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Controlling the Blue Line: Games 1-5

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God Bless P.K. Subban

As I wrote about last week, I will be tracking zone entries and exits for Nashville’s defensemen throughout the year. In order to compare results to the irreplaceable Corey Sznadjer, I am trying to use the same definitions and tactics in tracking the Predators’ season. While no two trackers are the same, my hope is to remain as consistent as possible to Corey so we can draw comparisons to other teams around the league. I’ve charted the Predators early season numbers both as percentages and as a rate stat per 20 minutes of 5 on 5 ice time.

Let’s take a look at the 1,000 foot view first, then dig into the raw data for each player as well as some eye test observations. Below I’ve charted Nashville’s defense into the same four basic quadrants from Sznadjer’s work. The averages here however are based on Nashville only and not compared to a league average. I also displayed both raw data charts for entries against and exits per defenseman.

Controlling the Blue Line

Zone Entries Against

Zone Exits

Rate Stat

Let's start with the Bad, the guys in the “Neutral Zone Liability” quadrant. We have three defenders there in the early going: Alexei Emelin, Sam Girard, and Mattias Ekholm.

Mattias Ekholm

The most frequent question I’ve gotten on twitter since I began the project has been in reference to Mattias Ekholm and why his results don’t necessarily match the eye test. The consensus among Preds fans is that Ekholm allows more controlled entries against because he’s playing conservatively to counterbalance Subban’s aggressiveness. If that were the case we’d supposedly see a differing style of play when he was on the ice with a different defender. On the year Ekholm has only played 33 of 88 minutes with Subban. The injuries to Ellis and Josi have forced Coach Laviolette to break up he and Subban to anchor their own pairs, and they've been paired mostly with Sam Girard and Alexei Emelin respectively.

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

What I’ve noticed about Ekholm is that while he’s been willing to surrender the blue line, not at an obscene rate but more than we’d expect, is that he’s done very well with the puck once in the zone. To illustate this, just take a look at his CF% with and without Girard. I’ll get to the young rookie later, but he’s been a bit scrambly in his zone, leading to multiple shot attempts against on the same possession. Since the in-zone structure hasn’t been great, a defender like Ekholm has been forced to clear the puck rather than exit with control. Away from Girard Ekholm is at 54.3 CF%. Girard is at 48% away from Ekholm.

In the zone, Ekholm has been steady and often the guy responsible for puck retrieval in the corners. Fighting for the puck in these areas of the ice doesn’t often lead to clean exits unless the puck can be moved to a forward, which isn’t tracked as part of an exit stat. This leaves Ekholm’s numbers to be a bit underwhelming compared to what we can see with our eyes.

Alexei Emelin

Emelin’s first game in Nashville was a particularly bad one. He finished the game at a paltry 9.1% CF with only one shot attempt for and ten shot attempts against. He was only on the ice for just under eight minutes at 5 on 5, and paired with Yannick Weber. Thankfully the Nashville coaching staff hasn’t gone back to this pairing since the opener.

Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Emelin has surrendered the highest rate of controlled entries against at 65.4% (17 of 26, for those of you wanting raw numbers). He’s been ultra passive in defending the blue line, and rarely in position to break up the play. His skating ability could be a factor here. Emelin was fair in defending zone entries in Montreal, but that was while playing alongside Shea Weber for most of the season. Emelin has played 41 of his 58 5 on 5 minutes with P.K. Subban.

I’ve seen Nashville trying to get the center through the middle of the ice on the backcheck to force the puck to the wall on Emelin’s side a few times. With a backchecker in the middle of the ice and Subban in great position on the far side, the defense here is structurally sound. In theory, Emelin could challenge this entry, but instead conceded the controlled entry against.

Just after this entry sequence. Emelin got caught in the slot in the offensive zone at the same time as an ill-advised Subban pinch, which put Emelin in a trailing position against the speedy Travis Konecny. The subsequent goal put Nashville down 4-3 early in the 3rd against Philly.

My theory for why his numbers are what they are is that teams are realizing they can’t enter the blue line under control against P.K. Subban. Therefore, when they bring the puck through the neutral zone, opposing coaches have instructed their players to either dump it against Subban and not to challenge him at the blue line, or to try to enter with control on Emelin’s side. This could also be a reflection of Ekholm’s numbers from last year. Are teams trying to target Subban’s partner for controlled entries due to Subban’s willingness to defend the blue line physically? Emelin only has three blue line breakups on 26 targets, showing either his unwillingness or inability to break up entries with force.

