Heading into the 2011 off-season, defense is the strength of the Preds organization. The team ranked third in goals against per game during the regular season. At the same time, the defensemen were integral to the team’s offense --- Shea Weber
, Ryan Suter
, and Cody Franson all ranked among the team’s top-10 points producers. Late season call-up Jonathon Blum
chipped in eight points in 23 games, a pace that would have also cracked the team’s top-10 if continued through a full season.
The defense corps appears to be in great shape for next season, as well. Captain Shea Weber
is a restricted free agent, but last week he ended much of the intrigue around the summer by clearly stating his desire to remain with the organization. The Preds and Weber’s agent met earlier in the season and both sides seem comfortable that the framework for a deal to keep the All-Star defenseman in Nashville will be reached --- with the hope that a deal perhaps could be finalized before the July 1 free agency period opens.
Suter, Weber’s defensive partner, also returns for the ’11-12 season. The Suter/Weber pairing has evolved into one of the elite duos in the League. While Weber blossomed into a Norris Trophy finalist (winner to be announced at the NHL Awards Show on June 22), Suter continued to refine his all-around game, finishing with a team-best +20 plus/minus rating while adding 39 points (29th best among league defensemen). Suter/Weber were routinely tasked with matching up against opponents’ top offensive threats, making Suter’s plus/minus all the more impressive. Suter stepped his game up further in the playoffs; through the first two rounds he led all skaters in average ice time, skating 28:51 per game. And Suter was productive with his ice time contributing six points in the team's 12 playoff contests, along with a +2 plus/minus rating.Francis Bouillon
provided veteran leadership and steady on-ice play from the second defensive pairing. A leader on the penalty kill, Bouillon brought physicality and blue collar work ethic. With another year remaining on his contract, there’s no reason to believe things will change next season, although in his end of season press conference GM David Poile did reference Bouillon’s concussion, which held him out of the last half of the season. The organization is confident the summer break will allow Bouillon to come back at full strength for the 11-12 season.Kevin Klein
provided similar elements to Bouillon, stepping up his performances as the season wore on. For several years considered the top prospect in the organization, Klein showed why he was so heralded during the playoffs, averaging over 20 minutes a game during the 12 post-season contests. He’s a reliable second pair defenseman who has adapted to the pace and skill of top end forwards, while his skating ability allowed Klein to provide another option in the offense, as witnessed by his key goal joining the transition rush in Game 5 of the series against Anaheim.
Blum, the Preds first round pick in 2007, made his NHL debut shortly before this year’s Trade Deadline and quickly emerged as a top-level defenseman. He was impressive down the back stretch of the season and through the playoffs. Paired with Kevin Klein
, the duo drew tough match-up assignments in both the Anaheim and Vancouver playoff series. With a quarter-season plus two physical playoff rounds of experience as a defensive pairing, the Blum/Klein duo has the potential to emerge as a formidable pairing next season.
Cody Franson continued his development during the season, playing in 92 of the team’s 94 regular season/playoff games. He saw his ice time jump a minute per game during the regular season and became a valuable performer on the power-play, giving the Preds a dangerous pointman on the second power-play unit.
Shane O’Brien was a valuable addition during Training Camp and brought a key physical element to the Preds defensive corps. An unrestricted free agent during the summer, he was valuable to the locker room as well as on the ice. If he returns, O’Brien will make the Preds more difficult to play against.
With the considerable youth of the group --- Bouillon is the only member of the group older than 30 --- it’s reasonable to assume the talented blueline corps will only continue to get even better. And with youngsters like Teemu Laakso
, Roman Josi
, Ryan Ellis
, and Mattias Ekholm
on the horizon, the team has a bevy of options for the final roster slots along the blueline.