Nashville Predators have promising prospects in Europe and NCAA ranks

By Tony Piscotta

Jimmy Vesey - Harvard Crimson

Photo: Jimmy Vesey was Harvard’s leading scorer in 2013-14 with 13 goals and 22 points in 31 games for the Crimson (courtesy of Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)

The Nashville Predators entered the 2013 NHL Draft with ten draft picks — selecting four players from Europe including a pair of goalies — and then taking a seventh-round flier on University of North Dakota-bound forward Wade Murphy with a seventh-round pick.

All together the Predators had seven players playing in Europe this past season with four players skating in Sweden and three playing in Finland.

Timra center Emil Pettersson, taken in the sixth round in the 2013 draft, is the 17th player from Sweden that has been drafted by Nashville since the Predators' first draft in 1998. Patric Hornqvist, the leading scorer amongst Predators forwards this past season, was taken with the 230th pick in the seventh round of the 2005 NHL Draft.

Latvian-born forward Karlis Skrastins was the first player to be selected by the Predators after playing in Finland when he was taken in Nashville's initial draft in 1998 and played 832 games in the NHL. The three Finnish players drafted last year were the 15th, 16th and 17th players the Predators have selected from Finland and goalies Jusse Saros and Janne Juvonen are the fourth and fifth goalies taken — including current Nashville starter, Pekka Rinne — since the Predators drafted Teemu Lassila in 2003. Current Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen, who spent eight seasons with Nashville and was the cornerstone of the franchise in the early years, was drafted by the Kings but obtained by Nashville for "future considerations" in a June 1998 trade.

Nashville's NCAA contingent consists of six players — highlighted by Boston University defenseman Garrett Noonan. Noonan signed a contract with the Predators in April following his senior season with the Terriers. The top forwards are Harvard left wing Jimmy Vesey and Zach Stepan of Minnesota State, both of whom are underclassmen and will likely spend at last one more season in college hockey.

The Predators have not drafted players from the college ranks all that often but current Nashville forward Colin Wilson was taken in the first round (seventh overall) in the 2008 draft. Craig Smith, Nashville's third-leading scorer this past season, was selected in the fourth round (98th overall) and spent two seasons at the University of Wisconsin before signing with the Predators in 2011.

Europe

Juuse Saros, G, HPK Hameenlinna (Liiga)
Drafted 4th Round, 99th Overall, 2013

Saros was hardly an unknown when he entered the NHL Draft — he was the top ranked European goalie according to Central Scouting and was coming off a championship season in Finland's junior league and a third-place finish at the 2013 U18 World Junior Championship where he was named the tournament's top goalie. However, clubs may have shied away from him due to his lack of prototypical NHL size (5'10”, 180).

The Predators could not have anticipated the success he has had this season; seizing the starting role for HPK Hameenliinna as an 18-year-old and leading Finland to its first World Junior Championship gold medal. Saros literally back-stopped HPK to the Liiga playoffs. In 44 regular season games he was 16-16-8 with seven shutouts and had a 1.76 goals against and .928 save percentage. Hameenlinna swept KHL-bound Jokerit in a two-game preliminary series before falling to regular season champion Karpat Oulu in the quarterfinals. Saros started all six playoff games and was 2-4 with a 2.29 goals against and .903 save percentage.

Janne Juvonen, G, Pelicans (Liiga)/Peliitat (Mestis)
Drafted 7th Round, 203rd Overall, 2013

While Saros opened eyes this season, Juvonen, who was the third goalie for Finland's U20 team but did not see any action, is still very much an unknown. Expected to challenge for a role with Pelicans Lahti, he appeared in just four Liiga games behind veteran Jere Myllyniemi. Juvonen was 2-1 with a 3.29 goals against and .870 save percentage. He spent much of the season playing in Mestis, skating in 12 games. Struggling while in net for Heinola-based club Peliitat, he had a bit of success while playing on loan with Mestis playoff finalist KooKoo during the regular season. As with many seventh-round picks, particularly teenage goaltenders, Juvonen's long range potential is still uncertain.

