There is nothing wrong with Roman Josi’s English.
The Nashville Predators defenseman, a native of Switzerland, understands and speaks the language almost as well as if he’s done it his entire life. As an NHL player, he does not need to listen for specific words with particular meaning.
Yet time and time again during last week’s fast-paced training camp there were moments when it seemed the only two he heard were “Ryan” and “Suter.”
“We talked about that the other day because he said all [the media] ask him about is Ryan Suter,” captain Shea Weber said. “We talked a little bit about that. I think he knows and understands. He’s just got to put it into playing.”
What Josi “knows” and “understands” is that — in a manner of speaking — Suter is irreplaceable.
The Predators’ first-round draft pick in 2006, the latest in a family with a rich hockey tradition, and Weber’s long-time partner and confidant was a franchise pillar right up to the moment that he agreed last July to accept a free agent offer from the Minnesota Wild. His decision stunned and frustrated team officials, who had made competitive offers aimed to keep him in the organization for the remainder of his career.
The finality of it all will be cemented Tuesday when Nashville plays its first road game of the season — at Minnesota.
“He’s gone and that’s the way it is now,” Weber said. “So we look forward to moving on without him and finding different ways to create offense and to defend and to play the game we have to. … He’s a great defenseman, I think, anyway you put it. To replace him, I think we’ve got a capable group of young players in here that can step in and in time I think they’re going to be very good players.”
That’s just it. Not one player — at least not right now — will be able to do for the Predators this season all the things Suter did for so long.
Weber’s partner: In an overwhelming number of games during the last six seasons, Suter and Weber functioned as a unit. They grew into the Predators’ top defense pair and unquestionably one of the best in the league.
They both earned invitations to the 2012 NHL All-Star Game. They made Nashville the only team with two among the top 10 in points by a defenseman (Suter finished tied for 10th) last season. They also were two of only five blue liners who averaged more than 26 minutes of ice time per game.
In a general sense, that position is now Josi’s, which is why he has received so many queries in regard to his former teammate. The 22-year-old, a second-round pick in 2008, made his NHL debut last season and ultimately appeared in 52 contests during which he had five goals, 11 assists and a plus-1 rating — numbers that compare favorably with those Suter produced as a rookie in 2005-06 (one goal, 15 assists, plus-7 in 71 games).
“[Weber’s] got a pretty good partner now in Josi,” coach Barry Trotz said. “He’s a pretty good player. … I think with Roman’s skill set and with Shea’s skill set, they’re going to be a pretty good pair for a long time.”
Still, no one expects them to be as good together as Suter and Weber. Not right away, at least.
“Playing with Ryan in the past, we weren’t perfect early on,” Weber said. “We were never perfect. We were always improving, always getting better and I think this adjustment period is going to take a little bit of time. Hopefully we can speed that up and get used to each other right away.”
Special teams: Suter was one of only four Predators who scored at least once both shorthanded and on the power play last season, and no Nashville player at any position logged more power play time (an average of 3:41 per contest) or penalty kill time (an average of 2:20 per game) for the team.
Josi was one of four defensemen who played at least 55 games to average one minute or more of power play time and will have the opportunity to do more this season. However, expect Ryan Ellis, the 2009 first-round pick, to take his place on occasion based on circumstances and production. Ellis has shown rare offensive ability throughout his junior and minor league careers and the coaches will look to take advantage of him as much as possible.
“You want to work your way up that depth chart,” Ellis said. “I’m still at the back end here. There’s still a lot of jockeying for position. … I think every day you want to work hard, gain that experience and hopefully get higher and higher.”
When it comes to penalty killing, veteran Hal Gill will get the bulk of the work in his first full season with the Predators and free agent acquisition Scott Hannan will play a large part. Josi will be used, but not necessarily relied upon as a true stopper in that role as Suter was.
Leadership: Suter was an alternate captain for the last two seasons, and his elevation to that role was viewed as a critical moment in the franchise’s evolution. In a lot of ways, he was more comfortable than Weber, the captain, as a spokesman who could frame issues in ways that either satisfied the public or applied pressure within the locker room.
Without Suter, Weber’s command of the room is now almost absolute as he enters his third season as captain and his responsibility in that regard is even greater.
Beyond him, Gill, 37 years old, will be a prominent voice this season, but much more also will be asked of Kevin Klein. Drafted the same year as Suter and Weber and now a veteran of more than 300 NHL games, Klein is experienced in the Nashville system and has a new contract through 2017-18 that firmly establishes him as a foundation piece within the organization.
“[Gill] definitely has a lot of experience in this league,” Klein said. “There’s nothing like first-hand experience from a D-man and he’s very vocal so you can definitely hear him. … I think I’ve established a pretty good career so far. I think the main thing is being a consistent pro. At times I’ve had trouble with consistency. I’ve worked to improve that every year.”
At the start of this season, the most daunting question for the Predators is whether they can be better without Suter or if his departure creates a void that sets them back, at least for a time.
“It’s got to be a group effort,” Weber said. “Everyone saw him play here. He does everything well and makes the guys around him better.”
The fact that it takes so many players is precisely why Predators did not want to have to try and replace Suter. He simply left them no choice but to try.