Can Nashville’s dynamic defensemen stop Crosby, Malkin and Penguins?

PITTSBURGH – There’s a longstanding tradition in professional sports that when a group of players achieve a level of dominance, the group earns a collective name. That goes for lines in hockey or bullpens in baseball or defensive secondaries in football.

And yet one of the deepest, most talented groups in recent Stanley Cup Playoff memory – the Nashville Predators’ defense corps – exists sans moniker.

“No Legion of Boom or anything like that,” said defenseman Ryan Ellis, he of the majestic red beard. “We’re just six guys, trying to do our jobs.”

So far, it’s a job well-done. Through 16 games, the Predators have a team goals-against average of 1.81, which at this point is the second-lowest GAA since the 2005 lockout. The Los Angeles Kings posted a 1.50 goals-against average through 20 games in 2012. Things worked out OK for them that season, if memory serves.

They’re dominant on the other end of the ice as well. Four of Nashville’s top eight scorers are defensemen: Ellis (4 goals, 7 assists), Roman Josi (5 goals, 5 assists), P.K. Subban (2 goals, 8 assists) and Mattias Ekholm (8 assists).

“Usually it’s one [Erik] Karlsson. Here, [it’s] like four Karlssons,” said Penguins center Evgeni Malkin.

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Nashville’s defensemen will tell you it’s a “five-man effort” defensively, and they’ll be quick to defer credit to goalie Pekka Rinne, but there’s no question that this group of six players – Josi and Ellis, Subban and Ekholm, Yannick Weber and Matt Irwin – are the foundation on which the Predators have built three stellar series victories en route to the Western Conference championship.

And they’re the group that will be tasked with handling Sidney Crosby, Malkin and Phil Kessel, against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final.

“I thought about it the other day,” said Ekholm. “If you took the three toughest teams from our conference to get through to get here, we’ve done that. Now, we get to have a challenge to play against two of the best centermen in the world. We’re ready for it.”

The Construction 

If you had predicted five years ago that the Nashville Predators would be playing for the Stanley Cup in 2017 thanks to a deep, dominant blue line, it would have been a reasonable assumption. Except you might have imagined it would be Shea Weber and Ryan Suter headlining that effort.

But Suter bolted for a free-agent windfall from the Minnesota Wild in 2012. Weber was traded for Subban last summer in one of the most controversial moves in NHL history. Even Seth Jones, once a prized defensive prospect for the team, was sent to Columbus in exchange for Ryan Johansen.

Yet here are the Predators, still with the deepest blue line in the NHL.

“When I look at what’s taken place, it’s remarkable we were able to trade the three players that you just mentioned and still have arguably one of the best defenses in the National Hockey League,” said GM David Poile. “All that credit goes to Paul Fenton, Jeff Kealty, our amateur scouts, in terms of them providing us and me specifically with the tools to make those big trades, the three names you just mentioned. That’s a huge ‘wow’ that we were able to do that and still be competitive at the defensive position.”

Josi was selected in the second round of the NHL Draft in 2008, No. 38 overall. It was one of the deepest drafts for defensemen the League’s ever seen: Drew Doughty (No. 2), Alex Pietrangelo (No. 4), Tyler Myers (No. 12), John Carlson (No. 27) and some guy named Erik Karlsson (No. 15) went ahead of him. He played 406 games with Bern of the Swiss league prior to joining the NHL.

Ellis was drafted No. 11 overall in 2009, right ahead of Calvin de Haan. He had 141 points in 352 games for the OHL Windsor Spitfires.

Ekholm was taken No. 102 overall in the fourth round in 2009, after 309 games with Mora in Sweden.

Yannick Weber was a free-agent acquisition from the Vancouver Canucks, after three seasons there. He played 73 games in the regular season for the Preds. His partner, Irwin, was a smart free-agent pickup from the Boston Bruins last summer.

“I think they’ve been incredible. Probably the least two defensemen talked about based on the top four being who they are,” said coach Peter Laviolette. “But I think they’ve done an amazing job defensively. They’re a little bit different in style. Matty is a little bit bigger. I think he uses his body well. I think that Weby has the opportunity to jump the net offensively, see if he can’t put himself into the rush or the offense a little bit more.”

And then there’s Subban. Perhaps you’re aware of the trade that brought him to Nashville.

“One of the toughest things for me to think about was coming into a locker room where he had been there for 12 years and where he was a captain, and how I was going to fit in,” said Subban of Shea Weber.

There were also questions about Subban from the Predators. It wasn’t always the easiest ride for him in Montreal. Poile and the organization had heard plenty about Subban ahead of the trade. “Some good, maybe some not so good,” recalled Poile.

So Poile invited Subban, his family and his representatives to Nashville to meet the Predators’ management last year, to get on the same page heading into the season. Poile asked him what his goals were.

“To win the Stanley Cup,” was the reply from Subban.

“I said, ‘That’s what our goals are, too,’” said Poile. “‘If we can get that straightened away in terms of your desires to be the best hockey player you can be, and we can both work towards winning the Stanley Cup together, we’ve got mostly everything covered.’”

The Pairings

Laviollette said it took a little trial and error to get to the pairings the Predators have today.