Max Görtz, RW, Frolunda (SHL)
Drafted 6th Round, 172nd Overall, 2012

Big things were expected for Gortz entering his second season with Farjestads but things did not go as planned. In 22 games he scored two goals with two assists — averaging just over 12 minutes of ice time — and in December he signed with Frolunda. Playing for the Indians he scored six goals in 18 games; still seeing limited ice time. Frolunda finished second during the regular season but lost to Linkoping in seven games in the playoff quarterfinals. Gortz led Frolunda with three goals (including a game-winner) and two assists but was minus-2 in the playoffs. Signed with Frolunda through 2015-16, it remains to be seen whether or not he will be signed by the Predators by June or become an unrestricted free agent.

Pontus Åberg, LW, Farjestads BK Karlstad (SHL)
Drafted 2nd Round, 37th Overall, 2012

While Gortz struggled with Farjestads, Aberg flourished with the club after spending the previous season with Djurgardens in Sweden's second league, Allsvenskan. The team's second-leading scorer with 15 goals and 16 assists; he was plus-2 with 41 penalty minutes in 52 regular season games. After finishing fifth in the regular season Farjestads reached the SHL finals. Aberg skated in 13 of 15 playoff games and scored two goals with two assists; finishing minus-5 with four penalty minutes. Like Gortz, Aberg has yet to sign with the Predators but could be part of the solution for a team that perennially struggles to score goals. He is arguably Nashville's second-best forward prospect behind Filip Forsberg

Saku Maenalanen, W, Karpat Oulu (Liiga)
Drafted 5th Round, 125th Overall, 2013

Maenalanen, who like Saros and Juvonen played for the gold medal-winning Finland U20 team, played in the same northern Finland club as Rinne. Seeing limited ice time in 25 games for regular-season champion Karpat, he scored four goals with three assists and was plus-6 with six penalty minutes. He also played 15 games on loan to Jokipojat in Mestis; scoring nine goals with six assists and finishing plus-9 with four penalty minutes. Maenalanen was dominant against players his own age. He led all skaters with seven goals and had four assists skating on Finland's top line with Teuvo Teravainen (CHI) and Artturi Lehkonen (MTL) at the WJC. Skating for Karpat's U20 team he scored three goals with three assists in five regular season games. He scored four goals with four assists and was +10 in 12 playoff games as Oulu reached the playoff finals against Espoo Blues.

Emil Pettersson, C, Timra (Allsvenskan)
Drafted 6th Round, 155th Overall, 2013

Selected in his second year of draft eligibility last June, Pettersson made his pro debut with Timra in Allsvenskan, skating in 44 of 52 games in his first season. Among the leading junior-age scorers in Allsvenskan, he scored six goals with eight assists and was plus-3 with 12 penalty minutes. Timra missed the Allsvenskan playoffs after finishing eighth. Pettersson played three games for Sweden's U20 team but was not part of the squad that hosted the 2014 World Junior Championship. In 14 games with Timra's U20 team (including two playoff games) he scored 12 goals with nine assists. Another high skill level forward selected with the idea that he would address the Predators' scoring needs, Pettersson is not overly abrasive and will need to get stronger if he is to make an impact with the Predators. While some media reports speculated that Pettersson would play in Finland next season, he recently signed an extension with Timra and will be back in Allsvenskan for the 2014-15 season.

Simon Fernholm, D, Frölunda (Sweden SuperElit Junior League)
Drafted 6th Round, 164th Overall, 2012

Expected to challenge for a spot with Frolunda's SHL squad after appearing in five games the previous season, Fernholm missed most of the season due to injury, appearing in 16 games with the club's junior squad. Selected in the 2012 NHL Draft along with Gortz and Aberg, the Stockholm native attended the Predators prospect camp last summer and skated in two games for Frolunda during the pre-season European Trophy tournament. In 16 games with Frolunda's U20 team he scored three goals with six assists and was plus-8 with eight penalty minutes.

NCAA

Zach Stepan, C, Minnesota State Mavericks (WCHA)
Drafted 4th Round, 112th Overall, 2012

Zach Stepan skated in 35 of 41 games for Minnesota State in his freshman season of college hockey. Playing both left wing and center for the Mavericks he scored nine goals, including the final goal of the season, and had 12 assists. Stepan scored with 11 seconds left in the Mavericks 2-1 loss to Massachusetts-Lowell in the NCAA Northeast regional semifinals. Minnesota State finished second in the WCHA and won the league's playoff championship; reaching the NCAA tournament and topping 20 wins for the second straight season under coach Mike Hastings. A high-energy, big effort-type player, Stepan had some nice chemistry with sophomore Teddy Blueger, a Penguins prospect, in the latter part of the year.

Wade Murphy, RW, University of North Dakota (NCHC)
Drafted 7th Round, 185th Overall, 2013

Murphy, after putting up big numbers in his final season of junior hockey with Penticton, saw limited ice time for NCAA Frozen Four semifinalist North Dakota in his first season of college hockey. Murphy had three assists and eight penalty minutes in 19 games and did not appear in any post-season games. After finishing second in the NCHC in the league's inaugural season North Dakota won the conference's third place game in the playoffs and had to sweat out the Big Ten final between Wisconsin and Ohio State; receiving an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament after Wisconsin beat the Buckeyes in overtime. North Dakota defeated Wisconsin and Ferris State (in double overtime) to win the Midwest Regional title. Minnesota scored with six-tenths of a second left for a 2-1 win in the Frozen Four semifinals.

Jimmy Vesey, LW, Harvard Crimson (ECAC)
Drafted 3rd Round, 66th Overall, 2012

Jimmy Vesey was Harvard's leading scorer in what was a forgettable season for the Crimson. In 31 games he scored 13 goals with nine assists on a Harvard team that finished next-to-last in ECAC Hockey and was swept by Yale in a first-round playoff series. A prototypical big, power forward who plays the two-way style that the Predators were noted for under coach Barry Trotz, Vesey is among the top forward prospects in the Nashville organization.

Chase Balisy, C, Western Michigan Broncos (NCHC)
Drafted 6th Round, 170th Overall, 2011

Balisy was Western Michigan's second-leading scorer in his final season of college hockey — matching the career highs in goals (13) and assists (24) that he had in his sophomore year. The Broncos finished fifth in the new NCHC and defeated fourth-place Minnesota-Duluth in the conference tournament before falling to Denver in the semifinals and then North Dakota in the third-place game. Balisy is not a pure scorer but is the type of player whose game is better than the sum of its parts. He plays with a high level of integrity and effort. Whether his talent level is enough to succeed at the NHL level is still uncertain. The Predators have not yet signed him to a contract and must tender him an offer by this summer to retain his rights.

Nick Oliver, C/LW, St. Cloud State Huskies (WCHA)
Drafted 4th Round, 110th Overall, 2009

Oliver skated in a career-high 37 games for St. Cloud State in his junior season and appears destined to play a checking line role for the Huskies. Playing both left wing and his traditional center position, he scored one goal with three assists and was minus-3 with 12 penalty minutes. The Huskies finished first in the NCHC conference's inaugural season but were upset by eighth-place Miami in the conference quarterfinals. St. Cloud State earned an at-large bid to the NCAA West Regional; defeating Notre Dame, 4-3, in overtime before falling 4-0 to Minnesota. Oliver's lack of offensive numbers make it appear unlikely Nashville will tender him a contract following his senior season next spring but he has played his role well on one of the top teams in college hockey.

Garrett Noonan, D, Boston University Terriers (Hockey East)
Drafted 4th Round, 112th Overall, 2011

Noonan signed an entry-level two-year contract with the Predators after completing his four-year college career at Boston University. He scored four goals with 16 assists in 34 games, trailing only Ahti Oksanen amongst Terriers defensemen. Long-term the native of Norfolk, Massachusetts figures to eventually compete for a spot amongst the top four defensemen in Nashville – though he will likely spend at least some time with AHL Milwaukee. Team-wise the season was disappointing for BU in the first season following the retirement of legendary coach Jack Parker. The Terriers finished ninth in Hockey East and lost to Notre Dame, 3-2, in a preliminary round playoff game.

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