Nashville Predators: Implications Of The First Line Defense Pairing

(Photo by Justin K. Aller/NHLI via Getty Images)
(Photo by Justin K. Aller/NHLI via Getty Images) /

During Thursday night’s game, the Nashville Predators started Roman Josi and  Matt Irwin on defense. If that continues, the team might be making a mistake.

I’d like to begin by saying Matt Irwin sits as one of my favorite players. He brings an attitude of selflessness and a spirit of hard work to every game. After an early P.K. Subban injury last season, Irwin fell among several defensive options for the coaching staff. When placed into the Nashville Predators lineup, the coaching staff loved him so much that he stayed for a total of 74 games (his longest NHL season).

Before his time with the Nashville Predators, the Victoria, BC native played for the San Jose Sharks and briefly the Boston Bruins. Despite not sitting high on the points list, he plays a steady and composed brand of hockey.

Roman Josi, on the other hand, plays a fiery yet silky style while continuing to improve as a lock-down defender. In six seasons with Nashville, he compiled 64 goals and 239 points. Coming off the most successful season in Nashville Predators franchise history, he was awarded the captaincy.

So what problem do the Predators face by pairing these two together?

Matt Irwin’s Development

Matt Irwin just finished his longest career season. He finished that season with the highest +/- in his career at +15. However, he averaged about 16:16 minutes per game. From Irwin’s standpoint, it will be challenging to get up to first line minutes coming from the third line.

Another challenge for the first line pairing lies in their chemistry. More than any other grouping or pairing within hockey, a defensive pair must have good chemistry. In the midst of jumping into the rush and cycling into the play on offense, Josi must trust Irwin to hold the back end.

Irwin also needs to shoot the puck more. The first defensive pairing often slots in with the first and second forward lines. One of Nashville’s strengths over the last few years has been dual threat defencemen paired with potent offensive talent. Last season, for example, a starting line up of Arvidsson – Johansen – Forsberg on offense and Josi – Ellis on defense frightened opposing teams because all five could score. During Irwin’s first few weeks as a Predator, he shot the puck very well and got three goals out of it. Then he backed off and his scoring dried up.

Irwin will never be a full-fledged first line defenseman, but he could be a serviceable band-aid for one.

Imbalanced Third Line

Perhaps a secondary reason as to why the first defensive pairing may not succeed involves the third pairing. Despite not allowing any goals during their shifts, Alexei Emelin and Yannick Weber just looked awkward during their first game together. It could wind up improving, but it doesn’t seem like a fluid pair.

Maybe Irwin – Weber set the bar too high for what a third pairing could be, but the coaching staff needs to lock up its third line. Matt Irwin needs to be on the third line. When a guy like Matt Irwin brings up the rear of your line up, you can breathe easy. The Predators can’t afford to worry about their third line pairing this year.

While Irwin isn’t first pair material, he certainly elevates the level of the third line. Moving him to line number three makes more sense for the Nashville Predators line up.

The Solution

The sample size of the season remains small, but the options are plentiful. How about this lineup?

Roman Josi – Mattias Ekholm

Alexei Emelin (or Samuel Girard) – P.K. Subban

Yannick Weber – Matt Irwin

The chemistry of Ekholm and Subban flowed last season but with Ryan Ellis out of the lineup, it might make sense to temporarily change. Alexei Emelin played with P.K. Subban in Montreal and could complement his play quite well. Weber and Irwin on the third line ensures a strong defensive unit.

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