Young AHL team leaves few Nashville Predators prospects in junior ranks

By Tony Piscotta
Lethbridge Hurricanes v Kelowna Rockets

Photo: Justin Kirkland is averaging over a point per game, and according to Nashville GM David Poile he is just discovering his offensive potential (courtesy of Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)

 

The Milwaukee Admirals, the Nashville PredatorsAHL affiliate, have one of the league’s youngest rosters, including four players who age-wise could have spent an overage season in junior hockey. With so many Predators prospects playing for the Admirals — and several others either in Europe or playing college hockey — Nashville has just three prospects playing major junior hockey this season.



Of those three only 18-year-old Justin Kirkland of the Western Hockey League‘s Kelowna Rockets, a third round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, appears to be a sure thing as far as one day signing an NHL contract with the Predators.

Tommy Veilleux, a left wing for the QMJHL‘s Victoriaville Tigres, and Edmonton Oil Kings defenseman Aaron Irving were both late round picks.

QMJHL

Tommy Veilleux, LW, Victoriaville Tigres
Acquired: 6th round (171st overall), 2013

Veilleux’s value to the Tigres this season cannot be measured simply by his limited offensive numbers; he has scored two goals with one assist  in his first 16 games for Victoriaville. The 19-year-old winger is one of the emotional leaders for the Tigres as his physical play and his big hits have provided energy during the recent turnaround for his club.

In the first weekend of November the Tigres took three of four points against traditional nemeses Drummondville and Rimouski — with Veilleux playing a big role in both wins. The Tigres had already lost to Rimouski twice this season and the win over the Oceanic was the first for Victoriaville in 14 games against their division rival.

With several highly-skilled young forwards in the Nashville pipeline Veilleux faces a challenge in earning a contract with the Predators and must be signed by this June, or he would re-enter the 2015 NHL Draft. With the physical game he plays and toughness he provides, he could be a could fit to go along with some of those young stars.

WHL

Justin Kirkland, LW, Kelowna Rockets
Acquired: 3rd round (62nd overall), 2014

In his post-draft remarks following the 2014 NHL Draft Predators’ general manager David Poile suggested that Kirkland was just scratching the surface of his offensive potential during the WHL playoffs last year.

While it is still early in the season — and the Rockets are making a mockery of the WHL winning 15 of their first 17 games and losing just once in regulation — it looks like those comments by Poile may be on the mark. One of six players for Kelowna who has at least 16 points, Kirkland has scored eight goals with 11 assists in 18 games and is plus-11 with seven penalty minutes.

What separates Kirkland from some of the other prospect forwards in the Nashville pipeline is his size (6’3, 190). While he is not overly abrasive, and it remains to be seen whether he can use that size to his advantage against the bigger, stronger players at the pro level the way he has for Kelowna. At the junior level he has been able to take advantage of his physical and technical skills for the Rockets.

Aaron Irving, D, Edmonton Oil Kings
Acquired: 6th round (162nd overall), 2014

The final player selected by Nashville in the 2014 NHL Draft (the Predators did not have a seventh round pick), Irving is a sum-of-all-parts defenseman who makes up for any physical or technical shortcomings through effort and passion.

Flying under the radar somewhat during the Oil Kings’ run to the 2014 Memorial Cup championship, Irving was expected to assume a larger role for the club this season with Griffin Reinhart (NYI) and Cody Corbett (COL) now skating in the American Hockey League. He has done just that skating with team captain Ashton Sautner on the team’s top defense pairing.

After being one of the top teams in the WHL for the past few seasons the Oil Kings are hovering around the .500 mark, trailing first-place Medicine Hat in the Central Division. Playing with the offensive-minded Sautner, Irving is playing more of a stay-at-home role thus far and his offensive numbers (three goals, two assists and plus-one in 17 games) are lagging compared to his output last season.

At this point Irving would appear to be a long-range project. With several other young defensemen in the Predators’ pipeline, as well as fairly young players like Seth Jones and Ryan Ellis already making their mark in Nashville, he has his work cut out for him to one day earn a contract. On the plus side, he is still an 18-year-old and the Predators do not have to make a decision on signing him until June 2016.

