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2018-19 Nashville Predators Position Preview: Defense Part II

The Nashville Predators have been blessed with a healthy top-4 this season, meet the guys that’ll round out the bottom pair.

You knew it was going to be Bitetto. Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

So far this preseason, the Nashville Predators have had what I would call a welcome and uneventful few weeks. [knocks on wood] Of course, the most recent culling of the ranks did not include Zac Rinaldo, as I’d hoped it would, and the Predators seem content with the NHL’s punishment of Austin Watson, as I’d dreaded they would. Otherwise, the roster seems healthy and strong, and one man, Carl Filip Anton Forsberg, seems to be on a mission to put the puck in the net at an alarming rate.

But this article isn’t about any of that. This article is about the boys that come in and put some extra jam on the ice. They aren’t Norris candidates, their jerseys don’t sell out, and from what I can tell they are all outstanding human beings off the ice. This article is about the bottom four defenders—the gentlemen who will rotate through the third pairing, and hopefully not have to venture too far above it, for the duration of the season.

Oh, and guess what? Alexei Emelin won’t be on the ice for the Predators this year. They’ve replaced him with Dan Hamhuis, who joins the trio of Anthony Bitetto, Matt Irwin, and Yannick Weber.

Position Strengths:

One of the best things going for Horsemen 5-8 is familiarity. Together, they share 13 years of experience with the team. Of course, Hamhuis’s six years came long before the Peter Laviolette years, but organizational familiarity has to count for something. Because of their tenure, Weber, Irwin, and Bitetto have all spent time together in different pairing formations. At the same time, all of them are large men capable of playing aggressive defense. At 5’11”, Weber is the shortest, but makes up for it with physical strength.

Position Weaknesses:

Typically, most third pairings will have the same weaknesses: they aren’t going to be productive offensively, they’ll make mistakes, they’ll take some untimely penalties (although the Predators’ bottom-four improved quite drastically from 16-17).

However, most third pairings don’t play behind the quartet of Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, and Mattias Ekholm. The drop off from Nashville’s second pair to third pair seems much more drastic because of the top-four’s quality. Predators fans can expect explosive offense and shutdown defense for around 48 minutes per game. On most other teams, the second pairing isn’t expected to produce like Nashville’s second pairing. For example, Dan Hamhuis comes from the Dallas Stars as a second pair defenseman. The idea of him playing like anyone on the top four for Nashville is laughable.

Catalyst of the Group:

The three returning players have all had ample opportunities to make their case for a firm hold on the third pairing. Of the three, Yannick Weber will most likely get the start alongside Dan Hamhuis. The fact that Hamhuis is coming in as a veteran of the league and the team tells me he is probably going to be on the ice more than the others. Scott Hartnell’s smooth return back to the team last year is probably the model for Hamhuis’s return. Hartnell brought some “old-school jam” back to the bottom six last year. I feel like Hamhuis has the potential to reinvigorate the third pair much in the same way.

Breakout Player:

The anchor that was Alexei Emelin is gone. I am of the opinion that Dan Hamhuis is a major upgrade to our third pair.

Anthony Bitetto:

2017-18 Breakdown:

32 games played, ATOI 13:26, 1 goals/2 assists, 44.3% CF 5v5; 40 hits, 31 blocked shots, 27 PIM

NHL: Nashville Predators at Vancouver Canucks Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

What he adds to the mix:

(On these charts, red means more than average unblocked shots taken in the area, blue means less. So, the more blue you see, the better. The more red you see, the worse it is.)

Here’s a look at the defensive zone without Anthony Bitetto.

Wow, this looks pretty average and less-than-average...
Micah Blake McCurdy/@IneffectiveMath,

Realistically, this is a testament to the great-except-when-it-wasn’t defense played by the Nashville Predators. This is a combination of all ice time without Bitetto. This includes first, second, and third pairings when Bitetto was off the ice. Surely, adding Bitetto into the mix wouldn’t make that much of a difference, right?

Here’s a look at what happens when Anthony’s on the ice:

Micah Blake McCurdy/@IneffectiveMath,

Okay. Well, you know, it’s pretty red there on the left side where Bitetto spends his time. Now, obviously with a smaller sample size due to his limited number of minutes the highs and lows will be more drastic, but it seems like the closer you can get Bitetto to the net, the easier it is to get a shot by him. Not great.

