Nashville Predators junior and European prospects gained valuable playoff experience in 2014

By Tony Piscotta

Felix Girard - Baie-Comeau Drakkar

Photo: Felix Girard led the Baie-Comeau Drakkar in faceoff percentage (61-percent) and penalty minutes (43) during the club’s 22-game run to the President’s Cup finals (courtesy of Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

The 2013-14 post-season was memorable for many of the wrong reasons for the Nashville Predators at the pro level.

The Predators failed to make the Western Conference playoffs, leading to the dismissal of coach Barry Trotz (the only coach in franchise history) and AHL affiliate Milwaukee was eliminated by the Toronto Marlies in the first round.

One bright spot was the play of young forward Miikka Salomaki who was selected to play for Finland at the 2014 IIHF World Championship after the Admirals were eliminated. Finland won a silver medal at the tournament.

Salomaki made his debut with the Admirals as a 20-year-old—leading Milwaukee in scoring during the regular season—and played in all 10 games at the World Championship, scoring a goal and an assist with 18 penalty minutes.

At the junior level, none of the Predators prospects reached the Memorial Cup but Brendan Leipsic continued his eye-popping 19-year-old season in the WHL playoffs. Western Conference champion Portland reached the WHL Finals; playing a memorable seven game series with Memorial Cup and Eastern Conference champion Edmonton.

AHL

Eleven Predators prospects including Boston University's Garrett Noonan, who signed a two-year entry-level contract in April following his senior season but did not appear in any AHL games, were with Milwaukee during the playoffs. The Admirals were no match for the Marlies; being swept in three games and scoring just four goals in the series.

Goalie Marek Mazanec started all three games for the Admirals after seeing time in the NHL during the fall due to an injury to Pekka Rinne. While he failed to win a game, his 3.03 goals against and .898 save percentage were respectable given Milwaukee was overmatched against the Marlies, currently facing Texas in the Western Conference finals.

Among the Admirals' forwards the three forward prospects from SwedenPatrick Cehlin, Filip Forsberg, and Calle Jarnkrok—each had one goal with one assist. Forsberg and Jarnkrok, acquired in a trade with Detroit in March, both figure to compete for spots with Nashville in the fall under new coach Peter Laviolette. First-year pro Colton Sissons, who showed some nice chemistry with Salomaki during the regular season, had one assist and was minus-3 in the series while Salomaki was scoreless in three games.

Defenseman Bryan Rodney, an AHL veteran who has appeared in 34 NHL games in his career, led the Admirals in scoring in the playoffs with one goal and two assists. However, he did not see any action with Nashville during the season and turned 30 in April. Former Northeastern defensemen Anthony Bitetto, was the leading scorer amongst Admirals defensemen during the regular season in his second pro season but failed to register a point and was minus-2 with eight penalty minutes in three playoff games. 

ECHL

Unlike Milwaukee the Cincinnati Cyclones, Nashville's ECHL affiliate, has had a strong playoff thus far. The Cyclones won the league’s Eastern Conference, currently trailing 0-1 to the Alaska Aces in the Kelly Cup finals.

Spending your second pro season in the ECHL does not generally bode well for a player's long-range NHL potential but both Josh Shalla and rookie pro Zach Budish, a second-round pick in 2009, are making the most of their opportunity.

Shalla appeared in 26 AHL games with Milwaukee and scored two goals and two assists but was a point-per-game scorer for the Cyclones during the regular season and has continued to produce in the playoffs. He is tied for the lead on Cincinnati with 10 goals in 19 playoff games and is plus-3 with five assists. Budish has been more of a two-way forward for Cincinnati and is plus-8 with six goals and three assists in 19 playoff games.

Europe

All three Predators prospects playing in Europe finished the season on a positive note.

Forward Pontus Åberg played in 13 of 15 playoff games as Farjestads reached the finals in Sweden's SHL. He scored two goals with two assists. Åberg was Farjestads' second-leading scorer during the regular season and signed a three-year entry-level contract with Nashville in May.

Max Gortz began the season playing with Aberg in Farjestads but saw little ice time and was traded to Frolunda. He flourished in an increased role; leading Frolunda with three goals, including a game-winner, in the seven-game first round series against Linkopings. Gortz had two assists and was minus-2 in the playoffs. 

