Nashville Predators: Playing a Numbers Game With Third Defensive Pairing

NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 13: Nashville Predators defenseman Matt Irwin (52) and Nashville Predators defenseman Yannick Weber (7) are shown during the NHL game between the Nashville Predators and Vancouver Canucks, held on December 13, 2018, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 13: Nashville Predators defenseman Matt Irwin (52) and Nashville Predators defenseman Yannick Weber (7) are shown during the NHL game between the Nashville Predators and Vancouver Canucks, held on December 13, 2018, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /
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The Nashville Predators third pairing has appears to be the weakest link of the team. How can it be fixed before it starts costing games?

Who are they? The correct answer is…. the Nashville Predators third defensive unit! They’re the current glaring weakness of the team. What’s included in this breakdown:

To effectively explain the issues with the third defensive pairing, we’re going to highlight key stats from this season, last season, breakdown the three current defenseman vying for the third line spot, and breakdown who could get called up to replace one of them. All stats are taken from 5-on-5 hockey and provided by naturalstattrick.com.

The Predators have been going with Matt Irwin, Yannick Weber and Dan Hamhuis on this third pairing early on. There’s many other options we’re probably going to see until see see some improvement. Luckily, teams don’t rely too heavily on this unit to carry them. However, they can still be a big liability if they’re too bad.

Decline of the 3rd Pair in the Last Year

Ouch, three games and 19 scoring chances. That’s what the Nashville Predators third defensive unit has allowed at 5-on-5 through three games, yet they have somehow managed to produce eight scoring chances of their own. This unit has looked bad, but are noticeably trying to contribute on offense. Don’t get too excited though, let’s go back to last season. Listed below is time on ice, goals for/against, and scoring chances for/against:

Pair                         TOI     Goals F/A  SCF/SCA
Weber/Bitetto    19:52.    1/0            9/6
Weber/Hamhuis  11:19    0/0           4/4 

Through the first three games of last season, the third pair produced 13 scoring chances and only gave up ten. They also allowed no goals through the first seven games. Why in the world was the third defensive pair so much better this time last year while playing more minutes?

If you’ve watched the Predators play this season, specifically when the third defensive pair is on the ice, you would notice that they are swarming the puck and constantly attacking. That’s great, but, it has created many out of position plays which have created scoring chances for the opposition. Additionally, the third pair has hurt their cause by not scoring.

With good defenders, the top-two pairs, this is not as much of an issue since one defender can typically defend the blue line alone or buy enough time for his partner to get back in the event of a breakout.

The times the Predators haven’t been able to recover from their own offensive swarm, has usually been against the third pair. When on the ice, whether it’s Hamhuis, Weber or Irwin, it seems that the third pair is always making a costly mistake. In my opinion, it is coming from too much offense from Weber and poor positioning by both defenders.

Pair                       TOI      SCF/SCA 
Josi/Ellis               47:01   39/16
Ekholm/Fabbro  47:01   19/21
Weber/Hamhuis 23:04  10/10
Weber/Irwin        11:46    3/9

While the top defensive unit is producing excellent stats, the second pair seems to be slipping a little bit. But it does not matter. Regardless of how many scoring chances Dante Fabbro or Mattias Ekholm are giving up due to their offensive attack, they usually find a way to recover and make a defensive play on the puck.

Until those scoring chances against turn into goals against, don’t worry about them. Plus, the second pair produces points. Those are the two major differences between the second and third defensive units right now. In order to prove that the top four defenseman can attack on offense, leave one man back, and recover on defense here is some more data:

Pair                        TOI          GF/GA
Josi/Ellis                47:01       5/1
Ekholm/Fabbro   47:01       1/2
Weber/Hamhuis 23:04       0/3
Weber/Irwin        11:46        0/1

Not being able to attack the goal and trust your partner to back you up is a problem for the Predators third pair. Not because of a lack of trust, but because of a lack of skill. In only two games, and just half the time on ice at 5-on-5, Weber and Hamhuis created zero goals while allowing three times as many goals than the other two pairs.

To make things worse, the pairing of Irwin and Weber allowed the same amount of goals as the top two pairs in just one game. This area has to be fixed before the Predators start getting burned regularly and it starts costing them games.

Breakdown of the Current 3rd Pair Options

Yannick Weber:

Game   TOI:     Corsi for: Corsi Against: CF%
MIN      13:31         15             9                62.50%
DET      12:00         12             7                63.16%
SJS        15:10         10            21              32.26%

(Note:Corsi for= Shot attempts for at even strength: Shots + Blocks + Misses                        Corsi Against=Shot attempts against at even strength: Shots + Blocks + Misses)

Weber has tried to improve his offensive play this season and you have to appreciate that since he’s only tallied four goals in three prior seasons with Nashville. However, he seems to have forgotten where he needs to be on the ice, when he needs to be on the ice. Trying to be something he’s not maybe.

