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Playoff Preview: Hurricanes Forwards vs. Predators Defensemen

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The Carolina Hurricanes pose one of the best forward groups when healthy, so can the Nashville Predators stack up against them on the blueline? Let’s take a look at how they compare.

Carolina Hurricanes v Nashville Predators Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images

The Nashville Predators have long boasted one of the top defensive corps in the league, but since their run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017, only three members remain — captain Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm.

Now, the Predators support a rotating cast of blueliners for their bottom three options and are a bit of a far cry from the dominance they once held. However, they do deploy a strong collapsing system that aims to limit rebound chances in close, so the drop-off in talent isn’t as glaring.

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But those top three defensemen still make Nashville’s blueline a formidable opponent if only for their ability to transition through the zones and pose a huge threat in the attacking zone.

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So let’s take a look at who the Carolina Hurricanes may see standing on Nashville’s blueline come Game 1 of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

*(I am no expert on the Nashville roster, but am basing my analysis on what I’ve seen, heard and found)*

Projected Hurricanes Lineup and Depth

LW C RW
LW C RW
Andrei Svechnikov (GAR: 5) Sebastian Aho (GAR: 7.5) Teuvo Teravainen (GAR: 3.9)
Nino Niederreiter (GAR: 6.2) Vincent Trocheck (GAR: 5) Martin Necas (GAR: 4.1)
Warren Foegele (GAR: 2.3) Jordan Staal (GAR: 1.1) Jesper Fast (GAR: 0.8)
Cedric Paquette (GAR: 0.8) Jordan Martinook (GAR: 0.4) Brock McGinn (GAR: 3.8)
Max McCormick (GAR: -0.6) Steven Lorentz (GAR: -0.4) Morgan Geekie (GAR: 0.9)

Projected Predators Lineup and Depth

LD RD
LD RD
Roman Josi (GAR: 2.5) Ryan Ellis (GAR: 3.5)
Mattias Ekholm (GAR: 8) Alexandre Carrier (GAR: 2.2)
Ben Harpur (GAR: 1.3) Matt Benning (GAR: 1.5)
Dante Fabbro (GAR: -0.7) Erik Gudbranson (GAR: -2.1)
Mark Borowiecki (GAR: -1.8)

Roman Josi

8-25-33; 48GP

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The captain of the Predators and last year’s Norris trophy winner, Josi is still one of the premier defensemen in the league.

While his overall game has taken a step down from his record year last season, he still is one of the best offensive defensemen in the league and one of the pivotal drivers of Nashville’s offense.

He will be playing top minutes for Nashville and would be expected to be matched up with the Hurricanes’ SAT line as often as possible which would in turn allow him some chances of his own.

Josi is the only Predators defenseman with a positive expected goals for percentage (according to MoneyPuck.com).

Ryan Ellis

5-13-18; 35GP

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Ellis has been a longtime cornerstone of the Nashville defense and this year it’s no different. Despite missing a large chunk of time in the middle of the season, Ellis has been dependable on the Predators blueline and been a big part of the team’s turnaround.

More than likely paired alongside Josi, Ellis should see the top shutdown minutes for Nashville, but he also can be expected to try and drive offense the other way.

The Predators are a very bottom heavy team when it comes to their overall game plan and the ability of their defensemen to transition the puck out of their own end and into the attacking end is something Canes forwards will need to be cautious of.

Whether it’s skating it up or stretch passes, Josi and Ellis are the two defensemen that will give Carolina’s forwards the most trouble.

Mattias Ekholm

6-17-23; 48GP

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The biggest trade bait of the 2021 trade deadline, David Poile gambled on his team and as such Ekholm remained a Predator.

Now Ekholm is a bit of a one-sided defenseman this year. Great offensive numbers, but less than ideal defensive ones.

That’s not to say he can’t defend as the 6’4” Swede has both size and skating on his side, but it’s been apparent that his best value this year has come from the offensive zone.

A guy to keep an eye on, but one that the Canes shouldn’t have too much trouble getting goals by or winning net-front battles against.

Dante Fabbro

2-9-11; 40GP

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Absolutely no offense, but decent all around defensive numbers. Fabbro was expected to make a bigger stride in both areas of his game this season, but he seems to really be developing into more of a one-dimensional defenseman.

He has been scratched a few times down the road of the season, so whether or not he has a place in the lineup is up in the air.

Erik Gudbranson

0-1-1; 9GP

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For some reason, the Predators decided that they wanted to pick up the NHL’s most traded pylon. No speed or skill, but damn can he hit somebody... so long as they stay still.

Can’t see Nashville actually opting to put Gudbranson out onto the ice barring about four injuries to the blueline, but if they do, goals aplenty for Carolina.

Ben Harpur

0-7-7; 34GP

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“Big” Ben Harpur. He’s 6’6” and 231 lbs. A monster of a man, he loves to throw the body and he can utilize his size to protect the inside of the ice. However, he isn’t that mobile and his game stops in his own end.

The only real threat with him and Gudbranson is if they opt to use their size to try and take out a Carolina player along the boards.

Matt Benning

1-3-4; 53GP

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The quintessential third defenseman in Edmonton, Benning is fitting into that exact same role in Nashville. Dependable is the name of the game and really you can’t ask for more from a defenseman.

Should be expected to be a third-pairing guy or at least in a rotating cast at the bottom.

Mark Borowiecki

0-1-1; 22GP

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The Predators had obviously planned to go with grit this season, which is why they signed Borowiecki in the offseason. Not a great player, but he brings some leadership and physicality to the lineup.

Problem for him this year is his inability to stay healthy. At this point, it’s doubtful that he’ll make it into a playoff game.

Alexandre Carrier

1-2-3; 19GP

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One of the surprising positives that the Predators have found in the second half of their season was Alexandre Carrier.

Carrier stepped into the lineup and immediately started playing top-four minutes and played pretty well in them.

Also in the last 10 games of the season, Carrier was actually seemingly becoming one of the Predators’ top offensive play-drivers.

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Arguably the biggest wild card on the Predators blueline as he just hasn’t been around long enough to know too much about him and no idea if his recent success will translate in the playoffs.


Conclusion

The Hurricanes tout one of the top offensive groups in the league and I don’t see the Nashville blueline being able to stop them.

The Canes employ an aggressive place and retrieve forechecking plan that works to get defensemen caught flat footed and force mistakes by overloading them when they try to move pucks.

The Nashville big three are all able to skate and hit stretch passes, so they may match up good enough to keep up against Carolina’s system, but the Canes are relentless and end up manipulating the games of their opponents to react to the forecheck rather than the way they want to play.

Also the Hurricanes’ forwards should feast on whoever the bottom pairing ends up being.

Nashville ranks 5th to last in takeaways from opponents, 5th to last in shots against allowed, 15th in shots blocked, 20th in hits given and have below 50% Corsi For Percentage (MoneyPuck.com).

The fact of the matter is that they have good offensive defensemen, but really lack the elite shutdown guys necessary to help elevate the group.

The biggest difficulty the Hurricanes will face is Juuse Saros, whose amazing play in the last half of the season is the true reason for the Predators’ turnaround.

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Charts: Evolvong-Hockey.com, HockeyViz.com, WaveIntel.org
Data: Evolving-Hockey.com (GAR), MoneyPuck.com