Young, unassuming defenders tearing it up for Preds
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The photo art for The Who's double-album and film "The Kids Are Alright" features the band members snoozing contentedly underneath a giant British flag and leaning against a monument in New York City's Morningside Park.
From the group that gave musical voice to the painful awkwardness of moving between youth and adulthood, "The Kids Are Alright" confirmed just that -- despite fears from an older generation, the future was indeed secure.
We like to imagine the Nashville Predators' youthful defense corps wrapped similarly in a large Predators jersey, leaning up against the back doors of the Nashville Arena.
Not that Ryan Suter, Shea Weber, Greg Zanon or Dan Hamhuis resemble Pete Townshend, Keith Moon, Roger Daltry or John Entwistle, either physically or musically, especially given the unassuming nature of the four blueliners. But what this youthful quartet has accomplished in a short period of time has sent a similar message to the team's management and coaching staff, as well as to skeptics across the league.
The kids are all right indeed; better than all right, they're pretty darned good.
Team captain Kimmo Timonen laughs at the preseason scouting reports concerning the Predators -- deep and talented up front, terrific goaltending and a very young defensive crew that threatened to be the team's Achilles heel.
"It hasn't turned out that way," Timonen said with a smile. "These guys have been playing like they've been in the league for 10 years."
"Was there trepidation? The answer's yes," GM David Poile said. "We knew they had everything but one key ingredient, and that was experience."
Experience may be a little overrated.
The Predators' young blueliners (four are under the age of 26) all log between 17 and 21 minutes of ice time a night, take regular turns on special teams and have helped the Predators become a top-10 defensive club and Presidents' Trophy contender.
They are crucial components of the league's fourth-ranked penalty-killing unit and they've helped the Predators enjoy the fourth-best winning percentage in one-goal games, often the domain of more experienced teams.
Former Calgary GM Craig Button, now a top scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs, said he wasn't surprised by the success of the young blueliners.
"I'm never surprised with what you're able to accomplish with good players. And they're good players," Button said. Weber and Suter, he added, "are real good competitors."
He did caution that the playoffs are "a whole different animal" and that their lack of experience may then be a factor. "Time will tell whether their lack of experience is going to hurt them," Button said.
• At the ripe old age of 24, Hamhuis is the elder statesman of the four. Now in his third NHL season, the 12th overall pick of the 2001 draft has size (6-foot-1) and a quiet maturity that suggests he'll some day be wearing the C in Nashville. Nashville's leading scorer, Paul Kariya, recalls talking to Brendan Shanahan after last year's World Championships in Latvia. Shanahan had captained the Canadian squad there and he gushed about Hamhuis.
"The first thing he said to me was, 'Dan Hamhuis is an absolute stud,'" Kariya said.
• At 26, Zanon is in his first full NHL season and has established himself as a solid stay-at-home defender who is among the league leaders in blocked shots.
• Suter, 22, has endured perhaps the most difficult transition after coming into the league with the highest expectations. Drafted seventh overall in 2003 and coming from blue-chip American hockey stock (his uncle, Bob Suter, was a member of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" team and uncle Gary Suter played 17 NHL seasons), Suter has learned the hard way that hard work, not press clippings, are the tickets to ice time under coach Barry Trotz. After being a healthy scratch during last season's playoff run, Suter has rebounded to average more than 20 minutes a night and show he has all the tools to become an NHL star.
• The fourth member of the group, the 21-year-old Weber, may well be the player that has the greatest impact on the long run. At 6-foot-2, 213 pounds, the Sicamous, British Columbia, native is physically imposing and possesses a cannon of a shot that's used on a nightly basis on the Predators' power play. Weber first burst onto the scene with a dominating performance as part of Canada's gold medal-winning junior team in South Dakota in 2004. He is now averaging more than 19 minutes a night and that number will grow as the playoffs approach.
"It starts with drafting. Good players and great people," Kariya said of the group's evolution. "They're quality people and they come to the rink and work hard every day. For young players, that's so critical. With young players, it's all about confidence."
In the new NHL, everything is interconnected like a spider web. You can load up on scoring depth and size -- the Predators did in the offseason, bringing in Jason Arnott, Josef Vasicek (since traded back to Carolina) and J.P. Dumont while shedding veteran defenders like Mark Eaton and Danny Markov. But you can only do that if you have enough depth along the blue line.
Trotz and Poile met last summer to talk about the team's future and how their resources should be distributed.
"At the time, we basically said our young guys are pretty close," Trotz said. "We made the conscious decision to see if they could handle it."
If they were wrong, the team likely would not have been able to pull off the Peter Forsberg deal, which has made them one of a handful of teams considered to be Cup favorites.
But this wasn't a team that threw the kids on the ice and held its breath. The arrival of the young blueliners is the realization of a plan put in place five or six years ago. It's a plan that has two crucial tenants -- top-flight evaluation and development and patience.
Being comfortable with the coaching staff, the workings of the arena, and the team "really helps players perform at ease," Trotz explained.
Weber, for instance, could have played more than the 28 NHL games he logged in Nashville last season.
"But we kept him in Milwaukee," Trotz said. "There are some young guys there we know haven't grown up. It's not going to happen overnight."
Until the recent acquisition of veteran defenseman Vitaly Vishnevski, who was acquired for depth purposes, all six of the every-night defensemen on the Predators' roster (Timonen and Marek Zidlicky round out the group) have played every single NHL game with the team.
"Looking back four years ago, I would never have guessed that the four of us would be here. But David's given us that opportunity," Hamhuis said. "We're definitely a close group of guys."
Recently, the four gathered to watch Vanderbilt's baseball team. On the road, the quartet frequently has dinner together.
"I think we're all pretty similar. We're all pretty quiet," said Suter, the lone American of the group.
Suter rooms with Hamhuis on the road and acknowledges that the Smithers, British Columbia, native is so quiet, you sometimes forget he's there. Weber said he's relied on Hamhuis for advice on and off the ice.
"It gets pretty lonely sometimes when you're living by yourself," Weber acknowledged. "He's a guy I could relate to."
In the beginning, Timonen might have wondered what he could do to help his young colleagues, maybe wonder how they'd hold up. Not anymore.
"I don't think about it anymore. These guys can play," he said. "They know what to do."
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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