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Leaving his partner back to break up an odd man rush all alone or to be in an unfavorable 1v1 situation. Weber’s defensive play, especially in the offensive zone, has been very poor and desperately needs to be cleaned up.

However, he hasn’t gotten much help from his two partners who seem to be more of a problem than himself. Weber needs to find the balance between offense and defense. As the chart above displays, Weber’s worst game by far was against San Jose, but the question remains if it is him or his line-mate(s) that’s the bigger issue.

Dan Hamhuis:

Game:   TOI:    Corsi For: Corsi Against: CF%
MIN      13:52         13             12              52.00%
DET      11:39         12               7               63.16%

Hamhuis hasn’t looked good in his two appearances. He has looked slow, out of position, and frankly just bad. He has gotten beat in the offensive and defensive zones and had a forgettable turnover in the defensive zone allowing for an easy Detroit goal the past weekend.

Believe it or not, Hamhuis’ numbers are similar to last year’s playoffs. His highest Corsi for % against Dallas was 68.75, while his lowest was a whopping 33.33. But, he was involved in 38 scoring chances and only gave up 33 during the playoffs.

Hamhuis’ play is consistently inconsistent, but his value may be higher than some others vying for this 3rd line role.

Matt Irwin:

Game: TOI:    Corsi For: Corsi Against: CF%
SJS       14:43        7              23                 23.33%

Let’s keep this simple… in one appearance this season for Irwin has just one scoring chance for, but has given up ten scoring chances himself. High-danger chances he’s given up four, six medium-dangers chances, and 11 low-danger scoring chances against.

It appears Irwin might be the weakest link on the team right now. Nashville might have to move on from the veteran and start exploring other options for their third defensive pairing based on how the season has started.

Possible Replacements

Did anyone expect the Predators to try and phone their AHL affiliate the  Milwaukee Admirals less than five games into the season? Probably not, but let’s hope we give them a call soon. (Games played for preseason only.)

Player                 GP: TOI:    GF/GA: SCF/SCA
Steven Santini  4    62:08   3/2       23/32
Jarred Tinordi    4    55:37   1/1       29/15
Jeremy Davies   3   48:19   0/0       22/20
Alex Carrier        3    34:25   1/1      13/6
Matt Donovan   2    28:45   1/2      11/12

Before it can be determined who is called up, it must be determined whether Hamhuis or Weber… or Irwin… stays on the third pair.

Likely Scenario 1: In this scenario, Hamhuis stays and Weber and Irwin are out. I believe if this happens the Predators need to bring in speed to make up for Hamhuis’ lack of his own speed. After all, he has been a regular on the NHL level since 2003.

Likely Scenario 2: In this scenario, Weber stays and Hamhuis and Irwin are out. If this happens, the Predators need a defensive d-man to come in, in order to account for Weber’s lack of zone awareness and newly discovered offensive prowess. In my opinion, this scenario is most likely and, as a result, the Predators call up a player from Milwaukee.

Most Likely Solution

I would love to see Jeremy Davies, but I understand he needs to play a little while in Milwaukee before being rushed to the NHL. He was acquired through the trade that sent P.K. Subban to the New Jersey Devils.

With that said, the only member of the Admirals that played a game with Hamhuis this preseason was Steven Santini, who also looked pretty good in Milwaukee’s season opener. Santini and Hamhuis did not play well together in the preseason, but it is hard to gauge players and their pairings in the preseason with such a small sample size.

The Predators next option should be Jarred Tinordi. He got decent preseason playing time and looked the best defensively. He also was paired with Weber in a preseason game where they had six  scoring chances and only gave up two against. Once again that’s a small sample size, but the only decent defensive numbers around Weber also point at Tinordi.

Final Thoughts

The projected lineup for tonight’s mathcup with the Washington Capitals has Irwin and Weber together on the third pair. If they play poorly tonight, I’d expect the Predators to bring in either Santini or Tinordi to help solidify the defense for the next game.

Next. Predators Look to Halt Hot Start of the Capitals Tonight. dark

The Predators are showing offensive firepower unlike anything in recent memory. It seems that only one thing is tugging back on their push for success. Fixing this third defensive pairing as quickly as possible is crucial in a year where the division is bound to be close from start to finish.