Preds' main problem on defense is deciding who comprises it

Saturday, October 1, 2011 at 11:40pm

If Saturday’s preseason finale was meant to be an opportunity to decide which defensemen would fill out the roster for the start of the regular season then general manager David Poile, coach Barry Trotz and the rest of the Nashville Predators’ brain trust have a problem.

“There’s no question that this game — and just all preseason — there were a lot of guys that made it really hard,” Trotz said. “That was a great thing. … It’s really hard.

“… We’ve had a change of plans on a couple guys so we’re really undecided.”

With the elite pair of Ryan Suter and Shea Weber out of the lineup, a young, small inexperienced group of blue liners helped limit the Carolina Hurricanes to 21 shots as the Predators rallied for a 2-1 overtime victory before 14,760 at Bridgestone Arena.

Rookie center Craig Smith — a player Trotz said definitively would be with the team beyond training camp — scored the game-winner with 10.3 seconds remaining in the extra period. With that, Nashville finished a league-best 7-1 with 16 goals allowed (an average of two per game) in warm-up contests.

Three players — defenseman Tyler Sloan, center Chris Mueller and left wing Gabriel Bourque — were reassigned to Milwaukee following the contest.

None of them was a part of the defense corps against Carolina. The six who played included two who are generously listed at 5-foot-10 — Ryan Ellis and Jack Hillen — and three of them — Ellis, Teemu Laakso and Mattias Ekholm — had little or no NHL experience.

All told, in fact, the six have 449 total games of NHL experience. Suter has 463 in his own right. Weber has 402.

“That’s what the system is all about — we have a great defense,” right wing Patric Hornqvist, who scored Nashville’s first goal, said. “We have good systems, we play tight defensively and the young guys stepped up [Saturday]. They played really, really well.”

The Hurricanes managed just three shots in the opening period and got none in nearly 4:50 of overtime. Their most productive period was the second, when they got 10 pucks to the net yet still were outshot by a wide margin. Nashville had 18 of its 43 shots in the second.

Even Carolina’s lone goal came on a seemingly harmless shot by defenseman Bryan Allen from beyond the left wing circle. Somehow it beat goalie Pekka Rinne over the shoulder and found the top corner of the net.

“I think we are doing a great job,” Rinne said. “We are always getting out of the zone. That’s one of the biggest things because you only need one turnover, and after that you spend a couple minutes in your zone and you can face five shots easily. But we are not doing that.

“It’s all those little things. And on the other hand, we are shooting the puck way more in the offensive zone. That forces the other team to defend more and to use their energy to defend.”

Kevin Klein and Jonathon Blum worked as Nashville’s top pairing in the absence of Suter and Weber. Each played at least 25 minutes, which was the most for any skaters on either team.

Behind them, Laakso was paired with Hillen, and Ellis and Ekholm were partners. At least one — possibly two — of those four must go to Milwaukee.

“Obviously, [Suter] and [Weber] are great players so it’s nice to be there in the No. 1 role,” Klein said. “I just go about my business, play the same game and maybe take a little bit more of a leadership role.”

With the last few roster moves still to be made on Monday, though, he has no interest in being part of the franchise leadership.

“I’m glad I’m a player and not one of those staff members,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of good young players. We’re going to be a young team this year, and the young guys we do have are mature, which is great.”