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How the third pairing will help the Predators win this year

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When the head coach trusts the third defense pairing, everyone benefits.

NHL: JAN 08 Predators Training Camp Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I’ve gone on record plenty of times as both a defender of, and complainer about, the Nashville Predators’ third defensive pairing. I feel more than willing to complain about bad defense on the third pairing when it’s merited, but I get rebuked quite often when people assume I expect the third pairing to play to like Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis.

Of course, I don’t expect that at all, but being taken to task several times for this perceived belief is what’s led me to become a champion of the third pairing. I’d like to think I have a firm grasp on what’s to be expected from the these gritty and often maligned ice warriors. Firm enough, at least, to know what’s good and what’s bad. So before I start, I want to set the record straight.

The third pairing on any given NHL team, along with the fourth forward line, are quite often the roster spots that are filled last. The main reason is because teams expect these players to see the least amount of ice time, and aren’t going to focus a large amount of their limited cap space on filling the spots. So with the price tags you’re willing to pay for, you certainly aren’t expecting to get Norris-caliber talent. At the same time, the third pairing isn’t a spot you’re going to put your hotshot, up-and-coming defensive prospects either. These aren’t the kinds of minutes you want that prospect to see. That’s because the role of third-pairing defender is quite different than that of the top-four defender.

What, exactly, is expected of a defender on the third pair? To quote Matt Benning, “I think for me and Boro, it’s just being simple: breaking out pucks, playing hard, making it hard on their forwards to get to the net, bringing some toughness back there, finishing checks, eating some minutes on the penalty kill.”

Why is this significant to the Predators this year? To understand why the additions of Mark Borowiecki and Matt Benning are so revolutionary for this team, you’ll have to take a look back at the recent past.

Matt Irwin. Anthony Bitetto. Yannick Weber. Jarred Tinordi. Dan Hamhuis. Alexei Emelin.

If that list sounds a bit underwhelming, there’s a reason. I don’t want to start a list of complaints against these former Predators third-pairing defenders. I could. And, honestly, if you go back, you can find plenty of instances where I’ve done this. Most of these guys were playing for league minimum, on two-way contracts, or found ways to clear waivers numerous times. This is all a condition of waiting to fill these roles last.

It isn’t a terrible plan for building a team, but it did lead to some moments on ice where these guys were absolutely torched by the other team. And what’s bad is, you couldn’t even really be that upset at them. They weren’t presenting themselves as defensive wizards—these were guys that can skate and fill the role semi-competently. There were bright spots: Yannick Weber could stand a guy up at the blue line like no other. Tony Bitetto had a great personality. Matt Irwin’s stick was once launched into orbit. Dan Hamhuis was a pretty darn good defender in his prime. Alexei Emelin partnered with P.K. Subban while Ryan Ellis spent half a season rehabilitating from knee surgery.

Unfortunately, with so little attention given to filling this role competently, the team wound up with a third pairing that saw their minutes severely limited and didn’t end up on the penalty killing squad. The result of this was that Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis spent quite a bit more time on the ice than they needed to. Of course, many would point out that Roman Josi won the Norris Trophy while spending that much time on the ice. However, the miles and the wear and tear add up, especially as players start to age; if your best defenders don’t have to skate thirty minutes a night, that’s good for everyone.

Josi and Ellis both have injury histories, and neither of them are getting any younger. As a lot of you know, and the rest of you will find out, doing any kind of hard physical work at 30 is very different from doing it at 20, and a deep playoff run or a playoff run with lots of overtimes can take its toll. With the compressed season this year, fatigue and injury risks will build up fast even before teams make it to the postseason, and even healthy players will be skating through sludge while tired.

When asked about playing as a defender on the team with the reigning Norris winner, Mark Borowiecki described his role as “a chance to keep him fresh and make sure he’s on his game that way, we’re happy to to shoulder that load a little bit and chip in in whatever way we can.”

