When the Nashville Predators acquired former Montreal Canadiens defenseman Alexei Emelin at the NHL Draft from the Vegas Golden Knights, who had just selected him in the Expansion Draft days earlier, it was clear that the team would have a logjam on the blue line entering 2017-18. The roster already boasts a top four that can rival any in the league in Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm, and adding yet another prominent name to the mix meant another regular for the Western Conference champs could be pushed out.
Instead, GM David Poile told Adam Vignan of The Tennessean that the Predators will carry eight defenseman, at least to start the year. With Josi, Subban, Ellis, Ekholm, and Emelin locked into regular roles – and making up only a modest $22MM of cap space – the final spot in the starting six will belong to one of Yannick Weber, Matt Irwin, or Anthony Bitetto. Weber and Irwin were the team’s bottom pair for much of the 2016-17 season and each signed an extension during the year, while the younger Bitetto skated in 29 games and helped to make up for the loss of Subban while he was sidelined. There’s no clear choice between the three, but by carrying the entire trio, Poile and coach Peter Laviolette have the flexibility to mix and match until they find the best fit.
Making this decision easier are the cap hits for Weber, Irwin, and Bitetto. Despite being regular contributors to a team that nearly won the Stanley Cup, Weber and Irwin are both journeyman veterans who have had up-and-down careers and thus settled for one-year extensions worth the league minimum of $650K. Bitetto, who had only just completed his first real NHL season in 2016, signed a two-year, 1.225MM contract, which will pay him $612.5K in 2017-18, even less than Weber and Irwin. Thus, the entire trio will cost Nashville under $2MM, making the decision to keep a fourth pair all the more simple. How everything shakes out on the Predators’ blue line remains to be seen, but their eight-man group will surely be the envy of most teams in the NHL this season.