If they aren’t challenging Emelin, opposing teams are willing to try to chip the puck by Subban and win a race between a forward and Emelin to the right corner, which is a spot where Pekka Rinne can’t retrieve the puck himself and start the breakout the other way. Chicago in particular began putting a forward on the blue line and trying to carry the puck directly through the center of the ice. If Subban left the guy on the wall to challenge the entry the pass would go to the player on the wall. If Subban tried to play both or shaded toward the wall player, the puck was brought in against Emelin with a backchecking forward coming through the middle of the ice. Here is an example from Friday. This was about the only way Chicago could get into the zone with control on Subban’s side.

Emelin has been better since the first game, but that can likely be attributed to being paired with Subban. Away from Subban his CF% is just 25, but Subban away from Emelin is at 56.3%. Together they are treading water at 50.0%.

Sam Girard

Girard’s debut with Nashville has been filled with drama. His first career goal and subsequent assist propelled the Preds to a 4-1 win over Dallas. His late weak clearing attempt led to a turnover against Chicago and the game tying goal with under six minutes to play. He didn’t see the ice the remainder of the game or in overtime. It was a needed lesson for the young defenseman.

So what has he done well? It’s clear his skating is his strong-suit. He is able to skate the puck out of pressure with poise not often seen by an undersized 19-year-old. He moves the puck well and can make the first pass out of the zone. He rarely dumps the puck to center ice, but his efforts to exit the zone with control have led to some turnovers in his own zone. The good with the bad.

In his debut against Philly last Tuesday, he played just under 19 minutes, paired with Ekholm. For this pairing, it was Girard who was tasked with many of the exit attempts. Ekholm deferred to Girard when there was a chance to make a controlled exit. This particular sequence led to a pretty goal by Filip Forsberg. Girard snapped a half-ice pass to Ryan Johansen who backhand flipped the puck to Forsberg streaking down the right side.

He’s done a decent job early in breaking up plays at the blue line, but has done so with some slick stick work; which is natural for a defender listed at 5’10” 162. He doesn’t have the size to body guys off the puck like Subban, but he’s been effective.

He gets the puck out of the zone at similar rates to Subban, but what makes Subban special is that he can use his body to shield the puck from the defender and exit the puck from the zone by carrying it himself. Girard has similar skating ability but has been forced to pass without the same ability to shield the puck from the forechecker.

We can be pleased with how his first few games have played out, but the cliché “he needs some more work in his own zone” holds true for Girard. What Laviolette and Poile do with him once Josi is healthy is something worth watching. He’s not a third pairing guy and putting him with Weber or Emelin wouldn’t be the best for his skillset. He can play with a defender like Ekholm, but presumably Laviolette will want to put Ekholm and Subban back together when Josi is ready. It wouldn’t make sense to put pair him with Josi. They are both skilled left-handed skaters who aren’t overly physical. Does he end up on the 3rd pair with Irwin?

Anthony Bitetto

Moving to the “Closed Blue Line” quadrant gives us Anthony Bitetto and Matt Irwin. Bitetto has only gotten action in two games so far and has logged 22 minutes of 5 on 5 ice-time. He’s made up the third pair with either Yannick Weber or Matt Irwin. Small sample size aside, Bitetto has a total exit rate of just 56.3%. He’s been moderately effective in his sample, posting a 56% CF rate. His outing on Saturday was tidy in a possession sense. From Natural Stat Trick, he led the team in FF% (unblocked shot attempts) on the night.

He’s not much for puck control, but what he does bring to the table is a physical presence in denying zone entries. Most of those came from the Chicago game Saturday night. Maybe there was a little more electricity in the air against the team they unceremoniously dumped from the playoffs in the spring, but Nashville revved up the physicality on defense and had their highest total of break-ups on the season.

Matt Irwin

That brings us to Matt Irwin. This is the guy where the eye test may not meet the numbers. Irwin is tops among Nashville defenders with a 59.6 CF%. Before Josi missed a few games to injury, he was paired mostly with Matt Irwin. Since Josi hit the shelf, Irwin has bounced around seeing between 4 and 13 minutes of ice time with everyone except P.K. Subban.

Irwin leads Preds defenders in CA/60 at 45.3. I think you can make a case it’s attributable to the number of uncontrolled entries against. He’s in P.K. Subban territory surrendering zone carries at just a 36% rate. Again stressing small sample sizes, I don’t want to make too many outlandish claims on Irwin’s ability, but what I’ve seen from him so far is that the teams that have challenged him have been turned away at the blue line or forced to dump the puck.

