The Nashville Predators made a big splash in the 2013 NHL Draft when they took defenseman Seth Jones with the fourth overall pick. Not surprisingly, Jones made the jump right to the NHL and was one of four defensemen 23 years of age or younger to see significant time in Nashville.
With such a young blue line at the NHL level, the five defensemen prospects currently playing at the minor league level face a steep hill in trying to get to the next level.
While some of the Predators young defensemen are beginning to make their mark the same cannot be said at the forward position. On a team that struggled to score goals Craig Smith and Colin Wilson were the only forwards under 25 years of age amongst Nashville's top ten scorers.
Gabriel Bourque was an exception — making a successful jump from the AHL to the NHL and skating in 74 games as a rookie — but the book is still out on former first round picks Austin Watson (18th overall, 2010) and Filip Forsberg (11th by Washington in 2012) as well as second round picks Zach Budish (41st, 2009), Miikka Salomaki (52nd, 2011), and Colton Sissons (50th, 2012).
All of those former high round picks, as well as defenseman Charles-Olivier Roussel, selected one spot after Budish in the second round of the 2009 NHL Draft, spent time with AHL affiliate Milwaukee this past season.
Center Calle Jarnkrok, obtained from Detroit in the David Legwand trade in March, was an immediate boost to the Predators' forwards prospect group. After spending most of the season in the AHL with Grand Rapids, Jarnkrok scored two goals with seven assists in 12 NHL games for Nashville before joining Milwaukee for the AHL playoff series with the Toronto Marlies.
In goal, both Marek Mazanec and Magnus Hellberg had opportunities to play for Nashville this season due to an injury to starter Pekka Rinne. Mazanec, a late round pick in 2012, appears to have passed the former second-round pick Hellberg in the Predators pecking order. Jeremy Smith, who was one of the AHL's top goalies for Milwaukee during the 2012-13 season, was not tendered a contract offer by the Predators and was signed by Columbus but spent the entire season in Springfield.
Taylor Beck, LW, 23
Beck appeared in seven games with the Predators and was the second-leading scorer for the Milwaukee Admirals. He had no points and was minus-2 with six penalty minutes in limited ice time with Nashville. In 65 AHL games for Milwaukee he scored 17 goals and led the Admirals with 32 assists. Beck proved effective on the power play, scoring seven goals, but whether he can transfer that production to the next level remains to be seen. He was scoreless and minus-3 with two penalty minutes in the three-game playoff series against the Marlies. Beck is at the end of his original three-year contract and will need to be signed by Nashville over the summer.
Anthony Bitetto, D, 23
Bitetto assumed a full-time role with Milwaukee in his second pro season after splitting the year between the AHL and ECHL in 2012-13. The top offensive defenseman for the Admirals, Bitetto is a work in progress in his own end of the ice. The Island Park, NY native scored six of his 11 goals on the Admirals power play and had 25 assists while finishing minus-13 with 85 penalty minutes. In the three game playoff series with the Marlies he was minus-2 with no points and eight penalty minutes. Bitetto's offensive skills and instincts would be welcome on the blue line in Nashville if he can make the requisite improvements in his defensive game. He is at the end of his original two-year contract so would need to be signed this summer or become an unrestricted free agent.
Zach Budish, RW, 23
Budish struggled to find a big role with Milwaukee in his first pro season and finished the year in the ECHL with Cincinnati. A big, power forward who put up big numbers in his junior and senior seasons at the University of Minnesota before graduating last spring, he score three goals with six assists and was +4 with 22 penalty minutes in 41 AHL games before being reassigned to Cincinnati. Budish scored three goals with six assists and was minus-4 with six penalty minutes in 16 regular season games with the Cyclones. He has five goals with three assists in 15 playoff games as Cincinnati leads their Eastern Conference finals series against Greenville 2-1.
Patrick Cehlin, RW, 22
Cehlin suffered a lower-body injury in November that kept him out of 35 games but had a big second half for the Admirals in his second pro season. In one 11-game stretch between February 28th and April 1st he scored two goals with 11 assists. In 38 AHL games he scored six goals with 18 assists and was plus-7 with 33 penalty minutes. Cehlin played in two playoff games and scored one goal with one assist. While the injury likely set back his development, his speed and skill level fit in well with some of the other young players like fellow Swedish forwards Filip Forsberg and Pontus Aberg.
