The Nashville Predators finished 2008-09 in a then-unfamiliar position: within sight of a playoff berth but nonetheless short of the mark.
Four seasons worth of first-round exits had the organization and fans frustrated. A franchise whose greatest advantage thus far had been its scouting sent General Manager David Poile and his team off to the 2009 NHL Draft in Montreal loaded with options. Poile had acquired an extra third round pick in exchange for the pick that became Ottawa's Erik Karlsson, and had also acquired Minnesota's second-round pick in exchange for Marek Zidlicky. Poile had also acquired an additional fourth-round pick in exchange for 2008's fourth-round pick (used by the Rangers to select Dale Weise).
With 10 selections overall, and eight selections in the first 110, 2009 represented a tremendous opportunity to, if not remake, then restock the Predators for a more promising future around their solid core. While the Predators did remarkably well with the extra late-round picks, Ryan Ellis has not yet lived up to his promise and the second round looks to have yielded little for the NHL squad. As the 2013-14 season draws to a close leaving the Predators on the wrong side of the door again, part of the failure could be traced to missed opportunities in this pivotal draft year despite its overall high rate of return.
Ryan Ellis, D, Windsor Spitfires (OHL) – 1st round, 11th overall
Status: NHL Player
NHL Games Played: 143
In the 2008-09 season, Ryan Ellis finished second to Taylor Hall for the Spitfires' scoring title by one point. His 89 regular season points were top 10 in the OHL. There was plenty of reason to assume that Ellis would be a proficient scoring defenseman at the next level. The next season however saw a dip in his counting numbers as he dealt with injury and sharing some softer minutes with Cam Fowler. Still not quite as strong as the Nashville coaches would have liked, the Predators had little choice but to return Ellis to Windsor for 2010-11. He responded with a 101-point season, good for fifth in scoring in the OHL that season. Ellis's list of CHL accolades is long and impressive -two Memorial Cups and CHL Player of the Year for example- but his game has not translated the way one had hoped despite the extra seasoning. With that in mind, most players from the 2009 are works in progress, particularly defensemen.
The Predators do play a top-heavy deployment of Shea Weber and Roman Josi that limits ice time for every other defensemen. That said, one has to play the way the coaches want in order to earn more minutes and Ellis lost power play time to rookie Seth Jones this season. Ellis is certainly a highly skilled player with the offensive instincts and shot to thrive potentially. The problem may be that he will never break up a cycle the way Shea Weber can: with raw physicality. Whether Ellis can produce at an elite level in a more up-tempo team environment is a matter of speculation, but his offensive gifts are not in evidence in Nashville. It may be the case that greater attention to defensive zone play is something that was inadequately nurtured on the powerhouse Spitfires, and if a more rounded overall blueliner is the result over the next few years the slow start will be forgotten.
Zach Budish, RW, Edina Hornets (MN HS) – 2nd round, 41st overall
NHL Games Played: 0
The Predators proceeded to draft kids with size in 2009 and Zach Budish was the start of that trend. A highly-coveted prospect coming out of Minnesota, Budish had a very good college career despite a freak knee injury. The University of Minnesota had uncharacteristic down years during Budish's freshman and sophomore seasons, but he was a big part of its strong runs once his knee was rehabbed. He was also a three-time Academic All-Star and Captain of the Gophers in his senior year.
Turning pro after the 2012-13 season, Budish has had mixed results, finding himself in the ECHL this year. He has been reasonably productive in that league, scoring eight points in 14 games with the Cincinnati Cyclones. Though it does not represent the end of Budish as a prospect of interest, Nashville's deep and somewhat homogeneous farm system makes it tough for him. He has the size and the ability to think the game that will serve him well given the right opportunity, but a checking line role seems to be the most optimistic outcome.
The 2009 draft's first round is not looking like a particularly strong class at this juncture, but the second round has yielded a few players who look like they might have careers. Unfortunately for the Nashville faithful, the back-to-back picks here appear mediocre at this point, though neither Budish nor Roussel has received a major league audition either.
Charles-Olivier Roussel had an excellent draft year and playoffs for Shawinigan, as the Cataractes bulldozed their way all the way to the league finals before losing in seven games to Drummondville. He was named a second team all-star, but his junior career was just starting as Nashville showed great patience in keeping Roussel in the QMJHL for three more seasons. He would be traded twice, to Montreal and then Saint John, and would also be productive with each team. Like Budish, he found himself spending part of 2012-13 in the ECHL, where he scored six goals and 17 points in 40 games. He spent this season in Milwaukee and though he was not a leader in defensemen scoring, Roussel had a shutdown role. In a more shallow prospect pool, Roussel may well have been a bottom-pair NHL regular this season and could probably perform at that level given such an opportunity.
Taylor Beck, RW, Guelph Storm (OHL) – 3rd round, 70th overall
NHL Games Played: 23
An Ontario lad with good size and skill, Beck stepped up in a big way in his draft year, producing 58 points in 67 games for the Guelph Storm. He, Peter Holland, and Michael Latta would go on to top the leaderboard for that team the next year too. Beck's 93 points in 61 games in 2009-10 was fourth best in the OHL in fact. Yet Nashville could not find a spot for the big winger and thus returned Beck to Guelph for another season in which he essentially replicated his prior season's results.
This patience may be working out fine in Beck's case. Since turning pro full-time, he has put up three consecutive seasons of 40 or more points for some teams of middling offensive capacity. While this trend surely does not suggest that Beck is an all-star in the making, it is reasonable to hope that could put up 40 for the Predators at some point down the road. Like many prospects, he combines good skills and strength with average skating. With the added experience, Beck is likely to find a more stable role with the Predators next season.
