Much was made in regard to the offensive upgrades landing in Nashville as the new season arrived. What seemed to slip by along the end boards, however, is that the Predators continue to boast one of the more impressive defensive corps in the National Hockey League.
Sure, newcomers up front such as James Neal and Mike Ribeiro were bound to produce points, while young guns like Filip Forsberg have galvanized early on.
But take a look on the backend, and Shea Weber is still dishing out body checks and shooting pucks harder than anyone else in the League. And behind Weber and his shot-blocking, minute-munching mates? Some guy named Pekka.
Weber, along with fellow defensemen Roman Josi, Seth Jones, Anton Volchenkov, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and Victor Bartley make up a group that provides a solid mix of offensive prowess and defensive expertise on the Preds blue line. Plus, that guy named Pekka Rinne and his goaltending partner Carter Hutton are one of the most reliable tandems in the NHL.
“We added [Volchenkov] this summer, but it’s pretty much the same group,” Weber said of the blueliners. “We’re all used to each other and we work together well. Everyone pushes each other, not only in games, but in practice. We have competition out there and we want each other to get better.”
Getting better is just what they’ve done.
Josi and Weber form the Preds top d-pairing, a duo that sees time against the competition’s premier, offensive talent night after night. And they log plenty of time while doing so. Through Nashville’s first 11 games, Weber and Josi ranked third and fifth in the League in average time on ice per game, respectively.
“It’s great to be out there a lot,” Josi said. “You’re always in the rhythm and you don’t have too many breaks so that keeps you in the game the whole time. You’ve got to be smart about your decisions; sometimes you jump up, sometimes you try to stay back a little bit, but all in all, I like to get a lot of ice time.”
“They’ve been able to take not only a lot of minutes, but they’re tough minutes,” Nashville Head Coach Peter Laviolette said of the pair. “There are a lot of defensive zone starts [for Weber and Josi], and typically it’s against a lot of other teams’ higher-end skill and top players, so they’re big minutes for us. They’ve done a terrific job.”
Another consistent pairing, Ellis and Ekholm have skated together to start the season. For Ekholm, communication has been key between the two, something that has developed over time with one another.
“We’re both pretty young defensemen and we like to move the puck, help each other out there and talk a lot,” Ekholm said. “It’s fun to play with him because I think we know each other well enough that if I don’t get a puck, or he doesn’t pass to me when I want him to, I can tell him right away. We’re that close and it’s been good so far.”
For two younger skaters like Ellis and Ekholm, the addition of Volchenkov has been an integral piece to the early success on the backend. Laviolette knows that the 12-year veteran adds a wealth of knowledge to a group that, with the exception of Weber, each have no more than four seasons of NHL experience.
“[Volchenkov] has been awesome,” Laviolette said. “He’s a different element back there… He thinks about stabilizing our end, thinks about being physical and he blocks shots. I think he’s brought all of those elements to his game into our team. He’s been terrific and he’s fit into the room really well with the guys.”
And if Volchenkov, Josi, Weber and company haven’t been able to get in the way of an incoming puck, chances are Rinne has been there to see it. After missing 51 games last season due to a bacterial infection in his surgically repaired hip, the Oulu, Finland native has shown consistent signs of brilliance through the first month of the campaign.
But while his in-game play gets him noticed by the masses, the bench boss’ attention has been drawn due to another attribute that the goaltender possesses.
“I’ll tell you what impresses me is his work ethic in practice,” Laviolette said of Rinne. “You watch him in practice [the day] after a game and the effort that he puts in on the second shot, a third shot, a third rebound, a fourth rebound and they still can’t score…his work ethic is relentless. He’s a great example for everybody on our team.”
While the Preds defensemen were quick to praise the man in net, the goaltender threw the accolades right back out of the blue paint.
“I think our key is the defense,” Rinne said. “It’s our core and the backbone of this team. I’m really happy so far with how it’s been going and how the guys are playing in front of me.”
Safe to say that feeling is mutual in the Nashville zone.
Laviolette called his defensive corps one of the best units in the League before the puck dropped on the current campaign. So far, they’ve done nothing to disprove his theory and everything to earn his praise.