Sunday, May 5, 2013

Grading the Predators: The Defense

We continue our look at the Predators as we move to the blue liners. The defense this season took on a new look with the departure of Ryan Suter and the addition of several young players that logged some big minutes.

Just as this season was a work in progress, so next season should see some changes and some opportunities for additional playing time for some younger players.

As we look at the defense, the discussion starts with...

Shea Weber  48 GP  9G 19A 28 points  -2

Weber averaged 25:55 time on ice and played against the opponents top offensive line all season. Paired with a new defense partner in Roman Josi, his production started slowly but picked up late in the season. His 28 points would translate to 48 points over the course of a full season. Weber was solid in all phases of the game, but his power play production suffered as Josi took some time to settle in as his partner on the man advantage and teams worked to take away his booming shot from the point.

Weber's leadership is not often in the public eye, but he is a solid captain and the unequivocal leader of this team. His drive and consistent play helped to steady a team that at times was unsteady.

Because of the turnover and youth on the blue line, Weber played significant minutes but showed no signs of fatigue physically or mentally. His ability to shut down top forwards makes him one of the best defensemen in the League.

Considering the adjustment to a new partner on the blue line and the youth of the team, I believe this was actually one of the stronger seasons that Weber has produced.

Final Grade: A

Roman Josi  48 GP  5G 13A 18 points  -7

The big question for the Predators was who would play alongside Weber after the departure of Ryan Suter. That question was quickly answered by the play of Josi. He proved to be very steady, calm, and a deft puck handler. Josi rarely seemed to get rattled and was good with the first pass on the breakout. Josi showed the ability to handle the puck well and was not afraid to get involved in the offensive attack. He has a deceptively good shot, which he needs to use more.

Josi is not the physical player that will deliver a crushing check, but in general he was positionally sound. He occasionally got beaten by more experienced forwards, as his +/- rating attests, but he logged some big minutes alongside Weber against top forwards.

Josi will continue to improve his game and the experience of this season will serve him well. He needs to get stronger, but at 22 years of age, that will come.

Final Grade: B+

Kevin Klein  47 GP  3G 11A 14 points  -1

Klein had a quietly solid season, and did a good job of helping Victor Bartley settle in on the blue line. Klein is not a flashy player, but he is consistently in good position and sound in the defensive zone. Klein averaged just over 20 minutes a game in time on ice in the second D pairing.

Klein did an excellent job of steadying the second pairing, especially when Bartley joined the line up. Klein helped his young defensive partner adjust to NHL play and they formed a quality duo that could play some important minutes.

Klein will not put up big offensive numbers, but can score some timely goals and contribute with the distribution of the puck. His game, however, is to play sound defense and solidify the second pairing. He has done that well.

Final Grade: A-

Hal Gill  32 GP 0G 0A  0 points -3

Injuries plagued Gill this season, causing him to miss 16 games. In the twilight of his career, Gill is not going to be counted on to produce points. What he brings to the team is his leadership, the ability to play some quality third line minutes, and his prowess on the penalty kill. Gill excels in the PK, and the Predators relied heavily on the big defenseman to play some big minutes on this special team. When he was healthy, he responded well in this role.

Gill is still adept at using his physical stature at keeping the front of the net clear at even strength or on the PK. Gill will never be an exceptional puck handler or goal scorer, but his ability to provide solid third line minutes were much need by the Predators.

Gill was often paired with different partners on the blue line, and this affected chemistry. It is a compliment to his ability that he could adjust to changing partners several times throughout the course of the season.

His durability and health remain a question, and his minutes will be limited because of these factors.

Final Grade: C+

Victor Bartley  24 GP 0G 7A  7 points  +2

Bartley was called up mid-season from Milwaukee and surprised pleasantly. Paired with Kevin Klein for most of the season, Bartley showed good defensive zone presence and positioning. He has good size and used that physical presence to establish position and police the front of the net effectively.

At 25, Bartley is older than some of the more heralded defensemen in the system, and this seemed to make Bartley more determined to stick on the roster. Rarely did he fail to bring a solid effort every game, and as he settled in, he saw more ice time as the coaches grew more confident in his game.

Like any young player, Bartley was victimized by more experienced forwards and guilty of some rookie mistakes. Those mistakes were that- rookie mistakes. There would be more concern if those mistakes were from a lack of effort.

I see Bartley on the roster next season and more upside to his game.

Final Grade: B

Jonathan Blum  35 GP  1G 7A  8 points  -1

The end of last season saw Blum at a critical juncture in his career. His mandate from the coaches was to get stronger and commit to improving his game. This season, there were flashes of that off season work. Blum had third line minutes with Hal Gill and there was a short lived experiment of a pairing with Ryan Ellis. Thankfully, it was a brief experiment.

Blum still finds himself at a crossroad. As an undersized D-man, he is not going to see top line minutes. He has to be excellent at making good decisions with the puck, contribute offensively, and not be a defensive liability. Frankly, the jury is still out on those attributes. Flashes of potential have been shown, but Blum has to be more consistent in his total game.

Final Grade: C-

Ryan Ellis  32 GP  2G 4A  6 points  -2

Another undersized defenseman, Ellis was tabbed to be an offensive defenseman that could quarterback the power play, contribute points from the blue line, and use his smarts to be a solid defender.

There is no doubt that Ellis has offensive skills and talent. The problem is that there are limited circumstances where those offensive talents can shine. The grind of being an NHL defenseman may be too much for Ellis. As much as the coaching staff tried to protect Ellis by matching him against the opponents third or fourth lines, Ellis was still at times (most of the time) overmatched physically. The Predators cannot afford to reserve a roster spot for a power play specialist and a limited minute blue liner.

Although Ellis saw a lot of action this season, I will be surprised if he sticks on the roster next year.

Final Grade: D

Mattias Ekholm  1 GP  0G 0A  0 points  -1

Although Ekholm appeared in only one game, he finally made the move to North America and spent the season in Milwaukee. Ekholm has the talent and the size to be a quality NHL defenseman. The question is does he have the drive and mental edge to make it in the NHL? Ekholm's placid demeanor gives no indication of his drive or desire, and frankly, his brief appearances this season and last in Nashville give no clue.

If Ekholm can get that edge and show that he belongs on the roster, the Predators will benefit.

Final Grade: Incomplete

Up next, grading the forwards. It won't be pretty. 

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