Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Nashville's defense is the ideal, but trying to exact it in Buffalo may prove futile

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 5-28-2017

Who doesn’t love the Nashville defense and the way the Predators bluliners jump into the play with speed, skill and fearlessness?

It’s a special top-four in Nashville right now as the Preds have Roman Josi, PK Subban, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis leading this team from the back-end to their first-ever Stanley Cup berth. That group of four is envy of the league right now with one television pundit proclaiming that Nashville has four Erik Karlsson's on the back-end.
The Preds model on defense is one worth noting as it gives the opposition fits and with rebuilding the Buffalo Sabres defense as Priority-1 for new GM Jason Botterill, in time the Sabres may have a similar look on the back-end. However, we may want to keep in mind a couple of things before we have dreams of a Nashville North on defense--from players to coaching, the Preds defense took years to build and develop and it's never a good idea to be chasing trends.
Nashville began building their defense in 2003 with what is considered the greatest NHL Draft of all time. In the first round they took agile, two-way d-man Ryan Suter with the seventh-overall pick then followed that up with two more blueline picks in the second--Kevin Kline (37th-overall) and Shea Weber (49th.) They would continue to add through the years but the had two cornerstones in Suter and Weber with which to anchor the defense while the rest developed behind them.
Suter and Weber along with goalie Pekka Rinne (2004, 258th) would form a "Bermuda Triangle" and for years the trio would help Nashville make the playoffs on the strength of their defense. Unfortunately, lack of offense would be their undoing and the trio would eventually splinter away. Suter would take the free agency route to Minnesota in 2012 and Weber would get traded to Montreal in a mega, two-player deal for fellow superstar PK Subban last off season. Rinne remains and he's regained his Vezina finalist form these playoffs.
Subban, who's known for his offensive acumen and flare as well, would join a strong group of young, homegrown puck-movers in Josi (2008, 38th,) Ellis (2009, 11th) and and Ekholm (2009, 102nd) to form what is now the most dangerous foursome in the league. But even then, it took the work of assistant coach Phil Housley to get them to this level of play.
Housley was drafted by the Sabres and by the end of his Hall of Fame career, the extremely talented offensive defenseman collected 338 goals and 894 assists in 1495 NHL games. Nashville had just come off of a 27th place finish in 2012-13 and they hired Housley, according to a Josh Cooper piece for The Hockey News, "to add a different voice to the coaching staff."
"But," added Cooper, "Nashville also wanted him to help unlock the potential in both Ellis and fellow young blueliner Ekholm."
Add in the adept head coaching of Stanley Cup-winner Peter Laviolette and you have a perfect storm of player-type and style that has the Preds four wins away from their first-ever Stanley Cup.
When you count the Weber for Subban trade, which allowed the Predators to add another offensive force on the back-end in Subban, the Preds defense took 14 years to get to the point where they are now, and they probably wouldn't be there without the leadership of both Housley and Laviolette.
Housley will be a head coach this coming season and it will be either in Buffalo or Florida. The preference here is for him to choose Buffalo, but regardless of where he goes, once could easily assume he's interested in fashioning a defense-corps in the Predators image.
The Sabres, they have one, maybe two of those pieces in the system right now. Rasmus Ristolainen has offensive acumen to go along with his size while 19 yr. old Brendan Guhle is a gifted skater who seems to have some offense to his game. Maybe Housley could get more offense out of Jake McCabe, his captain when Team USA won the gold medal at the 2013 World Junior Championships, as well. But for a new head coach in Buffalo, that corps has a long way to go before they could even come close to the Predators level and who's to say that the NHL will even be played that way if and when Buffalo finally gets there.
That's the problem with chasing trends, if you're late to the party, you've already missed it and you're back to square-one trying to figure out your next rebuild.
Having a mobile defense to join the rush with some very talented forwards already in Buffalo would be welcome. Trading away the future to be like the Nashville Predators might prove to be folly. It's preferable for the new head coach to be flexible enough to take the players he has on hand and play them to their strengths. And it's also up to the GM to have his vision for the team yet allow it to begin flowing with what he has on hand.
You can never go wrong with drafting and developing hockey players and before we get to the point where people think that means building a "hardest working team in hockey," the terms 'hockey player' and 'skill' are not mutually exclusive. You see it in players like Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Connor McDavid, along with your Scheifele's, Marchand's, Pacioretty's, Hedman's and Karlsson's. It's a compete-thing, using every ounce of energy to get the most out your skills.
The Sabres have players like that in Ristolainen and McCabe, Ryan O'Reilly, Kyle Okposo as well as Evander Kane and Jack Eichel. They also have moldable young players in William Carrier, Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste and Hudson Fasching up-front as well as prospects Guhle, Will Borgen and Casey Fitzgerald on defense.
The biggest problem we saw with the Sabres, as well as with the Buffalo Bills the last two years, involved coaches trying to fit the players to the system instead of the other way around. Both coaches are no longer with the club after only two seasons.
What I'd like to see in Buffalo is a coach who can look at this roster and say, "this is what we've got, and this is what we need to do to be successful." The ideal of what GM and coach want to build with can still be there, but flipping present strengths to attain pieces of the ideal will only set the franchise back and waste valuable time.
The Preds have an enviable blueline but it's unlikely to be recreated elsewhere in that the copy is rarely, if ever, as good as the original. Perhaps the Sabres can add that element to the Pittsburgh/Chicago high draft pick rebuild model they started this with to create a hybrid. Maybe keep the Western Conference size they have to add a heavy element to the package.
Regardless of how this unfolds in the near future for Buffalo I hope that Botterill and his new head coach refrain from chasing trends and continue building upon the strengths they now have. Sure their defense is a mess but I'm not sure they have a 14-year window to exact the Preds d.

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