There’s a few reasons I’m fascinated by the Nashville Predators this season. One, they have my favorite person in the league now in P.K. Subban. They were already one of the more entertaining teams to watch before Subban even arrived. Whether or not John Tortorella was right about Ryan Johansen is something to be studied as well. The idea of them finally breaking through to the later rounds of the playoffs for a fanbase that has become one of the best in the league as well is another reason to watch.
But what I’m really interested in seeing is that I’m not sure we’ve seen a blue line constructed like this before, and what it might mean for the future.
Here in Chicago, we’ve become accustomed to our pairings being made up of one puck-mover, and one free safety. Keith-Seabrook, Hammer-Oduya/Campbell/Keith now, Leddy-Tomato Can, we could go on and on. And this is how most NHL teams do it, because it’s actually not all that easy to have multiple d-men who can really rush up the ice with the puck or without. The Predators are going to sport at least four puck-movers, and could sport six if they play Weber and Bitetto if they put Matt Carle out to the pasture where he belongs.
Where it really gets interesting to me is we still have a hard time evaluating the “defensive” defenseman. The analytics we all take very seriously now value shot-differentials and being up the ice, something that type of player just doesn’t do. I think Hjalmarsson is one of the best defensive d-men in the league, if not the best. And he’s got good possession numbers, but is that a result of playing alongside some of the best puck-movers around? At the same time, the really good players of this type are seeing the best forwards night after night, which is going to hurt their possession numbers. We can’t really put any value on what Hammer does well, because we know blocking shots and being physical down low don’t really connect to wins. Most defensive d-men get beaten about the face when looking at them in terms of possession numbers.
The list of defensive d-men we’ve come to know as residents of Suck-ville over the years is a long one. Girardi, Mitchell, Scuderi, Jackman, Carle, Coburn, Orpik are just some of the names we’ve derided for making far too much money for what little they do. This list could go on much longer.
And now we have the Preds, who are going to start the season with Subban, Josi, Ekholm and Ellis in the top four. All of them plus-possession players (though Josi dipped the past couple years playing the tough competition with Weber). They can eschew the whole thing. Will it result in too many odd-man rushes against for it to work? Or will having so many players who dominate the puck on the ice at the same time overcome that? What we do know is that Nashville is going to play at a pretty ridiculous pace.
But can you survive without someone hanging at the back? Someone who is a safety net?Even though we can’t really evaluate these players in the same way, do we have to find one? Even if we use Corsi-against per 60 or shots against per 60, we still see those puck-moving d-men at the top of that list like Hampus! Hampus! or Vlasic and Doughty. The best way to stop shots and attempts against to be generating your own, it seems.
Though we’re still years away from any kind of roster-building revolution, someone one day is going to build a roster with heavy analytical influence. And they’re not going to value blocked shots and grit or nastiness. And this is where the type of player that is produced could change. The type of d-man that teams want change, and if you can’t skate you’re not going to make it.
It’s why I hope the Predators really do make some noise in the spring. It wouldn’t be the end-all be-all, but it would be a step in the right direction.