Ryan Ellis hasn’t played a game all season and the absence was noticeable as the Nashville Predators struggled with scoring goals early in the season.
Now that December is almost here, the return of Ryan Ellis seems closer than ever. It doesn’t help that videos of Ellis skating have surfaced. Ellis is likely the last missing piece of this Nashville Predators team, besides Scott Hartnell of course. Ellis rejoining the top four will most likely displace Alexei Emelin, and return Mattias Ekholm to his proper home alongside P.K. Subban.
The defense has been noticeably different with Ellis out. Roles were shifted around and lines were experimented with. The first line was at one point Roman Josi with Matt Irwin, which was as tragic as it sounds. Then Ekholm and Subban were unceremoniously separated which resulted in a Josi-Ekholm pair as well as an Emelin-Subban pair. While the players changed, the situations and game plan didn’t, for better and worse.
Pretty simply put, the defense has been scoring as of late. So far this season, Josi has 14 points in 17 games. Ekholm has 13 points in 20 games including 4 goals in his last 5 games. And Subban leads the defense with 16 points in 20 games, including eight primary assists.
That’s 43 combined points in 57 games played, good for over .75 points per game. Elite stats from an elite group of talent. I can only imagine those numbers will rise once Ellis reclaims his rightful place next to Roman Josi.
Here’s where the hurt is. Peter Laviolette comes up with great strategies but usually fails to adjust them to injury or opponents. This has been the case with Ellis gone, as the Nashville Predators have broken up the second best shutdown pairing in the NHL to accommodate Roman Josi.
Josi and Ellis started in the offensive zone 48% of the time, just a bit under the average but not too much. The interesting part was that Ekholm and Subban were starting in the offensive zone just under 48% last year, but against much tougher competition. Well, the competition for both lines are the exact same this season, but the zone starts have shifted.
The Josi-Ekholm pair starts their shifts in the offensive zone 46.71% of the time. Somewhat close to average but still not too crazy. The Subban-Emelin pairing, on the other hand, are rarely seeing the offensive zone by design with 38.51% of their zone starts coming in the offensive zone. I’m aware that Subban has not produced terribly well at five on five, but can you blame him? Almost two third of his zone starts are in his own end. And to make matters worse, he’s paired with a pylon with a propensity to step up for big hits.
Things have not been easy for Subban, and it probably won’t change till Eliis returns.
Why it matters
Subban and Ekholm started off playing their brand of shutdown hockey until Ekholm was repurposed. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if some of the responsibilities were carried over, but Subban was left to pick up the slack. A key piece of the shutdown line was replaced by an objectively worse player, yet the responsibilities stayed the same. This put Subban in a position to fail, but so far he’s fought valiantly to stay afloat.
Subban, in 20 games, has a five on five Corsi of 46.77% and a Fenwick of 47.84%. Expect those numbers to rise by at least five percent once Ellis returns to the line-up. Subban’s transition from offensive dynamo to defensive stalwart has been fascinating to watch and completely unexpected. I’m curious to see how his play style changes once he’s reunited with Ekholm.
Watch out for the Nashville Predators once their top four is together again. They may not focus on scoring goals, but rather preventing them. Something the Predators have struggled with, especially in the third period. While Josi and Ekholm have been lighting up the scoresheet, Subban has remained the silent superstar of this team.