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Phil Housley helps make Predators defense potent vs. Blues

Assistant has instilled offensive acumen entering Game 5

by Arpon Basu @ArponBasu / LNH.com Senior Managing Editor

NASHVILLE -- It almost isn't fair.

Not only do the Nashville Predators have what is probably the most mobile, offensively gifted group of defensemen in the NHL, that group is led by one of the most mobile, offensively gifted defensemen in NHL history.

 

[RELATED: Complete Blues vs. Predators series coverage | Rinne has Predators on cusp of history]

 

Assistant coach Phil Housley is responsible for the Predators defensemen, who have combined for 22 points (eight goals, 14 assists) in eight games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. To put that in perspective, the Minnesota Wild scored eight goals in five games before being eliminated by the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference First Round.

Housley, a Hall of Famer, is the fourth-highest scoring defenseman in NHL history with 1,232 points (338 goals, 894 assists) in 1,495 games with eight teams, doing the bulk of his damage for the Buffalo Sabres for his first eight NHL seasons.

Housley retired as a player in 2003 and is in his fourth season as an assistant coach with the Predators, overseeing the development of the core group of Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm that added P.K. Subban this season to form the most potent top four in the game.

They are a big reason why the Predators are on the verge of reaching their first Western Conference Final with a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Second Round against the Blues. They can advance with a win in Game 5 at Scottrade Center on Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

"Today's game is a lot different than when I played 14 years ago," Housley said Thursday after practice. "In saying that, each player has his own individual characteristics. They're very mobile and we encourage them to be part of the attack as much as possible. That hasn't changed, and I think that's what separates our guys because they are mobile, they can get up in the rush, their offensive instincts and reads have really gone in a great direction as far as their development goes. It's a continuing process since I've been here, but they're doing a terrific job."

Video: Analyzing the Preds' play this postseason

Ellis, in particular, has emerged in these playoffs with nine points (four goals, five assists) in eight games, all in a seven-game point streak tied for the longest in Predators playoff history (with forward Colin Wilson, who did it in 2016), a record he can break Friday.

Ellis left little doubt as to Housley's impact on his ascension to these heights.

"He understands the game and how we see it and how we want to play it," he said. "He thinks a step ahead of a lot of plays. What he's brought to all of us, you can't really get that from anyone else.

"Someone who's played, I don't know, 1,500 games or close to it and almost a point-a-game player as a defenseman, whatever he says you pretty much do."

The new addition to the group was Subban, who came to Nashville in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens for defenseman Shea Weber on June 29.

Subban was lacing up some new skates when he was asked about Housley on Thursday. He looked up from what he was doing and his eyes immediately lit up.

"He brings such a different element to coaching because of the player he was; he sees the game unlike probably anyone else who's ever played the game," Subban said. "When he talks, all that matters to me is what is coming out of his mouth."

Video: A breakdown of the series between Preds and Blues

Incorporating Subban and adjusting from the loss of Weber was a job that was in large part handled by Housley, who coach Peter Laviolette says he gives a ton of latitude to run the defense as he sees fit because of how much he trusts his judgment.

Subban was injured in training camp and again in December and January, so that process took longer than Housley would have liked. But right now, the top two pairs on the Nashville defense are the Predators' biggest strength, combining to play 50 minutes a game and making it extremely difficult for the opponent to control the puck over that time.

"P.K. is a very dynamic player," Housley said. "I don't think people give him enough credit for how well he plays in the defensive zone. He's a strong player down low, he can protect the puck and he uses his offensive instincts differently than Matthias or Roman or Ryan.

"His escapability is his strength, being able to spin off guys. But it just took some time for them to jell."

That process is now complete, with Subban and Ekholm handling the bulk of the difficult defensive assignments against the Blues and Josi and Ellis making the bigger offensive contributions. But those roles can flip at any moment, and likely will in Game 5 because the Blues will have the final change.

But the Predators don't really care because they don't have one true top pair. They have two.

"I just thought [Ekholm] and P.K. have done a terrific job defending on better players and we could get Roman and [Ellis] more involved offensively because I thought they were defending more," Housley said. "But you're not going to get the matchups you want, so you're going to have to count and trust the players you put out there."

Housley has no problem trusting those players because they are so good, and a big reason why they are so good is because they look up to their coach.

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