The defense is the bread-and-butter of the Predators. It’s been that way since Tomas Vokoun and Mike Dunham backstopped the team. It was that way when Shea Weber and Ryan Suter patrolled the blue line. And it’s that way now with Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm at the helm.
The Predators were one of the NHL’s best defensive teams last season (their 212 goals allowed were tied for third-best in the league), and even though P.K. Subban is gone, the core is strong enough to repeat that performance.
There are three defenders who would likely be Number 1 guys on 90% of the teams. They have another prospect who COULD be in that echelon in a few years.
So how will they do this year?
2018-19 Stats: 82 GP, 56 pts (15 G, 41 A), +9
The Preds’ captain is entering the last year of what may have been the best seven-year contract in recent league history, and, let’s face it, dude is ’bout to get paid.
Because of that, there’s a lot people expecting this to be a career year for Josi. It’s hard to argue. Josi is coming off a season in which he tied his career high in goals (15), and assuming this year’s power play is...well, you know...not awful...he should see a spike in his offensive numbers.
There are a few questions surrounding his defensive skillset. Playing alongside Ryan Ellis, one of the best on the team in that regard, has helped mask some of those. The two were Corsica’s number one rated top line last season, and they’ll be counted on for another marquee season this year.
Obviously, Josi’s contract will be a talking point throughout the season (or until the Predators lock him up). Luckily for the team—and the fans—that’s going to give #59 a lot of motivation to try and have the best season of his career.
2018-2019 Stats: 80 GP, 44 Pts (8G, 36A), +27
Question: do you still count as “underrated” if everyone around the league talks about how “underrated” you are?
Matty Eks has perhaps been the Predators’ best-kept secret over the past handful of seasons. He’s a superb skater, a reliable puck-handler, and maybe the best shutdown defender on the team. And yet, he’s been overshadowed by some of the bigger names on the team.
Ekholm had a very good season last year, but it ended in the most cringe-worthy way possible. His series against Dallas could only be described as “dumpster-fire–esque.” He racked up penalties at the worst possible time, and was on the ice for 9 of the Stars’ 18 goals in the series.
Ekholm will get more offensive responsibility this season, something the Preds have been easing him into the past few seasons. That includes more time on the power play. He’s proven he can do it in spurts while guys like Ellis and Subban were out with injuries. But can he do it on a night-to-night basis?
After spending the past three seasons mostly playing with Subban, Ekholm will likely start the season with rookie Dante Fabbro. There’s a lot of veteran responsibility in that role. Not only will Ekholm be expected to mentor the younger player, he’ll also be counted on to mask some of the mistakes Fabbro will inevitably make his first season.
2018-2019 Stats: 82 GP, 41 pts (7G, 34A), +21
A.K.A. the Human Rocket Ship.
Ellis’s scoring jumps out on the player card, for sure. But over the past few seasons, Ellis has emerged as one of the Preds’ most reliable defenders. He and Josi complement each other well; while the captain’s game relies on positioning and puck possession, Ellis brings the physical aspect by handling net-front battles, dishing out hits, and blocking shots. It’s very similar to the type of chemistry Weber and Suter had in Smashville.
Offensively, last season saw Ellis hit career highs in assists (34) and points (41). There are a lot of people who think that number should have been higher. Ellis had 9 goals and 32 points in just 44 games the prior season, and many were expecting that type of red-hot output last season. A lot of that frustration may be due to...you guessed it...the Preds’ power-play struggles.
And that’s one area we’ll have to keep a close eye on this season. With Subban gone, Ellis may have the best shot from the point on the team, and it’s likely he’ll be the guy teammates try to set up on the power play.
If he can handle that load, and if the Preds can fix their power play issues as a whole, Ellis should best last year’s offensive production.
2018-2019 Stats: 4 GP, 1 Pt (1G, 0A), -1
The Preds’ top defensive prospect played about as well the Preds would have hoped for in his debut stint: plenty of bright spots...and plenty of room for improvement.
