Defensive Depth Back In Focus

(Photo Credit: Scott Paulus)

Yesterday the Nashville Predators provided an update to defenseman Ryan Ellis. It wasn’t exactly ideal or uplifting news to hear. Ellis sustained a knee injury during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Finals and required surgery shortly after its completion. He won’t be ready for a return until late-December or early-January. While that might sound like a buzzkill as on-ice activities start brewing in Nashville it only highlights the biggest strength of the Predators organization: its defensive depth.

(Photo Credit: Scott Paulus)

The Ellis news no doubt stings. However, this is all minimized from being a calendar long setback for the team given the nature of how stacked the organization is built on defense. The Predators acquired 31-year old defenseman Alexei Emelin from the Vegas Golden Knights after he was snagged from the Montreal Canadiens in the NHL Expansion Draft. At the time that felt confusing. It almost seemed to be a precursor for an upcoming trade. Now it all makes sense. Emelin played a full 76-game 2016-17 season with the Canadiens and can be a more reliable and consistent option to lean on under these circumstances. Even then, the Predators still boast a defensive group behind the other big three which includes: Anthony Bitetto, Matt Irwin, and Yannick Weber. Plus there are three prospects worthy of consideration in Pre-Season as outside variables that could elevate themselves into the role with a strong enough performance: Alex Carrier, Jack Dougherty, and Samuel Girard. Yes, the Ellis news stings but -dang- does it sting a lot less with that many options with a wide range of playing characteristics that can make all viable if called upon.

Emelin, Bitteto, Irwin, and Weber to me are all your likely candidates for the short-term as the 2017-18 season starts. They’re the veterans. They’re all mostly proven in what they can bring to the table. The lone exception in that last respect would be Bitteto but he has been in and around the organization for five-seasons now with only some bad luck in the injuries department hampering real progressions at the NHL level. Those guys should do well. But, as we look at things from Milwaukee outward, what about those prospect contenders?

Girard is the first person worth tackling simply because he is the youngest. He has one-season remaining of major junior hockey before he goes pro. And, while he looked fantastic in his pro debut run with the Milwaukee Admirals in the AHL to cap off the 2016-17 season, he isn’t NHL ready yet – nor would it be the greatest idea to throw him to the fire, see him sputter, and dent his confidence. He’s 19-years old. Let’s let him lead the Shawinigan Cataractes in the QMJHL to a solid season before making the full step forward as a pro once the junior season is completed.

(Photo Credit: Sara Stathas)

The other two options, Carrier and Dougherty, were both first-year professionals a season ago. Carrier started the season phenomenally, earned an AHL All-Star selection, was recalled by Nashville, made his NHL debut, played a pair of games, and rounded out his rookie campaign looking like an established veteran. Dougherty did not start the season anywhere near as hot – but he also was in a vortex of seeing his defensive pairing cycle through everyone before finally settling down, regardless of the pairing, and looking stronger and stronger as he progressed. Stylistically it would be Carrier who compares best to Ellis – and I would say that in comparison to all competing for that now vacant role. That’s how good Carrier projects to be and just about is now at 20-years old. He is a right-shot that skates well, worked the top power-play and penalty kill last season for the Admirals, doesn’t mind joining the rush and is smart enough to deceifer when best to race up, and makes minimal mistakes. The attribute that I enjoyed most of Carrier as a rookie in the AHL last season was his composure. He looked and played the part of a top AHL defenseman quickly and only excelled once he was solidified alongside Adam Pardy as the top defensive pairing undertaking more and more responsibilities. Dougherty’s work was such that it almost wasn’t until after a game was over when you thought about how stable he really was throughout the course of a contest. Nothing flashy, but he was always well rounded and -by season’s end- started showcasing how strong he can be around the boards and front of the net. If there were a darkhorse option from the prospect depths to get early game action in Nashville? Carrier packages all the skills with more consistency than his fellow prospect competition.  If anyone will sneak up from Milwaukee first in 2017-18? It’s Carrier.

When it comes down to the choices for those final puzzle pieces on defense the Predators have lots of choices. They have established veteran talent, they have some guys within the group that are looking to improve further and seek out more playing time, and they also have prospects that could inject a jolt of energy. What’s important to remember is that this is not a season ending injury for Ellis. In fact, him coming back on the 2018 side of the calendar might just provided a lift as the team really gathers strength for the stretch drive. For fans in Milwaukee – I would only suspect Ellis would do a brief -BRIEF- conditioning assignment on the grounds that the Predators were doing fine at the time. Were there a clear need for him to get back ASAP – he’d be back ASAP. It’s around that time when the topside depth will get heavy and might see waivers come into play for either a Bitteto, Irwin, or Weber. That’s far away yet though. No need for any real panic yet. The options are there. And all can do the work.

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