In the winter of 2010, Pekka Rinne was emerging for the first time as one of the best goalies in the NHL. With Shea Weber and Ryan Suter also blossoming into stars, the Predators were poised to get back to the playoffs after narrowly missing them during the 2008-09 season.
The team was redefining itself, after Craig Leipold's selling of the club in the summer of 2007 forced General Manager David Poile to break down the powerful Tomas Vokoun/Paul Kariya-led teams of 2006 and 2007. Although the team still had holes, it was becoming apparent the affect Rinne, Weber and Suter were starting to have on each game. During one radio interview with Sports Night done at the time with Poile, I asked him about this dynamic. He replied, "One of my scouts put it to me this way: For about half the game, we're pretty good.”
Fast-forward to today, and the same thing is happening. Pekka Rinne is back to playing at top form after two injury-plagued seasons. Shea Weber is arguably the best defenseman in the world. And last, but not least, Roman Josi is emerging as a star.
Going into play on Wednesday, Rinne led the NHL with 12 wins. His save percentage sits at .930, after slipping to .910 and .902 over the last two seasons, due in part to the various stages (the lead up, the surgery, the recovery, the infection, the second recovery, the rust) of his hip injury. His athleticism and size combination is currently as strong as ever. Perhaps the most telling stat? Add Carter Hutton's two solid starts to Rinne's 16, and the Predators are number one in the NHL in save percentage in 5-on-5 situations (.947).
Weber and Josi have developed chemistry. It's taken time, but it's blossoming. When Suter departed via free agency in 2012, the hope was that Josi could graduate into that role. But Josi, a second round draft pick in 2008, needed a bit more time to grow into that responsibility. A concussion in the second game of last season stunted that growth further. Josi did not score his first goal of the season last year until early December. By last spring, it was starting to come together. Now, they are a full-fledged, shut-down pair, and might be as good as any pair of defensemen in the NHL.
Consider: Weber and Josi rank fourth and fifth in the NHL in average time on ice (around 27 minutes per game each). They draw the top assignment on the opposition every game - some of the best lines in hockey. One night it's Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa in Chicago. Another night it's Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Val Nichushkin in Dallas. Tuesday night, van Riemsdyk, Bozak and Kessel in Toronto. How about the Sedin line in Vancouver? Or Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle in Edmonton? I could go on, but you get my point.
Weber and Josi haven't just drawn the tough assignments; they've flourished with the matchups. In the 18 games this season, the Predators have given up just four goals at even strength with that pair on the ice. Four. Take the offensive component out of that and any coach would take it. Add in that the two have been on the ice for 15 goals for (also at even strength), and their impact becomes even more impressive.
So for nearly half of each game, when the Predators have Josi, Weber and Rinne on the ice, the team has a triangle of defenders that have been dominant. It's taken a great effort by great players to score against that trio, and it hasn't happened often. It simply makes everybody else's job on the team easier. And so far, it's led to success in the win column.