Trading Shea Weber is easy when a player like P.K. Subban – a No. 1 defenseman as dynamic a player as any in the NHL – is one the other side of the transaction wire. Replacing Weber – a rugged, take-no-prisoners, do-everything, play-in-every-situation, no-nonsense big voice in the room, and oh by the way one of the best blue liners in the game – is another story.
The Nashville Predators learned just that early in the season as they stumbled off the starting blocks to a 2-4 start to the season. The once-airtight defense patrolled by Weber in Nashville allowed five-plus goals in three of those games.
Since a 6-1 loss in Anaheim on October 26 that rendered Nashville its fourth loss in six games, its been a return to normalcy for the Predators. The Preds have picked up points in nine of 12 games (6-3-3), allowing 27 goals in 12 games (2.25 per game) after giving up 21 through six (3.5). They’ve allowed just one powerplay goal on 33 chances over the last 10 games, in which the Predators have gone 6-2-2.
The 12-game stretch in which Nashville has climbed back on the map – now one point behind Minnesota in the Western Conference wildcard picture with two days to go before the world famous Thanksgiving Checkpoint – has come hand-in-hand with the expansion of the role of defenseman Ryan Ellis in Peter Laviolette’s gameplan.
Ellis has heavily factored into the Nashville’s lineup all season. He’s part of a heavily-relied upon top-four that also includes Subban, Roman Josi, and Mattias Ekholm, in which at least one has been on the ice for 84.5 percent of the Predators 1,082 faceoffs this season, according to PuckBase. Two have been on the ice for 82.5 percent.
In the last 12 games, there’s been a slight uptick in the ice-time of the defenseman who plays much bigger than his 5-10, 180-pound dimensions suggest.
While his usage over that span remains third among Predators defensemen behind Josi and Subban, Ellis has averaged 24:02, up from 23:11 over the first six games. In Monday’s 3-1 win over Tampa Bay, he averaged a game-high 25:30 while assisting one all three goals. It was the second time Ellis has led the Predators in time-on-ice this season, an honor that has largely gone to either Josi or Subban, as expected prior to the season.
In addition to the 23:44 overall average of ice-time for Ellis this season, he’s playing a team-high 2:48 shorthanded, on the ice for 62 of the 102 shorthanded faceoffs, according to PuckBase. That’s a similar rate as Weber’s dependency in the situation last season, on the ice for 292 of the Predators 442 man-down draws.
When Ellis and Josi are paired together on the ice, the Predators have outscored opponents 9-7 in five-on-five situations in 223 minutes together, according to corsica. Subban and Ekholm, the other pairing that has seen a bulk of five-on-five time (228:42), have been outscored, 9-6.
Ellis is a much different player than Weber. Weber is a 6-4, 232-pound behemoth who uses his size to set a physical tone among a bevy of other good things he does inside the glass. Ellis comes up short size-wise by six inches and 52 pounds. Any physical shortcomings he makes up for with good positioning, speed, and a good stick. Ellis doesn’t have the responsibilities Weber was pegged with for much of his time in Nashville.
When it comes to replacing Shea Weber, the Predators haven’t done so with adding more meat to the plate of Josi, or making Subban play outside his strengths of risk-taking and aggressive play. It’s been a quartet of strong blue liners starting with the two heavy-lifters followed by Ellis and Ekholm. It’s a new-age corps that predicates itself on speed, puck movement, and being a part of the rush.
The transition started with the trading of Weber for a player in Subban whose play suited that new style, having faith in Josi being an elite No. 1 defenseman.
The rise of Ellis is the latest step in making it complete.