By Jim Diamond
Granted, it was just a couple of hours after the team he coaches swung a blockbuster trade with the Canadiens that was anything but “typical, Montreal typical,” Nashville Predators head coach Peter Laviolette was noncommittal when asked if newly acquired blueliner P.K. Subban would be paired with Roman Josi on the team’s top defensive pairing.
Shea Weber, sent to the Habs in exchange for Subban, has been a mainstay on the Predators’ first pairing. When former partner Ryan Suter left for Minnesota via free agency in 2012, Roman Josi stepped into the role on Weber’s right side. Now that Josi is the incumbent top pairing player, who will join him there is up in the air.
“The thing about our defense, especially the top three not including P.K., is that they are moveable parts,” Laviolette said. “They all can skate. They all can move the puck. I think he’ll fit right in with them and we will have a very mobile top four defense.”
Along with Josi, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis round out that top three. With Predators management and coaches pretty staunchly on board with keeping a right and a left-handed defenseman on at least the top two pairings, it would seem logical to assume that Subban, a righty, would go with either Josi or Ekholm, leaving Ellis with Ekholm or Josi. Ekholm and Ellis have played significant minutes together and have made up a solid second pairing for the Predators.
But Subban and Josi are both outstanding puck carriers, so having them on the same pairing may be somewhat redundant. If they were to be split, good luck to opponents hoping to match up their top checking line or D pairing when Laviolette and Predators defensive coach Phil Housley have the ability to roll out Subban and Josi on separate shifts.
“I think from there we will figure it out as we go,” Laviolette continued. “That could be a possibility. It could be a possibility to split them up and play him with Ekholm. Either way, the top four remain very strong.”
Last season, Josi and Weber logged the most ice time among Predators blueliners at 25:29 and 25:22 per game. Ellis and Ekholm followed at 20:53 and 20:14 respectively.
Another benefit to having Subban and Josi split is the ability for the Predators to spread out their ice time, possibly reducing some wear and tear as minutes add up over the course of the season.
Nashville general manager David Poile, the man who swung the rare Predators trade with Montreal that does not involve a Kostitsyn, was bordering on giddy at the acquisition of Subban. He thinks that Subban gives Laviolette more options with regard to pairings and ice time.
“I think the coaches will have a lot of flexibility in how they use our defense,” Poile said. “I know again since we’ve had Peter and we’ve changed our style a fair bit, that it is players like P.K. Subban that are going to make the difference going from defense to offense, rushing the puck, carrying the mail as I like to say. I think he’s a fantastic player.”
They can also reduce some usage on their top four defensemen by relying more on their third pairing to kill penalties. The Predators do not take a lot of penalties, but if Barret Jackman and Tony Bitetto, likely the third pair, can absorb a fair share of the shorthanded minutes, the other four will be that much better off.
It’s not a given that Subban and Josi will play together on the Predators top defensive pairing, but if they do, the team’s forwards may just be turned into spectators as these two supremely talented puck carriers work their magic on the ice.