Ryan Ellis. Image by: Getty Images
The Predators and Ducks are both making playoff runs and they're doing it with defenseman who can skate and move the puck, not the punishing, hulking D-men of the past.
I’m not saying anything crazy here when I put it to you that the Nashville Predators have a pretty nice thing going on their blueline. Of course, the heroics of Pekka Rinne in net have helped the Preds to where they are right now, a game up on St. Louis in the second round of the post-season. But Ryan Ellis is on fire, while P.K. Subban has been crucial in many different ways.
During the regular season, Nashville was one of the best possession teams in the league (Washington is the only team still alive that had a better mark) and the Predators’ mobile defense corps played a huge role in that.
What’s interesting to me is how the unit came together and the fact that Nashville doesn’t have a lot of size back there. Sure, Subban is sturdy at 210 pounds, but he’s still only six feet tall. Ellis is just 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds (not counting the rad beard) and if anything, he’s the archetype for the future.
At this summer’s draft, the first defenseman taken will likely be either Cale Makar or Miro Heiskanen – neither of whom tops six feet or 180 pounds. But they can sure skate the puck up the ice and get it behind the enemy’s goalie – and that’s the kind of blueliner we’re seeing more of these days.
Nashville has just one regular who comes out above 6-foot-1 and that is 6-foot-4, 215-pound Mattias Ekholm. That’s big, but it’s not Chris Pronger big, or even Colton Parayko big. Yet the Predators have formed an impressive blueline based on movement and skill. In a copycat league, it will be interesting to see if teams continue to go small, should Nashville make a deep run or even win the Stanley Cup.
A hybrid model of size and mobility is also alive in the West, with the Anaheim Ducks. Randy Carlyle’s troop still has some big dudes, such as Korbinian Holzer, Josh Manson and Hampus Lindholm, but with Lindholm in particular the two-way play is excellent. Cam Fowler has decent size, but makes his bones with puck-rushing and offense. It always fascinates me that he fell to 12th in the 2010 draft due to a perceived lack of intensity in his game. Dude was a point-per-gamer from the blueline in his draft year! And he ended up going straight to the NHL with Anaheim – not easy to do as a defenseman.
But Sami Vatanen is an even better expectation-destroyer. Like Ellis, the smooth Finn is built more like a second-line winger than a defenseman (5-foot-10, 183 pounds). And yet, Vatanen has become a very effective NHL defenseman because he can move. He was one of Anaheim’s top minute-munchers during the regular season and a fixture on the power play. An upper body injury has slowed him down in the playoffs and yes, Connor McDavid made him look silly upon his return – but still.
Now, I’m not saying that monster defensemen are done. Heck, Victor Hedman got one of my Norris votes and he’s one of the biggest blueliners in the NHL. But the idea of what makes a good defenseman has certainly expanded over the years and we’re getting a crash course in the possibilities right now.