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Dante Time?: Three big questions about the Predators’ defense

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The defense is still the strength of the Preds’ game, but that doesn’t mean they’re without uncertainty.

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

All right, two things before we delve into this...

1.) Despite his down year in 2019, I thought P.K. Subban was the best all-around defender on the Predators’ roster, and it wouldn’t be a hot take to say he was the best the team has ever had.

2.) Even after the trade, the remaining defensive corps is STILL the strength of the team, and—likewise—it wouldn’t be a hot take to say the trio of Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm are among the best in the league. In fact, Corsica had Josi-Ellis rated as the top “DL1” (top pair) in the league last year, so it’s not like the team is suddenly devoid of talent on the back end.

Player-wise, the defense for next year is (probably, for the most part) set. They have eight guys locked up on the main roster for next season, including Subban’s presumptive replacement, Dante Fabbro.

And yet, there’s still uncertainty on the back end. It’s no disrespect to anyone on the roster. That’s just what happens when you trade your best defender. Some of that uncertainty may go away in the first 30 games, some may linger well into the next several seasons.

So let’s start with addressing that giant, fancy-hat shaped hole left by the trade...

Is Dante Fabbro ready for a top-four role?

Certainly, the team feels Fabbro is ready for a bigger role. They wouldn’t have traded one of their cornerstones had there been doubts, something Poile himself confirmed as quoted in Adam Vignan’s latest piece in The Athletic:

“I probably would not have made this trade if Dante Fabbro hadn’t signed with the Predators and hadn’t played at the end of the year and hadn’t played as well as he did. That gave me good confidence that … we could still have a good defense and trade somebody like P.K.”

Fabbro, of course, did have an impressive run to end the year, playing the last four games of the regular season and all six playoff contests (getting a goal and an assist in that span). It was what you’d expect from a top prospect making his first pro run—flashes of brilliance mixed with one or two cringeworthy mistakes.

In a perfect world, Dante Fabbro steps into Subban’s spot with Ekholm, immediately lives up to his potential, wins the Calder with a 60-point season, and I get to stop writing about this and spend the rest of my summer sipping Jack and Cokes on a rooftop bar somewhere.

Perfect world, right?

And yet, Fabbro has played ten NHL games, all on the bottom pairing, and all while averaging less than 13 minutes of ice time.

A top-four role is a different beast. You’re expected to play 20 minutes a game, most of which will come against one of the other team’s top lines. There’s also special teams responsibilities, something Fabbro didn’t have to deal with last season (per Fox Sports’s stats, he had no power play shifts in either the regular season or playoffs, and only a brief appearance on the kill).

Top prospects of the past, including the current core of Josi, Ellis, and Ekholm, had the luxury of “easing in” for a year: playing on the bottom pair or splitting time between Nashville and Milwaukee. It gave them a chance to adjust to life in the NHL while slowly tackling more responsibility as the season goes on.

Will the Predators expect Fabbro to step in and immediately fill all of Subban’s production?Absolutely not. But whether it’s fair or not, there will be higher expectations—from the team and the fanbase—sooner rather than later.

Who wins the battle for the bottom pair?

The top four is set. The bottom two, on the other hand, is a game of roulette.

Dan Hamhuis, 36, is back for another year, and is coming off a season that...wasn’t bad? The counting stats weren’t impressive (only 5 points, all assists), but the advanced metrics didn’t hate him for the role he played. And given he’s still a reliable option on the penalty kill, it’s highly likely he anchors the left side of the bottom pair, at least to start.

But what about his partner? There’s Steve Santini, the guy who fans will forever associate with Subban. With a $1.5 million cap hit, it makes financial sense for Peter Laviolette and David Poile to give Santini every opportunity to make an impact.

That being said, he fell out of favor as his time with the Devils went on. Our own resident stats guru/all-around awesome boss Kate R. did a breakdown of his last season with New Jersey, and guys...it...it doesn’t look great. I’ll let her sum it up.

There was no player on the Preds’ roster last year who was as much as a nonentity in the offensive zone as Santini. Cody McLeod was better at generating offense. Santini is decent in his own zone, which most players as horrible as he is at getting out of it are not, but it’s tricky to see how he fits in the Predators’ system.

The old depth stalwarts, Yannick Weber and Matt Irwin, also both return for one more season. Metrics/stats-wise, both had better seasons than Santini and have the added bonus of already having chemistry with the rest of the defensive corps. Both also still bring value on special teams, with Weber having some puck-handling upside, and Irwin still getting meaningful shifts on the penalty kill.

However, Laviolette doesn’t seem to have the same level of trust in either that he had during their solid run together in the 2017 Cup run. Neither played a postseason game last year (Weber, in fact, only played in four the season before), and at times it’s hard to find either on the ice in the final stretch of games.

There’s also the slight possibility Poile makes another move on the back end. For now, though, it’s looking like the trio of Santini, Weber, and Irwin will compete for that sixth defenseman role.

Who’s next in the pipeline?

So with Dante Fabbro fast-tracked to the roster, who could be the next “superstar of tomorrow” we see this season?

A while back (as the newbie), I asked the OTF group for one or two names (from any position) that could be due for a breakout, and one name that seemed to be a consensus was Frédéric Allard. He’s just 21, but already has two full seasons under his belt in Milwaukee.

Alexandre Carrier is another defensive prospect that seems ready for the next step. Carrier, 22, finished last season as Milwaukee’s fourth leading scorer (top defensive scorer). He actually got two games of NHL experience back in the 2017 season, but hasn’t had a call-up since.

It’s also not completely out of the question we see the other asset in the Subban deal, Jérémy Davies, at some point. Our resident prospects czar, Eric Dunay, put together an excellent breakdown of what fans can expect from Davies (which you can read here). At 22 and entering his first season as a pro, the Preds won’t rush him to the lineup. But if the rosters get thin and/or the team needs a shake-up on the back end towards the end of the year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get a look for a game or two.

What about you, Forecheckers? How are you feeling about the state of the Preds’ D?