Ekholm and Ellis were paired in training camp, with Subban and Josi playing in the World Cup of Hockey. The team got off to a rocky start in October, so Laviolette decided to pair Ekholm with Subban and Josi with Ellis.

“I think the obvious was to try to put Roman Josi and P.K. together, right? As it turned out, the numbers and the eyeball all pointed to Roman and Ryan being a terrific pair. Ekholm and Subban being a really, really big, strong, tough pair to play against,” he said. “They’ve been able to handle a lot of minutes and a lot of big opponents. We really haven’t changed from that probably in maybe five months, six months.”

So what is the Predators’ top defensive pairing? Is it Ellis and Josi, or is it Subban and Ekholm?

“I think all of our defensemen have done a really good job. It’s more difficult, I think, on the road to maybe get matchups forwards and defensively. But I know with regard to the top four, they’ve both played against top lines,” said Laviolette. “A lot of the teams that we’ve gone through have had two top lines, two centermen that can draw your attention. Last round was the same thing. This round is no different.”

It’s a good problem to have, obviously, when a coach can toss out either pairing and feel confident they can get the job done. And lord knows they’ve gotten it done: Ask Patrick Kane (1 goal, 1 assist) and Jonathan Toews (1 goal, 1 assist) and Vladimir Tarasenko (2 goals, 1 assist) and Ryan Getzlaf (no goals, four assists) and Corey Perry (2 goals) about facing this Nashville defense.

But there’s been some good analysis this week on which pairing is the true top pairing.

From Travis Yost of TSN:

Subban/Ekholm spend much more time in the offensive zone than either of Nashville’s other pairings. The interesting thing is that while Corsi% is pretty disparate, Goal% is much flatter. That would certainly seem to suggest that, for whatever reason, Nashville’s non-Subban/Ekholm pairings have been relatively more reliant on their own goaltending to bail them out of trouble. That seems less like an indicator of quality defensive performance and more of a data point in support of Pekka Rinne.

In summary: Nashville’s blueline is fantastic (duh), and I think Laviolette really does trust his top four to play in all situations against varying levels of difficulty. I also think that, in light of the above, it’s hard to argue that Nashville’s best pairing isn’t Subban-Ekholm. They are burdened with the same amount of minutes, the same number of “difficult” minutes based on opposition quality, and generally come out as better performers.

Tyler Dellow also took a look at the pairings on The Athletic.

So would the Predators deploy Subban and Ekholm against the Sidney Crosby line or against the Evgeni Malkin line?

“I really have no idea. So we’ll prepare accordingly,” said Ekholm.

(For the record: We’d throw Subban and Ekholm against the Crosby unit, which can be the catalyst for the Penguins on most nights. Pin them in their own zone. It’s the best defense.)

“In the previous series, we’ve faced guys like Tarasenko and Toews and Getzlaf and Perry, what have you. When they get up to that level, where there are elite scorers, there’s not too much that separates them,” said Ekholm.

“We just gotta be sure we take care of the puck in the right areas. Don’t turn it over on our blue line or their blue line or the red line so they can get those counters. We have to play a heavy game in their end. As long as we’re in their zone, it’s hard to score 200 feet on Peks.”

The Future

There’s one defenseman on the ice during Predators practice that appears to have more fun than everyone else, even P.K. Subban – laughing, clowning, keeping things light.

Except the last time this defenseman played in the NHL was in 2003.

“That’s him, right there,” said Ekholm of Phil Housely. “He’s so much fun to be around. He never takes anything too seriously.”

Housley is a Hockey Hall of Famer and has been an assistant coach with the Predators since 2013. He was hired by Poile to coach the defense and the power play. He remained with Nashville after Barry Trotz was fired, and is credited with being a major influence on this current group of Predators D-men.

“Howie’s so smart. He sees the game a lot differently than a lot of people would. We take what he says, and we roll with it,” said Ellis.

Housely takes pride in the development of players like Ellis and Ekholm.

“I think anybody that steps in the NHL, especially at the defensive position, it takes time,” Housely told Puck Daddy earlier this month. “Just the reads – knowing who you’re playing against with the players around this league and their characteristics. That takes time, maybe one or one-and-a-half years and then you get into the mix. (Ellis and Ekholm) have earned more minutes each year. They haven’t been given everything and that’s a credit to them. They’ve really worked hard at it, and then now they deserve what they’re getting.”

The good news for Nashville is that this core of four defensemen – Subban, Josi, Ekholm and Ellis – are all locked up for at least the next two seasons. (Subban and Ekholm are signed through 2022; Josi through 2020; Ellis through 2019.) Looking at the expansion draft possibilities for Nashville, they’ll likely protect all of them, with Irwin signed through 2018 and Weber an unrestricted free agent this summer.

But they might lose a significant part of their defense crops: Housely, who is under consideration for the vacant Florida Panthers coaching gig and potentially the one for the Buffalo Sabres as well.

“It would be a tough blow to this team. Everyone loves him around the rink. There are few people that can offer that kind of knowledge,” said Ellis. “But that’s something for another day.”

No, today is the culmination of several years of drafting and coaching and trades. Today is about Josi and Ellis and Ekholm and Subban and Irwin and Weber, creating the foundation for a potential championship. Today is about the deepest blueline in the NHL standing in the way of the defending Stanley Cup champions’ quest for a repeat.

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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