Goalie Juuse Saros capped off a dream season that included a 2014 World Junior Championship gold medal and winning the Jarmo Wasama Award as the top rookie in Finland's Liiga with a strong performance in the playoffs. HPK swept Jokerit in a two-game preliminary series before falling to eventual Kanada Cup champion Karpat in the quarterfinals. Saros started all six playoff games and was 2-4 with a 2.29 goals against and .903 save percentage.

WHL

Leipsic was the third-leading scorer for Portland during the regular season and was even better in the playoffs. In 20 playoff games he scored a team-leading 14 goals with 19 assists as Portland lost just two games in the first three rounds before the final round series with the Oil Kings.

Defensemen Jaynen Rissling—whose rights were acquired by the Predators in a trade with Washington in April—skated in all six games for the Calgary Hitmen in their first round series with Kootenay. As he did in the season, Rissling was a physical force while also chipping in two assists.

QMJHL

Felix Girard, a fourth round pick in 2013, displayed the same gritty, two-way game that first caught the attention of Nashville scouts during the 2013 playoffs as Baie-Comeau reached the President's Cup Finals against Val'd'Or this year. He scored four goals with eight assists and was plus-6, leading the Drakkar with 43 penalty minutes.

Things did not go as well for defenseman Jonathan-Ismael Diaby and forward Tommy Veilleux with Victoriaville, which lost to Drummondville in the first round. Diaby was the second-leading scorer for the Tigres finishing with one goal and a team-high four assists and was plus-3 with four penalty minutes, making his AHL debut with Milwaukee after Victoria was eliminated. Veilleux, who missed most of the season due to injury, played in two playoff games with no points and four penalty minutes.

OHL

The season came to a disappointing end for Finnish-born defenseman Mikko Vainonen and Kingston. The Frontenacs were one of the OHL's top teams during the regular season and Vainonen skated for Finland's gold medal squad at the 2014 World Junior Championship but Kingston lost in seven games to Peterborough in the first round. Vainonen scored one goal with three assists and was minus-4 in the series. Like Diaby, he also saw time in the AHL, skating in two games for the Admirals.
 
European Junior

Saku Maenalanen appeared in 25 games with Karpat's Kanada Cup winning team in Finland's Liiga but was especially successful skating at the junior level. Part of Finland's top line at the World Junior Championship he led all scorers with seven goals and had four assists. He played a key role for Karpat's junior team as the Oulu-based squad reached the finals of Finland's A Junior SM-Liiga. In 12 playoff games he scored four goals with four assists and was plus-1 with 10 penalty minutes.

Center Emil Pettersson played 44 games for Timra in Sweden's second league (Allsvenskan) before finishing the season with the club's U20 team in the playoffs. He scored two of the three goals Timra scored in their two-game preliminary round series with MODO.

NCAA

Three Predators prospects played for teams that qualified for the NCAA Tournament though North Dakota freshman Wade Murphy did not see any post-season action as UND reached the Frozen Four.

Freshman Zach Stepan played a key role as Minnesota State reached the NCAA Northeast Regional; winning the WCHA Broadmoor Trophy championship after finishing second in the re-shuffled league during the regular season. Stepan scored one goal and four assists in the Mavericks' WCHA quarterfinal series with Northern Michigan and scored their lone goal in the 2-1 loss to Massachusetts-Lowell in the NCAA Northeast Regional.

Nick Oliver was a fixture in a checking line role for St. Cloud State in his junior year, playing both wing and center. The Huskies earned an at-large bid to the NCAA West Regional despite losing in the NCHC quarterfinals, defeating Notre Dame before falling to neighboring rival Minnesota. Oliver had no points or penalties in four post-season games.

Western Michigan reached the semifinals of the NCHC tournament in senior Chase Balisy's final season but missed out on an NCAA playoff bid after falling to North Dakota in the third-place game. Balisy matched his career highs in goals (13) and assists (24) and scored one goal and three assists (all in the second game against Minnesota-Duluth) in four NCHC tournament games.