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Central: Poile going D-first an A-plus move

Tuesday, 11.17.2009 / 1:00 AM / Division Notebooks

By Larry Wigge - NHL.com Columnist

It was a few moments after the Nashville Predators had selected two defensemen, Ryan Suter with the 7th pick and Shea Weber with the 49th pick, that GM David Poile kind of smiled and looked around at the tables of 2003 Stanley Cup-champion New Jersey Devils and the 2002 Detroit Red Wings and the 2001 Colorado Avalanche.

Each of those teams built a top-notch top four on defense and skated through the playoffs.

"I like how the novel's started," Poile joked after five of his first eight picks in the 2003 Entry Draft were defensemen.

Before the 2004-05 lockout season, the trend to spend big bucks on a solid defense was prudent. Since the lockout, a whole new free-flowing system has opened up the game, so building from the D on out is essential since everything is triggered in the transition game from defense to offense.

After watching the Preds skate out of St. Louis on Nov. 12 with a 3-1 victory, coach Barry Trotz pointed to the fact that he got well over 20 minutes of sound play on defense by Suter, Weber and Dan Hamhuis, who had been the team's first-round pick, the 12th pick, in 2001.

While others have called the 2003 draft the best ever, Nashville is proof of that fact.

"It's amazing when you look back at the 2003 draft," marveled Trotz. "We have four defensemen on our roster today from that draft -- Ryan, Shea, Kevin Klein and Alexander Sulzer."

Then Trotz added this trip down memory lane, saying, "I look back at 'Sutes' and 'Webs' and see all the great things they have done for us over the last five years ... and then I remember that they were both just 24 when this season started. You know something, I really think they could give us another 10-12 seasons like this. Isn't that something?"

That was Poile's Plan A -- to draft, sign and develop his own corps of defensemen instead of going out and paying big bucks to bring in free agents to fill out the back line.

Weber was being touted as a Norris Trophy candidate last season when he scored an astounding 23 goals and had 30 assists. Suter was just eight points behind him, with 7 goals and 38 assists. In fact, Nashville's dynamic duo joined Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski and Niklas Kronwall, Anaheim's Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger, San Jose's Dan Boyle and Rob Blake, Boston's Zdeno Chara and Dennis Wideman and Edmonton's Sheldon Souray and Tom Gilbert as the only defensive tandems to have 45 or more points last season.

And don't look now, but Hamhuis and Klein are also over that 20-minute mark regularly along with bargain free-agent D-man Francis Bouillon. Plus, Cody Franson, the team's third-round pick in 2005, is coming fast.

But the development of the small-market Predators all comes back to Weber and Suter.

It's interesting to note that on Oct. 24 in Chicago, the Predators fell to 3-6-1 after losing 2-0. It was the third time in the first 10 games that Nashville had been shut out. The Preds come into this week on a 6-2-0 roll in which they began a five-game homestand with a 2-0 triumph against Montreal on Nov. 14. San Jose, New Jersey, Columbus and Detroit follow to Somnet Center.

And it's all driven by this young and team-leading defense, which accounted for 11 of the team's first 33 goals. And Weber was tied for the team lead with Patric Hornqvist with 5 goals apiece.

What this all comes down to is that Suter and Weber are not just two of the best young defensemen in the NHL, they are two of the best D-men period. And it's developed through ups and downs.

"We've got a great relationship on and off the ice," Weber said in talking about Suter. "We've grown up together. We've learned to read each other. There's a chemistry ... that's just there."

No time to catch Zs -- After a slow start coming off a groin injury that allowed him to play just one game in training camp, Henrik Zetterberg is showing off to the rest of the NHL with 19 points in his last 14 games following Detroit's 7-4 victory against Anaheim in which Zetterberg collected his fourth career hat trick, all goals coming in the third period, plus two assists, for a career-high five points.

It's the second time that Zetterberg has recorded a third-period hat trick -- he also accomplished the feat against Columbus on March 19, 2008. The only other active players with more than one third-period hat trick are Daniel Alfredsson, Ryan Smyth and Eric Staal (each with two).

If history shows us anything, it's that when you give Zetterberg a challenge of playing head up against the likes of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan up front and Scott Niedermayer on defense, Zetterberg will shine.