In the most recent offseason, Predators general manager David Poile went out and picked up a couple of defenders in free agency that he and John Hynes trust can play that role effectively. Mark Borowiecki came from the Ottawa Senators on a two-year deal with a value of $2 million AAV. While this isn’t league minimum, he’s one of the lowest paid veterans on the team. To partner with him, Poile picked up Matt Benning, a somewhat younger player with a similar size and mentality to Borowiecki, who seems eager to learn from his D partner. Benning came from the Edmonton Oilers on an even cheaper deal: two years with an AAV of $1 million.

While three million dollars a year for the bottom pairing is more than the team was paying Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber, it doesn’t take into consideration that the team was also typically paying a seventh defender to rotate into the third pairing on a regular basis. Sure, it may cost a little more for two solid defenders than it does for three below-replacement level defenders, but the investment is certainly worth the return. So far this season:

Nashville 3rd Pairing Performance To Start Each Season 2018-2021

2020-21 Season 2019-20 Season 2018-19 Season
2020-21 Season 2019-20 Season 2018-19 Season
Game 1 - Predators 3, Blue Jackets 1 Game 1 - Predators 5, Wild 2 Game 1 - Predators 3, Rangers 2
3rd Pair: Borowiecki-Benning 3rd Pair: Hamhuis-Weber 3rd Pair: Hamhuis-Weber
TOI: 14:34 TOI: 11:34 TOI: 11:40
xGF%: 54.3% xGF%: 58.1% xGF%: 39.9%
Game 2 - Predators 5, Blue Jackets 2 Game 2 - Predators 3, Red Wings 5 Game 2 - Predators 4, Islanders 3
3rd Pair: Borowiecki-Benning 3rd Pair: Hamhuis-Weber 3rd Pair: Bitetto-Weber
TOI: 15:07 TOI: 11:58 TOI: 9:34
xGF%: 18.7% xGF%: 44.0% xGF%: 67.9%
Game 3 - Predators 2, Hurricanes 4 Game 3 - Predators 5, Sharks 2 Game 3 - Predators 0, Flames 3
3rd Pair: Borowiecki-Benning 3rd Pair: Irwin-Weber 3rd Pair: Bitetto-Weber
TOI: 7:55 TOI: 11:46 TOI: 10:18
xGF%: 35.1% xGF%: 19.9% xGF%: 48.2%
Evaluating the Predators’ third pair’s performance through the first three games of the past three seasons. All stats are all-situations. Natural Stat Trick

Of course, the numbers only tell one side of the story, but the other side of the story is what really matters. Roman Josi, in his preseason media availability, commented that when he looked at the roster and saw Mark Borowiecki on his team, he felt a sense of relief knowing that he didn’t have to play against him anymore. This is the kind of player you want on your third pairing—someone who strikes fear into the hearts of your opponents.

As for Borowiecki’s take on his new teammate? “I’m sure Roman’s a great penalty killer and he’s happy to do it, but the real way he takes over a game is with the puck on his stick and driving the game offensively. So, a chance to keep him fresh and make sure he’s on his game that way, we’re happy to to shoulder that load a little bit and chip in in whatever way we can.”

And the new third pairing has been chipping in. Early in the season, I noticed one of the Columbus Blue Jackets had an opportunity to get involved in a scrum for the puck with Matt Benning. There was a brief hesitation as the player looked up to realize it was Benning, and then decided to skate away from the puck instead of getting mixed up with him. In another game, Borowiecki was engaged in a net-front battle in defense of Juuse Saros. Even after the play moved out of the zone, Borowiecki continued the battle, neutralizing his opponent and reminding him that this kind of treatment awaits the next time he enters the crease. The Predators’ defense in recent years has struggled to clear out their own crease, just as they’ve struggled to get into the opponents’, so it’s good to see some sightlines getting cleared for Saros and Rinne.

More than anything, Borowiecki and Benning have been entrusted with more minutes at 5v5 and are fixtures on the penalty kill. As Benning says, “Throughout my career and Boro’s, those are the things that we did well at, so that’s been a good fit for us. I think for our situation we have great communication. I think we did a good job breaking out pucks last game and through camp. I think we read well off each other and we’re looking to build off that.”

That’s not going to translate into much more offense for the bottom two, but the big payoff is that Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis spend a lot less time on the ice, and that means they can focus their energy instead of burning so much of it playing the extra minutes the third pair should be taking, and that means the whole team will benefit.