Nashville Predators have junior prospects spread out across four leagues

By Peter Prohaska

Jonathan Diaby - Victoriaville Tigres

Photo: Defenseman Jonathan Diaby finished as one of Victoriaville’s top-10 scorers despite appearing in only 38 regular season games in 2013-14 due to injuries (courtesy of Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

Nashville has branded itself a franchise that plays a hard-hitting, battle-ready style of hockey. Finding players in this preferred style seems to rely heavily on scouts' ability to read intangibles in these young men.

Yet Nashville is one of the better drafting teams in the NHL and has a good group of players in junior hockey who blend elite physicality with no small measure of hockey acumen and some skill. There is no clear-cut star in this group but certainly some players with upside.

WHL

Brendan Leipsic, LW, Portland Winterhawks (WHL)
Drafted 3rd Round, 89th Overall 2012

When the Nashville Predators drafted Brendan Leipsic he was tipping the scales at just around 155 pounds. Looking beyond his size, the Predators identified a highly-skilled and highly-motivated young man. That draft day bet seems likely to pan out now as Leipsic and the Winterhawks drive for a WHL title. His post-draft year saw him truly come alive as an offensive player, leading the Western Hockey League in points with 120 and goals with 49. This season has been solid as well, with 91 points (39 goals) in 60 regular season games. Leipsic has garnered a reputation as an agitator but he has the top-level skills to back up that kind of game. His size may still be the limiting factor for him, but Leipsic is an intelligent and skilled player who brings a high-level of intensity to the ice. Portland is expected to make a deep playoff run and the team is off to a good start, while Leipsic (with Oliver Bjorkstrand (CBJ)) is pacing his squad with 19 points (eight goals) in nine games.

QMJHL

Felix Girard, C, Baie-Comeau Drakkar (QMJHL)
Drafted 4th Round, 95th Overall 2013

Felix Girard's postseason is still in full swing, with the Drakkar yet to lose a game in the QMJHL playoffs. The hard-nosed captain is a big part of this success so far, even though his scoring has taken a significant dip from last season. He went from 61 points in 58 games as a second-year draft eligible to just 43 points in 58 games this year.

Girard plays a tight defensive game, having taken home his second consecutive Guy Carbonneau Trophy as the best defensive forward in the QMJHL. He is a player with a very good sense for what is happening on the ice and shows at times an almost-excessive willingness to battle for pucks that could be called choppy. Girard went over the line a bit this season, and it may be all that extra time in the penalty box that cost him some offense. He is a player who has always been looked at as a leader in this phase of his career. That leadership is paying dividends for Baie-Comeau in the second season, and a deep run shutting down other teams' stars, while putting up some timely points, would be a fitting end to a notable career in the QMJHL for Girard.

Tommy Veilleux, LW, Victoriaville Tigres (QMJHL)
Drafted 6th Round, 171st Overall 2013

The 2013-14 season was pretty forgettable for the truculent Veilleux, apart from being drafted. He injured his collarbone at Nashville's training camp and thus sat out most of the fall. Returning in December, he got knocked out by another injury that required surgery, this time on his left shoulder. Veilleux had been reasonably productive when in the lineup, but this time he was on the shelf until the end of February. He played most of March until he was suspended for a kneeing incident. Returning, he participated in just two of Victoriaville's five playoff games and registered zero points, giving him eight total on the season.

Veilleux will no doubt be a big part of Victoriaville's rebuilding process next season, with a new coach the first major piece to establish. Though there is not a ton of offensive prowess to be found in this player, Veilleux fits the Nashville model of a player always willing to engage play, rather than wait for it. A fully healthy season from Veilleux will be the only way to see what his true upside is.

Jonathan-Ismael Diaby, D, Victoriaville Tigres (QMJHL)
Drafted 3rd Round, 64th Overall 2013

Another Victoriaville player, it is pretty easy to see what drew Nashville scouts to Diaby at the 2013 draft. Though he missed much of the early part of the season rehabbing from shoulder surgery, Diaby showed tremendous growth as a hockey player this year. A huge, imposing player, Diaby actually scored at a very good rate this year, despite his focus on improving defensive zone reads. His 28 points (nine goals) in 38 games put him in his team's top ten scoring leaders. Though Diaby is always described as a stay-at-home type, the ability to be a presence at the other team's blue line should not be underrated. Diaby was a point-per-game player in Victoriaville's brief playoff run too. His physical gifts and his progress this season point to a very promising prospect, though Nashville's traditional patience with defensemen also suggests that Diaby will be intimidating opponents back in the Quebec league next season too.

OHL

Mikko Vainonen, D, Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)
Drafted 4th Round, 118th Overall 2012

Vainonen is an unglamorous prospect compared to fellow Finn Olli Määttä (PIT), who took a similar development route: leaving the Finnish junior ranks to play in the OHL. Vainonen has less upside than Määttä, but he is still a quality prospect. Vainonen put up just 18 points (four goals) during the regular season, productivity which is right in line with expectations for the big blueliner. He is however capable of a high-level physical game, he can log a lot of minutes, and he can control the tempo of the game. Team Finland called on the young man many times for international play and he was a quiet, but important part of this year's gold medal squad. A player who will take on tough assignments and short-handed situations, Vainonen is developing into a trustworthy shutdown type defender. Kingston had a frustrating post-season in which they bowed out in seven games, leading Milwaukee to extend Vainonen an amateur try-out contract to get him some professional development time.

USHL

Teemu Kivihalme, D, Fargo Force (USHL)
Drafted 5th Round, 140th Overall 2013

A standout at Burnsville (Minnesota) High School, where his father was head coach, Kivilhame was named to the second team all-state as a high school junior in 2013. It was a rough rookie year in Fargo however as the team finished league-worst in the standings. For a young player like Teemu Kivihalme though, it was probably a good lesson in dealing with adversity in the enhanced competition of the USHL. He was productive on the power play but struggled at even strength, with eight of his twelve points coming with the extra attacker. Kivilhame played in 47 games and had a pretty good shot rate. One can look at the minus-22 rating and the modest points and see a player that struggled, but the whole team was a bit overmatched this season.

The Finnish-American Kivilhame is the youngest player in Nashville's system and the smallest, listed right now at around 160 pounds. Though he will be entering a system in transition next fall at Colorado College, Kivilhame will probably need a couple of years to put up some weight. Whatever happens in Colorado Springs, they will have a talented blueliner with whom to work.