The Nashville Predators have indisputably the best quartet of defenders in the league. I still contend this is true even after the San Jose Sharks acquired Erik Karlsson last week. All four members are returning from the previous season, ensuring that there won’t be any growing pains getting used to new partners. When Ryan Ellis returned from injury, he was paired almost exclusively with Roman Josi, while P.K. Subban was paired with Mattias Ekholm, who holds the distinction of being the most unheralded member of the bunch.
All four members of Nashville’s blue line of destiny are in their highly productive years before the inevitable fall off begins, by age 31 at the latest. The only contract worry on the horizon is for Roman Josi, who can be re-signed next summer. Ryan Ellis alluded when he re-signed last month to having taken less money to keep the core together. Eyes will turn to the future of Josi when this season is over.
Collectively this group played over 1,800 regular season games to date. We’re in the “we know what these guys are” territory. All four have positive shot and goal impacts and as a group they are only -10 in penalty differential. As a team the Predators have issues with taking penalties, but ironically the group who defends most often isn’t the problem. The worst penalty differential among the top four is P.K. Subban’s at –6.
On the scoresheet, they are also a highly productive bunch. Subban and Josi surpassed 50 points and Ryan Ellis tallied 32 in just 44 games. Come playoff time the Predators’ top two pairs can play nearly the entire game, giving them a distinct advantage over every opponent with the quality of defenders they can send over the boards.
There really are very few weaknesses here. Could P.K. Subban turn the puck over a bit less or commit a couple fewer penalties? Could Roman Josi limit shots against a little more? Could Mattias Ekholm score a few more points? Could Ryan Ellis create a bit more on the power play? Sure, I guess all of these things are true, but the group performs so well that if we are picking at weaknesses, we are really nibbling at the edges of greatness. This top four is the envy of the league and why the Predators are once again among the Stanley Cup favorites.
Catalyst of the Group:
The most unheralded member of the group is also its most important. All three of Josi, Subban and Ellis are quick to activate on offense. They can slash through the neutral zone or join the rush as the third man, none of which would be possible without a steady defender behind them. I wrote about the underappreciated brilliance of Ekholm at the end of last season. Paired mostly with Subban after Ellis returned, he played more in-zone defense and allowed Subban to shut down entries at the blue line. They play complimentary styles. With Ekholm in the fold, the Preds defense can ignite the offense on the breakout and into the offensive zone.
All four members of this group are veterans, and both Josi and Subban have reached 60 points, but I wonder, what is the ceiling for Ryan Ellis? Through a 44 game sample in the latter half of the most recent regular season he was one of the league’s most impactful play drivers, and produced at a 60-point pace. He wasn’t as good in the playoffs though, totaling four points in 13 games while finishing with a corsi-for percentage under 50%. His career high in points is 38, but I think he shatters that mark this year.
One of the primary ways to classify offensive contributions is by looking at a player’s goals and primary assists per 60 minutes of icetime. The justification is that secondary assists aren’t always predictive of future performance, while goals and primary assists are more emblematic of a player’s true abilities. Last season the Preds captain led all NHL defenders in P1/60 at 5-on-5 play. To accomplish such a feat, your team needs to be in possession of the puck as it crosses the opponent’s blue line. Controlled zone entries are far more likely to produce offense than dump-ins.
With Roman Josi, you get instant offense in the form of controlled zone entries. According to manual tracking data, Josi is the league’s foremost defenseman in creating through the neutral zone. Comfortable with the puck on his stick, he forces the opposition to respect his puck-carrying abilities. The only pair in the league that generated more shot attempts per 60 minutes of ice time was Calgary’s top pair of Dougie Hamilton and Mark Giordano. Since Hamilton was dealt to Carolina in the off-season for visiting too many museums, Josi is likely to lead the league this year.
The difference in shot rates with Josi on and off the ice is drastic. With Josi over the boards, the Predators generate shots well above the league average. With him off the ice, the offense dries up.
