NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Any team is happy to find one franchise player to build around. Detroit coach Mike Babcock looks at the Nashville Predators and sees three: goaltender Pekka Rinne, defencemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter.
The trio reflects the Predators’ approach of building a team from the net out. Rinne, Weber and Suter are a key reason Nashville will be playing in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs, with sights set on making a deep run this post-season.
“Your best players being the best is huge,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. “I talked to Mike a little bit after the game and some of the Detroit people, and they said our depth was key. But our top players were our top players.”
And all three came through the draft for Nashville, with general manager David Poile building this former expansion franchise with draft picks. He grabbed Suter with the seventh overall choice in 2003, the same draft he took defenceman Kevin Klein 30 picks later, with Weber another second-round pick at No. 49 overall.
Poile found Rinne, this season’s NHL wins leader with 43, in 2004 in the eighth round at 258th overall. So the trio has been together for a while.
“I’ve played with Webs for a long time, and Peks is playing great for us,” Suter said. “It’s always reassuring knowing he’s back there.”
Rinne, signed to a seven-year, $49 million deal in November, was the first goalie to four wins this post-season as Nashville needed only five games to oust Detroit in the first round. The 6-foot-5 Finn used his glove to swallow up shot after shot, though he’s flexible enough to slide across the crease to smother the puck.
“Pekka showed why I think he’s the best goalie in the league last series,” centre Mike Fisher said.
Rinne says he feels fortunate to play behind Suter and Weber, the captain the past two seasons.
“It’s amazing how well they kind of compensate each other,” Rinne said. “They know themselves. They know each other so well, and they always play against the top lines, too, and they’re still able to create offence. That tells a lot about those guys for sure. Best D pairing in the whole league for sure, that’s the backbone of our team.”
Thanks to Weber and Suter, Nashville was the only team with two defencemen in the top 11 in points this season.
Both defencemen played in the 2010 Olympics, Weber winning with Canada over Suter and the Americans in the gold medal game. Weber was a finalist for the Norris Trophy last year for the league’s best defenceman, losing to Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom. And both defencemen went to the All-Star game this season.
Suter broke into the Nashville lineup first, and he has played 542 games with the Predators. He set career highs with 46 points and 39 assists this season, with a plus-15 rating.
The 6-4, 232-pound Weber has 480 career games in Nashville, and he set a career high with a plus-21 rating this season. He also ranked among the league’s top 10 defencemen in points, goals, power-play goals, power-play points, plus-minus rating and average time on ice. No NHL defenceman has scored more goals since the start of the 2008-09 season.
“They just complement each other very well,” Klein said Monday. “You know Webs being a physical, big shot, big presence, and then you got Sutes who’s just so smooth. He’s just a great passer and does all the little things right. When you’re talking about putting two of the best D men in the world together, they’re going to be a good pairing.”
So far these playoffs, Weber ranks sixth among defencemen averaging 27 minutes, 44 seconds per game, just ahead of Suter’s 27:42. Weber said one key for working well as a pairing is spending so much time together.
“We talk about it all the time,” Weber said. “It’s like we know what the other one’s going to do before we do it just because of our body language.”
How much longer the defensive pairing stays together remains to be seen.
Suter is an unrestricted free agent July 1, while Weber, already playing under a $7.5 million arbitration award, will be a restricted free agent again. Both would be top targets if they hit the market, and Detroit is expected to make a big offer to Suter. But the Predators have said they want to keep both, though a deep post-season run could make the decisions easier all around.
The Predators certainly made plenty of moves before the trade deadline, trying to prove their commitment to winning. Poile sent this year’s first-round pick to Buffalo for forward Paul Gaustad and acquired forward Andre Kostitsyn and defenceman Hal Gill from Montreal.
For now, both defencemen are focused on winning.
Trotz said both Weber and Suter stopped by his office Sunday to hear the coach’s plans for what could be a week between series before playing either Phoenix or Chicago. Both defencemen want to avoid a letdown that led to dropping the first game of their second-round series with Vancouver in 2011, and Trotz said that’s just leadership coming through.
Weber said the reason is simple.
“We’ve been through it, and we’re expecting a lot more,” Weber said, “and the ultimate goal is a Stanley Cup.”
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker