If you’ve been paying attention to Gone Puck Wild lately, and shame on you if you haven’t, then you know school has begun as Wild fans brush up on their knowledge of the new teams within Minnesota’s division. This week, that new team just so happens to have a score to settle with Minnesota–that’s right–we’re talking about the Nashville Predators. Going through Sunday, we’ll break down Nashville’s major additions and subtractions, strengths and weaknesses, prospect pool, 2013 draft class and team outlook.
There may be a shift in culture in Nashville, but it’s not to change the defense–it’s to add some actual offensive firepower. Until all the kinks are undone on the offensive side of things, defense is still king in Tennessee.
After being in the top-10 in goals against average in 2010-11 and 2011-2012, Nashville dropped all the way to 29th last season. Sure, there wasn’t time for a proper training camp and preseason with the lockout ending so suddenly. However, I don’t think anyone would disagree with the fact that the biggest reason for the team’s defensive struggles was the lack of franchise defenseman Ryan Suter anchoring the top pairing with captain Shea Weber. Barry Trotz can whine and complain all he wants, but the pieces are in place for him to have an amazingly talented blue line for many, many years to come.
Considering the “old-timers” on the back end, Shea Weber and Kevin Klein, are only 28 years old, this is a very young blue line as it is. Swiss defender Roman Josi, who spent a good amount of time on the top pairing with Weber last season, is without question the No. 1 option amongst left-shot defenders. Without the hulking Hal Gill, Victor Bartley is next in line for left defense on the second pairing skating alongside Klein. Bartley is one of those undrafted free agent gems teams can occasionally find. He’s not going to be an offensive dynamo, but he can certainly be a good, solid puck-moving defenseman that knows how to put up some points from the back end.
Behind the top two pairings is a sizeable third pairing that has a much higher ceiling than the bottom of the back end. On the left, you have your mandatory Swedish defenseman, Mattias Ekholm, and on the right, Seth Jones. Standing at 6’4″ 203-pounds and 205-pounds, respectively, both youngsters stand a serious chance of being legitimate top-4 defenders in the league for a long time to come. Both defenders play a smart two-way game and possess booming shots, giving Nashville a double threat from the point in the offensive zone.
Most people are expecting Trotz and Poile to skate Jones alongside Weber, and really, is there a better mentor in Nashville’s defensive corps for the young man many expected to go 1st overall this summer? I mean, it worked for Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin. If two lefties can play together, why not two righties? However, the biggest reason not to pair Weber and his not so “mini-me” together is because it balances out the talent down the defensive pairings. I’m sure it wouldn’t be unreasonable for Jones to play on the top pairing, but his game is so mature and elite that he’s a guy coaches can trust to put out on any defensive pairing without being a liability.
That said, I just don’t see how he doesn’t claim a permanent spot in the lineup. If he does, Ryan Ellis will be the odd man out. While not a real physical defenseman, Ellis is one of the very best puck movers in Nashville’s system and was an offensive dynamo in juniors. However, at 5’10”, he’s the smallest defender on the Preds’ blue line and is stuck behind Kevin Klein, and likely Seth Jones, on the right side. He’ll have to have a very impressive training camp to prove he’s more than Nashville’s seventh man on the back end.
With a current average age of around 23 years old on the blue line, there’s no question the defensive corps’ best days are ahead of them in the Music City.