Shea Weber is off to a slow start. But that's never stopped the Nashville defenseman before.
By JOHN MANASSOFS Tennessee
If last season is any predictor, then
Shea Weber is due on Thursday when the Nashville Predators host the Los Angeles Kings.
A finalist for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman in each of the last two seasons (and signatory to — oh, by the way — a 14-year, $110-million contract last July), Weber has failed to earn a point in any of the Predators’ first nine games — by far the longest drought of his career to start a season.
In spite of Weber’s lack of production — his 19 goals last season tied him for the most in the league by a defenseman and his 49 points ranked sixth — the Predators have managed a credible 4-2-3 start, good enough for sixth in the Western Conference.
Yet on Wednesday when asked by FOXSportsTennessee.com if the Preds could continue to win without production from the owner of one of the league’s hardest slapshots, general manager David Poile preferred not to dwell on such a dire hypothetical.
“I’d rather answer that he’s going to produce,” he said, referencing Weber’s slow start to last season. “. . . So I know that’s going to happen. Again, the way he bombs the puck — he missed the net a few times — being a little bit more accurate, he can beat goaltenders. They can’t contain the shot. There’s a rebound. It’s going to be there.”
Poile's logic is hard to deny.
In each of Weber’s first seven seasons in the league, he has recorded a point in at least one of his first three games, whether it was his rookie year of 2005-06 when it came in his third game on Jan. 15 or 2007-08 when he did not play his second game until Nov. 17 but recorded an assist in that one.
Even last season, Weber recorded assists in each of the Preds’ first two games before totaling only one assist over the next seven games. Alas, he broke out in the 10th game with a goal, his first of the season, and an assist.
Thursday marks the Preds’ 10th game. It is a credit both to Weber’s defensive play and the team’s as a whole — not to mention the performance of goalie Pekka Rinne — that Nashville is off to a solid start amid trying circumstances.
After playing their first two games at home, the Predators went out on the road for seven straight games over 15 days. Despite scoring only seven non-shootout goals over the first six games of the road trip before breaking out for a 6-1 win at St. Louis on Tuesday, the Preds went an impressive 4-2-1 on the trip.
Poile agreed that that record was about as good as the Preds could have reasonably expected.
Nonetheless, the team’s offense must improve and perhaps Tuesday will prove the catalyst. The Predators are a team built around goaltending and defense and for them to win they necessarily must get production from their defense. To a degree, they have done that -- it’s just that none of those points have come from Weber. Ryan Ellis’ four points are tied for third on the team and Kevin Klein’s three tie him for sixth. Altogether, four Nashville defensemen have totaled 10 points.
However, Weber is the engine. As Poile mentioned, his shot generates a lot of offense, even when it doesn’t go in the net. He’s the reason why Nashville owned the best power play in the league last season, clicking at a 21.6 percent efficiency rate.
Thus far, Nashville has survived with defense, a phase in which Weber, obviously, plays an integral part. At 2.00 goals-against per game, the Preds are tied for second best in the league. Weber’s 27:03 per game in time on ice ranks seventh in the NHL.
He is plus-1, which isn’t bad considering the team’s overall goal differential still remains minus-1 and that he plays against other team’s top scoring lines.
There also are other mitigating circumstances. The biggest is the proverbial elephant in the room: his defense partner of the last several seasons, Ryan Suter, left via free agency to sign with Minnesota. An All-Star last season, Suter ranks among the game’s smoothest skaters and allowed Weber to play a more offensive role, knowing that Suter could take care of almost any situation that might arise in the Preds’ defensive zone.
Weber started the season paired with second-year player Roman Josi, another offensive type. Coach Barry Trotz has since changed that to the more defensive-minded veteran Scott Hannan. Also, Ellis has taken over Suter’s former role running the point with Weber on the power play -- three players where formerly there was one.
That’s a lot of change to adjust to.
“It has to certainly be part of it,” Poile said. “Now he’s played with a couple of different guys with his partners and on the power play. I’m sure there’s some adjustment to that, yes.”
Poile also said Weber’s lack of points is a product of the team’s poor offensive play as a whole -- poor handling of the puck, poor passing, too many offsides and icings; in short, one of the effects of having a shortened training camp and no preseason games.
Consequently, as the Preds’ overall play and offense rebounds, Weber should benefit. The only caveat would be that in a 48-game season, the longer the drought, the more profound the potential impact.
The good news for the Preds is that they remain in good position and now play five of their next six games at home.
“All in all, our win-loss record is very good,” Poile said. “Our defensive play has been strong since the first game of the season. Our offensive play hasn’t come forward, which is a good sign. If we can continue to produce anywhere close to last season, I think we should be very optimistic as to how this season goes.”
Provided, of course, that Weber begins to produce.