When Irwin’s on the ice, the game grinds down in the d-zone like a classic Kings-Blues snoozer from three years ago. Teams appear to be willing to try to win puck battles with the Preds third pairing, knowing full well that they are the weakest of the Preds defenders without the ability to effectively exit the zone with control. His play has been useful so far in just over 13 minutes per game at 5 on 5, but I want to see a bigger sample before drawing any conclusions.

Yannick Weber

Welcome to Mr. “Never Near the Puck” Yannick Weber. He’s played just 33 minutes in four contests. With such small numbers, there aren’t many conclusions to draw here. He’s been playing mostly in the net-front when he’s been on the ice, forcing his partner to play the puck in the corners and get it up the ice. Depending on what happens when Josi returns, I could see Weber hit the press box to keep Girard in the lineup.

Roman Josi

Josi has missed the last three games with the all too vague “lower body injury”. What that’s done is thrust Samuel Girard into a Top-4 role for the Preds. Thankfully Nashville has earned five points in three games in his absence. The common theme we hear about Josi is that he’s fine as an offensive weapon but he lacks in the defensive aspects of the position. So far in the early going, he’s dispelled those notions. The two games we’ve seen from Josi have been very good. He sits at 55.7 CF%, has a blue-line break up rate over 30% due to some stylish stick work, and has allowed controlled entries just 39% of the time.

On the zone exit side where Josi typically excels; he’s exited the zone with possession 11 out of 19 times and nearly one third of those exists have been via Josi’s legs, carrying the puck up the ice himself. Thus far the newly minted captain has been the most influential neutral zone play driver from the blue line.

During his 30 minutes of ice-time his most common partner has been Matt Irwin, likely influencing the results we’ve seen from him. I presumed last month that it would be Emelin paired with Josi, but Laviolette has had other plans. The results have been fine. Josi could be back as early as Tuesday night at home against Colorado. Maybe I’m underselling how good he’s looked in the d-zone, but I want to see a bigger sample size first.

P.K. Subban

I’ve indirectly touched on Subban already when talking about his defensive partners. His CF% is a mundane 50.6%, but chalk that up to the time spent with Emelin, and how much Emelin has struggled getting adjusted to Nasvhille in the early going. Subban has thrived away from Emelin, and the latter has floundered away from Subban.

It’s not much of a cognitive leap if you’ve tuned in to any of Nashville’s games so far this year, but as suggested by the rate statistics, P.K. is always near the puck. He leads the team in targets against per 20 at 11.9 and exits per 20 at 12.4. He’s the most effective blue liner in forcing uncontrolled entries and is the most effective defender in exiting the zone outside of Roman Josi. The volume and success rate of exits is at the elite level.

Much of the criticism heaped on Subban while in Montreal was in his penchant for turning the puck over, and his overaggressive style pinching in the offensive zone. We do have one example already of an untimely pinch gone wrong which led to a goal against, but Emelin should have recognized the pinch and sank back to the middle of the neutral zone.

That’s one mistake in 80 minutes of 5 on 5 ice-time. Even when pressured with the puck on his stick he doesn’t panic. His well built frame permits him to be physical preventing entries and shield defenders from the puck when making an exit, pinching along the wall or holding the puck in the offensive zone. His passes are fast and accurate tape to tape. His uncontrolled exits are from him trying to make plays with lob passes through the middle of the ice. If it works you have a potential breakaway, and if it doesn’t the puck gets deep enough to make a change without taking an icing call. If you haven’t taken the time to appreciate what Subban brings to the table, now is time. He has seven points through five games while paired with Alexei Emelin and has been forced into more defensive zone draws.


I’m inclined to look at what the data is telling us about on-ice performance, but as a coach for nearly two decades, I appreciate the eye-test and judge of talent as well. I think it’s vital to balance both when formulating a verdict on a player. The entire story is not completely captured in numbers, nor by even the keenest observation. In the vacancies of Ellis and Josi, the blue line hasn’t been a weak point of the team. Subban and Ekholm have been split to each carry their own pairs. They’ve each been able to shoulder the load, and the team secured five of a possible six points with half of their Top-4 out of the lineup. Josi should be back Tuesday night and hopefully Girard sticks around.

Maybe the next string of five games tells us something else, but early in the year is when teams have to knock off the rust. Scoring around the league surpasses expectations early on before teams settle in to their systems. Expected goal rates show that Nashville has even been a bit unlucky while being right around league average in expected goals for and against.

Five points through five games isn’t ideal, but the team bounced back from an 0-2 start, and was generally the better team over the next three games. The blue line will continue to be a strength of this team throughout the year, and has shown well for itself in the first two weeks of the season.