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2017-18 Nashville Predators Season Preview: Defense, Part 2

Someone from this group will probably have to answer the call with Ryan Ellis out until January. Who have we got?

Anaheim Ducks v Nashville Predators - Game Four Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

It’s almost hockey time! In case you missed one of the other positional previews, check it out now:

For now, we turn our attention to the other defensemen. You know, the rest of them.

I had a great lead-in about how these were the ones who didn’t get invited to international tournaments, but I remembered Yannick Weber is also a go-to defenseman for Switzerland, even at the Olympics. Then I had a great lead-in about how these were the ones who didn’t medal at international tournaments…but I remembered that Poile traded for Alexei Emelin, who’s done that for Russia kind of a lot. This is not your average bottom four, which just makes all the times they do stupid things even more frustrating.

I’m just hoping Petter Granberg won’t need to get any icetime this season.

Position Strengths:

The Predators’ bottom pairing has a decent chance to include players who were used in top-four roles elsewhere. Being able to give sheltered minutes to Emelin, who struggled in a top-four role with the Montréal Canadiens, is the kind of thing that can work out for everyone—as is being able to give those same minutes to a player like Matt Irwin, who never lived up to expectations for the San Jose Sharks. This is an experienced group of defensemen who should at least know what to do in any given situation.

Position Weaknesses:

Actually doing it is another story.

The speed, skill, and style of the top four would make most bottom-pairing defensemen look awful in comparison, but even accounting for that doesn’t mean the Preds’ others are actually good. A player needs to be a fast, competent skater in order to contribute in a 200-foot game, especially in Laviolette’s highly-active system. It takes mobility both to join in the rush and to recover when a play turns back around. A defenseman who can’t skate fast enough to get into position has to be there to start with, and for the most part this group hasn’t shown that kind of precision and awareness.

Non-coincidental minor penalty differentials for the potential bottom-pairing defense, aggregate over the last three seasons. The solid lines represent their team’s average penalty rates and the dotted lines represent the league average penalty rates.
Original viz from Micah Blake McCurdy,

Probably as a result, they also take a lot more penalties than they draw. A lot of minor penalties are basically covering for bad play—hooking, holding, tripping, interference, etc. are the kinds of things players do when they can’t or won’t make a legal defensive play instead, and Emelin, Weber, and Anthony Bitetto (!) were all among the top 25 defensemen in the league last season in taking at least one of those. That’s an issue.

Catalyst of the Group:

Given the circumstances, it looks as if Poile and Laviolette are hoping for a lot out of Alexei Emelin. It’s difficult to imagine him getting put on waivers, since he would likely be claimed, and three million dollars is a lot of money to keep in the press box, so Emelin will likely get regular icetime.

If he can play the best of the simple, solid defensive game that Canadiens fans saw from him, without the bad penalties or frequent misplays that they also saw, Emelin could be a big help within the bottom three. If he can’t, he’s going to be a serious burden on the team.

Breakout Player:

If a depth defenseman surprises us this season, I think it’s going to be someone else we’re not thinking right now we’ll see on the roster. Matt Irwin had his surprise breakout campaign last year, when we all expected him to be nothing more than AHL depth. At this point he, Weber, and Emelin are all known quantities. Bitetto might have some surprises left, but I’d keep an eye on the Milwaukee Admirals’ blueline too.

Anthony Bitetto:

2016-17 Breakdown:

29 games played, ATOI 11:48, 0 goals/7 assists, 44.7% CF 5v5; 43 hits, 24 blocked shots, 25 PIM

Nashville Predators v Los Angeles Kings
Anthony Bitetto #2 of the Nashville Predators skates past Jeff Carter #77 of the Los Angeles Kings during the second period of a game at Staples Center on March 9, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

What he adds to the mix:

Bitetto had a bad, injury-riddled 2016-17 season. He looked like an average third-pairing defender (so, not great) going into 2016, but his injury in the season opener followed by a broken hand almost immediately after he got back sent his whole year off the rails.

When Bitetto started a 5v5 shift at a faceoff, almost 60% of the time that shift was in the offensive zone. In spite of that favorable deployment, his on-ice CF% in 5v5 play was 44.7%, and that was as good as it got—the Preds’ ratio of unblocked shots, shots on goal, scoring chances, and high-danger chances with him were all even worse.

Expectations for the season:

He’s looked overall decent in the preseason, though he’s definitely been out of his depth on the power play and out against opponent teams’ top lines. If he can stay healthy this year, he might be able to fill in as a third-pairing defenseman while we wait for Samuel Girard, but I don’t think he’ll get the chance unless there are injuries. Bitetto is a left-handed shot, which means that Josi, Ekholm, Irwin, and Alexei Emelin’s $3M cap hit are all above him on the depth chart.

