Sorting Out the Complicated Defense for the Nashville Predators

Oct 18, 2022; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Nashville Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm (14) talks with Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) during the first period against the Los Angeles Kings at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 18, 2022; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Nashville Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm (14) talks with Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) during the first period against the Los Angeles Kings at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports /
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One area of the game that has usually been a clear strength of the Nashville Predators is their defense. This year was supposed to be no different, especially after acquiring a shutdown top-four defenseman in Ryan McDonagh.

But not only have things not worked out like expected, the defense has been the team’s biggest issue and a clear liability. Between breakdowns defending the rush, turnovers under pressure in the zone, and flat out bad defending, the back end has been a mess for the Predators.

They are also still figuring out the pairings, as it is clear that the team has not adjusted to the over-abundance of guys on the left side. The way they are running their defense now is slightly better than the way they did in the first week of the year, but there is still a question of if they are maximizing what they have.

Nashville Predators have some decisions to make on defense

Let’s start with the most fixable aspect of the Predators’ defense, which is how they actually play. That is one of those things that is usually easier said than done, but the way they played on Thursday night was at least encouraging.

They were much less passive than they have usually been, and they found the perfect balance between pressuring the puck carrier but not letting the opposition get easy opportunities at the net-front. They were not doing great at managing the forecheck in their zone at the very beginning of the game, but tightened that up as well and were able to get the puck out of their zone when they had to.

Who knows if they can repeat that, but Thursday night at least gave us a blueprint as to what can be successful moving forward. What they are still figuring out is how they should assemble the pairs, and that still may not get figured out for awhile at this rate.

The top four going into the year was clearly supposed to be Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, Alexandre Carrier, and Ryan McDonagh, but the question was how they would actually be grouped since three of the four are natural left defensemen. Not only does that question remain unanswered, but every indication we have tells us that it may not work out.

John Hynes decided to go with McDonagh and Ekholm as a pairing to start the year, but it just did not go well in any way. To fix the issue of too many left defensemen playing together, the Predators are now rolling with pairs of Josi and Dante Fabbro (who was scratched on Thursday), Ekholm and Carrier, and McDonagh and Jeremy Lauzon, which has its pros and cons.

On one hand, putting McDonagh on the third pair looks bad since he is clearly a top-four defenseman, and you are not maximizing him or this team if he is not playing top-four minutes. On the other, with these pairings the Predators have a situation where they do not have a true first, second, and third situation, and one pair will not be significantly more leaned on than the other, which was the case last year and the years before.

The thing is, with the way the Predators were assembling the pairs at the very beginning of the season, they were setting themselves up for failure to begin with. McDonagh and Ekholm was never the way to go since both are defensive-minded defensemen, and with both being natural left defensemen, it just was not a recipe for success.

Between the two of them, whoever was going to be on the right side was going to be best alongside Josi since he is the facilitator of the team. Letting him take care of the offense while whoever was on the right side took care of the defense was most sensible, as you do not want a guy on his non-natural side assuming too many responsibilities.

That being said, it was never just going to be smooth sailing from the start, as adjusting to the side opposite of what you are used to was always going to take some time. And that is where the Predators are going to have to make a clear decision and roll with it.

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If they are going to put Ekholm on the right side, they have to commit to it and give him enough games to get used to it even if he struggles for some time. If they once again decide to put him back on the right side, he is once again going to go through growing pains, and if they continue to flip-flop him throughout the season, it is going to go terribly.

Whether the Predators want to keep what they have or give Ekholm another shot on the right side is their choice, but they have to put him with Josi and just stick with it for enough time for the two to gain chemistry playing together.