Filip Forsberg, RW, 19
The 11th player taken in the 2012 NHL Draft, Forsberg was acquired in the April 2013 trade that sent Martin Erat to the Washington Capitals. Expected to be a key contributor to the Predators attack, Forsberg made the team out of training camp. After missing two games with an injury he skated in 12 games, scoring one goal with four assists, before suffering an upper body injury in November. Forsberg returned to Sweden to play for his native country in the 2014 World Junior Championship at the end of December. He led Sweden in scoring with four goals and eight assists as the team reached the gold medal game, falling to Finland in overtime. He joined Milwaukee following the tournament and had a big second half In 47 games with the Admirals he scored 15 goals with 19 assists and was plus-7 with 14 penalty minutes. He played in one late season game with the Predators, with no points or penalties, before re-joining the Admirals for the AHL playoffs. In three games against the Marlies he scored one goal with one assist and was an even plus/minus.
Magnus Hellberg, G, 23
Hellberg made his first NHL appearance — stopping three of four shots in 12 minutes of action in an October game against St. Louis — but could not lock down a starter role in Milwaukee and finished the season playing with Cincinnati in the ECHL. Selected in the second round in 2011, he has the prototypical size and tools necessary to be a successful NHL goalie but was slowed by an injury at the beginning of camp and bypassed on the Nashville depth chart by Marek Mazanec. After an encouraging rookie season with Milwaukee in 2012-13 backing up Jeremy Smith, Hellberg was behind Mazanec and one-time Coyotes prospect Scott Darling in Milwaukee and eventually sent to Cincinnati in the ECHL. He was 5-13-1 with one shutout and had a 2.82 goals against and .911 save percentage in 21 games with the Admirals and was 5-1-1 in seven ECHL games with the Cyclones, posting a .901 save percentage and 2.89 goals against. He had yet to appear in a playoff game heading to the Eastern Conference finals; backing up former University of Vermont goalie Rob Madore.
Calle Jarnkrok, C, 22
Jarnkrok, taken by Detroit in the second round of the 2010 NHL Draft, joined the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins last year after leading Swedish Elite League club Brynas in scoring. He was back with Grand Rapids this year before being acquired by Nashville in the David Legwand trade. His nine points in 12 games with the Predators suggest he could have a key role in Nashville as soon as next season. He is very skilled when it comes to handling the puck and a gifted skater. In 63 regular season AHL games between Grand Rapids and Milwaukee he scored 18 goals with 27 assists and was plus-26 with 14 penalty minutes. In three AHL playoff games with the Admirals he scored one goal with one assist and was an even plus/minus.
Joonas Jarvinen, D, 25
Injuries limited Jarvinen to 54 regular season games in his second season with Milwaukee. A stay-at-home defenseman, Jarvinen was one of the more consistent players on the Admirals blue line. He scored four goals with eight assists and was plus-14 with 68 penalty minutes during the regular season. In the three game playoff series with the Marlies he was minus-2 with no points and two penalty minutes. At the end of his initial two-year contract, Jarvinen needs to be tendered an offer by Nashville this summer or becomes a free agent.
Marek Mazanec, G, 22
Mazanec saw much more action with Nashville than expected after starter Pekka Rinne was injured — sharing the goaltending duties with veteran Carter Hutton before being returned to Milwaukee in January — and appears to be the top young goaltending prospect in the Predators system. In 25 NHL games he was 8-10-4 with two shutouts and had a 2.80 goals against and .902 save percentage. While he is still unpolished in some areas of his game, his competitive nature and raw skills suggest he can one day be a starter. Mazanec was 18-10-3 in 31 AHL games with the Admirals, with a 2.44 goals against and .914 save percentage and started all three playoff games against the Toronto Marlies. In the series, he was 0-3 with a 3.03 goals against and .898 save percentage.
Simon Moser, LW, 25
Signed to a one-year contract by Nashville in September after playing five seasons in the Swiss National A League, Moser appeared in six NHL games and played 48 games with Milwaukee in addition to skating for Switzerland in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Despite seeing just over 10 minutes of ice time in his time with the Predators he had one goal and one assist. The prototypical Nashville forward who does not have overly impressive offensive gifts but plays a sound two-way game, Moser scored eight goals with 18 assists and was plus-2 during the season for Milwaukee and was minus-1 with no points nor penalties in the three-game playoff series with the Toronto Marlies. With a new coaching staff now in Nashville, it remains to be seen if he fits in the organization's plans.
