-- As Anaheim Ducks
forward Bobby Ryan
stepped out of the penalty box last Saturday, the puck bounded out of his team's defensive zone and toward the other end, creating a potentially dangerous situation.
Ryan, a three-time 30-goal scorer who famously undressed a couple of Nashville Predators
during the playoffs last season, seemed to have a step on the only defender giving chase.
Never fear – that defender was Predators captain Shea Weber
. Even at the end of a long power-play shift, Weber caught up to Ryan and played the body, delivering an enormous left shoulder with the full weight of his 6-foot-4, 232-pound frame to Ryan, and the play drifted harmlessly into the corner.
Earlier that morning, Ryan was asked what he might have learned about playing against Weber in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs that he had not already known. His words proved prophetic.
"I think he's a lot faster than I had originally thought," Ryan said. "I always knew he was a little deceptive with it, but we got in a couple of foot races where I thought I had a step or two and he's so explosive. He's got those two or three strides that get him going and he shuts down your time and space well, but other than that he's a straightforward player.
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"There's no ifs, ands or buts. He's probably the strongest defenseman in the League and he's a nightmare to play against. He rubs you out and he hits you at all the right angles. He's tough to get around, he's tough to beat."
In what might count as a first audition for landing the part, Weber, 26, was a finalist last season for the Norris Trophy. Perhaps this go-round is the one that will land him the hardware.
Through 30 games, he has six goals and 21 points, tying him for second in goals and fourth in points among defensemen. He also is plus-14, fourth among defensemen. To put that in perspective, look at the players who rank ahead of him. Boston's Zdeno Chara
, a former Norris winner and a finalist last season, is plus-18 on a team whose goal differential is plus-38. Ian White
(plus-17) plays on a Detroit team that is plus-30 and Michael Del Zotto
(plus-15) and his New York Rangers
are plus-22 overall. As a team, Nashville is minus-1.
In a 2-1 victory -- a typical Predators' score -- against Calgary on Wednesday, Weber posted the following line: 28:20 of ice time, even rating, four shots, two hits, one giveaway, three takeaways and three blocked shots. While it's hard to quantify what defensemen do on the defensive side, that's a pretty good glimpse of Weber's effectiveness.
In that reputation-building way, Weber and partner Ryan Suter
are starting to become recognized around the League as possibly the preeminent shut-down defensive pair.
"Obviously, [Weber] and [Suter] are the top shutdown unit in the NHL and they've always given us fits," Ryan said of the pair that helped to control the Ducks' top line -- the League's best last season, as Corey Perry
won the Hart Trophy and scoring race -- to win the teams' postseason series in six games.
And Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau
provided this rationale about trying to limit the amount of ice time his top forwards play: "The bottom line is you get tired, and if you're going against Shea Weber
all night and he's hitting you and pounding you and by the middle of the third period, if you're down a goal, you need energy to be able to come back."
Speaking of ice time, Weber chuckled when asked about something Nashville coach Barry Trotz
said earlier this season about limiting it for him and Suter so they also might have more energy to produce on offense.
"I don't know," he said. "You'd have to look at the average ice time. It feels the same. It feels like we're playing just as much, if not maybe a little bit more."
In fact, Weber ranks sixth among defensemen at 26:12 per game. Last season he averaged 25:19. (Suter, incidentally, is second at 26:57.)
Trotz could be leaning on them more so far because it's been something of an up-and-down start to the season for the Predators, who shed some veterans and have a very young roster. Their season basically looks like this: They started 2-0, then went 1-4-1 before losing only once in regulation during their next 10 games. Then they hit the skids again with a 2-6-1 stretch. Currently, they are riding a three-game winning streak.
Against that backdrop, Weber got off to a slow start. After a difficult contract negotiation, he went through team-elected salary arbitration and earned a one-year, $7.5-million contract, giving him the highest salary cap hit of any NHL defenseman.
After scoring 16 goals last season, he did not net his first until the 10th game this season. Through 15 games, he posted one goal and seven assists. That means that in his last 15 games, he has five goals and eight assists.
"Last year he was the same way," Trotz said. "The production wasn't quite there. Our power play has been a lot better this year. That's helped in terms of production. I think when you go into every season, the first thing you think about when I think about the Ducks is (Ryan) Getzlaf and Perry, and I think when you come to Nashville you think about Suter and Weber and (goalie Pekka) Rinne.
"So there's a lot of focus on those guys and I think when they get comfortable in the season. They're able to escape some of that through their own play, but also there's probably attention to detail, but not as forceful maybe as it is the first time you play them -- the first time through for every team."
As for that power play, it is tied for third in the NHL, clicking at a 20.8 percent pace after ranking 26th last season (15.2 percent). Weber is a big reason. He has four power-play goals, tied for second among defensemen.
His only explanation for the hot offensive play is that "right now things are seeming to go the right way."
After Nashville was eliminated in the second round of the playoffs in six games last May by Vancouver -- which went to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final before falling to Boston -- Trotz said he instantly realized how close the Predators might have been to something special.
And after the arbitrator's award in August, general manager David Poile repeated his mantra that he thinks the Predators have a chance to compete for the Cup so long as Weber remains on the team.
It isn't hard to perceive that the inability to get past Vancouver has stuck in the minds of the Predators.
"You see how some teams finish eighth and they end up in the final or conference final," Weber said, an example being the 2005-06 Edmonton Oilers
-- led by defenseman Chris Pronger
, somewhat analogous to Weber's Preds. "We were close, but we still weren't good enough to get past a good team, so being close doesn't get you anywhere. It just drives you to be better the next year and hopefully improve on what you failed on."
One of the most memorable plays of that series was Weber getting called for hooking Vancouver's Ryan Kesler
in overtime of Game 3 in Nashville when Kesler seemed to have his arm clamped around Weber's stick in the corner to draw the call. Kesler then scored the game-winning goal on the ensuing power play.
Hard as it might be to believe, Weber said he had not thought about that play until he was asked about it on Saturday.
"Things obviously happen in a lot of games," Weber said. "There's other times when you think in games you could've scored or if someone would have scored on a breakaway. Just the fact that we couldn't score goals and Pekka stood on his head and we kept their best players, the Sedins, for the most part in check and just couldn't find a way to score."
At present, Nashville looks like it once again could be headed for the postseason (the Preds are seventh in the West with 34 points, five out of fourth). If they do qualify, it would represent the seventh time in the last eight seasons under Trotz. Maybe 2012 will be that year.
Yet, a lingering question surrounding the team is the contract statuses of Weber and Suter. The team is currently in negotiations with Suter, who will be unrestricted at season's end. Weber will be restricted, so he said he and the team essentially will not talk until Jan. 1, the earliest date that the current Collective Bargaining Agreement allows players in Weber's circumstances to re-sign.
Weber said he is not allowing the situation to affect his game and his play would seem to underscore that. In the past, he has said he wants to remain in Nashville long-term.
"I don't like to think about that stuff during the season," he said.
Maybe, instead, he will have a Norris Trophy to celebrate, finally landing the leading role after a few years as an understudy -- a notion that seemed to amuse him. Or maybe he'll have something even bigger to celebrate.
"Obviously," he said, "team success will help any personal success on this team."