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Is It Time for the Nashville Predators to Trade a Defender?

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The annual question comes around again, louder every year.

Nashville Predators v Anaheim Ducks Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images

Another year where the Predators will be raising the wrong banner, another year wondering if the current roster can cut it. Every team since 2014 to have won the Stanley Cup—and hockey has a short memory when it comes to success—has had multiple star forwards and just one defender who’s viewed as contending for the Norris Trophy.

Some of what makes a forward a star is just perception, of course. A few years ago Nicklas Bäckström was one of those well-kept secrets, someone Capitals fans and media knew was good but who was often overlooked by national media. Today he’s represented the Capitals at the All-Star Game and gets mentioned in the same breath as his regular winger, undisputed superstar Alex Ovechkin.

It’s not impossible that the Predators have someone like Bäckström—someone who has always been good, but who doesn’t meet, say, Greg Wyshynski’s definition of what a star is, until suddenly some perception changes. We’ll be taking another look at the forward corps later in the week, because it’s a complicated question.

For now, it’s worth noting that most of the Nashville Predators’ obvious best players—the easy nominees to (or obvious snubs from) national teams—are defenders. Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros are exceptions, as is Filip Forsberg at the other end of the ice.

Now, granted, the fact that the Swiss national team keeps going back to Yannick Weber might say more about the Swiss national team than it does about Yannick Weber, but Mattias Ekholm has made himself a name even among Swedish defenders, Roman Josi is regularly one of the best players on the ice for Switzerland, Ryan Ellis has made several appearances out of a very deep talent pool for Team Canada (though none in best-on-best play, and P.K. Subban is a bona fide superstar.

That’s a lot of talent concentrated at one end of the ice, and with Dante Fabbro showing well in his first NHL appearance and heading off to join Team Canada as well now that the Predators have been eliminated, it’s fair to ask whether it’s time to make a change.

We’ll look at the Fab Four / Four Horsemen / whatever your preferred term is, and examine the cases for and against trading each of them, before drawing some conclusions.

P.K. Subban

Dallas Stars v Nashville Predators - Game One Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

We’ll start in the most obvious place. Rumors are already circulating that David Poile might be looking at trading Subban.

I haven’t polled the entire OTF team about this, so don’t take this as a site viewpoint, but these rumors are bad and they should feel bad about themselves.

The Case for Trading Subban:

At this immediate moment, P.K. Subban has the highest cap hit of any player on the team ($9M/year). Like current blue-chip prospect Dante Fabbro, as well as Admirals hopefuls Frédéric Allard and Alexandre Carrier, Subban is a right-handed shot—handedness matters a lot more to defenders than it does to forwards.

Subban did have a bit of a down year during the regular season, with an overall lackluster defensive performance and his lowest point total over a non-lockout season since 2011-2012. It’s worth noting here that he only played 63 games, the fewest of his career due to missing time with an injury.

The injury history, for me, is the biggest argument for trading Subban. He left his last game with the Montreal Canadiens with a neck injury severe enough that they felt the need to stretcher him out, then experienced a herniated disc in his first year with the Predators. The details on his injury this season were not available, but I could see some concern over his longevity.

The Case against Trading Subban:

When healthy—as he was toward the end of this regular season and into the playoffs—Subban still manages excellent results. He’s a Norris-winning defender who’s gotten deeply involved in the community in Nashville without cutting ties to his projects in Montreal. He drives play up the ice, he doesn’t complain when he’s asked to take the blame for other people’s misplays, and he is consistently trustworthy in a shutdown role when facing the opponent’s best players. He’s also enormously fun to watch.

If none of that moves you, consider the circumstances of Subban’s move to Nashville—three years ago; in a swashbuckling blockbuster trade that cemented David Poile’s reputation as a GM who can do anything; and in exchange for franchise cornerstone, homegrown star, and former captain Shea Weber. The rumor out of Montreal newsrooms was that Subban was a problem to play with or coach or both. To their credit, the Predators have not fed these rumors, but if Poile decides to trade Subban again so soon he will not be bargaining from a position of strength.

For heaven’s sake, don’t trade Subban.

Roman Josi

Nashville Predators v Vegas Golden Knights Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Case for Trading Josi

I’m just going to say it: Josi has never been strong defensively. Any analysis of him as a hockey player that fails to take that into account is incomplete.

His current contract expires next summer. He is likely to ask for a sizable raise on his next contract. (Obviously, if contract negotiations fall apart, Poile will need to trade him rather than let him walk for nothing.)

He also has an even more worrying injury history than Subban. In January 2017, he told a Swiss-language newspaper that the “upper-body injury” he’d just suffered as a result of an illegally high hit was a concussion, and that it was his seventh concussion. That’s about, ooh, at least six too many for me to be comfortable here, even though he has obviously been medically cleared to return.

