In just under two months, the Nashville Predators will open their 2017-2018 season on the road. After a successful season last year, the Predators will be looking to once again vie for the Stanley Cup when the calendar reads June 2018. In order for this to become a reality, the Predators defensive core will have to play a large role. In particular, their top four defensemen will need to step up and their bottom pairing and depth defensemen will have to contribute. Using traditional measures along with shot-based metrics, this article will evaluate the organizations bottom-four defensemen to determine who should make up the bottom pairing.
By The Numbers: Nashville Predators Defense Depth
Last season one defenseman that played a solid bottom pairing role for the Nashville Predators was Matt Irwin. In 74 games last year, Irwin managed to record three goals and 14 points. He also recorded a plus-minus of +15 on the season. So analytically speaking, how did Irwin perform last year?
In 74 appearances last season the Victoria, BC native recorded a Corsi-for percentage of 50.83% at five-on-five. For a lower pairing d-man like Irwin, this number is respectable. When Irwin is on the ice, his team possesses the puck about 50% of the time. With this in mind, it would be fair to say that he is controlling the run-of-play at an average level given his possession numbers.
However, after looking deeper, this is not the case. During the regular season, he began play after an offensive zone face off 53.25% of the time at five-on-five. By starting in the offensive zone more than half of the time he was on the ice, it would be fair to assume that Irwin’s offensive production would be better than someone with a lower percentage. However, this was not the case for Irwin. Last season, Irwin started more frequently in the offensive zone than four other Predators defensemen, but recorded far fewer points. Ultimately then, by these numbers, Irwin had a lackluster season offensively. With that said, Irwin is not relied upon for offense in Nashville, so his lack of production shouldn’t come as a surprise. For this reason, don’t expect his style of play to change next season in order to improve his offensive numbers.
Although Irwin under-performed offensively, he still contributed defensively. As previously mentioned, Irwin was a plus player last season and did a solid job shutting down opponents. This is evident as, out of Nashville defensemen who played at least 100 minutes at five-on-five, the Predators had their highest team save percentage of 93.93% while Irwin was on the ice. He also contributed game in, game out in other areas, laying the body and blocking shots. Last season, Irwin was third on the team in hits with 115 and second in blocks with 121. Most importantly, he did all this while logging an average of 16 minutes a night. Looking back on last season, it’s pretty clear that Irwin did exactly what was expected from a bottom pairing blue liner.
In the end, the offensive numbers might not be better next season but, the Preds know what they have with Irwin. That is a dependable defensive defenseman that does whatever it takes to win. If the Predators are willing to have two left handed defensemen on their bottom pair, Irwin will be in the lineup.
Heading into next season, Swiss born, Yannick Weber will definitely need to improve his game if he wants to help the Nashville Predators find success. Last season, the 28 year old played in all but nine regular season games, recording eight points while logging an average of 11:55 minutes a game. Although his offensive numbers aren’t spectacular, the area where Peter Laviolette will want him to improve on is the defensive side of the game. At the conclusion of the 2016-2017 campaign, he finished with a plus one rating and was even during the playoffs. These numbers aren’t terrible, but after digging deeper, it is clear his overall defensive game could use some work.
This need for improvement becomes immediately clear when looking at Weber’s Corsi and Fenwick-for percentages while five-on-five. By both measures, the Predators are controlling the puck less than 48% of the time when Weber is on the ice. This means that the Preds are not generating offense with Weber on the ice, and are being outplayed.
Weber’s flaws become even more alarming as more metrics are analyzed. For example, when Weber is on the ice, his team is giving up more scoring chances than they are creating. Opponents generated 390 chances at five-on-five with Weber on the ice, 87 more than Nashville created. Furthermore, Nashville is being outscored in high danger zone scoring scenarios when Weber is playing. This poor defensive play all translated into Weber having the third lowest on-ice save percentage among Predators defensemen who played a minimum of 100 minutes of five-on-five action. If these numbers continue to trend in favor of the opposition, Weber’s defensive numbers will get worse.
