A dominant collection of defensemen has fueled the rise of the Nashville Predators to the top of the Western Conference and a place among the leaders in the NHL.
The Predators, 15-3-2 in their past 20 games, have climbed into a first-place tie with St. Louis in the Central Division; each team has 46 points. The Vegas Golden Knights and Los Angeles Kings, each in the Pacific Division, also have 46 points. The NHL-leading Tampa Bay Lightning, in the Eastern Conference, has 50 points.
Though all facets of Nashville's game are going good at the moment, the contributions from the top-four defensemen are front and center. That unit will become even more productive with the return of Ryan Ellis, who has yet to play after surgery on his knee during the summer. Ellis is skating and is expected back sometime in January.
Nashville's top four -- captain Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm and Alexei Emelin -- has been gradually assembled during the past several seasons. Josi and Ekholm play as the first pair and Subban and Emelin are the second pair.
Video: WPG@NSH: Subban rips slap shot in off post for PPG
It has earned a reputation as one of the finest in the League, and many teams are trying to emulate its composition.
Three defining characteristics are at the heart of the success being experienced by the Nashville defensemen: high involvement in the scoring, excellent shot-based metrics, and minutes played. The return of Ellis should have a positive impact on each of those categories.
Through 33 games, Nashville's top-four defensemen have combined for 70 points (20 goals, 50 assists). No other team has that many points from its four highest-scoring defensemen. The Lightning are next with 65. The League average is 52.2.
The scoring from the blue line is even more impressive on a percentage of total points for the team. The Predators have 287 points, and the Lightning have 352, so the Predators' top four has been responsible for 24.4 percent of Nashville's scoring, compared to 18.5 percent for Tampa Bay. The NHL average is 19.4 percent.
Ellis has 124 points (41 goals, 83 assists) in 288 NHL games from 2013-14 and 2016-17, which is No. 40 in scoring among defensemen during that span. He had 38 points (16 goals, 22 assists) in 71 games last season. Emelin has 53 points (eight goals, 45 assists) in 275 games, tied for No. 125. He has five assists in 32 games this season.
In that same span, Josi ranks No. 5 with 205 points (54 goals, 151 assists) in 306 games, and Subban ranks No. 6 with 204 points (41 goals, 163 assists) in 298 games.
Video: NSH@EDM: Josi nets Forsberg's dish for PPG
Scoring isn't the only responsibility of a defenseman, so it's important that offensive production is not coming at a great cost in the defensive zone. For this purpose, shot-based metrics confirm that Nashville's top four is among the best.
Subban, acquired from the Montreal Canadiens in a trade for Shea Weber on June 30, 2016, is an excellent example of a player who can boost the shot-based metrics and what kind of impact it can have. The Canadiens and the Predators have outshot their opponents 9,143-8,346 with Subban on the ice at 5-on-5 for an SAT of plus-797, No. 25 among defensemen since 2009-10.
In percentage terms, Subban has boosted his team's share of all shot attempts from 48.53 percent to 52.28 percent, for a Relative SAT of plus-3.75 percent. That ranks No. 11 among active defensemen who have played at least 50 games.
Ekholm also excels in this area and ranks No. 28 with a career SAT of plus-688, and No. 22 with a Relative SAT of plus-3.01 percent.
Ellis ranks No. 45 with a career SAT of plus-379, and No. 36 with a Relative SAT of plus-2.43 percent, each an upgrade on Emelin, who ranks No. 198 with an SAT of minus-374, and No. 180 with a Relative SAT of minus-1.81.
Since Subban arrived in Nashville for the start of the 2016-17 season, Nashville has deployed its top four defensemen heavily. Its third pair is used sparingly.
Video: NSH@CAR: Ekholm records 100th point on PPG
In 2016-17, Josi (25:04), Subban (24:24), Ellis (23:57) and Ekholm (23:27) were among the NHL's top 25 defensemen in average ice time per game (minimum 20 games). After that, Matt Irwin (16:16) ranked No. 177, and Yannick Weber (11:55) and Anthony Bitetto (11:48) ranked No. 225 and No. 226 of 228 eligible defensemen. This trend continued during Nashville's run to the Stanley Cup Final, when the top-four group received 81.3 percent of the total ice time for defensemen.
Even without Ellis, this strategy has continued this season. Josi (25:13), Ekholm (24:52), and Subban (24:09) remain in the League's top 25 in average ice time (minimum 10 games), and Irwin (13:41), Bitetto (13:32), and Weber (12:00) are in the bottom 20.