NASHVILLE – In just the third contest of this lockout-shortened season, the Nashville Predators and Minnesota Wild will go toe-to-toe. In the past there hasn’t been any significance to the matchup, but now there is.
Predators defenseman Shea Weber had spent the better part of his first seven NHL seasons playing alongside Ryan Suter, who decided to sign a 13-year contract with Minnesota in the offseason. The pair of world-class defencemen, both drafted by Nashville in 2003, evolved over time into the league’s best defense pairing. Now they’ll be squaring off for years to come.
"It’s going to be different," Weber said of the looming head-to-head tilt with Suter and the Wild on Jan. 22. "He was here for a while, now he’s gone and we have to move on as well."
Part of the "moving on" process for Weber is getting adjusted to a new defence partner and a more important role as captain. He’s the unquestioned leader of the Predators, especially now that he is under contract for 14 more years and is the NHL’s highest-paid defenseman. The team is still young, too, which means Weber will be looked upon more often by his teammates when things aren’t going their way.
Weber has taken on that role by the horns. He has opened up his Nashville home to younger teammates that are still looking for apartments for the season. One of those currently living with the captain is Roman Josi, Weber’s new defence partner.
"It’s great to be at Shea’s place instead of the hotel," Josi said of the temporary living arrangement. "You get bored pretty quick at the hotel. It’s nice of him to welcome us and it shows what a great captain he is by babysitting the young guys."
Weber was in Josi’s position seven years ago when he first broke into the NHL.
"Anything I can do to help them make the adjustment easier and answer any questions they have, it means a lot," he said.
It was probably a wise move by Weber to welcome in Josi, as the two need to gain chemistry as quickly as possible since they have never played together. Given the shortened nature of the season without any preseason games, Weber and Josi will be adjusting to each other on the fly.
"Playing with Ryan in the past, we weren’t perfect early on and we were never perfect," Weber said. "We were always improving, always getting better. I think the adjustment period [with Josi] is going to take a little bit of time but hopefully we can speed that up and get used to each other right away."
As Josi faces daily questions from Nashville media about being the immediate "Ryan Suter replacement," the 22-year-old Swiss defenceman has had to repeatedly explain that he is not thinking about having to fill Suter’s void all by himself.
"The entire defence needs to step up and take more responsibility. I’m not going into the season thinking I need to play like Suter," said Josi.
Weber added, "We talked about it the other day because he said to me, ‘All [the media] asks about is Ryan Suter.’ We talked a little bit about that and I think he knows and understands [to play his game]."
Josi’s game is similar to Suter’s. He moves the puck well, creates offensive chances and is smart all over the ice. His defensive game needs some fine-tuning, but that will come with time. Josi averaged over 18 minutes of ice time per game as a rookie in 2011-12, and that number will only rise as he logs top-pair minutes next to Weber. The two will also anchor the team’s top power play unit.
"Playing with Shea you play against top players all the time and I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge," Josi said. "It’s a dream come true playing next to a guy like Shea. I’m up to the challenge."
As Weber tries to groom Josi and learn the ins and outs of his game, there is concern from some that the two-time Norris Trophy runner-up may try too hard to compensate for what isn’t there anymore in Suter. Others worry Weber’s game may take a hit simply because he won’t be playing alongside an All-Star defenceman for the first time in his career.
Trotz doesn’t expect that to be an issue, and Weber’s upbringing and even-keeled demeanour back up his coach’s confidence. Growing up in Western Canada, Weber’s hard-working parents were good role models to him. Now, as a third-year captain, he’s the role model for Josi.
Even when Weber received the 14-year, $110 million deal, it didn’t change who he was as a person.
"That’s the great thing about Shea – there’s no difference. He’s the same guy now as he was five years ago, just more mature and smarter at everything he does," Trotz said. "From his standpoint he’s a down-to-earth guy in a high-profile role."