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Homegrown Defensemen Anchor Preds Blue Line

by Alexis Tahara / Nashville Predators

A franchise long known for the strength of their defensive unit, the Nashville Predators blue line has continued to shine in 2014-15 alongside the invigorated and oft-mentioned forward corps. Head Coach Peter Laviolette’s offensive strategy has permeated the lineup and a quick look at the stats of the Preds defensive corps shows that the unit is buying in as much as anyone.

Overall, the Preds have three defensemen in the NHL’s Top 25 in scoring in Shea Weber, Roman Josi and Cody Franson, and with 159 collective points from the blue line this season, that leads the NHL in defensive scoring. Of the Preds 64 games on the campaign, there have only been seven games where a defenseman has not recorded at least a point.

During the 2014-15 season, seven of the nine total blueliners that have skated in Predators Gold were drafted by the organization.

Victor Bartley and Anton Volchenkov are the only two Preds defensemen this season whose journeys to the Music City did not begin at the NHL Draft. Bartley, undrafted after five seasons in the Western Hockey League, played in the ECHL, AHL and with Rogle of Sweden’s second league before being signed as a free agent by the Preds in 2011. Volchenkov joined the Preds as a free agent on July 7, 2014, after playing the past four seasons with the New Jersey Devils.

Not yet a regular on the Preds blue line, Anthony Bitetto, a 2010 sixth-round pick and a regular on the Milwaukee Admirals (AHL) this year, has played in seven games this season when needed due to injury.

The six remaining defensemen who have skated as part of the Nashville Predators defensive corps this season, each a Preds draft pick, all laced up their skates for the team’s game against the Minnesota Wild on Thursday, Feb. 26. Weber (2003), Franson (2005), Josi (2008), Ryan Ellis (2009), Mattias Ekholm (2009) and Seth Jones (2013) represent 10 years of Predators draft picks; two first-rounders, two second-round picks, a third and a fourth rounder.

Shea Weber

A favorite for this season’s Norris Trophy for the top NHL defenseman, Weber is second among Preds defensemen in points (15g-28a-43pts), a total which lands him in the Top 10 among defensemen League-wide. Weber’s 15 goals this season tie him for fourth among NHL defensemen and include a shorthanded tally, five power-play goals and two game-winning goals.

While playing in all 64 of the Preds games this season, Weber has moved into the Top 25 defensemen in both the hits (136) and blocked shots (127) categories. The Sicamous, B.C., native has played the second-most minutes of any defenseman since the start of the 2010-11 season and currently averages 26:30 per game, fifth among all skaters in the NHL.

“When you consider the attributes of a quality defenseman, Weber measures up as the best,” USA Today’s Kevin Allen said in his mid-season reviews. “Booming shot. Physical presence. Savvy defender. Smart passer. Heavy hitter. Leader.”

Roman Josi

Weber’s defensive partner, Josi, leads Preds defensemen in points (11g-35a-46pts), putting him third among all NHL defensemen. Josi and Weber, Nashville’s top defensive pairing, have a combined 89 points this season (26g-63a), the most of any defensive duo in the NHL.

“He’s been unbelievable,” Peter Laviolette said after Josi eclipsed the 100-point mark for his career on Jan. 8 against Dallas. “I think he gets recognized for his offense and putting up points, but I think he’s an incredible defender.”

Outside of his offensive output, Josi has blocked 169 shots this season, second most of any player in the NHL.

Cody Franson

After playing the last four years with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Franson rejoined the Preds on Feb. 15, returning the Sicamous, B.C., native to the team that had originally drafted him.

“Cody brings size, offensive ability and the capacity to play in all situations in our lineup,” General Manager David Poile said after Franson’s acquisition. “He is the perfect component to round out our defensive corps and give us eight proven NHL defensemen.”

Franson’s 16 power-play points (4g-12a) are among the Top 10 blueliners in the NHL and his 34 points this season (6g-28a) rank him in the Top 30 of all League defensemen.

Mattias Ekholm

A second-year blueliner, Ekholm played in his 62nd game of the season on Monday night in New York City, matching the total number of games played during his 2013-14 rookie season.

He has recorded 15 points this season (5g-10a), besting his previous career-high of nine

points (1g-8a), in the 62 games he played last season. Ekholm currently is averaging 19:06 time on ice every night, over two minutes more than the 16:49 he averaged just a season ago. Additionally, his current plus-15 is a 23-point improvement on the minus-8 rating he finished the 2013-14 season with.

Ryan Ellis

Despite being sidelined 24 games due to injury, Ellis is just one goal from tying his career-high goals output of six that he set in the 2013-14 season. Prior to his injury on Jan. 8, Ellis had five points (2g-3a) in four games, including recording points in three straight to match his career-high.

Earlier this season, the Hamilton, Ontario, native recorded his first-career three-point game (1g-2a) and his first career game-deciding shootout tally on Oct. 21, 2014, versus Arizona.

Seth Jones

Just 64 games into the season, Jones is three points (6g-16a-22pts) from tying his career high in points and three helpers from tying his career assists high.

When injuries began to spread throughout the Preds’ defensive unit this season, Jones saw an increase in ice time. On Feb. 10, the final game of his career-high, five-game point streak that began on Feb. 3, Jones skated 25:35, a season-high.

“He is extremely capable,” Laviolette said of Jones during his five-game February point streak. “When I was at the World Championships with Seth, it was my first real look at him and to watch him play the amount of minutes he did in all the situations like he did against the most quality opponents, I left with a tremendous amount of confidence in him as a player.”

From a homegrown leader in Weber and a familiar face making a return to Smashville in Franson, to a professional hockey journeyman in Bartley and a grizzled vet in Volchenkov, and everyone in between, the Nashville Predators defense is primed for the final 18 games of the regular season.

Only time will tell what the season holds beyond the next dozen and a half contests, but one thing that’s for sure is that Nashville’s blue line, one of the best in the League, will be providing a solid backing along the way.

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