Predators small defensemen bring big plays

Monday, April 30, 2012 at 9:05pm
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Francis Bouillon (Christopher Berkey for SouthComm)

Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are held in almost universally high regard among all National Hockey League defensemen.

Both represented their respective countries in the most recent Olympics; both played in the NHL All-Star Game back in January; and last week Weber was named a Norris Trophy finalist for the second consecutive season.

Defense, in fact, has become the franchise’s competitive calling card.

Yet most of the hockey world can’t help but look down on some of the other Nashville Predators’ defensemen. It has nothing to do with the talent and/or potential of Francis Bouillon, Jack Hillen and Ryan Ellis. It’s simply because they’re short. Really short.

“All my career, even before I made the NHL, I never got drafted in junior [hockey] … [and] all the parents and everybody was saying that I would not make it,” Bouillon, 36 and a veteran of nearly 700 NHL games, said. “And I made it. I came pretty far in my career.”

Bouillon is listed at 5 foot 8 and the other two men at 5 foot 10. For three such undersized players at that position to be concentrated on a single roster is a rarity, particularly at this time of the year.

The Phoenix Coyotes, Nashville’s opponent in the second round of the 2012 playoffs, have 12 defensemen listed on their current roster. Eleven are listed at 6 foot 1 or taller, and the lone exception is 33-year-old Derek Morris, who at an even 6 feet is long on experience.

The other Western Conference semifinal pits the St. Louis Blues against the Los Angeles Kings. Of Los Angeles’ seven defensemen, six are 6-foot or taller, and the smallest it 5-foot-11 Slava Voynov. St. Louis has three listed at under 6 feet, but two of them are 5-11.

That means Nashville has three of the four shortest defensemen still involved in the Western Conference playoffs.

“It is pretty unlikely, but they all bring special qualities,” coach Barry Trotz said. “Frankie Bouillon is maybe a little smaller in stature, but he plays big. Jack Hillen is a fantastic skater and is a lot stronger than he probably looks. And Ryan Ellis has a dynamic sense of the game and great poise with the puck.

“You probably wouldn’t have all three of those guys on most teams, but that was one of the reasons we got Hal Gill.”

Gill is, of course, 6 foot 7, 241 pounds — impossibly large. Nashville acquired him from Montreal shortly before the Feb. 27 trade deadline, when other contenders also attempted to add size to their blue line. For example, Philadelphia picked up Nicklas Grossman (6-4, 230) and Pavel Kubina (6-4, 258) in separate moves. The New York Rangers picked up John Scott (6-8, 270) and Detroit got Kyle Quincey (6-2, 207).

The Predators managed to advance to the second round even though Gill missed the entire opening series with Detroit because of an injury. Without him, two of the three short guys played in all five games.

“Our smaller guys … they find ways to be very productive,” Trotz said. “That’s the hockey sense they have and the compete level and all of that.”

None showcased those attributes better than the shortest one, Bouillon. He averaged a little more than 14 minutes of ice time and set a playoff series record for the franchise with a plus-6 rating.

“He’s been great,” said Weber, who checks in at 6-4, 232 pounds. “Before he got here I hadn’t heard a lot about him. I had a friend I played junior [hockey] with who told me, ‘You’re going to be impressed with this guy. He’s small but he plays with a big heart. He plays physical.’

“As soon as he got here, we saw that. He was feisty and doing all the things he needed to be doing.”

Things that are almost impossible to overlook.