-- From Detroit Red Wings
coach Mike Babcock to commentator Pierre McGuire, the verdict appears to be in: the Nashville Predators
have the best young defense in the NHL.
The collective maestros of Shea Weber
, Ryan Suter
, Dan Hamhuis
and company often go unappreciated outside the Music City, a nontraditional market that has never known playoff success.
From competing against Weber in the Central Division, Babcock said he knew how good of a player he was getting on Canada's 2010 Olympic team, which won gold. Babcock said for a young player like Weber -- or Suter, who excelled on the silver-winning U.S. team -- competing with and against the world's best can affirm to the player how good he is.
That affirmation should only grow, considering Weber was named one of only two defensemen on the all-tournament team.
"You go there and you figure you're a good player on your own team, but you go there and you figure out you're one of the best players in the world and his partner figured that out, as well," Babcock said. "They might have the best young [defense] in the National Hockey League and they've done a good job to acquire puck-movers -- guys who can play a 200-foot game -- still defenders but guys who can really get involved."
In addition to Babcock, McGuire included Weber and Suter among the top six defensemen in the League who are age 25 and under in his Sports Illustrated column.
Those within the Predators' organization credit the keen eye of Assistant General Manager Paul Fenton, who has had a major role in the Predators' amateur scouting since the franchise's inception. Before stepping into his current role four years ago when Ray Shero
vacated it to run the Pittsburgh Penguins
, Fenton served for eight seasons as director of player personnel. In an amazing feat of drafting, the Preds fielded a lineup with four defensemen from the same draft this season.
"I think we look for defensemen with mobility, we look for defensemen with a hockey IQ," Predators coach Barry Trotz
said. "Those are two primary things. And competitive people at that. It seems to work for us. We've had a lot of players come through and play for us and who have gone on to other teams" -- think the Flyers' Kimmo Timonen
and Ryan Parent
and Minnesota's Marek Zidlicky
-- "It allows us -- the defense and the goaltending -- to be competitive every year."
The most eye-catching of the Preds' defensemen is the 6-foot-4, 234-pound Weber, whom Trotz calls "a mountain of a man" with "the legendary shot." His shot is legendary because of his goal against Germany during the Olympics that went through the netting, leaving only a black smudge on the twine. The goal had to be discovered on replay.
"Weber can flat-out shoot the puck," Babcock said. "Obviously, he's a franchise-type player."
If the 24-year-old Weber's career continues on its current arc, he could start to draw comparisons to Scott Stevens
, one of the game's all-time greats. Nashville General Manager David Poile was hired as GM of the Washington Capitals
in September 1982, a few months after the organization drafted Stevens.
"Yeah, there's some similarities," Poile said. "Size, big hits. Offensively, Shea will be more productive than Scott was, I think, though Scott did score 20 goals one year, but he was as good as anybody defensively. But time will tell if [Weber] gets in that type of category. You're talking about one of the best defensemen ever. [Weber's] resume is real good starting out and he's certainly heading into the right direction."
Poile added that other similarities Weber shares with Stevens are leadership, determination, toughness, "wanting to win" and "serious about the game."
Standing quite literally in the shadow of Weber is his partner, the 6-1, 198-pound Suter, who was taken seventh in 2003 -- the same draft as Weber.
Perhaps because Suter is such a smooth player, he has had a harder time attracting the notice of Weber. In a recent game against Detroit, a member of the Red Wings broadcast team in interviewing Trotz kept referring to Suter as Gary, Ryan's uncle and the longtime NHL defensemen who won a Stanley Cup with Calgary in 1989.
"Sute's game is not as loud as Web's is," Trotz said. "Suter falls into the [Scott] Niedermayer-[Brian] Rafalski-[Nicklas] Lidstrom category where escapability and efficiency are at a premium."
Suter said the defense corps takes pride in being home-grown (Francis Bouillon
is the only current defenseman who was not) and because of seven years together of attending summer camps and such, the players have developed tight bonds.
"We're close on the ice and off the ice," Suter said. "I don't know how many teams can say that. And we're all close to the same age. That really helps. We hang out together. It's a perfect situation."
"They might have the best young [defense] in the National Hockey League and they've done a good job to acquire puck-movers -- guys who can play a 200-foot game -- still defenders but guys who can really get involved." -- Red Wings coach Mike Babcock on the Preds' young defensemen
A perfect situation also could be called having Hamhuis as the team's No. 3 defenseman. He has averaged 22:19 over his career entering this season and arguably could be a No. 1 defenseman on other teams.
Having the corps that he does often makes tactics easier on Trotz, who calls the 6-1, 203-pound Hamhuis a mixture of Weber and Suter's styles.
"If we don't have last change on the road he can have confidence in that pairing to play against whoever's out there," Hamhuis said of his coach. "It just makes the changes easier for us. We're not constantly trying to change, change, change to get the right matchup."
And when it comes to his drafting, Poile certainly is going to change either. What is that secret, by the way?
"Do I have to tell you that?" Poile said. "I don't want to be that specific, I guess."
That's OK. We get the picture.