Unlike some of his counterparts, like Josi and Ellis, Fabbro won’t have the luxury of being eased slowly into a marquee defensive role. He’ll jump straight into the top four, likely alongside Ekholm. It’s a role both Fabbro and his boss, GM David Poile, believe he’s ready for. But it’s still a lot to ask. Fabbro only averaged about 12 minutes of ice time in his 10-game stint with the Preds (regular and postseason). Now he has to play 18-20 minutes per game against more skilled players. There will be little room for error.
Still, if Fabbro can live up to expectations this season, Preds fans should be excited. He can skate well, distribute the puck, and doesn’t make too many positioning mistakes. His defensive game improved a little each year at Boston University, and while it’s nowhere near an NHL elite level, playing alongside Ekholm should keep some of his inevitable mistakes from being an Achilles heel for the Preds this season.
Poile and head coach Peter Laviolette insist they won’t put too much responsibility on Fabbro too early, and with the core the team already has, there’s no need to. The scoresheet shouldn’t be what fans focus on to judge Fabbro’s season. Instead, keep an eye on things like positioning and decision making in the defensive zone. The rest should follow.
2018-2019 Stats: 57 GP, 5 Pts (0G, 5A), -2
Dan Hamhuis is in the twilight of his career, no question. But there’s still some value. The 36-year-old played his third-pair role well. He averaged just about 16 minutes of ice time per game, and in general, kept opposing teams from having a big offensive impact. Hamhuis also played a big role in mentoring Fabbro in his first handful of games.
Just don’t expect the Hamhuis of old when it comes to offense. Last year’s 5-point total was by far the worst in his career. He missed significant time due to injuries, which may have played a role. But to be honest, the Preds don’t need him to be a big offensive threat. They have three defenders who should hit at least 40 points this season, and another prospect who could put up at least 20-30.
Hamhuis is a solid anchor to the Preds’ third pair. As long as he stays healthy and keeps up his solid defensive play, he’ll help the team.
2018-2019 Stats: 62 GP, 8 Pts (2G, 6A), +7
Oh, the “Other Weber...”
Yannick’s had somewhat of an up-and-down tenure in his first three seasons with the Predators. Since appearing in every playoff game during the 2017 Cup run, Weber’s slowly fallen out of favor with his head coach, Peter Laviolette. He’s been rotated in and out of the bottom pair and will likely face the same situation this year.
To his credit, Weber doesn’t make a ton of mistakes. He’s above-average when it comes to stopping offensive chances and rarely gets caught out of position. His 1.1 Giveaways/60 were also tops among the Preds’ regular defensemen.
That’s likely what’s keeping Weber around. His offensive numbers are virtually non-existent and he’s simply not consistent enough to earn more than spot duty on special teams.
Weber will likely get more games than his former bottom-pair partner, Matt Irwin. Fans should expect some decent defensive play in the 10 minutes or so a night Weber’s on the ice. But if the Preds add a defender over the course of the season, Weber will likely become a perennial scratch.
2018-2019 Stats: 44 GP, 7 Pts (1G, 6A), +5
Matt Irwin beat out Steve Santini for the last spot on the defense. And as far as positives go...that’s about it.
It’s been a frustrating couple of years for the 31-year-old. Since playing 71 games for the Preds in 2017, Irwin’s become a perennial healthy scratch, appearing in just 44 games last season (and he did not dress for any of the team’s six playoff games).
At this point, what you see in Irwin is what you’re going to get. When he does play, he’ll see limited minutes in low-risk situations. The analytics show he’s not bad defensively when he’s on the ice, and he doesn’t make a lot of glaring mistakes. But he doesn’t contribute on special teams, and seems to be confined to bench duty late in close games.
He’ll start the season as the Preds’ 7th defender, and if the Preds decide to add a defender over the course of the season, he may fall victim to the waiver wire.
The Predators’ defensive corps has been among the best in the league, and this year should be no exception. Assuming everyone stays healthy, the group should help the Preds stay towards the top of the Western Conference throughout the season.