PITTSBURGH – Frankly, it’s amazing how a franchise can possibly lose defenseman Ryan Suter to free agency, then ultimately trade young, up-and-coming defenseman Seth Jones and captain and stalwart defenseman Shea Weber and still end up in the Stanley Cup Final … by possessing one of the NHL’s best blue lines led by top-four Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm.
“It’s a unique challenge,” Sidney Crosby said as the Penguins begin a repeat bid Monday against the Nashville Predators and their back-end quartet. “When you’re thinking about playing teams, you’re talking about usually forwards, snipers. You don’t usually think of a group of defensemen as guys that finish as well as they do. Usually one, maybe two guys do that in a D-corps. They have the luxury of having a number of them.”
Crosby’s superstar sidekick Evgeni Malkin, fresh off playing Ottawa Senators star defenseman Erik Karlsson, was more direct.
“It’ll be the hardest challenge of my life,” said Malkin, who leads the NHL with 24 points in the playoffs. “I’ve never played a team who have six good defensemen. Usually, [a team has] like one Karlsson. Here, [they have] like four Karlssons. It’s a good challenge for me, for Sid, for Phil [Kessel]. We’ll see who’s better. I’m ready to play. I’m excited. I know it’s not easy. I know it’ll be hard.”
Josi, Subban, Ellis and Ekholm have combined for 11 goals and 28 assists in 16 games. That’s two more points than eight Penguins defensemen have scored in three fewer games. Third pair Yannick Weber and Matt Irwin aren’t too shabby either, assistant coach Phil Housley says, but the Predators’ top two pairs have combined for 32 percent of Nashville’s total postseason production.
“It’s arguably one of the best D-corps I’ve seen,” said Housley, the South St. Paul native and Hall of Famer. “The only thing that I can think of that was close was when Chicago won with Duncan Keith, [Brent] Seabrook, [Niklas] Hjalmarsson and [Johnny] Oduya. This group has really come together. From the halfway part of the season to now, they’ve really grown and matured.”
They not only can score but they also can defend and have neutralized the likes of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan Getzlaf this postseason.
“We try to defend as a five-man unit and attack as a five-man unit,” Josi said.
It didn’t feel like it at the time — and GM David Poile certainly voiced his disappointment and anger back in 2012, but maybe the best thing that happened to Nashville was Suter leaving for the Wild. It allowed the Predators to replace Suter with Josi, and it also created the cap space for Predators to conduct a lot of upcoming business.
“We’re very fortunate,” Poile said. “When I look at what’s taken place, it’s remarkable we were able to [lose Suter, Weber and Jones] and still have arguably one of the best defenses in the National Hockey League. … That’s a huge wow that we were able to do that and still be competitive at the defensive position.”
In 19 years in Nashville, assistant GM Paul Fenton said the only time he went into a draft and tried to specifically pursue positional players was 2003 when the Predators selected Suter in the first round and Weber in the second.
“We’d talk about pairings and we honestly said we thought Suter and Weber would play together for 15 years,” Fenton said. “From there on, everybody is an asset in this business. You try to take the personal part of it out of it, and we had to use the assets the way we could like getting a No. 1 center for Jones. When Suts left and we got nothing for him, we knew we had Roman Josi that we could just put seamlessly with Webs.”
The Predators have a saying that the road to Nashville is through Milwaukee. Everybody from Suter and Weber played there, to Ellis, super-skilled playoff leading scorer Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and Colton Sissons. But in a case study on how to build a roster over the long-term, Poile has also made some of the sport’s biggest trades.
Poile traded Martin Erat to Washington in the Forsberg deal. He acquired James Neal from Pittsburgh in a deal involving power forward Patric Hornqvist. And he made two blockbuster 1-for-1 swaps, sending Jones to Columbus for Ryan Johansen and Weber to Montreal for Subban.
“Those trades are difficult to pull off and take a lot of courage,” Wild GM Chuck Fletcher said.
Where does Poile find the guts?
Ten days into his first GM job way back in 1982 with Washington, Poile traded captain Ryan Walter and Rick Green to Montreal for Rod Langway, Doug Jarvis, Brian Engblom and Craig Laughlin. The risky move completely transformed the Capitals.
But it also taught Poile a valuable lesson.
“I didn’t have anything invested in Washington, so I didn’t know how great a guy Ryan Walter was, that he was a great captain and the leader of the team. I didn’t know Rick Green as a person and how good he could be as a defenseman,” Poile said. “I was very objective and just thought this was a great deal for the team. Do you know where I’m going with this?
“As a GM, you have to do an honest self-evaluation of where you are and what you need. I caution any manager is not to over-evaluate your own players. We tend sometimes to fall in love with them and maybe can’t see the forest through the trees sometimes.”
The Predators have quite the task in front of them. Crosby and Malkin are searching for their third Stanley Cups, something not even Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr accomplished. The Penguins, whose 111 points were second-most in the NHL, are an experienced powerhouse, one looking to become the first NHL team to repeat as champion since Detroit in 1998.
With 94 points, the Predators were tied for 15th in the NHL and are looking to become the second Stanley Cup winner to be the lowest seed in its respective conference since the league adopted the conference-based playoff format in 1994.
“We’re all hungry again,” Kessel said. “We know what opportunity we have here to go back-to-back. It’s a special thing. For a lot of us, you might not ever get a chance to play for it again or to get this far. We want to take advantage of it.”