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Here’s How The Predators Can Fix Their Writhing Defense

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Photo of Roman Josi, left, and Jason Robertson by John Russell/Nashville Predators

If you would have told Nashville Predators general manager Barry Trotz when the season began that his team would be in fourth place in the Central Division and occupy the first wild card spot in the Western Conference close to the midpoint of the season, he would have likely signed up for that no questions asked.

But as the first week of January comes to a close, the Predators have lost five of their last eight games, and their defense and goaltending have been all over the board in both performance and consistency.

Head coach Andrew Brunette seems to be confident in Juuse Saros’ ability to work his way out of his funk. But based on the events of the last few weeks, it’s not likely the same can be said for the defense.

So, how exactly do they fix their defensive shortcomings? Below are a number of solutions that the Predators should at least begin considering.

Trade Tyson Barrie

Neither side looks great in how this situation has played out. Clearly an agreement was made behind closed doors to send Barrie to a team that’s better suited for his skillset and has a chance to compete in the postseason, but when that information was made public (likely through Barrie’s agent), things got a lot messier.

Trotz threw Barrie and his representation under the bus for leaking the news and called their integrity into question, all while the 32-year-old defenseman was still in the lineup. Barrie has since been scratched on a few occasions, and things seem a bit awkward whenever he is in the lineup given both sides have expressed their interest to no longer be in business together.

Trotz has stated when he does move Barrie it has to be the right deal for the Predators in terms of compensation and cap space, but the longer this drags out, the weirder it gets for everyone. By no means should Trotz just give Barrie away, but one would think he’d be highly motivated to get a deal done soon so Brunette can stop playing musical defensemen when it comes time to scratch players from his lineup card.

Decide what to do with Dante Fabbro and Alex Carrier

For the last two years, it’s felt like both Fabbro and Carrier have both been auditioning to see who stays with the team long-term. If that’s the case, then now is the time to commit and move forward.

Fabbro has been scratched more often (nine times) than Carrier has (four times) this season, and sources have told Nashville Hockey Now that the Predators favor Carrier of the two, citing a belief that he’s simply a better fit for Brunette’s coaching style than Fabbro is.

Brunette trusts Carrier more in defensive situations than Fabbro, who has the second-most giveaways (27) and defensive-zone giveaways (23) among Predators defensemen, as evidenced by Carrier’s edge in defensive-zone time (41.2% to 39.5%) and the fact that he averages the second-most penalty kill minutes per game (2:40) on the team.

However, the numbers show that Fabbro has actually out-played Carrier in quite a few areas this season.

The 25-year-old Fabbro has a better Corsi score (48.1% to 44.8%), and when he’s on the ice, the Predators allow fewer goals against (24 to 39), fewer expected goals against (22.8 to 35.5), fewer scoring chances against (247 to 323), fewer high-danger chances against (97 to 138) and fewer high-danger goals allowed (10 to 21) with a better on-ice save percentage (.907 to .885).

Additionally, when Fabbro and Roman Josi are paired together, the duo rank first on the team and 15th in the NHL in expected goals against per 60 (2.18).

Fabbro also leads the team in rebounds created above expected (5.3), and he has the second-best expected on-ice goal differential (4.6) while Carrier has the second-worst on-ice goal differential (-11) and expected on-ice goal differential (-4.9).

With four NHL-caliber defensemen waiting in the wings in Milwaukee (Spencer Stastney, Marc Del Gaizo, Jake Livingstone, Adam Wilsby), it doesn’t make sense to lock up both Fabbro and Carrier to long-term deals. Trotz needs to decide which player he prefers to keep and find the other one a new home.

Make room for Spencer Stastney

Though he’s only played in nine NHL games this year, Stastney made quite the impression. During his brief stint, he ranked second on the team in shots blocked per 60 (6.6) and penalties drawn per 60 (0.83), and he led the team in on-ice goals percentage (80).

Despite playing 88% of his NHL minutes paired with arguably Nashville’s two most defensively deficient blue-liners (Barrie and Luke Schenn), Stastney had the second-best expected on-ice goals percentage (56.1) and on-ice goal differential (+6).

The Predators were 8-1 with Stastney in the lineup, and they had a save percentage of .968 when he was on the ice — more than three points higher than the next-closest defenseman, Ryan McDonagh (.931).

It’s clear that Stastney is ready for a full-time role in the NHL, and it can be argued the Predators played their best defensive hockey when he was in the lineup. His emergence makes it easier for Nashville to withstand trading two of Barrie, Carrier and Fabbro.

Admit Luke Schenn is a third-pairing defenseman

When Trotz signed Schenn to a three-year, $8.25 million contract in the offseason to be Roman Josi’s bodyguard, so to speak, the move was highly criticized. After seeing Schenn’s body of work after 20 games, it still looks like a bad signing.

However, it appears that Schenn is very much in the Predators plans going forward. His physical style of play (he’s second on the team with 10.8 hits per 60) fits right in with what Brunette wants from his defensemen, and he’s relied on to contribute on the penalty kill as well (he plays 32.2% of Nashville’s PK time per game), but he’s clearly limited compared to the rest of Nashville’s blue-liners.

Schenn’s deficiencies have been exposed often. He’s been on the ice for the second-most power-play goals against, and he averages the second-most giveaways per game (3.32) and has the fourth-most defensive-zone giveaways (14) among Predators defensemen despite playing in 10 fewer games than almost everyone else.

The 34-year-old blue-liner doesn’t have the speed or skill to keep up with top scorers on opposing teams, and he should not be playing on either Nashville’s top two defensive pairings or seeing significant minutes on the penalty kill.

(All stats via MoneyPuck.com)

Follow Michael Gallagher on X/Twitter @MGsports_