With the forward situation still in flux, we’re starting this season’s previews off with a look at the back end of the ice.
Shoring up a few glaring issues in the Nashville Predators’ defense was a key focus for GM David Poile this offseason. The departure of Dan Hamhuis, Korbinian Holzer, Matt Irwin, and Steve Santini (retirement, KHL, traded for Holzer, and Blues respectively) created opportunities to address defensive concerns. Familiar talent and a few smart signings may be the key to significant improvement at the blue line.
2019-2020: GP: 69; G: 16; A: 49; P: 65; xGA/60: 2.3
There’s really no need to review Roman Josi’s highlights from 2019-2020.
Let’s do it anyway.
Josi finished his Norris-Trophy-winning 2019-20 season proving that so far he is worth every penny of his eight-year, $72-million contract. Despite losing his defense partner Ryan Ellis to injury midway through season, Josi was able to shoulder the top pairing challenges effectively. Josi’s end-to-end play, smooth puckhandling, and vision in all three zones make him a top Predators player to watch this season.
2019-2020: GP: 49; G: 8; A: 30: P: 38; xGA/60: 2.16
Ryan Ellis was an impact player for the Predators last season, and he looks to continue that same high-level contribution this season. Between an injury that kept him out of 20 games early in 2020 and his defensive partner winning the Norris Trophy, it could be easy to overlook Ellis.
That would be a mistake. Ellis is a physical defender who makes Josi even better (Josi’s xGA/60 with Ellis drops to 1.94). Despite missing a month of the season, Ellis finished with 30 assists, second only to Josi. If he can elevate his special teams play just a bit, he could have an excellent season.
2019-2020: GP: 68; G: 8; A: 25; P: 33; xGA/60: 2.53
Ekholm is coming off of a disappointing season, but there is good reason to believe he will see better numbers looking ahead. While Ekholm has never been an offensive powerhouse, he is usually a steady defensive force for the Predators. Last season was a struggle. Paired for over half his total TOI (1233:35—the most for any defender for the Predators) with a young Dante Fabbro, Ekholm struggled to be more aggressive defensively while still covering for Fabbro’s learning curve.
Despite a rough past year, there is no reason to panic when it comes to Ekholm. The team scrimmages indicate he will continue to be paired with Fabbro, although it might be fun to see how Ekholm does with a more aggressive, experienced partner.
2019-2020: GP: 64; G: 5; A: 6; Points: 11; xGA/60: 2.38
Young Fabbro earned a spot on the Predators’ roster after dipping his toe in the water at the end of the 2018-19 season. A full season provided ample opportunity for growth, and Fabbro definitely experienced some growing pains in 2019-20. Despite playing the majority of his minutes with Ekholm, the two never really found their groove, and both suffered for it—both statistically and to the eye test.
It looks like head coach John Hynes believes a little more time and experience together may be the key to unlocking better seasons for both Fabbro and Ekholm.
2019-2020: GP: 43; G: 1; A: 7: P: 8; xGA/60: 2.27
The Predators signed unrestricted free agent Matt Benning to a two-year, $1M AAV deal. GM David Poile praised Benning’s physicality, skating, and offensive contributions. Benning’s experience (248 total games with the Edmonton Oilers), his physical play, and his ability to carry the puck through the neutral zone are all skills that solidify his roster spot for the third pairing.
2019-2020: GP: 53; G: 7; A: 11; P: 18; xGA/60: 2.59
Mark Borowiecki is a player whose numbers don’t tell the real story. He played on a struggling Ottawa Senators defense that ended the regular season second to last in the league in goals allowed per game (3.35). What Borowiecki brings to the Predators is physicality, especially in front of the net. A major focus for John Hynes is getting a more physical team, and Borowiecki plays with an intensity that could spark an important mental shift for the entire team as well.
The Predators will likely round out the roster with Jarred Tinordi who played 28 games in the 2019-2020 season. While Tinordi struggled at times (xGA/60 of 2.7), he remained in favor with the coaching staff and is expected to make the team roster.
After becoming an unrestricted free agent, Yannick Weber returned to the Predators training camp with a PTO. Despite not making much impact in his 41 games last season, Weber’s familiarity with the organization makes him a viable taxi squad player.
Jérémy Davies played on a fantastic Milwaukee Admirals team that was a favorite to win the Calder Cup before the season was cut short due to COVID. Davies earned 28 points in his 62 games last season and may take advantage of an opportunity to play NHL minutes should they need another defenseman from the taxi squad.
Assuming they aren’t cut from both team and taxi squad, we’ll have more on all three of these players later this week—Tinordi and Weber with the role players, and Davies with the young guns.