Nashville Predators: Sorting Out the Defensive Depth will be Tricky

Nashville Predators defenseman Dante Fabbro (57) celebrates with teammates after a win against the Detroit Red Wings at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Nashville Predators defenseman Dante Fabbro (57) celebrates with teammates after a win against the Detroit Red Wings at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports /

With all of the changes that the Nashville Predators roster has endured this offseason, perhaps there’s no bigger question to the team’s roster than how the defensive corps will fill out.

Although there has also been changes to the forwards, we still have a general idea of how that will shape out for the Predators. All that remains to be seen is how the line combinations will be lined up, but for the most part it seems pretty clear who those forwards will be in late October.

However, when it comes to the defensemen, it gets rather tricky once you get past the top pairing. Even then, it’s not a foregone conclusion that Head Coach John Hynes will keep things as status quo coming out of training camp, which opens later this month.

Nashville Predators have some friendly competition on defensive depth chart

Without a doubt we know that Roman Josi will lead things once again as the team’s captain, and we’re hoping he can channel his 2020 Norris Trophy form. He wasn’t terrible by any means last season, but I know he can kick it up another gear in 2021-22.

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Quite frankly, the Predators are going to need Josi to be not only a leader on and off the ice, but also one of their top point scorers and distributors of the puck. He’ll need another All-Star type of season to lead a young and unproven Predators team out of the mini rebuild they’re going through.

Alexandre Carrier is a rising player that many think has earned his right as the next long-term linemate of Josi on the top pairing, and I wholeheartedly agree. His skillset matches Josi’s style of dynamic offensive abilities.

Carrier possesses some of those same offensive traits that can make that top pairing a productive one offensively. I’m expecting him to take another strong step forward in his progression as an everyday defenseman on the NHL level as he will soon be 25-years-old, but only has 30 games of NHL experience including playoffs.

Mattias Ekholm should once again be a foundation of the second pairing as a new contract is still looking to be reached with him sooner rather than later. If he gets to unrestricted free agency next summer then I’m worried the Predators lose him and take another blow to their rebuild.

After these three players, the Predators defensive corps gets dicey for me. There are some difficult decisions for Hynes to have to make coming out of training camp and through preseason action.

Seeing how the defensive depth chart fills out heading into the season-opener against the Seattle Kraken will be very telling to what Hynes is looking for right out of the gate. Does he go young and inexperienced, or does he go the safe route with what he started with last season?

In terms of the safe route, the Predators still have Matt Benning and Mark Borowiecki on the roster. Benning saw a lot of NHL action last season as he got into 53 regular season games and averaged well over 16 minutes of ice time, which was a significant jump in playing time from his previous two season with Edmonton.

Benning brings you virtually nothing in terms of offense, but he is reliable defender on the third pairing and plays the way Hynes likes his teams to play. A rugged and physical game and one that I’m perfectly fine with on the bottom pairing. I’ll be very surprised if Benning isn’t an opening night starter.

Borowiecki just perplexes me on where he fits in. His first season in Nashville was held back considerably due to injury and he was never able to really make an impact. Should the Predators take a mulligan and give the veteran the starting nod once again? I do like his veteran leadership, but finding a starting spot for him seems difficult at this juncture.

This is where Philippe Myers comes into play, and I think he can earn himself a starting spot with a strong training camp that impresses coaches. He’s competing for one of those three starting spots after Josi, Carrier and Ekholm.

Myers got protected in the expansion draft by the Predators after being acquired in a trade that involved Ryan Ellis going to the Philadelphia Flyers. A bold move by General Manager David Poile that he is indeed ready to face what could be a long climb back up the ladder.

Then there is Dante Fabbro, a player we’ve come to know very well as he was thrown into the fire very early in his NHL career. A lot of people seem to conveniently forget that when laying the criticism on him.

Fabbro’s season ended on a rough note in the playoffs as he didn’t see any action after playing in ten playoff games over the two seasons prior. Injuries probably had something to do with it, but it was weird not seeing him out there in favor of Ben Harpur, who is also returning.

I’m fully expecting Fabbro to be a lock for a starting spot to open the regular season. Now whether he fits in on the second or third pairing is up in the air. Again, training camp and preseason action will hopefully sort this out.

Initial defensive depth chart pre-training camp

At this early stage in September, I’m leaning towards giving Myers the nod to start on the second pairing with Ekholm. I need things shaken up to see if something else works. The last thing I want is Hynes trotting out the same schemes and line combinations that haven’t really worked on a consistent basis.

Fabbro fits onto the third pairing with Benning to open the regular season. Two players who don’t bring much offense, however, we know the offensive skills are there for Fabbro to finally take a step forward in that part of his game.

This is obviously going to be a fluid situation with the defensive rotations. You still have David Farrance waiting in the wings to get regular NHL minutes, and I actually wouldn’t be opposed to calling him up quickly if the team starts off in ugly fashion due to poor defensive playing.

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Harpur and Borowiecki are the odd men out as far as falling short of starting roles initially. I can see Borowiecki getting rotated in as well, and there’s a chance that to the chagrin of most Predators fans that Harpur starts on opening night as he was signed to a one-year contract, so the organization likes something about him.

Here’s how I’m aligning the defense right now in early-September, with the notion that training camp and preseason could definitely shift my thinking:

  1. Josi/Carrier
  2. Ekholm/Myers
  3. Fabbro/Benning

Scratches: Borowiecki/Harpur

A strong training camp from Farrance, Borowiecki and/or Harpur  could possibly change my mind, but I feel mildly confident in rolling with these six as starters to open the 2021-22. However, my expectations are very tempered and I don’t expect it to be completely smooth sailing over the first month as this team adjusts a new era.

I’m really looking for Myers to bring some offensive upside to his game that neither Harpur, Benning, Borowiecki or Fabbro have really shown they can be counted on to do.

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With no Ellis in the picture, it really sends a ripple effect in the alignment of the defense. It was a necessary move to break up the core that has failed over the last few seasons, but it really does make for a shaky defensive alignment that will probably have to be tinkered with as the season progresses.