Preds' defensive corps a solid mix
When most people think of the Nashville Predators, it's typically the offensive firepower that first comes to mind. From highlight-reel goals by Steve Sullivan to Paul Kariya's shootout-winning breakaways, Nashville's increased scoring punch has been capturing the headlines this season.
Meanwhile, the Predators' seven-man defensive corps has remained one of the team's best-kept secrets. The group's blend of speed, mobility, skill and grit are turning out to be a fine match for the National Hockey League's new, wide-open game. They can put points on the board and they can win battles in the corners. They fire accurate up-ice passes to streaking forwards and they block shots on the penalty kill. Quietly, Nashville's collection of blueliners is becoming a model for the future of defense in the NHL.
Nashville's general manager David Poile assembled the team's current array of d-men using all of his available tools. Kimmo Timonen, Marek Zidlicky, Danny Markov and Mark Eaton have all arrived via various trades. Jamie Allison was signed as a free agent. Dan Hamhuis and rookie Ryan Suter were each first-round selections by the Predators at the NHL Entry Draft. Taken as a whole, the group is repeatedly characterized in the Nashville locker room as "a good mix."
That's the phrase Predators blueliner Mark Eaton uses to describe the unit. Now in his fifth year of service in a Predators uniform, he has the second-longest tenure of the current crew. Listed at 6-2, 212 pounds, he's also the team's biggest player on the back line.
"We have our highly skilled guys and the guys that are more defensive," he said. "You need that in a defensive corp."
That statement may sound obvious, but it's not a luxury every team can claim. Rearguards are deployed in two-man units charged with the tasks of supporting the forwards up front and protecting the goaltender behind them. Nashville's three pairings include one that packs premier offensive abilities, one that shuts down opponents and one that features poise and solid skills that can be counted on in almost any situation.
Timonen and Zidlicky comprise the first duo and bring as much to the offensive side of the ledger as they do to the defense. The two were ranked among NHL defensemen scoring leaders in 2003-04, tallying 44 and 53 points respectively. That year Zidlicky, a 5-11, 190 pound native Most, Czech Republic, also established franchise records for power-play points in a season and points by a defenseman in a season. Timonen, who stands at 5-10, 194 pounds and hails from Finland, set a career high for points last season, was selected to play in the NHL's 2004 All-Star Game and helped lead his Finnish national team to the finals of the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.
"I think [Timonen's] one of the most underrated d-men in the league," Allison said. "I think he could be a No. 1 or 2 [defenseman] on any team. Obviously Zidlicky is amazing offensively. He's just a magician with the puck."
With statures more slight than most defensemen, Timonen and Zidlicky are part of the reason that Nashville's blue line corps sometimes gets tagged as small and therefore exploitable. Predators goaltender Chris Mason believes this mistaken logic leads many to discount the defensive contributions of the pair and of the larger group as well.
"I think they're definitely underrated," Mason said. "Size doesn't necessarily mean that you're better defensively. We've obviously got guys like Kimmo and [Zidlicky] who are two of the best offensive guys in the league, and Kimmo has always been very solid defensively and he's not a very big guy. Size doesn't necessarily correlate into a successful defensive corps."
Allison, the 6-1, 210-pound seventh defenseman who is reserved to step in when injuries arise or as games require a larger physical presence, agrees. "Everyone looks at our defense and says 'offense, offense' and that we're small," the 10-year NHL vet said. "I think [this defense corps] is very underrated defensively.... Kimmo to me, all around is just a great defenseman. He's not big but you can't beat him positionalLy. Even Zidlicky, he's great offensively but he plays great defense too. He can hit. We've seen him make some huge hits out there and he's not afraid to do that.... People think 'pound this defense, pound this defense,' but I think people look surprised at how well defensively this team can play."
The two men primarily responsible for putting the defensive clamps on opposing stars are Eaton and Markov. Eaton entered the league in 1999 as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers before Nashville acquired him in a trade on Sept. 29, 2000. In 2003-04, he established career highs in games played (75), goals (4), assists (9), points (13) and penalty minutes (26). But as his franchise-record +16 rating from last season indicates, his reliable defensive play is his calling card.
