With both high- and mid-first round picks in the 2008 NHL entry draft, the Predators bolstered two critical areas of need in their talent pipeline, center and goaltending. Both Colin Wilson and Chet Pickard project as future key contributors on the NHL club. Overall, Nashville’s developmental system is reasonably well-balanced, with good depth on the blueline in particular. The wing positions remain areas of concern, with a lack of elite talent. However, Nashville GM David Poile has shown a knack for uncovering solid, overachieving prospects in later rounds, such as Mike Santorelli and others. Across the board, a majority of Predator prospects continue to show improvement at all levels of professional and amateur hockey.
The following is a position-by-position analysis of prospect depth in the Nashville system.
It could be argued, with the selection of WHL backstop Chet Pickard 18th overall in the 2008 NHL draft, that the Predators’ most fertile ground for potential NHL players lies between the pipes. Pickard, Dearborn, Michigan’s Jeremy Smith and Mark Dekanich all project as likely to see NHL minutes in their careers.
Pickard was considered the lone first-round caliber goalie going into the draft this past year. He has very good size at 6’2 and over 200 pounds. He is a classic butterfly-style netminder who uses his size to his advantage with solid positioning. He is not flashy, but reliable and seems to possess the unflappability so desirable in goaltending, having successfully succeeded Canadian junior hero Carey Price as the top goaltender at Tri-City (WHL). Currently, Pickard has a 12-7 record with a 2.83 GAA and .902 save percentage for the Americans.
Now in his fourth year backstopping the high-powered Plymouth Whalers of the OHL, 2007 second-round selection Smith possesses somewhat different tools and experience than Pickard. A smaller (6′, 190) goalie, Smith is highly athletic and capable of the spectacular save. His style and attributes will remind some of Florida Panther netminder and fellow American, Craig Anderson. Smith also has valuable international experience, having been the No. 1 netminder for the U.S. in the 2008 WJCs.
Dekanich matriculated to the pro level in 2008, after winding up a successful career at Colgate (NCAA). He possesses good size, and as an AHL rookie, is currently backing up AHL journeyman Drew McIntyre at Milwaukee. He has only played in four games thus far.
In addition to Dekanich, two other goalie prospects in the system bear watching, Atte Eggren, another in a long line or smallish, lightning-quick Finnish netminders, and 6’6 Swede Anders Lindback.
Long considered the backbone of the Nashville pipeline, the blueline holds good depth, if not potential superstars. Leading the group would have to be British Columbian Cody Franson. Franson had a solid rookie season in 2007-08 at Milwaukee with 11 goals and 25 assists, and is off to a solid start this season with the Ads as well. He is a tall, smooth-skating defender with a true two-way game and projects as a top-four NHL defenseman.
California’s Jon Blum remains a highly intriguing prospect. He is a world-class skater and has very high-end offensive skills. With Vancouver in the WHL, Blum racked up 63 points in 64 games in 2007-08. A veteran of U.S. international teams, Blum has played and succeeded at very high levels of competition. The big question mark with Blum is his size. At 6′ and 160 pounds, he is rail thin and definitely needs to spend significant time in the weight room and then learn to use his body in order to reach the NHL. A good role model for Blum would be Chicago’s Duncan Keith, whose transformation from skinny teen to elite NHL defenseman has been driven by a prodigious dedication and work ethic.
2003 second-round selection Kevin Klein is now with the Predators and looks as though he will stick with the big club this year. Other Nashville defense prospects worth watching include Finland‘s Teemu Laakso and German Alexander Sulzer, both of whom possess valuable international experience and now play with Milwaukee. Also, highly-skilled Roman Josi was a second-round pick in 2008. It bears mentioning though that Switzerland has long been known to produce intriguing, yet ultimately unsuccessful NHL prospects.
With the drafting of Connecticut native Colin Wilson at seventh overall in 2008, the Predators added an elite prospect to a thin centerman corps. Wilson has all the prerequisites one would want in a first-line NHL center prospect. He has good size at 6’2, 215 pounds. A graduate of the prestigious U.S. National Development Program in Ann Arbor, MI (that has also recently produced Patrick Kane and Jack Johnson among others), Wilson has played with and against the best players in the world at his age. He can skate, handle the puck in traffic, and play in all three zones. He also has exceptional hockey sense and vision. This year, Wilson has 15 points in 10 games at Boston University (NCAA/Hockey East), no small accomplishment in major collegiate hockey. Wilson projects as an all-around, two-way center in the Steve Yzerman/Rod Brind’Amour mold.
After Wilson, the center position drops off somewhat to Cal O’Reilly, a nifty, though smallish playmaker who has racked up good assist numbers over the last couple of seasons in Milwaukee. This season, he has 17 points in 15 games for the Admirals, which is typical for him. It remains to be seen if he can overcome his size and grit limitations to an effective NHL player. Well-rounded Nick Spaling, currently a rookie in Milwaukee, is a solid solid third or fourth line prospect.
American Ben Ryan and a range of interesting, though unheralded European prospects round out the group.
The wing position is probably the weakest link in the Nashville system. Recently reassigned to Milwaukee, Swede Patric Hornqvist had two goals and five assists in 15 games with the Predators this season. Hornqvist has good skill with his hands, but deficiencies in skating and consistency might always limit him to being a fringe NHL player at best.
Also recently reassigned to the Ads, former Miami RedHawk Ryan Jones projects as a solid third-line prospect, not unlike fellow Nashville prospect, Blake Geoffrion. Both have good size and aggressiveness, as well as the ability to generate decent scoring numbers through hard work around the net. Jones had six points with the Preds in 15 contests. Geoffrion, the grandson of NHL Hall of Famer Bernie ‘Boom Boom’ Geoffrion, has 10 points in 13 games at Wisconsin (NCAA). Other wng prospects who could emerge include Mike Santorelli, who also plays center, brother Mark Santorelli, Minnesotan Ryan Thang and Finn Antti Pihlstrom.