It is pretty clear that the right shot defenseman had a bad 2016-2017 campaign both offensively and defensively speaking. Ultimately, he should not be one of the Preds top-six defensemen to start next season. Despite this, he still provides the team a stable option to call up in case of injury.
Last season, Alexei Emelin dressed in 76 games games for the Montreal Canadiens. In these contests he recorded 10 points, two less than the campaign before. Analytically speaking, Emelin had an average 2016-2017 season. This was evident as his Corsi and Fenwick-for percentages at five-on-five were 50.64% and 50.70% respectively. When comparing these metrics to the season prior, they are in fact trending in the wrong direction and so it appears Emelin’s play is regressing. However, the Preds didn’t trade for Emelin to get a defenseman that dominates possession. He was acquired for other attributes.
Why Trade for Emelin?
By acquiring the 6-2, 218lb blue liner, the Preds have added experience on their bottom pair. Emelin has played 380 NHL regular season games, and he has also appeared in 29 post season contests in his career. Furthermore, Emelin also has history of logging big minutes over the years with the Montreal Canadiens. Just last season he averaged over 21 minutes while playing tough minutes. This experience could become vital if one of Nashville’s big four were to go down with an injury. Emelin could seamlessly move up the roster. Even if this doesn’t occur, his experience will definitely help the Predators in the playoffs when defensive depth is vital and mistakes are costly.
In addition to experience, Emelin will add a much needed physical edge to Nashville’s blue-line. Last season, the Russian D-man racked up 241 hits in 76 games. That number saw him finish ninth in the league for most hits. By comparison, Matt Irwin led all Predators defensemen with 115 hits. He will also help bolster the Predators penalty kill. During the 2016-2017 season, he averaged 2:34 minutes a game for the Habs while a man down.
Ultimately, Emelin will be an absolute lock on Nashville’s bottom pairing. In fact, his versatility and experience could see him take on a larger role. This could be especially possible, regardless of injury, if Peter Laviolette wants three balanced defense pairings.
The final member of the Nashville Predators defensive unit is American, Anthony Bitetto. Last year, the 27 year old, left handed defenseman appeared in 29 games for the Predators. In these contests he notched seven assists and a minus one rating.
If all goes as planned next season in Nashville, Bitetto will most likely see limited action in the NHL. However, if Bitetto finds his way into the lineup, he will be responsible for 11-12 minutes a contest. If this is the case, he will be relied upon to block shots and record hits. Last year he did this very effectively, recording 43 hits and 24 blocks. On the other hand, if Bitetto finds his way into the lineup, he will have to improve defensively. Last year he had the worst goals-for percentage, high-danger goals-for percentage, and on-ice save percentage out of all Predators defensemen who played at least 100 minutes while at five-on-five.
Furthermore, the Preds organization will definitely not expect any great offensive output if he finds his way into the lineup. This is evident as last year Bitetto only put 17 shots on net, and was only on the ice for 116 scoring chances compared to 167 against while five-on-five. It’s evident that Bitetto isn’t much of an offensive weapon when looking at his possession numbers. Last season his five-on-five Corsi- for percentage was 44.66% and his Fenwick-for percentage was 43.95%. His team rarely has the puck to create chances when he’s playing.
Who will make up the bottom pairing?
After examining all four defensemen it is evident who should make up the bottom pairing. At the start of next season, Alexei Emelin and Matt Irwin should be in the line up every night. Quite frankly, there is no question that Emelin will play, regardless of his numbers. This is because he fills every role the Preds d-core needed help in, and ultimately was acquired to play. The decision to play Matt Irwin isn’t as simple. The issue arises when looking at his handedness. If Laviolette wants the pairing to be made up of a right and left handed defenseman, Weber will get the nod. With that said, Irwin should should play as his analytic numbers are superior.
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