Nashville Predators

Ellis, Ekholm give Nashville impressive blue line depth

May 5, 2016: Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis (4) and defenseman Mattias Ekholm (14), of Sweden, defend in front of goalie Pekka Rinne (35), of Finland, during game four of the Western Conference semi-final round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs between the Nashville Predators and the San Jose Sharks, held at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire)
Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire

As the Predators skated onto Bridgestone Arena ice for their regular season opener, all eyes were on No. 76.

P.K. Subban, Nashville’s prized acquisition of the summer, finally had an opportunity to put months of drama behind him and start a fresh chapter in his career. And that chapter began magnificently: The electric defenseman scored a first-period goal as he helped lead the Preds to a win over Chicago in front of a sellout crowd.

Subban’s partner Roman Josi excelled, too, notching a goal of his own and adding an assist. As a couple of dynamic puck-movers, the two fed off each other all night, displaying natural chemistry, lively rushes and the capacity to become one of hockey’s best defensive pairings.

Subban and Josi’s work should be appreciated for what it is, but as the hockey world marvels at their exploits, it shouldn’t forget what Nashville’s other defensemen have to offer.

Behind Subban and Josi on the Preds’ depth chart are Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm, who, over the last few years, have quietly developed into a formidable duo.

Last season, when Ellis and Ekholm were on the ice together at 5-on-5, Nashville scored 60.24 percent of goals and took 56.69 percent of all shot attempts. (This is according to Corsica, when accounting for zone, score and venue adjustments.)

If we look at them side-by-side in Domenic Galamini’s HERO chart, we see two rearguards who were mighty impressive in 2015-16.

While he’s garnered little fanfare, Ellis has become a productive contributor on offense. He may be a lot smaller than Weber — Ellis is 5’10” and 180 pounds soaking wet — but he owns a booming shot of his own, one that helped him earn 10 goals last season.

Ten goals might not feel like a whole lot, but consider that, in 2015-16, he was a right-handed defender behind another RHD (Weber) who logged more than 25 minutes per game. Ellis was potent when given the opportunity, as evident by his goals per 60 minutes bar on the chart above. 

Ekholm doesn’t provide comparable offense, but his defensive ability is up there with the best. For context, consider the table below, which shows how Ekholm compares to his fellow D-men in shot attempts against, shots on goal against and scoring chances against.

(Only blueliners who skated in 1,000-plus minutes at 5-on-5 were included, and these metrics, also pulled from Corsica, account for zone, score and venue adjustments.)

Along with their previous success and overall potential, there are several reasons to be excited about Ellis and Ekholm moving forward: They’re both young, and they’re both cost-efficient.

David Poile has made a lot of wise moves as Nashville’s GM — for an example, take a gander at Josi’s contract — and the deals he completed with Ellis and Ekholm are among his most frugal to date.

Ellis, 25, is signed for three more seasons with an annual cap hit of $2.5 million. He’ll make $2.5 million in 2016-17; in 2017-18 and 2018-19, Nashville will pay him $3.5 million per year. For a defender in his mid-20s who has already accomplished so much, that’s quite a bargain.

Ekholm, 26, is locked in through 2021-22 at a $3.75 million annual value. Not quite as economical of a deal as Ellis’, but considering how staunch he is in his own zone, and considering how much money is thrown around on the open market, it’s a tremendous value.

The most important takeaway here is that Nashville currently boasts one of the best top fours in hockey — maybe the best — and, because of the way the NHL has evolved, should continue to do so well into the future.

“We’re that way,” Ekholm told The Tennessean, referencing the kind of players who thrive in today’s game. “We still can defend, and we’re pretty solid at that, but our strength is carrying the puck up and wanting to go on the attack. … Maybe that’s what’s happening with a lot of the stay-at-home defensemen. The speed is too fast right now. All of the defensemen on this team can really defend and join the rush.”

It’s easy to see why many believe the Predators will go deep into the playoffs next spring — and, perhaps, win their first Stanley Cup. Mix these four defenders with a talented forward corps led by Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and James Neal, and Nashville looks like one of the most exciting clubs out there.

So enjoy the Josi/Subban pairing as it takes the league by storm. But don’t turn away when they head for the bench.

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