The Nashville Predators are preparing to play in their first Stanley Cup Final after marching through the Western Conference playoffs.
Their appearance in this year’s Final is being looked at as a little bit of a surprise because of their place in the standings among the NHL’s playoff teams (16th out of 16 during the regular season) but this was still a team that was looked at before the season as a legitimate contender. They had a disappointing first half that kind poured some cold water on the preseason hype, but since starting 17-16-7 the Predators have put together a rather dominating 36-17-5 stretch (playoffs included) since the first week of January.
They have a defensive unit that rivals any other in the NHL to thank for a lot of that success.
The addition of P.K. Subban over the summer to a group that already included Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm has given the Predators one of the most dominant top-four groupings in the league, and they all perfectly fit the modern NHL game.
They can call skate at a high level, they can all move the puck, they can all contribute offensively. And they can all play major minutes.
Through the first three rounds of the playoffs coach Peter Laviolette has leaned heavily on that quartet, giving each of them an average of 23 minutes of ice-time per game, meaning that just about every time you look at the TV one of those four players is going to be patrolling the ice. Last week I looked at the ice-time distribution of Nashville’s Stanley Cup final opponent, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and how injuries (specifically the one to Kris Letang) has forced coach Mike Sullivan to take a defense by committee approach where all six defenders on a given night are getting almost the exact same ice-time. Each one plays roughly 30-35 percent of the game in what is a rather unconventional approach for a Stanley Cup Finalist.
In Nashville, it is a little different with each of the top-four playing more than 40 percent of the game, while the bottom pairing of Yannick Weber and Matt Irwin (two solid defensemen in their own right) are only playing about 20 percent of the game … or an average of about 11 minutes per game.
Following their Game 7 win against the Ottawa Senators, Penguins forward Chris Kunitz referred to Nashville’s defense as having “four Erik Karlssons,” and while that might be a little bit of an exaggeration (Karlsson is the NHL’s best defenseman and there probably are not four other defensemen in the league even close to him) it is at least telling as to how much respect this unit has around the league and how good they are.
But what should be a terrifying thought for the rest of the Western Conference is that this unit is going to be around for quite a while and still in the prime of their careers
When looking at the top-four, Subban is the “old man” of the group currently at age 28. They are also all signed for at least two more seasons beyond this one at a combined cap hit of just a little over $19 million per season.
That is a group that contains two of the top-six offensive defensemen in the league (Subban and Josi) over the past three seasons and two of the best shot suppression defensemen (Ekholm and Ellis) over the same stretch (out of more than 250 defensemen to play at least 1,000 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey since 2014-15, Ekholm is seventh in shot attempts against per 60 minutes; Ellis is 45th).
When you combine their ability with the fact that quartet has an average age of just 26.7 years old it is an incredible bargain against the salary cap.
They are backbone of this team, and a big reason why no matter what happens over the next weeks on the ice the Predators should be a formidable contender in the Western Conference for the foreseeable future.