For the past two years, when Nashville Predators defenseman Shea Weber finished as the runner-up for the Norris Trophy, his partner was one of the NHL's other top defensemen, Ryan Suter.
This season, Weber, the team captain, has taken on a different role with a new partner as a result of Suter's decision to sign as a free agent with the Minnesota Wild: that of mentor and teacher to 22-year-old Roman Josi. Though Weber has not received the headlines and accolades this season that he has in the past, and the Predators failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second time in the past nine seasons, he has proved himself to be an extremely effective player.
In truth, he got off to a slow start, mostly offensively. However, Weber responded with a vengeance. His 23 points entering Friday (all of which have come in the past 35 games) tie him for the team lead -- as well as for 16th in the League among defensemen -- and his 26 minutes in time on ice per game ranks him sixth in the League.
Defense - NSH
GOALS: 8 | ASST: 15 | PTS: 23
SOG: 113 | +/-: -1
On a team with a goal differential of minus-23, Weber stands at minus-1. The lowest-scoring team in the NHL, the Predators have yielded four empty-net goals, which have helped drag Weber’s rating from positive to negative.
Nashville coach Barry Trotz praised Weber's play during a season in which injuries have decimated the lineup. When the Predators lost 5-2 to the Vancouver Canucks on Monday, the game that eliminated them, six of Nashville's 18 skaters were rookies and half of them had fewer than 10 games of NHL experience.
"Maybe the numbers aren't as high as you think they might be, but he's played big minutes and with a young partner," Trotz said. "He leads our team offensively, he leads our team defensively, doing a great job in the room, especially during these times. I know Shea and all the leadership group, what they have done with all the young guys.
"Everybody has something to play for. He understands that, but that attitude and how he's playing in terms of the effort, he's driving everything with all the young guys, too, trying to give them confidence."
For Weber, frustration and disappointment have marked the season and that has affected how he has evaluated himself.
"I think you've got to look at the team's success and we're not in the playoffs," he said, "so that's always the biggest thing, is winning the Stanley Cup, and we're not going to have a chance to do that. So it's tough to really say you have a good season on that account."
In some ways, Weber's season has mirrored that of his team. By the time the NHL Trade Deadline passed and general manager David Poile had sent veteran right wing Martin Erat to the Washington Capitals in exchange for prospect Filip Forsberg, Poile agreed with the concept that this season might have represented a situation of taking one step back to take two forward.
Josi is in his second season, but looks very promising. He has played all 44 games, posting five goals and 12 assists to rank him fifth on the team with 17 points. He averages 23:29 of ice time per game and is a minus-6. Weber has spent considerable time coaching Josi up.
"It's just advice after our shift," Josi said. "We talk during the breaks and intermission and after games. It's all the little stuff he sees out there. He just tells me. It's great for me to hear from a guy who's done it for years and done it consistently. It helps me a lot."
Weber said from the time Josi arrived, he saw that the Swiss native was a special skater. With improvement, Josi has a high ceiling.
"You need to be continually improving," Weber said. "I think the biggest thing for him is the defensive side of the puck. He always has that offensive ability to put up points. I think he's done a great job so far adjusting, but definitely still we can both get better at that."
Weber and Suter played together for many years, beginning with Milwaukee in the American Hockey League as far back as 2006. That's a long time to perfect chemistry and mature together. With Josi, Weber has had to develop chemistry with a younger player who still is learning and he has had to do it on the fly and without the benefit of a full training camp.
"I think he played well all year and he's been a great leader for our team the whole year," Josi said. "He battles hard every game, he works his [tail] off. I think he's been great. I mean, it's tough. He played with [Suter] for many years and all of the sudden he's got a new partner. You got to build some chemistry and stuff."
Weber's budding partnership with Josi has gone through fits and starts. At times at the beginning of the season, Weber's partner was veteran Scott Hannan, since traded to the San Jose Sharks. Weber agreed that the somewhat revolving nature of his partners required an adjustment period.
"Yeah, a little bit," he said. "Just, I think playing with anyone, it's not going to click right away. Things were a little up and down at the start of the season. I wouldn't say they were terrible. It just took a little while. We continually talked, even when [me and Josi] weren't playing together, about different situations and things. I think we've gotten to where we know more about what each other's doing and listen to each other."
More than just with Josi, Weber has exerted his influence off the ice, as well as on it. Recently, he made a comment after a frustrating loss that drew some notice when he said that he would not "babysit" his teammates.
Trotz saw the comment and liked it.
"He can't," Trotz said. "All he can do is lead by example. He's doing a great job of that … making the young guys feel comfortable, giving them good instruction. They can come to him, and that's what you want to create, and they're doing a really good job."
Trotz also pointed out that Weber continues to face opponents' top lines on a nightly basis -- the Central Division offers elite forwards Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane -- and he more than has held his own. That is reflected in Weber's Corsi rating, an advanced statistic that, generally speaking, measures how often a player's team is in a shooting position compared to how often the opposition is in a shooting position when the player is on the ice. For players with at least 30 games played, Weber ranks seventh in the League in Corsi rating.
"Take away the first 10 games (during which the Predators still went 5-2-3) maybe not playing through the lockout and just the puck skills aren't there, you're not in the flow and all that, and we weren't scoring a whole heck of a lot, but we were finding ways to get [standings] points," Trotz said. "But I think after that, he's been outstanding. Even with our lineup as depleted as it is, he's still playing against the top line every night, and if you look at the score sheet every night, those top lines aren't hurting us a whole heck of a lot. It's usually the lower lines that are hurting us a lot more, so I give him a lot of props."
Despite Weber's efforts, the Predators failed to qualify for the playoffs. In his eight seasons, this will be the second in which he has not competed in the postseason, the first since 2008-09.
It doesn't sit well with him. Asked what he would do with his offseason, Weber was at a loss for words.
"It's going to be tough," he said.