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Josi turning into star for Preds

Before the departure of Ryan Suter to the Minnesota Wild, the Nashville Predators had two all-star defensemen that formed the league’s top defensive pairing. Suter and Shea Weber were both stars in their own right and together formed almost the perfect defensive combination.

Weber got most of the publicity because his game was flashier than Suter’s. Weber had the size, strength and tenacity that made him a special defenseman. He also had that 106 mph slap shot. Suter’s game was less flashy, but just as effective. Other than Nicklas Lidstrom, Suter was probably the smartest defenseman in the game.

Suter and Weber spent so much time together on the ice that they were able to read off of each other without even talking. They knew what the other was going to do, where the other was going to be and were good enough players individually to form a special defensive pairing.

While not yet quite at the same level that Suter was, Roman Josi is turning into a star defenseman for the Predators that complements Weber’s game very well.

At just 23 years old, Josi is having a career season for the Predators. He’s playing 26:26 per game, which is good for fifth in the entire NHL. Josi is fifth on the Predators in points with 33 and is one of just 17 defensemen in the NHL that have at least 10 goals or more so far this season. His former teammate has been impressed with what he’s seen out of Josi so far in his young career.

“I think he’s a good player. He thinks the game well, he’s a good skater. All-around good player,” Suter said.

Ever since Josi was drafted by the Predators in the second round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, the talent has always been there. During the early part of his professional career, Josi struggled to get on the ice with the Predators due to concussions suffered during training camp. Finally, on Nov. 26, 2011, Josi made his NHL debut with the Predators in Detroit and has been with the team ever since.

The most noticeable asset that Josi had right from the start was his skating. He had an uncanny ability, even as a rookie, to skate his way out of trouble. There were even times that Josi would take the puck coast-to-coast and create plays offensively on the rush. However, his defensive game wasn’t quite were it needed to be and that showed up during the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Ever since then, the defensive part of Josi’s game has improved tremendously. He’s gotten bigger and has still been able to play with good speed and good skating ability. Josi’s all-around game is continuing to grow seemingly with each passing game that he plays.

“I see him every summer and I’ve skated with him for like three years now,” said Anaheim Ducks goaltender, and fellow Swiss teammate, Jonas Hiller. “I always thought he was a really skilled player, but I think especially as a defenseman a lot of it’s about experience. You can definitely see that he’s making smarter decisions with every game he plays.”

Josi comes from a country that doesn’t have rich history of producing world class hockey players. Switzerland historically hasn’t been a top contender in terms of overall talent produced in hockey. However, it’s a country where the talent pool in hockey seems to be growing faster than it ever has before.

“I feel like it’s getting better and better. We’re just trying to grow as a hockey country and as more players get over here, the stronger we get,” said Minnesota Wild forward Nino Niederreiter.

The Swiss had arguably the biggest moment in their international hockey history last summer when they won the Silver Medal at the World Championships. Josi was a huge part of that effort, earning the most valuable player award for the tournament. While they didn’t quite have the showing they wanted during the Winter Olympics in Sochi this past February, it’s clear that the Swiss are on the rise as a hockey country.

“Mark Streit kind of led the way, and then there were a bunch of guys like Luca Sbisa that went to the WHL. I went that way. Obviously, Roman went through the Swiss league to over here, as well as Jonas Hiller. We’re trying to get as many guys over here as we can. That’s how we build the hockey country,” Niederreiter said.

Younger defenseman seem to be taking on more of a larger role in today’s NHL than they have in the past. Both Suter and Weber spent some time in Milwaukee before joining the Predators on a full-time basis and had to work their way into being top defensemen in the league.

Now, the Predators have players like Josi that started playing top minutes for them at the age of 22. And then there are defensemen like Nashville’s Seth Jones and Minnesota’s Jonas Brodin that started playing in the NHL as teenagers. For whatever reason, young defensemen are taking on a lot of responsibility in today’s NHL.

“I don’t know what the reason is, but they’re just good players,” Suter said. “I think Nashville does a good job, and Minnesota too, of drafting young players and seeing potential in guys. I think the scouting has gotten that much better. I think that’s a big part of it.”

Josi is still a relatively young defenseman in the NHL at just 23 years of age but has already shown that he can play high quality minutes alongside arguably the best defenseman in the game in Weber. Even though playing with a player of Weber’s caliber can ease the growing pains, Josi has proven that he can be a star caliber player on his own. As he continues to improve, and Nashville’s other young defensemen like Jones, Ryan Ellis and Michael Del Zotto continue to gain more experience, the blue line in Music City is going to be rock solid for years to come.

The defensive pairing of Josi and Weber isn’t quite what the pairing of Suter and Weber were. However, it certainly has the potential to be every bit as dangerous if Josi continues to improve. He’s had a very good career so far. In a few years, the Predators could have something very special in Josi.

“He’s a great player and also a great friend of mine,” Niederreiter said. “I’m just really happy for him.”

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