Heading into this season, the Nashville Predators were known as much for the defensemen they let get away -- Ryan Suter, Seth Jones and Shea Weber -- as for the ones they had on their roster. No longer.
After beating the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday night to take a 3-1 lead in their Western Conference semifinals, the Predators' blueliners lead the NHL with eight goals and 14 assists in eight postseason games and have been involved in 17 of Nashville's 24 goals. This after finishing tied for the league's regular-season lead with 181 points.
"They know that they need their defensemen [to be] part of the attack," Blues coach Mike Yeo told reporters. "Obviously, they've got a good group of defensemen over there. That's going to be a challenge. We knew that was a challenge right from the start walking into this series."
P.K. Subban, acquired from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for Weber last summer, is by far the most well-known of the Predators' defenders, but he's just the tip of the iceberg for a team that, after shocking the heavily favored Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, could be on a collision course with the run-and-gun Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference finals.
Here's a quick scouting report on the Predators' burgeoning blue line:
Roman Josi: The Predators' top four defensemen are used so often, it's hard to truly tell which is the top pairing. At 6-foot-1, 201 pounds, Josi, 26, is among the most reliable at both ends of the ice, averaging a team-high 25:51 in ice time, which includes 1:58 on the power play and 2:19 on the penalty kill. Lining up on the left side of Ryan Ellis, Josi's greatest assets are his speed and his uncanny ability to see the entire ice, finding seams to score three goals and the proper lanes to pick up two assists.
Ryan Ellis: At 5-10, 180 pounds, Ellis' short stature and epic beard make him look like a lawn gnome. But the 11th pick of the 2009 draft has blossomed into the prototypical NHL defenseman, able to dart in and out of tight spaces to lug the puck out of danger and transition from defense to offense. It has taken him a few years to adjust to the big leagues, but Ellis is looking a lot like the player who piled up 101 points in 58 games for the OHL Windsor Spitfires in 2010-11.
P.K. Subban: Fans in Montreal hated to see Subban, 27, pack his bags for Music City, but until recently it appeared the Habs had gotten the better of the blockbuster deal in Weber. Subban missed more than a month of the regular season with an upper-body injury but was an offensive force in the second half, finishing with 10 goals and 30 assists with a minus-8. At 6 feet, 210 pounds, he plays bigger than he actually is, striking fear in goalies with his bazooka slap shot and delivering his fair share of open-ice hits while averaging 25:06 in ice time. Subban was also a plus-8 in his first eight playoff games, but it's his flair on the ice and off that makes him one of the most popular -- and controversial -- players in the game.
Mattias Ekholm: At 6-4, 215 pounds, Ekholm is the biggest Predators defenseman, but he intimidates more with his smart puck-moving ability than with his body. Ekholm, 26, has a sneaky-good shot but does not use it as often as he should, recording just six shots while averaging 25:08 in ice time in eight playoff games. Ekholm's no-frills style from the left side is a perfect complement to Subban's wide-open aggressiveness on the right.
Matt Irwin: The ice time drops off significantly with the Predators' third defensive pairing. At 29, Irwin is the senior member of the Nashville blue line, but he is also the player with the least NHL experience. Signed as a free agent last summer, Irwin played in a career-high 74 games this season, a big step after spending most of the previous season in the AHL with Providence. He also has strong offensive instincts and plays a reliable two-way game that resulted in a plus-15 this season. He's averaging 11:50 in the playoffs after logging 16:16 in the regular season.
Yannick Weber: Like Irwin, Weber signed with Nashville as a free agent and is coming off a career high in games played (73). Although he has a hard, accurate shot from the right side and is capable of playing on the man advantage, Weber has been limited to even-strength ice time in the postseason while averaging 11:39 in ice time. Irwin recorded just four shots in his first eight playoff games but was also reliable defensively with a plus-1.