Fear the Beard
by Ed Neely
The Nashville Predators have been on a historic run this season and there are many reasons behind their success. If you polled a hundred sports writers, they might tell you the main reason for this run is Pekka “The Great Wall of Finland” Rinne, and they would be right. Rinne has been stellar all season long but there is a clear dividing line between impressive production and greatness. You could say that it was the acquisition of Kyle Turris in November that balanced the lines and made teams account for more than just JoFA. You could say that it was when Juuse Saros turned the corner on November 4th and was able to put the demons of his first three starts behind him. You could even say that it was when Viktor Arvidsson woke up in early November and started producing to the level of his shiny new contract. You could say all of those things and be able to make a decent point, but the numbers point to another line. That line was crossed on January 2nd, 2018 when Ryan Ellis returned from off-season knee surgery.
There is a reason why the Predators named Ryan Ellis as the Associate Captain of this team. He is a key part of the deepest and most productive Blue Line in the NHL and a look at the way the team reacts to his presence or absence in the lineup is very illustrative. Before Ellis returned to the Predators line up they had gone 23-10-5 (51 points) and they were in the hunt for a Wild Card spot in the Western Conference. Since his return, they have gone a mind boggling 25-4-5 and have amassed 55 more points in and that included his first two games back in which he clearly looked rusty.
Ryan Ellis has turned in some impressive numbers in the 34 games he has played this season. He has 7 goals and 17 assists and averages 23:11 of ice time per game. He has 2 goals and 2 assists on the power play and 3 shorthanded assists as well. Ellis is averaging more than 5 shot attempts per game and puts 2.67 shots on goal per game all while posting a defensively responsible, and team leading, +/- rating of +25. He is tied for 3rd on the team with .74 points per game, which is almost a quarter point higher than any other season in his career.
The rest of the team has become markedly more productive since Ellis has come back from injury as well. The Preds, as a team, have posted a 3.26 goals per game since he returned, which is .63 better than without him. They have also improved their goal differential by .63 per game and their shot differential by 4.96 shots per game. The Preds have improved in both short-handed goals for and short-handed goals allowed by 2 goals each. The only stat in which the Preds have not improved since Ellis returned is power play goals for and against.
But how does Ryan Ellis stack up against other defensemen in the league? He is on an 82 game pace for more than 16 goals which puts him on par with the best defensemen in the league. He is also on pace for 40 assists if he had not missed the first half of the season. This would have him in the top 15 of all defensemen in the league. He is in the top 15 in turnover differential at +1, ahead of guys like Brent Burns(-45) and Drew Doughty (-59) and even our own P.K. Subban (-47) and Roman Josi (-19). As a matter of fact, he is the only Predators blue liner who has more take-aways than turnovers. Now I am not saying that he deserves to be in the Norris Trophy conversation, but if you extrapolate his playing time out over a full season, he could very easily receive consideration.
So yes. We can say that the bulk of the success for this season can be laid on Pekka Rinne’s shoulders, as every team can trace their success or demise to the man between the pipes, but I submit Ryan Ellis as the single most important skater on the team. When you add all of these numbers to the times that Ryan Ellis has literally dived in behind Pekka to function as an auxiliary goalie, it is easy to see why most teams in the league FEAR THE BEARD.