Coincidentally, a trade with Philadelphia brought Markov to Nashville as well. Poile was able to secure the talented rearguard in early August when the Flyers were forced to shed salaries to remain under the cap. The 6-1, 190-pound Muscovite is now in his eighth year in the league. He possesses more playoff experience than any other Predator (58 games, including 18 with Philadelphia in 2003-04) and brings a feistiness that perfectly complements the team's defensive corps.
"Danny's been a real good surprise," Nashville head coach Barry Trotz said. "He gives us a real edgy player on the back end. He plays with a lot of heart. He's fearless in terms of throwing his body in front of pucks and he's done a really good job. He gives us that one guy that can really make a difference. He keeps top players from the other team on their toes a little bit knowing that he's out there."
Mason also likes what he's seen from Markov thus far. "He's relentless in his work ethic and he's just so intense. You see him on the bench when he comes off after a hard shift and he's just fired up and ready to go. I think that [over the course of] 80 games, there are going to be a lot of times where you need guys like that to pick up other guys who might not have that intensity or might be a little tired. You feed off guys like that."
Markov's +17 rating led all players in the 2004 NHL playoffs, making it obvious why he and Eaton are constantly matched against the best players in the league. The two are also utilized extensively for killing penalties.
"Danny's a real physical presence out there," said Hamhuis. "He's a great defensive defenseman. He and Mark Eaton are playing really well together and stopping the other team's top lines every night. He makes it intimidating for guys to go in the corners with him to get the puck."
A young man who has elements of Markov's game in his own is Ryan Suter. Now playing in his first pro season, the 6-1, 190-pound native of Madison, Wis. has already posted impressive plus/minus and blocked shot figures. He has good lineage too: His father, Bob, was a member of the 1980 U.S. "Miracle on Ice" Olympic team and his uncle Gary played for 17 years in the NHL.
"[Suter] has a great hockey background and he's jumped right in and contributed right from Game 1," Eaton said. "You really haven't seen an adjustment period with him like you see with most young defensemen kind of learning the game. That's a testament to his abilities and his hockey sense."
Suter and his defense partner Hamhuis played together with the Predators' American Hockey League affiliate in Milwaukee during the recent NHL lockout. Hamhuis, who is from Smithers, B.C. and checks in at 6-1 and 200 pounds, finished second in scoring among AHL defenseman in 2003-04 and was named a Second Team AHL All-Star. Still, he brought only 80 games of NHL experience into the 2005-06 season, and given the relative inexperience of these two youngsters, one might think pairing them could be a recipe for disaster. On the contrary, both get high praise and votes of confidence from their teammates and head coach.
"Dan Hamhuis is a young guy but he's playing well above his age right now...," Allison said. "And Ryan Suter's played great for us so far. He's a young kid but has played with a lot of poise and he hasn't gotten really caught up in it. He's improving I think every game defensively. I mean, the kid can play. He can flat out play. He can skate and move the puck, so he's fun to watch."
"I think Danny Hamhuis and [Suter] are playing very well together," Trotz said. "They played a lot last year together and it has really shown this year. I think when things get a little bit disorganized in our own end, they've played so much together that there's a real good confidence and a respect for each other. They know what each other is doing so it really helps in terms of their ability to defend. Obviously they've got really good puck skills in terms of getting the puck up-ice as well. I think they are playing solid defensively and contributing offensively."
The factor that makes the Predators defense corps so unique and so valuable in today's NHL is its collective mobility. Tightened penalty standards have altered the way that defense can be played. The Predators are well-suited for the new era. "Our defense has changed as much as the game has changed," said Vokoun. "You see a lot more two-way defensemen when there used to be stay-at-home, big guys who tried to play physical. You can't do that anymore and you have to be able to skate. I think that's been the main difference. We don't have much size on defense but they are all skill and can move the puck and skate."
"I think one of the things you notice with our defense is they can make quick decisions on processing where they can put the puck and get the puck to people," Trotz said. "I think with our mobility and our puck-moving skills that we're able to create a lot of transitional type situations. We may not always score or create a great offensive chance off of it, but I think teams really respect that. So we keep them a little on their heels and off our back a little bit. That's a great quality to have, especially when you have those guys that can beat the opponent's first forechecker—or even when they send two forecheckers—they can beat that guy and get the puck up. If the team makes a poor decision defensively with their [third forward] or a pinching defenseman, we can make them pay. That's a real great quality to have."