"Anytime we're playing the players in the League that are dominant players," coach Mike Babcock, "Z always lifts his game."

Zetterberg also proves that age-old theory that your best players have to be at their best in big games to win in the NHL. Henrik had just 1 goal and 8 assists as the Wings started out the season 3-4-2. In their current 7-1-1 run, he's had seven goals and six assists.

Don't look now, but the Red Wings ran their record to 10-3-3 since losing their first two games of the season to St. Louis in Sweden. And even a sometimes hobbled Zetterberg has been key in that turnaround.

Who said circus? -- Like working a high-wire act, the Chicago Blackhawks fell behind 1-0 and 3-1 and rallied to force overtime before Jonathan Toews backhanded a neat pass in front to defenseman Brent Seabrook for the game-winner 41 seconds into OT for a 4-3 triumph.

Timing is everything in the circus as well as the NHL.

"We've been trying to get as many points as possible at home before we had to leave our own barn," Toews said. "You dictate the way you feel about one another the way you play at home."

Both of Seabrook's goals this season have come in overtime, helping the Hawks extend their home winning streak to seven games -- the longest home winning streak for Chicago since December and early January of 2001-02.

"Coach Q (Joel Quenneville) tells us all the time that we should collect points when we can -- and there's no place like home for that," added Toews.

The triumph raised Chicago's record to 10-2-1 at home this season in preparation for the Blackhawks next game on Nov. 19 on a six-game trip -- at Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim -- while the circus is booked into the United Center.

Center stage -- It seems like every team in the Central Division is always looking for a good center, whether it's for the first line or just a checking role.

The Columbus Blue Jackets paid a big price for Antoine Vermette at the trade deadline in early March, giving up previously No. 1 goalie Pascal Leclaire and a second-round pick to Ottawa for the 26-year-old pivot.

While Vermette reached a career-high of 24 goals with the Senators in 2007-08, it's the intangibles that he brings to the rink every day that make him such a valuable player. That said, Vermette still had 7 goals in just 17 games for the Jackets down the stretch.

Intangibles? Try his leadership and spark in Columbus' 3-2 shootout victory against Anaheim on Nov. 13. In that game, Vermette had two assists, was a plus-1 in 24:53. He also added 5 shots, 1 hit, 2 blocked shots and was 19 for 28 in the faceoff circle.

"He's got great speed, something you can never underestimate in this league," said GM Scott Howson. "He's good defensively, terrific killing penalties and his faceoff skills really make him a valuable addition to our team."

To show you just how valuable Howson regards Vermette, consider the new five-year, $18.75 million contract the Jackets gave to the multi-talented center in September.

Around the Central -- No one's going to start thinking that Jimmy Howard has supplanted Chris Osgood as No. 1 goalie for Detroit. But Howard, promoted to the NHL after the Red Wings let Ty Conklin leave in free agency, made 31 saves in a 3-1 win against Vancouver on Nov. 12 for his first Wings victory ever at Joe Louis Arena. Even more impressive, that triumph came one night after he led Detroit to a 9-1 victory at Columbus. Before that two-game winning streak, Howard's record in the NHL was 2-7-1 in 14 previous appearances over the past few seasons. ... Nashville's Jordin Tootoo still gets the most pleasure out of getting under the skin and in the face of opponents. But Tootoo also got in on the scoring end of things Nov. 12, when he broke a 1-1 tie to help the Predators to a 3-1 win at St. Louis. The goal? It ended Tootoo's career-high 33-game goal drought. Tootoo's longest previous goalless streaks were 31 games in 2003-04, his rookie year, and another 31-game dry spell spanning the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons. ... There's no sophomore jinx for giant Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne, who had seven shutouts as a rookie last season. When Rinne beat Montreal, 2-0, Nov. 14, it was his second shutout this season. To carry his standing around the goal creases in the NHL, consider that his nine shutouts since December 1 are tied for the League-high with San Jose's Evgeni Nabokov.


Quote of the Day

I don't know how he does it. I don't know how he gets his body parallel with the player and pulls it through his legs like that. I know he's tried it a couple times in practice and it's never worked, so how he does it in a game, it's incredible.

— Capitals defenseman Mike Green on teammate Alex Ovechkin's highlight-reel goal against the Devils on Saturday