THE PREDATORS' power play ranks near the bottom of the NHL, a decidedly poor 13.3% success rate through Sunday for a team leavened with considerable skill. The obvious problem is a lack of traffic in front of the net. "Our forwards do get [near the crease]," coach Barry Trotz says, "but they conveniently stand on the sides."
They are wary of getting in the way of one of defenseman Shea Weber's bullets from the left point. Trotz contends that the shot—which Weber honed as a kid in Sicamous, B.C., by firing at soda cans dangling from the net of an old goal—matches the missiles fired by Edmonton's Sheldon Souray, is heavier than the howitzer blasts of Calgary's Dion Phaneuf and is several miles per hour faster than the famous bullets from San Jose's Rob Blake. "I haven't seen any defenseman who has a greater impact on his team than Weber has on ours, and that includes Nick Lidstrom in Detroit," Trotz says. "Weber's mobile, plays physical, has a skill game and has that shot."
At 23 and in his third full NHL season, Weber is drawing league-wide praise. But the Norris Trophy? Maybe. The sublime Lidstrom, who has won six of the past seven Norrises, seems to have slipped marginally—from all-galaxy to all-world. A hint of mortality was evident last February when Colorado's Ian Laperri√®re wallpapered Lidstrom into the boards, leaving the defenseman with a sprained MCL. Lidstrom never exposes himself for a hit, which is what made the play so shocking. His numbers this season have been formidable—four goals, 18 assists, +13 rating and only five minor penalties at week's end—but Weber, who could become the first defenseman in 16 years to score at least 30 goals, shared the lead among blueliners with 11, had 26 points and was +12, even on a weaker team than Lidstrom's. Weber, who suffered a dislocated kneecap and a high ankle sprain last season, still can't equal Lidstrom's consistency or panic threshold, but the gap is closing. If Lidstrom is a 10 on the calm scale, Weber, Trotz says, has gone "from a five to a seven or eight this year."
Perhaps a more telling comparison is with Phaneuf, Weber's defense partner on Canada's World Junior Championships teams. Both were drafted in 2003 (Phaneuf ninth, Weber 49th), but Phaneuf made an impact in the NHL fresh out of juniors, in '05--06. Weber played the better part of that season in the AHL and then spent two-plus seasons watching first Kimmo Timonen and later Marek Zidlicky run the Nashville power play before taking it over. "[Weber's and Phaneuf's] careers," Trotz says, "are sort of tortoise and hare."
Weber doesn't check as thunderously or play with the same hair-on-fire ferocity, but he does throw monster hits and he sees the ice better than Phaneuf, the Norris runner-up to Lidstrom last season and cover boy of EA Sports' NHL 09. "[Weber] uses the other players around him a little more than Dion does," says Phaneuf's Flames teammate center Craig Conroy. "Weber makes a real good first pass out of the zone, a nice easy play. Dion likes to draw [forecheckers] in and try to [pass out of the zone], but a lot of times we're covered."
Weber is uneasy with praise. Instead of fixing his star in the NHL firmament, he is more worried about repairing that Predators power play. "We need more traffic," he says. "You can't beat goalies with a straight [point] shot."
But you have, he is told, maybe four or five times this season.
"Well," Weber says, reconsidering, "not often."
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JIM RINALDI/ICON SMI (WEBER)
HEIR IN PLACE? Weber could follow Lidstrom (below) who has had a hold on the Norris.
CLAUS ANDERSEN/GETTY IMAGES (LIDSTROM)
[See caption above]