Alexei Emelin:

2016-17 Breakdown:

76 games played, ATOI 21:19, 2 goals/8 assists, 50.6% CF 5v5; 241 hits, 127 blocked shots, 71 PIM

Winnipeg Jets v Montreal Canadiens
Alexei Emelin #74 of the Montreal Canadiens challenges Blake Wheeler #26 of the Winnipeg Jets during the NHL game at the Bell Centre on February 18, 2017 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

What he adds to the mix:

Emelin is an old-fashioned defensive defenseman. The Canadiens’ offense with him on the ice has been pretty terrible; their defense has been pretty okay but nothing special. He’s known for his physicality and will sometimes put himself out of position for the big hit. Emelin is not a goalscorer, and he’s not a puck-moving defenseman who will set up key plays, but he does defend the line well. Adam goes into this more in his great in-depth analysis of our defensemen using microstats.

Chart showing the 2016-17 Canadiens defensemen relative to the rest of the league at preventing controlled entries (y-axis) and exiting their own zone with possession (x-axis).
Sean Tierney / @ChartingHockey using data from Corey Sznajder / @ShutdownLine

On the flip side of that, looking again at Corey Sznajder’s player-tracking data, Emelin also allowed more passing plays after successful zone entries than any other defenseman on the Canadiens and at a rate pretty high for the league as a whole—once an opponent got past Emelin at the blue line, their chances of being able to make the play they wanted were very good.

Expectations for the season:

Well, assuming that Emelin has recovered from his offseason knee surgery...

Poile has stated that Ryan Ellis’s need for an extended recovery from a more extensive offseason surgery was part of the reason the Predators traded for Emelin. Since Emelin, unlike Ellis, is a left-handed shot, we might be seeing something a little more complicated than a straightforward replacement. Emelin could get regular top-four minutes through the first half of the season, maybe reuniting with former Canadiens teammate P.K. Subban. He could also anchor a third pairing that gets relatively equal usage, instead of the slim minutes Laviolette tends to give his fifth and sixth defensemen.

I’d expect somewhere a little under ten points over the course of the season for him, with around 70-75 games played—he’s regularly missed time to injury throughout his career.

Matt Irwin:

2016-17 Breakdown:

74 games played, ATOI 16:16, 3 goals/11 assists, 50.8% CF 5v5; 115 hits, 121 blocked shots, 26 PIM

2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six
Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Matt Irwin #52 of the Nashville Predators battle for the puck during the second period in Game Six of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Bridgestone Arena on June 11, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

What he adds to the mix:

Irwin seemed to be a steadying influence on Roman Josi last season.

With-or-Without-You, Matt Irwin, 2016-17
Micah Blake McCurdy,

The black box in the far top left corner represents the Preds’ shot share in the icetime which Josi shared with Irwin. Together they were considerably better than either of them was apart. Irwin also limited shots very well with Ekholm, but that pairing struggled to generate offense. His work with the right-handed defensemen was considerably less effective.

Expectations for the season:

Irwin is my pick to replace Ellis in the top four. I touched on this briefly in the piece I wrote after Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, including another discussion of how well he’d played with Josi during the regular season. If Irwin takes a place in the top four, he and Josi will probably be used in a more offensive capacity, while Ekholm and Subban shut down top opponent lines. If he doesn’t, I expect to see him being a defensively-reliable presence as the fifth defenseman.

Either way, we should probably not expect him to get a multi-game goal streak going again. Depending on usage he’ll likely contribute 10-15 points if given regular icetime and should play most of the season, barring injuries.

Yannick Weber:

2016-17 Breakdown:

73 games played, ATOI 11:55, 1 goal/7 assists, 48.0% CF 5v5; 72 hits, 53 blocked shots, 25 PIM

Anaheim Ducks v Nashville Predators - Game Four
Yannick Weber #7 of the Nashville Predators and Nate Thompson #44 of the Anaheim Ducks battle for position during the first period in Game Four of the Western Conference Final during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Bridgestone Arena on May 18, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

What he adds to the mix:

Weber struggled in his first year in Nashville. His underlying stats with the Vancouver Canucks suggested, as Marya discussed this time last year, that he might do well offensively on a team that could shelter him. Instead, he turned in his weakest season in a long time. He’s a warm body on the blueline and at this point it’s fair to say he brings veteran experience.

Expectations for the season:

As the lone righty in this group, and with Ellis’s injury, I think Weber has a place just about guaranteed for at least the first few months of the season. He’s spent a little time with both Ekholm and Josi this preseason, but he’s much better suited for a bottom-pairing role with limited responsibility.

With Emelin and Irwin the two most logical choices for fifth and sixth defenseman, Weber might drop out of the rotation when Ellis returns, if everyone else stays healthy. I’d expect him to play maybe 40-50 games depending on what’s going on with the other defensemen, and manage just a couple of points.