Preds-Canucks 2024: The Defensemen – In the Foreground

If you’re a fan of elite defenders, this is the series for you. The 2023-24 Norris Trophy race can basically be summed up in this series: The Pacific champion Vancouver Canucks are led by captain and Norris frontrunner Quinn Hughes, who took an early lead for the award and essentially never looked back. On the other side are the Nashville Predators and their captain Roman Josi. It took both some time to get going, but after the calendar turned, both the team and captain went on a tear that shot the Preds up the standings. And while the PHWA has already submitted their ballots for the end-of-season awards, seeing Hughes and Josi face off will be a treat for those who love watching elite blueliners in their prime to see.

The two (in my opinion) frontrunners from Norris have had elite seasons thus far. In the box score statistics (among defenders), there is little doubt that both players have been incredibly successful:

  • Quinn Hughes – FROM:
    • Goals: 17 (tied 6th)
    • Assists: 75 (1st)
    • Points: 92 (1st)
    • Equally strong goals: 12 (shared 6th)
    • Even Strength Points: 54 (1st)
    • Powerplay Goals: 5 (9th place)
    • Powerplay points: 38 (2nd)
  • Roman Josi – NSH:
    • Goals: 23 (1st)
    • Assists: 62 (5th)
    • Points: 85 (3rd)
    • Equally strong goals: 14 (shared 2nd)
    • Even Strength Points: 51 (2nd)
    • Powerplay Goals: 9 (1st)
    • Powerplay points: 33 (tied for 4th)

Hughes also has a slight advantage in Evolving-Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement (GAR) metric, with a 24.9 GAR (1st in the NHL) compared to Josi’s 22.0 (3rd). But it’s hard to argue that there’s one NHL defenseman who has had more of an impact in the second half of the season than Roman Josi, and he hopes to carry that momentum into this series.

However, after the top players there is a small decline. Filip Hronek had a pretty stellar season for the Canucks, from what I saw on film, same with Ian Cole – and the advanced stats reflect that, making him three of Vancouver’s top four blueliners. However, in what might be GM Barry Trotz’s smartest move at the trade deadline, he decided not to trade Alex Carrier, who remains a sensation for Nashville and who, along with Ryan McDonagh, has brought good depth to the defense corps. somewhat lacking after the top three.

Spencer Statsney has had a solid impact for the Nashville Predators in just 20 games, but the biggest X-factor for this matchup is what happens with Dante Fabbro. The former ‘1D of the future’, who will seemingly be living in Andrew Brunette’s doghouse later in the season, has played just 56 games (10th most defensemen in this matchup), despite some pretty good results on the ice.

The combination of Josi and Fabbro is one of the best performers in the league, but he has been in trouble more often than not lately, and if and when he gets to play could determine a lot of this series. I’m struggling to think of a single reason why having Luke Schenn or Tyson Barrie in the lineup is better than Dante Fabbro, and I hope Brunette agrees.

Speaking of Luke Schenn, the former Canuck and owner of the second-lowest GAR on Nashville’s roster (still ahead of Cody Glass, unfortunately) has apparently played a major role according to the staff and will likely see playing time in the series. For Vancouver, another oft-maligned defenseman is Tyler Myers, who has a positive impact on offense but struggles defensively and could be a weakness that Nashville can exploit. NHL single-season hits record holder Jeremy Lauzon scores the same as Myers, but plays a much more solid defensive game and while he isn’t great offensively, the Predators don’t use him in that role.

The verdict

There’s no denying what a fun matchup it will be with both Hughes and Josi on the ice as two of the best defensemen in the world, and while Hughes has an advantage in both stats, Josi is right there with him and usually plays with lesser players than his counterparts in Vancouver, not to mention the second-half tear that led Nashville back to the playoffs after a year-long hiatus. When it comes to depth, Vancouver once again has an advantage in my opinion, but I think the Nashville roster can be leveraged to play to their strengths and hopefully minimize that advantage.

These defensemen will be critical because the impact of goaltending on this series will be crucial to Nashville’s success, and I think the defensive impact of the Predators will be critical in giving Juuse Saros what he needs to succeeding after an average season by the usually elite netminder.

I’m giving Vancouver a slight edge here, especially since the penalty kill is weaker for the Predators, but all eyes will be on the captains – and as Hughes and Josi leave, so will the rest of the defensive corps.