like the route they'll go if he's healthy enough to start, then the potential for reuniting Ellis and Ekholm against whoever their first opponent is gives Nashville a bit of a defensive boost after seeing the team take a few on the chin over the past week.

For starters, let's look at the current numbers for Ellis and Ekholm when paired with each other. After nearly 900 minutes played together this season, their goals forced per 60 minutes hovers near three (2.94) while goals allowed per 60 minutes is down at 2.07.

Corsi-wise, it's just as good. At 56.1 percent, the duo produced the best CorsiFor percentage of any pairing other than the Jackman/Jones pairing that will never again see the light of day -- assuming Jackman doesn't head for northern pastures in Columbus after his contract expires with Nashville -- and a pairing that we'll see below.

With Bitetto out of the line-up and Granberg jumbled into the lineup, the base numbers don't look especially wonderful for both Ellis and Ekholm:

Pairing GF60 GA60 CF60 CA60 CF%
Ellis/Jackman 1.12 1.49 56.04 38.85 59.1
Ekholm/Granberg 1.86 1.40 43.75 50.74 46.3

At first glance and while producing much less offensively than he was paired with Ekholm, Ellis slotting in with Jackman has yielded some fantastic possession results. 59.1 percent CorsiFor isn't anything to shake a stick at, those are numbers you likely see with some of Los Angeles' defensive pairings.

On the flip side, Ekholm takes an unbelievable dive off the top-rope into a smoldering pile of shots allowed. Luckily for Ekholm, he doesn't change defensive partners when both Bitetto and Ellis are out of the lineup.

This, however, isn't a small sample size for Ekholm and Granberg -- it's nearly 260 minutes worth of playing time together. The only other pairing for Ekholm to come close to that is his pairing with Ellis.

Ekholm hasn't looked particularly comfortable the last handful of games, either.

Against Dallas last Tuesday, outside of his brutal turnover that led to the opening marker, the Ekholm/Granberg pairing ended up with a positive Corsi score after the final horn.

The rest of the week wasn't very kind. The duo were increasingly victimized against Pittsburgh and then finished with an unfathomable -19 Corsi against the Sharks in Saturday night's shootout loss to the Sharks.

If you want to find an underlying reason why the Predators have played so poorly in the last handful of games, then you can presumably blame it on the defense, to an extent, being out of whack. Of course, it doesn't tell the entire story, but it definitely factors into Nashville's recent struggles.

As both Bitetto and Ellis are now on the mend, presumably entering back in the lineup hopefully sometime this week, I'd expect to see a fair progression on the defensive end as the final three games wind down the regular season.

This will also lead way to Ellis and Ekholm pairing back up for the foreseeable future. Understandably, this may be the only course of action for Nashville if they're wanting to make a deep run in the playoffs.

While Jackman seems to be able to hold his own with anyone, Ekholm seems to be at his best with Ellis. That's not a slight to him, but more of a push to make sure that the Predators at least hold two extremely strong defensive pairings rather than one and two mediocre-to-good pairings.