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Ellis injury hurts, but don't be too concerned about the Predators' blueline

After off-season knee surgery, Ryan Ellis is expected be out until at least late December, but the Predators should be able to weather the storm thanks to the additional depth on their blueline.

During the Predators’ run to the Stanley Cup final last season, Ryan Ellis proved on a league-wide stage what those who followed Nashville closely already knew: he’s a bona fide top-flight defenseman more than capable of providing big-time offense and skating heavy minutes against top competition.

Ellis was phenomenal in the post-season, notching five goals and 13 points, the third-most of any Predators player, in 22 games. He skated 23:26 per game in the playoffs, was regularly tasked with lining up across from the likes of Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin, Ryan Kesler and Jakob Silfverberg and came out the other side looking like a stud defender ready to take his game to an ever higher level this coming campaign.

And that’s why Thursday’s news that Ellis will miss at least four months — but more likely six — following knee surgery feels like such a blow to the Predators.

"Right now, we feel, and the doctor feels, it's going to take the full six months for him to recover,” said Nashville GM David Poile, per the Predators’ release. “Ryan is not skating yet, but he will be skating in approximately three weeks and the recovery will go from there. We don't expect him back until the end of the year, maybe right around Christmastime.”

The bad news here isn’t hard to find. It’s no secret that Nashville has built itself around an impeccable defense corps that includes Ellis, Roman Josi, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm, and the four-headed monster on the back end was one of the biggest reasons behind Nashville’s success in the post-season. All are contributors offensively, some more than others, while being able to provide the Predators with a blueline that insulates goaltender Pekka Rinne as well as any defense in the league could. Losing Ellis is to lose one of those top-four defenders, an integral piece of what makes Nashville such a tough team to beat.

The good news, though, is it sounds as though the Predators weren’t exactly hit with this unexpectedly.

In speaking about the injury, Poile added that Nashville “had a little bit of heads up,” but it may have been more than just a little bit. One might recall there were questions about Ellis’ health during the tail-end of the post-season. He sustained an injury in Game 5, a supposed upper-body injury, and there was some concern he wouldn’t play in Game 6. He did, but little more than two weeks after the Predators were defeated in the Cup final, Ellis was seen wearing a brace on his right leg. At the time, Ellis said he had undergone “a minor procedure” and that the brace made it look “worse than it probably is,” according to The Tennessean’s Adam Vingan.

Of course, no matter the heads up, Ellis’ injury does still shorthand the back end and doesn’t really make the ailment any easier to swallow. So, how will the Predators get by? 

The obvious answer, and the one Poile pointed to, is with the help of Alexei Emelin.

Emelin was brought aboard by the Predators back on July 1, when they acquired the defender in exchange for a 2018 third-round pick from the Vegas Golden Knights. And Emelin, who had been plucked off the Montreal Canadiens’ roster in the expansion draft, can realistically come in and play the top-four minutes that are going to be vacated with the loss of Ellis. During his time in Montreal, especially across the past four seasons, Emelin was a fixture on one of the top two pairings, averaging 20:34 per outing across 216 games. He also took a heavy slant of defensive-zone starts, and while his possession numbers aren’t anything to write home about, he was still able to keep his head above water, posting 51.3 and 50.0 Corsi-for percentages over the past two seasons, respectively.

There’s also an added advantage when it comes to Emelin and it has to do with creating two pairings that can play and produce together. Commonly, Ellis skated alongside Josi during the 2016-17 campaign, while Subban and Ekholm made up Nashville’s other top unit, but the loss of Ellis is going to necessitate some juggling of the pairings. An easy way to do that might be to flip Josi to play alongside Ekholm while pairing Subban with Emelin. It’s a reasonable suggestion, too, because there is some level of familiarity between the two former Canadiens. While they weren’t exactly the blueline equivalent of bosom buddies during their stay in Montreal, Emelin and Subban did skate together to varying degrees during their tenures as Habs D-men. Between 2013-14 and 2015-16, the pair were on ice together for 265 minutes at 5-on-5, most of which came during the 2014-15 campaign when Subban was Emelin’s third-most common defense partner.

It’s not as if that’s the only option, however, because this is a blueline that can throw a lot of looks at the opposition. Should coach Peter Laviolette prefer Emelin with, say, Josi, there’s no reason the two can’t find a fit. Josi first made his name skating alongside Shea Weber and while, like Ellis, no one will confuse Emelin and Weber, the physical aspects of Emelin’s game somewhat mirror those of Weber’s. That could make it an easy transition for Josi. And if that isn’t a fit – or should Emelin be better suited to sharing the role as the Predators’ No. 4 – there’s reason to have faith in Matt Irwin’s ability. While he wasn’t exactly a featured blueliner during the Stanley Cup run, as he averaged less than 12 minutes per game, it’s worth noting that Irwin averaged 20:26 over a 29-game stretch from Dec. 3 to Feb. 2. Nashville had the ninth-best record in the NHL over that span, picking up 14 wins and 33 points.

This is to say that the Predators are going to miss Ellis. Any team in the league would. But if there’s any team that was prepared to lose a top-four defender and come out the other side all right, it’s Nashville. Poile did the work to bring in Emelin when it became clear a long-term ailment could sideline Ellis, and with the depth options available in Irwin, Yannick Weber and Anthony Bitteto, the Predators could still be well in the hunt for a division title by the time a healthy and hungry Ellis returns.

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