The downside to Josi’s affinity for offense is the rate at which shots are directed at the Predators’ net while he’s on the ice. High-event hockey is fun for the fans, but it can give the coaches indigestion.
Ideally, coaches evaluate the total contributions in goal scoring to determine a player’s value. An appraisal of Josi’s skills in this manner—one that Peter Laviolette has surely done—would reflect his true value. He’s an elite player at generating offense, even if he’s not doing the scoring himself, and he’s merely an average player in his own zone. Not bad, just average.
There is a different narrative in the media. Since he’s never been among the league leaders in scoring and is not seen as a shutdown defender, he’s never been a serious contender for the Norris Trophy, finishing fifth twice. He has a reputation as a guy who is is great at generating opportunities, but not in defending in his own end. That reputation isn’t all that accurate, but if we stacked his offensive abilities on one side of the scale and his defensive on the other, the scale would undeniably tilt to the offense’s side.
Although his ice time dropped just a bit last season, dipping below 25 minutes a night for the first season since the lockout, Josi is a lock for 50+ points, over 220 shots and about a half dozen power-play markers. Expect a handful of games missed due to injury as well; in the last six years, he’s played over 75 games just twice.
Although not blessed with the skating ability of Josi or Subban, Ryan Ellis still contributes with his puck skills. He generates a bunch of zone exits by moving the puck to the open man, and once set up in the offensive zone he’s the leading contributor to shots among Preds defensemen.
Although half a season of sample size is an awfully small one, Ellis turned in a tremendous performance last year, and doesn’t get the recognition he deserves on the defensive side of the puck. Just check out this viz.
Considering the vast majority of those minutes were spent with Josi, who is kind of meh at defense, it reveals just how strong Ellis’s defensive effects were. In his 200 or so minutes away from Josi, Ellis’ shot attempt against rates fell into the 40s per 60 minutes. That puts him in exclusive company.
If we score-adjust his shot attempt rates from last year, he was among the league’s elite defenders. Much of that effect is attributable to his quick feet and puck work in small spaces. He usually won’t blow by you, but he’s very good in confined areas, eluding checks and making a pass.
Like Josi, I feel like I have to pick at something here that isn’t really a weakness because at first blush I couldn’t think of one. Many players’ flaws are pretty obvious, but that’s not the case with Ellis. If we had to nail down a weakness it’s that he isn’t so great on the penalty kill. Not that he happened to be out there a whole lot—only 120 minutes in 44 games. His goal impacts were sort of average, but maybe with the volume of shots coming his way, he’s a bit lucky it wasn’t worse.
What’s interesting about Ellis coming into this season is that he may have set a new bar for himself with last year’s production. He signed a long-term deal to stay in Nashville, so it’s clear he wants to stick around. Could he finally be hitting his potential at age 27? He should easily breach the 40-point plateau this year, but how high is the bar? Is he a 50-point defender?
What is remarkable is how much of his production comes at even strength. Extrapolate his half-season worth of scoring from last year over a full 82 games and he’d have scored 44 points just at even strength. He will never unseat Subban or Josi in power-play TOI, but if he sees an uptick in his minutes there he could hit 50 points.
I talked about even strength primary points per 60 when talking about Josi, but let’s also mention that Subban ranks 5th in the NHL by the same metric. Splitting Josi and Subban onto opposite pairs demands that the opposition face two of the league’s principal scoring blueliners for almost 50 minutes a night. A distinct advantage unrivaled in the NHL—outside of San Jose.
Where Subban doesn’t get enough credit is in his ability to control his own blue line. Below is a viz displaying his zone exits per 60 minutes on the left and his entry defense on the right. Let’s start with his ability to exit the zone. The dark blue lines represent the good kinds of zone exits, either exit passes (the darkest blue) or carrying the puck out of the zone (the next darkest shade of blue). Although displayed only against fellow Predators, Subban is in elite territory among his peers across the league at getting the puck out of the zone with control.
This also matches the eye test when you watch the Predators play. In the Subban–Ekholm pairing, it’s Subban who’s entrusted with getting the puck out once possession is gained. P.K. is gifted with many of the attributes needed to excel in this area. Start with his size. He’s not very tall in the traditional sense of NHL defenders, but he’s sturdy on his skates and protects the puck well. He’s fearless with the puck behind his own net, doesn’t panic, and is comfortable skating the puck out of danger. He has the vision to make a good pass and confidence to make plays in danger areas. He has enough speed and good enough feet that forecheckers have difficulty boxing him in. He’s a zone exit machine.
Coming back the other way with the puck, Subban is again in choice company in denying zone entries. His break-up rate is among the league’s best. This is made possible by the steadying influence of Mattias Ekholm; the synergetic pairing allows each to excel in their strong suit. Subban either forces the adversarial puck carrier to dump the puck in or he prevents the entry altogether over 55% of the time he’s targeted.
In the margins I think there is less to it than it sounds like, but P.K. Subban has the highest defensive zone start rate on the team. Yeah, I didn’t expect that to be the case either, but I was looking for a reason why his CF% rates are just sort of average and the team surrenders more high danger shots with him on the ice than off.
This would make sense after a defensive zone faceoff loss if he’s on for more d-zone draws than his contemporaries, but usually high danger shots are generated off the rush, and if Subban is great defending the blue line, it’s happening for some reason, I’m just not sure what it is. I assume video would tell us the answer.
The other thing I’ve criticized him for is his shot volume on the power play. Every time I bring it up he scores a powerplay goal on pretty much the next shot so I don’t get much momentum behind my theory, but for whatever it’s worth, shots from the point on the power play aren’t all that valuable.
Subban had 107 shot attempts on the power-play last year, and five goals. 4.6% isn’t all that efficient. I’d be interested to know how many of those attempts ended up as goals off of rebounds. Natural Stat Trick only notes four rebound chances. There are tips and deflections in front of the net as well, but throw the puck at the net and hope for chaos doesn’t sound like much of a plan.
Since his shot can be a weapon, I’d just like to see him distribute the puck a bit more on the man advantage. I contend the team’s scoring rates would go up. He got some good results last year however, with a GF/60 on the power-play in the top quartile of defensemen with over 100 minutes of power-play time. His expected goal rates were nevertheless in the bottom half.
Expect more of the same from Subban. He will cross into his thirties this spring, but he surely isn’t slowing down. He’s one of the more vibrant personalities in hockey and one of the more dynamic defenders in the league. A point total in the mid-50s and about 200 shots sounds right. To appreciate him a bit more, pay attention to how impactful he is as he traverses the defensive blue line.
I wrote a good bit about Ekholm in our player reviews last spring, so a preview here would just be rehashing some of the same old points, but Ekholm really makes an enormous impact on the game in ways that can’t be evaluated by looking at a box score. His score-adjusted shot rates were among the very best in the league, and his ability in the defensive zone frees up Subban to be the swashbuckling defender that he is.
Ekholm is an intelligent and conservative defender who makes everyone around him better. He’s not afraid to drift in the offensive zone to find his own shot, and when he does shoot it’s in these good opportunities, which is why he’s shot over 7% in three of the last four seasons while the scoring rate for defenders is just over 4%.
I will hit on this one though: I really want to see Ekholm create more controlled zone exits. He doesn’t have bad hands, but in an effort to be conservative and ease the in-zone tension he far too often wantonly clears the puck to center ice without possession. I think his shot impacts would even be more astounding if he’d take that extra split second to make a play rather than clear the puck to the neutral zone.
Like everyone else in the Preds’ top four, Ekholm is who he is at this point in his career. He’s cracked the 30-point mark twice in the last two years, he’s going to play responsibly in his own zone, he’s going to be locked together with Subban, and he’s going to be the calming presence on the blueline that will allow the rest of the Preds defenders to do their thing. He will be solid, steady and consistent.