Michael Latta, C, Ottawa 67's (OHL) – 3rd round, 72nd overall
Status: Prospect (WAS)
NHL Games Played: 17
Latta is a sturdy center with a mean streak and some offensive upside. He had a very good draft season, especially after being traded from Ottawa to Guelph in November of 2008. He brought a lot of toughness to Guelph's top line and was very prolific with Taylor Beck during their seasons together. Latta has also been a decent hard-nosed pro, showing a willingness to fight a lot of very tough competitors in the AHL ranks while putting up some points along the way. For whatever it is worth, he was 10th in penalty minutes in the AHL in 2012-13.
Latta was traded, along with Martin Erat, to Washington in exchange for young Swede Filip Forsberg. Despite making the Capitals' opening night roster in 2013, Latta struggled to produce in the NHL and continues to work on refining his game with Hershey of the AHL.
From 2009's second round on, Craig Smith trails only Colorado's Ryan O'Reilly in points from this draft class. He has quietly become a capable, if inconsistent, scoring winger and a very pleasant surprise for Nashville. After a fantastic sophomore season for his hometown University of Wisconsin Badgers, Smith was fast-tracked onto the international stage by appearing with Team USA at the 2011 World Championships that spring. Though his college scoring totals were surely helped along by the likes of Justin Schultz, Derek Stepan and Blake Geoffrion, Smith showed top-notch scoring potential with a six-point performance (three goals) at the seven-game World tournament.
Smith followed his abbreviated college career up with a mostly memorable pro debut season. The lockout season saw him struggle to find his timing again with the Predators, but he has rebounded nicely in 2013-14. Every fourth round pick is a long bet to make the best league on earth, and Craig Smith has to be considered one of the better returns on that particular gamble in recent memory. While he is unlikely to be the primary driver of an NHL offense, Smith can score given the right opportunity and plays the intelligent game expected of Nashville's players.
Mattias Ekholm is set to graduate from prospect status in Nashville's final game of the season. He is yet another example of the Nashville scouts' ability to identify quality prospects at all stages of the draft. With Ekholm, the Predators allowed him to develop back home in Sweden. He first spent some time with his youth club, Mora, in the Allsvenksan, then with Team Sweden internationally, and subsequently as a pro on a high-quality Brynäs team (where he also returned during the NHL lockout).
A big, yet fairly mobile body with good ability to read plays, Ekholm even has some offensive skill that is not entirely in evidence on a challenged Nashville squad. His 32 points (ten goals) in 59 games with Milwaukee last season should be taken as very encouraging sign. Like Ryan Ellis, Ekholm is limited to around 16 minutes a night as he learns the skills of an NHL defenseman. He does get some time on the penalty kill though and, as he gets even stronger and more experienced, will probably develop into a very dependable second-pairing defenseman. With Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, and Michael Del Zotto all approaching restricted free agency, the Predators probably have a difficult decision to make. Ekholm is surely an asset worth protecting at this stage of his career.
Nick Oliver, LW/C, Roseau Rams (MN HS) – 4th round, 110th overall
NHL Games Played: 0
The Predators turned again to Minnesota for their third pick of the fourth round, this time aiming way north. They took another big body in Roseau's Nick Oliver. Following the draft, he had some decent years with the nearby Fargo Force of the USHL, taking a leadership role and playing tough minutes with limited production. Oliver headed to St. Cloud State as a prospect of some note, but a late bloomer whose skill set had not fully caught up with his frame. In his three full seasons at St. Cloud the team has had much success, and Nick Oliver has had something to do with that, making the Huskies a difficult, punishing opponent every weekend. However, his ability to put the puck in the net is clearly lacking, with just one goal this season. Even a dedicated checker has to show a little more offense. While the Predators need not make a decision on Oliver immediately since he has another year of college eligibility, it is hard to imagine he figures much into their plans.
Gabriel Bourque, LW, Baie-Comeau Drakkar (QMJHL) – 5th round, 132nd overall
Status: NHL Player
NHL Games Played: 150
Another late round triumph for the Nashville scouts, Gabriel Bourque has become an important part of the Predators' success recently. Though he is a player of average stature, Bourque plays a hard game that also shows good puck skill and some creativity. Limited power play time dampens his possible scoring numbers, but Bourque plays a high-energy, opportunistic game and contributes in three zones. The Predators truly do an excellent job of identifying players who fit the team's identity: tenacious, courageous, and willing to play to the system. Bourque beat the odds for his draft position, but he embodies these qualities. His lack of counting numbers probably also diminishes his reputation around the league, but Bourque is a defensively responsible player who does drive play even as he learns the pro game.
Cam Reid, C, Victoria Grizzlies (BCHL) – 7th round, 192nd overall
NHL Games Played: 0
It might be a little too early to declare Cam Reid a bust, but he has not been trending well for several years. Yet another big bodied forward, Reid put up a 72-point season in his post-draft year with the Westside Warriors of the BCHL before heading to the United States. With St. Cloud State he had a very promising freshman season in 2010-11, netting eight goals and 29 points in 37 contests. During his sophomore year he left school to join the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League and was just a hair under a point per game player in that major junior stint. That excellent team ended up losing in the WHL finals, but Reid played well in a supporting role.
Reid signed a contract with Cincinnati of the ECHL in October 2012 after being released from Milwaukee's PTO, signaling some kind of disconnect between the player and organization, and after a decent 11-game run with the Cyclones, was lent to Peoria of the AHL and ended up with a contract back in Milwaukee in January 2013. Despite scoring 19 points in 54 AHL games, Reid was not retained. He failed to make Lake Erie's roster out of training camp and spent some productive time with the Denver Cutthroats of the Central Hockey League before getting recalled back to the AHL for 13 total games. With just four points in the AHL this season though, the NHL does not seem a likely future destination for Reid at this point.