(Nashville, TN) — The worst-kept secret is out.
If you didn’t know already, Nashville is one heck of a hockey city. Most of us seemed to learn this for the first time during the Stanley Cup final, which has a tendency of shining a spotlight on things that might otherwise have been hiding in the shadows.
It’s partially why Jake Guentzel and Frederick Gaudreau are now household names, and why every fan in Pittsburgh unfortunately knows what a dead catfish now looks like after it smacks the ice from a 20-foot drop.
And then there is Roman Josi, whose “Cup bump” has been more subtle.
Chances are most hockey fans probably already knew how good Josi was even before the playoffs began. After all, he did finish fifth in Norris Trophy voting — and ranked in the top-five among defencemen in scoring — in each of the previous two seasons. But that was while playing behind Shea Weber, who was always bigger and slightly better.
“The thing about Roman is he’s always been exceptionally talented in terms of the skating and hockey I.Q.,” said Washington Capitals head coach Barry Trotz, who coached Josi for his first three years in Nashville. “But what’s been underrated, I think, is that he’s in the Nashville market and he’s been overshadowed by bigger names.
“To me, he’s a top-five defenceman in the league, for sure.”
Josi entered Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final with six goals and 14 points in 21 games. Only Filip Forsberg has scored more on the team. But it’s his defence that has really stood out.
Though P.K. Subban has made headlines during the final for battling with Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby — both verbally and physically — it was actually Josi who has seen the most of out the Penguins captain. And it is Josi who has been frustrating Crosby the most.
Josi held Crosby to zero shots on net, while also scoring a goal and two assists, in a 5-1 win in Game 3. Even in the 6-0 blowout loss in Game 5, a game where no one on the Predators looked particularly good, Josi somehow managed to avoid being on the ice for a single goal — a task that was especially difficult considering his defence partner Ryan Ellis was injured at the start of the second period.
“I think Roman is a guy that we count on a nightly basis to deliver a 200-foot game both ways,” Laviolette said prior to Game 6. “He does it consistently. I wouldn’t say that he would be the only guy that’s done that or the only guy that’s been consistent.
“I think our defensive core has been terrific. I think not mentioning Ryan Ellis in the same breath or not mentioning P.K. or (Mattias) Ekholm in the same breath would be slighting those guys, as well. They’ve all done a terrific job, Roman included. But I think our defence has done a real good job.”
The Predators have always been high on Josi, whom they selected 38th overall in the 2008 draft. It was why the team didn’t seem all that upset when Ryan Suter walked as a free agent after Josi’s rookie season in 2012.
Losing Suter might have been one the best things to happen to Josi. It forced him to step up his defensive game. He went from playing on the second defence pair to logging big, hard minutes alongside Weber.
“The defensive part of his game, ever since he was paired with Shea Weber a couple of years ago, it took a giant leap forward,” said assistant coach Phil Housley. “Those were the guys getting the big minutes and facing the big lines. He’s done a tremendous job. It’s his mobility. He gets back to pucks first, has a plan and can break a forecheck so easily. That’s what frustrates teams the most. They can’t slow him down.”
Losing Weber has had a similar effect on Josi. Even if Subban is the only member of the defence with a Norris Trophy, Josi is Nashville’s No. 1 defenceman. He plays the most minutes, he scores the most points and he is the one who is now mentoring Ellis in the same way Weber once mentored him.
“I think all those guys take a bigger piece of the pie when a guy like Weber moves on,” said Trotz. “There’s no question that when Shea departed, Roman took up a bigger role. Any loose ends that Shea was a part of during his time, Roman has picked them up, whether it’s as a leader on or off the ice. He’s filled that void.
“The rest of the league is finding out just how good of a player he is.”
(Excerpted from Michael Traikos from the National Post)