The Case against Trading Josi

I said that any analysis of Josi as a hockey player that failed to take his weaker defensive play into consideration was incomplete, but the same can be said of any analysis that leaves out what an absolute joy to watch he is on the attack. He skates beautifully, enters the zone with possession like he’s getting graded on it, and is one of the Preds’ best players at creating something completely out of nothing.

You cannot win a game zero to minus one, and by most metrics of evaluation Josi is more good offensively than he is bad defensively—that is, he’s a net positive to have on the ice. I think we are seeing hockey move more towards positionless play, like basketball already has, and Josi is fantastic as a rover.

Furthermore, there’s no obvious replacement for him in the system. 2017 draft pick David Farrance, who just finished his sophomore year at Boston University, is the only promising prospect who’s a left-handed shot. I asked Eric about Farrance; Eric described him as “a poor man’s Josi”—but Farrance is a twenty-year-old playing in the NCAA, and we have no idea what he’ll look like in the NHL, if he makes it.

A quick sidenote on the captaincy—

I’ve seen a lot of people saying that the Predators need to take the C away from Josi because of the team’s poor postseason performance while he’s been the captain, as the Sharks did with Joe Thornton after the reverse sweep by the Kings.

Firstly, that was in 2014, and it hasn’t helped the Sharks to the ultimate prize yet.

Secondly, if the Preds’ disappointing postseason performances the last two seasons were really because Josi was the captain, that really doesn’t sound like he’s the problem. They are all highly-paid professional athletes. If they’re not going to bother putting in some effort at their jobs because they’re not getting yelled at loudly enough or glared at soul-stirringly enough or whatever, that should be on them. If that sounds silly to you too, then maybe the captaincy isn’t the problem here at all.

Keep Josi or trade him, but don’t take away the C to make a point.

Mattias Ekholm

Nashville Predators v Vegas Golden Knights Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Case for Trading Ekholm

I mean, he did have a bad series against the Dallas Stars, showing some pretty poor judgment over the course of that fortnight. That happened, and recency bias is real.

The Case against Trading Ekholm

Literally everything else, good grief.

Ekholm is a fantastic shutdown defender coming off a career offensive season. He makes every right-handed shot he plays with get better defensive results. He suffocates opponents’ offense but still isn’t afraid to drive the net himself. He’s on a ridiculously team-friendly contract that goes through 2022. And there is no left-handed “poor man’s Ekholm” anywhere in the system.

I don’t even think there’s a right-handed poor man’s Ekholm. He is irreplaceable.

Ryan Ellis

Nashville Predators v Dallas Stars - Game Six Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Case for Trading Ellis

Ryan Ellis had a deeply forgettable season after signing a big contract extension that kicks in this summer. He has regularly missed time to injuries.

Like Subban, Ellis is a right-handed shot, and Fabbro or possibly another prospect could move up to take his place in the top four. Unlike Subban, Ellis doesn’t do anything particularly unique. He does have a nice slapshot, but that’s something the Predators need to be moving away from, not leaning into. He lacks Subban’s ability to take over a game, Ekholm’s elite shutdown play, and Josi’s dazzling offense. He’s there, and he’s good, but that might not be good enough.

The Case against Trading Ellis

His “deeply forgettable season” actually featured a career high in points. He was fine defensively with Josi and great defensively with Ekholm.

Also, Ellis is listed at 5’10” and 180 pounds. Some of the teams that are looking for a right-handed defender with a booming slapshot might hesitate to pick up that kind of player at that size.

What’s more of an obvious concern, though, is that Ellis signed his extension so recently that it hasn’t yet kicked in, and he said he took a discount to keep the team together. If Poile does intend to move Ellis, he would be smart to wait until he has Josi’s signature on a new contract of his own. That timeline could complicate things; some teams will have already addressed their needs in draft-floor trades or free agency, and that would therefore cut down on Poile’s potential trading partners.

Conclusions

There is one other important thing to consider: there is going to be an expansion draft for the Seattle NHL Team with the same rules as George McPhee and the Vegas Golden Knights got.

Bluntly, David Poile cannot go into the expansion draft trying to protect all of his defenders again. If he doesn’t make a trade, he’ll either have to leave someone exposed, or else he’ll have to spend four—or even five, depending on how much time Fabbro sees—of his protection slots on defenders. Again. Hoping that nobody wants your fourth-best forward is a terrible way to build a team.

I think he needs to trade a defender, and I think he needs to do it for a forward.

There are teams out there who need help on the blueline, and there are other teams that think they need help on the blueline but actually need help everywhere (’sup, Oilers?). Some internet GMs feel like Poile should accept the worst possible combination of players whose combined cap hits total $9M. I would suggest that, instead, he should target one of the teams that needs a defender and offer Ryan Ellis in exchange for a top-six forward. It’s the best plan for this team.


Thanks to capfriendly.com for contract information and to hockeyviz.com for big-picture assistance. Player stats from hockey-reference.com.