Joonas Rask, LW, 24
Rask, the younger brother of Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask, played in 58 games – mostly in a lower line role – for Milwaukee in his first season in North America. Rask, who made his NHL debut in two games with the Predators at the end of the 2012-13 after playing for Jokerit in Finland, is a highly-skilled player that skates well and understands the game but has a limited offensive game. He did not appear in any playoff games and at this point his NHL potential seems limited.
Charles-Olivier Roussel, D, 22
Roussel showed progress in his second pro season but the former second round pick still has a long way to go to crack the defense corps in Nashville. Roussel saw full-time duty with Milwaukee after spending most of the 2012-13 season in the ECHL and showed glimpses of the offensive play that caught the attention of scouts coming out of the QMJHL as a junior. Skating in 66 of 76 regular season games for the Admirals he scored four goals with 13 assists and was plus-3 with 19 penalty minutes. Roussel played in all three playoff games against Toronto and was an even plus/minus with no points and two penalty minutes.
Miikka Salomaki, LW, 21
Salomaki made his AHL debut as a 20-year-old and developed some nice chemistry skating with Colton Sissons, leading Milwaukee in scoring while skating on the top line for the Admirals. More of a power forward than a true sniper, the young forward from Finland scored 20 goals with 30 assists and was plus-6; finishing tied for fourth on the Admirals with defenseman Scott Ford with 83 penalty minutes. Like the rest of the Admirals he struggled in the playoff series against Toronto, failing to register a point and finishing minus-1 with six penalty minutes in three playoff games. Salomaki's play earned him a spot on Finland's national team at the 2014 IIHF World Championship. Long-term Salomaki plays with the proverbial edge and has the size that new Predators coach Peter Laviolette appreciates.
Josh Shalla, LW, 22
Shalla split his second pro season between Milwaukee and Nashville ECHL affiliate Cincinnati. Shuffling in and out of the Admirals lineup early in the year he had two goals and two assists in his first 12 games but did not have another point in AHL play and finished the season minus-8 with 12 penalty minutes in 26 AHL games. As he did a year ago, Shalla had some scoring success with Cincinnati and also showed improvement in his two-way game. In 29 regular season games, he scored 14 goal with 16 assists and was +20 with 11 penalty minutes. In 15 ECHL playoff games, he leads Cincinnati with 10 goals and ranks second with 14 points. Still fairly young, the progress he has made at the ECHL level has been encouraging but Shalla needs a big season with Milwaukee in 2014-15 to remain part of the Predators plans.
Colton Sissons, C, 20
Sissons made the jump from junior hockey to the AHL as a 19-year-old and made his NHL debut in January, recording an assist against Winnipeg in his first NHL game. He played 17 games with Nashville, recording one goal with three assists, and skated on the top line for Milwaukee. Sissons led the Admirals with 25 goals and had 19 assists, finishing minus-3 with 8 penalty minutes. He had an assist and was minus-3 with two penalty minutes in the playoff series with the Marlies. In an organization in need of scoring, Sissons could make a push for a roster spot with the Predators as early as next season.
Scott Valentine, D, 23
Valentine skated in 65 games in his third season with Milwaukee, suffering a shoulder injury late in the season that required surgery and kept him out of the playoff series against Toronto. A solid defender at the AHL level, Valentine has been a solid force on the back end for the Admirals but whether he becomes more than that and can crack an NHL lineup in the future remains to be seen. At the end of his original three year contract, Valentine must be tendered a qualifying offer by Nashville this summer or becomes an unrestricted free agent.
Austin Watson, C, 22
Watson spent the entire season in the AHL with Milwaukee after appearing in six games with the Predators in his first pro season in 2012-13. Still a young prospect, Watson has not been as dominant at the pro level as he was in the OHL and with the USA U20 team but shows signs of becoming the power forward the Predators feel he can one day be. One of two players along with Mathieu Tousignant to skate in all 76 games for the Admirals, he scored 22 goals with 24 assists and was plus-4 with 24 penalty minutes. He was scoreless in three playoff games and was minus-3 with six penalty minutes.
Taylor Aronson, D, 22
Aronson spent his third pro season with the Cincinnati Cyclones. He was the Cincinnati's fourth-leading scorer and the top offensive defenseman but the fact that he has been unable to crack the lineup in Milwaukee in three pro seasons — particularly with young defensemen like Jones, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis already in Nashville — does not bode well for his status as an NHL prospect. In 65 regular season games for the Cyclones he scored six goals with 32 assists and was plus-28 with 57 penalty minutes. Aronson had four assists and was plus-5 with four penalty minutes in 12 playoff games heading into the Eastern Conference finals.
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