Expectations for the season:

You know, I love Anthony Bitetto. He is the light of P.K. Subban’s life. He’s a nice guy. He uses Twitter like a middle-aged man. NHL19 thinks he’s Nick Bonino:

My goodness, I even won the shirt off his back at the final home game last season:

But I think Anthony Bitetto will be the eighth defenseman this season. He’s going to fall behind Matt Irwin, who can play both the left and right side. I can see situations in which Bitetto gets the call if there’s an injury or the need for a maintenance day for other defenders, but hopefully the team will stay healthy.

Dan Hamhuis:

2017-18 Breakdown:

80 games played, ATOI 20:11, 3 goals/21 assists, 50.4% CF 5v5; 82 hits, 113 blocked shots, 33 PIM

NHL: St. Louis Blues at Dallas Stars Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

What he adds to the mix:

Now, we know Hamhuis played for the Dallas Stars last season, but as a second liner, he has a much higher sample size that will give us a pretty clear idea of how the ice changes when he’s on it. But first, here’s what it looks like when he wasn’t playing:

Not going to claim to know much about the Stars, but here it is.
Micah Blake McCurdy/@IneffectiveMath,

Here’s how things change with the Hammer on the ice:

Very blue!
Micah Blake McCurdy/@IneffectiveMath,

It appears that most of the unblocked shots taken come from farther out while Hamhuis contributes to a pretty off-limits netfront. All of these things would be a welcome improvement to the 3rd pairing.

Expectations for the season:

I think the most exciting part of this is that I view this as a major defensive upgrade on the third pairing. I can also look at the large number of assists from Hamhuis last season and get a little more excited. While he stayed on the ice much longer than the rest of the bottom four last year, he still had much more production than the others. It isn’t reasonable to expect this same amount of production, but it may be likely that Hamhuis will get involved in more scoring situations.

Matt Irwin:

2017-18 Breakdown:

50 games played, ATOI 13:26, 2 goals/6 assists, 51% CF 5v5; 78 hits, 54 blocked shots, 8 PIM

NHL: San Jose Sharks at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

What he adds to the mix:

Without Irwin:

You’d almost think that Nashville doesn’t protect their net...
Micah Blake McCurdy/@IneffectiveMath,

I once again notice the glorious white and blue. What about when Irwin is on the ice?

Irwin played both left and right.
Micah Blake McCurdy/@IneffectiveMath,

Higher highs and lower lows. Matt Irwin, as I’ve noted before, has the tendency to play with some extra jam. He’s a big boy and plays pretty rough when he needs to, which may be why some of the shots get pushed to outside a bit more. However, once you get past him and get in front of the net, it’s open season.

Expectations for the season:

I expect Irwin to be the 7th defender. He will see more time than Bitetto as the first man in if there’s an injury or a maintenance day. The fact that he can play left and right, while Hamhuis and Bitetto are both lefties, means that Irwin would be the natural replacement for Yannick Weber. If Weber had to move up to the second pairing—or missed some time himself—for an extended period, Irwin would find his way into the lineup quite quickly.

Yannick Weber:

2017-18 Breakdown:

47 games played, ATOI 12:03, 2 goals/3 assists, 46.5% CF 5v5; 47 hits, 35 blocked shots, 16 PIM

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Anaheim Ducks at Nashville Predators Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

What he adds to the mix:

Without Weber:

Thank your local goaltender, folks.
Micah Blake McCurdy/@IneffectiveMath,

With Weber:

Oh, man...
Micah Blake McCurdy/@IneffectiveMath,

It isn’t quite as bright as some of the others, but it isn’t exactly pretty.

Expectations for the season:

Weber will play to Hamhuis’s right on the 3rd pairing. He will have flashes of brilliance, but won’t be dominant. He may find some reinvigorated offensive power while paired with Hamhuis. He will also, more than likely, use his physical strength to smash some guys into the glass. There will be moments where his play frightens us and moments where it excites us, but all in all, Yannick Weber will be a serviceable third-pair defenseman.

Final Thoughts:

Look, folks, let me be straightforward: These are third-pairing guys. They don’t have big contracts; they’ll be healthy scratches; they’re fan favorites; and at the end of the day, they work just as hard as everybody else and they do it with smiles on their faces. Yes, they make ten times the money I do, but they’re playing for the love of the game. I’ll continue to cheer for them and choose them for the “First Goal of the Game” on the off-chance they score it. I celebrate these guys and I’ve realistically had a hard time being too critical.