Top Performing Prospects: October

Much was made in some media circles about then-free agent Jason Spezza’s non-willingness to sign with the Predators over the summer, but if the early season is any indication Nashville may not be all that undesirable a destination for future free agents.

The Predators are off to a good start under new coach Peter Laviolette and one of the big reasons has been the play of rookie left wing Filip Forsberg. The 20-year-old from Sweden is seeing top-line minutes skating with center Mike Ribiero and right wing James Neal and is making an early push for Calder Trophy consideration.

The Admirals have also had success early in the year with several first-year players making their mark.

Brendan Leipsic has made a smooth jump from the Portland Winterhawks to pro hockey, leading the Admirals with 11 points — all assists — in ten games. Swedish 21-year-old forward Viktor Arvidsson, a fourth-round pick in 2014, is Milwaukee’s third-leading scorer with four goals and four assists in 10 games. In seven games 21-year-old Pontus Aberg, who played for Djurgarden in Sweden last year, has four goals with one assist.

Among the defensemen for Milwaukee 2014 Boston University graduate Garrett Noonan is seeing regular ice time as a rookie and has one goal and three assists in eight games.

The tandem of Marek Mazanec and Magnus Hellberg have been outstanding in net for Milwaukee. In seven games Mazenec is 5-2 with one shutout and has a 2.42 goals against average and .914 save percentage. Hellberg appears healthy after last year’s struggles and is 3-0 with one shutout in his first three starts with a 0.64 goals against average and .973 save percentage.

In Europe there are four junior-age Nashville prospects who are off to fast starts and all could be skating for their respective countries in the 2015 World Junior Championship at the end of next month.

Goalie Juuse Saros, who was in net for Finland during its gold medal run last year, is once again the starter for HPK Hameenlinna and will likely start for Finland in Canada. It would appear his height is no longer an issue since he has maintained a high level of play since being selected in the fourth round of the 2013 Draft by Nashville. Defensemen Joonas Lyytinen, 19, has had a big role for KalPa as the Kuopio team has turned things around after finishing last in Liiga last year. Lyytinen is plus-five with four goals and three assists in 17 games to start the year while averaging nearly 19 minutes of ice time and has skated for the Finland U20 team during their exhibition schedule.

The Predators top two picks in the 2014 NHL Draft, Swiss forward Kevin Fiala and winger Vladislav Kamenev from Russia, are both off to fast starts. Playing in Sweden’s SHL, Fiala has scored four goals with six assists in his first nine games for HV71. He skated for Switzerland in last year’s World Junior Championship and will likely be one of their top players this year. Kamenev is seeing full-time minutes with Metallurg Magnitigorsk in the KHL and was already selected to play for the Russia men’s team in one of the European Trophy tournaments. In 25 games for Mike Keenan-coached Metallurg he has scored four goals with three assists in limited ice time (10:29 minutes per game).

The NCAA season is just getting underway but one early surprise has been freshman Teemu Kivihalme at Colorado College. After scoring a goal against Alabama-Huntsville in his first career game Kivihalme had a goal and assist in the Tigers opening NCHC conference series against North Dakota.

Nashville Predators Prospect of the Month: October

While several Predators prospects had successful first months the top prospect for October is a no-brainer. Filip Forsberg has energized a Predators team that some thought would struggle out of the gate.

Filip Forsberg - Nashville PredatorsAfter generating excitement during development camp and in the Nashville main training camp with his ability to make plays and support the players around him, the Ostervala, Sweden native has lived up to the promise he showed when Washington selected him in the first round of the 2012 NHL Draft.

Despite his relative youth, he has fit in well with a variety of linemates and has been one of the Predators’ most consistent players. Forsberg opened the season with Nashville last year, skating in 13 games, before being sent to the AHL and also skating in the World Junior Championship with Sweden. One of the top players for the Admirals in the second half, he has carried that momentum into this season.

In his first 14 games this year he has scored six goals with nine assists and is plus-15 with four penalty minutes, while averaging over 16 minutes of ice time.

Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @HockeyNJ12