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Nashville Predators

Predators defense explores options without Ryan Ellis

Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis celebrates after scoring a goal during practice Friday, June 2, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. The Predators are scheduled to face the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 3 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Finals Saturday. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Mark Humphrey/AP photo

The Nashville Predators’ acquisition of defenseman Alexei Emelin raised some questions, as their top four of P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis looked strong enough without this addition. Their third pair of Yannick Weber and Matt Irwin, whose contracts were both extended this offseason, appeared to be capable enough as well – so it wasn’t clear where Emelin would fit into this stacked blue line.

There had to be some reason why the Predators would pursue Emelin, as he isn’t the most skilled option and carries an a substantial salary cap hit ($4.1 million a year; but with the Golden Knights’ salary retention, he takes up $3 million in cap space). Were they planning to trade another defensemen? Was one of their top-four defenders going to be moved to fill a gap on offense? Or were they anticipating losing a defenseman for a significant amount of time injured?

Ellis suffered a knee injury in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, and subsequently, he underwent surgery in June, requiring four to six months to recover – which leaves him out until sometime between late December and January. Seeking an NHL defenseman now via trade makes more sense, though left-handed Emelin isn’t quite a replacement for right-handed Ellis.

*Chart via Ownthepuck.blogspot.ca

Overall, the Predators’ blue line plans have to change without Ellis. If there were plans of moving a top-four defenseman, it’s no longer an option for the time being – at least, not until Ellis returns from injury.

The 26-year-old defender scored 38 points (16 goals, 22 assists) in 71 regular-season games last season. Ellis had 11 of those points on the power play and three short-handed, as he plays in all situations.

Of the top four defenders in Nashville, Ellis actually had the lowest possession numbers – as his 5-on-5 49.49 Corsi for percentage and 50.73 expected goals for percentage fell slightly below theirs. Regardless, he’s an on-ice presence that’ll be missed and they’ll require some lineup shifting to fill the void he leaves.

*Chart via Hockeyviz.com

Ellis spent most of last season on Josi’s right. His defensive abilities balanced that pair and, to replace that, Ekholm could move to Josi’s pair. While Ekholm’s a left-handed defenseman, he could switch to the right for the time being.

With Ekholm alongside Josi, Emelin looks like the most likely option to slot next to Subban. That pair might not be as strong as Ekholm and Subban, but keeps the blue line as balanced as possible to start the season. Already this combination is being tested to start training camp, which implies that the former Canadiens teammates could find themselves together.

With Emelin with Subban, the third pair of Irwin and Weber can stay intact — unless Anthony Bitetto makes the starting lineup, which seems less likely.

Ellis’s absence opens up an opportunity for other defenders to step up – specifically, Emelin, Irwin, and Weber. With Ellis in the lineup, Emelin is relegated to the third line, which is where he belongs on this team if he is to have a place in the starting lineup. The question still stands if Emelin even deserves a place in the starting lineup and Ellis’s injury gives him the opportunity to earn that long-term.

The fact that he has a significant cap hit, especially compared to the rest of the defenders, means he’d have a starting role in this lineup regardless of Ellis’s injury – Nashville general manager David Poile wouldn’t have traded assets or absorbed his contract if that wasn’t the intention. With Emelin though, either Irwin or Weber will find themselves on the outside looking in when the defense is healthy.

By almost all statistical counts, Irwin looks more deserving of the sixth spot on the blue line over Weber. Irwin faced more defensive zone starts, which could indicate that the coaches trusted him more in those situations. And despite those zone starts, his offensive contributions exceeded Weber’s, and he was more effective defensively.

The addition of Emelin crowds the left side of the blue line, and it’s not clear whether Irwin can shift to the right. If not, then Weber’s the clear option. But if Irwin can prove more valuable than Emelin in this time, he could slot higher than him on the left. The Predators could also experiment with Irwin on the right, since they are losing right-hander Ellis, to see how he can transition – possibly putting him ahead of Weber on the depth chart.

While Ellis’s absence is an obstacle the Predators have to overcome, their blue line is strong enough to balance the expanded responsibilities. It’s clearly not ideal to be without Ellis to start the season, but his absence gives them the opportunity to analyze their bottom three defenseman to establish who belongs in the lineup for the second half of the season.

Ellis’s injury stops them from moving one of their top four defenders to fill gaps in their offense for the time being. Any of their defensemen have the opportunity to step up and increase their value in this lineup – and if there isn’t room to grow in Nashville, they could transform into a more valuable trade piece and find an expanded role elsewhere.

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