Nashville Predators enjoying rookie successes

By Tony Piscotta
Photo: Nashville Predators forward Calle Jarnkrok has played a depth role in his first full season (courtesy of Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire)

Photo: Nashville Predators forward Calle Jarnkrok has played a depth role in his first full season (courtesy of Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire)

 

The Nashville Predators continue to be one of the top turnaround stories in the 2014-15 season — leading the Central Division with a record of 33-12-6 under first-year coach Peter Laviolette. For the most part Nashville has relied on a corps of veteran forwards having bounce back seasons. With one notable exception – 20-year-old rookie left wing Filip Forsberg. Seven Predators have scored at least 10 goals and 14 players have at least 10 points for a balanced Predators’ offense and veteran goalie Pekka Rinne has won 29 of 37 starts.

That being said, the rookie from Sweden has been leading the way for Nashville — scoring a team-high 17 goals with 29 assists and posting the team’s second best plus/minus (+22).

With nine players over the age of 30 there are limited opportunities for prospects in Nashville but Forsberg has taken advantage of his chance to learn from several experienced players — such as 34-year-old sniper Mike Ribeiro and potential future Hall of Fame forward Olli Jokinen.
 
Filip Forsberg, LW, 20

Forsberg has been everything the Predators were hoping for when he was acquired from Washington late in the 2012-13 season as part of the Martin Erat trade. A first-round pick by the Capitals in 2012, he made his NHL debut in five games with the Predators as an 18-year-old following the trade and also appeared in 13 games last season.

This season Forsberg came into camp ready for the NHL level and has not stopped being a spark for the surprising Predators. Playing with a variety of linemates due either to injury or coach’s preference, he has shown a consistency and savvy well beyond his years.

After being initially overwhelmed in his two previous NHL stints, it appears that those experiences gave him a sense of what to expect. After being demoted last season he enjoyed a productive World Juniors tournament, where Sweden reached the gold medal game, and then he carried that confidence into the second half of the AHL season.

Averaging over 17 minutes of ice time per game this year, Forsberg appears to be just scratching the surface of his long-term potential.

Calle Jarnkrok, C, 23

Jarnkrok like Forsberg was acquired in a late season trade — coming to the Predators from Detroit last spring as part of the David Legwand trade.

Making his NHL debut following the trade after spending the season in the AHL, he burst onto the season with nine points (two goals, seven assists) in 12 games.

Jarnkrok has not been that type of scorer in his first full season with the Predators but is steadily establishing himself as a reliable NHL forward. Like several of the prospects coming up through the Nashville pipeline, Jarnkrok is a quick, smooth skater with stick handling skills and the ability to read the play.

He should continue to progress as he becomes more accustomed to the demands of Laviolette’s style of play. The emphasis on skating and speed fits Jarnkrok’s game well.

Taylor Beck, RW, 23

Beck, now in his fourth pro season, attended Nashville’s training camp looking to earn a contract and did just that. A third round pick by Nashville in 2009, he has made the transition from a big-time scorer in junior hockey to a reliable two-way forward.

Not eligible for the Calder Trophy since he played 16 NHL games in 2012-13 and seven games last season, Beck has been a fixture in the Predators’ lineup this year and has played in a variety of roles.

In 36 games he has scored four goals with five assists and is -4 with 16 penalty minutes. While not likely to match the back-to-back 90 point seasons he had with the Guelph Storm in juniors, Beck has shown perseverance in earning a spot with Nashville and his competitive nature should serve him well.

Miikka Salomaki, LW, 21

Salomaki made a memorable debut with the Predators in what would be his only NHL game to date —  tucking in his own rebound for his first career goal for the second goal in what would be a 3-2 overtime win over Dallas on January 8th.

Returned to AHL affiliate Milwaukee following that game, the forward from northwestern Finland continues to be one of the top scorers for the Admirals. Overshadowed at times by some of the flashier forwards in the Nashville system, the strength of Salomaki is his versatility and the ability to play in myriad situations.

A second round pick in 2011, Salomaki is in the second year of his original entry-level contract with the Predators. He should make a strong push for a roster spot in training camp next season — if he is not re-called before then.

Anthony Bitetto, D, 24

Bitetto, in his third year of pro hockey after skating for Northeastern University, also made his NHL debut in January. The offensive defenseman saw 11 minutes of ice time in a game at Detroit and was -1 with no points nor penalties. Like Salomaki he was returned to the Admirals after making his only NHL appearance.

After splitting his first pro season between the AHL and ECHL, Bitetto has been a fixture on the blue line for Milwaukee and has consistently put up points from his defense spot the past two years.  

A sixth round pick in 2010, the Oceanside, New York native faces an uphill battle in a Nashville organization that has several young defensemen. His progress suggests he can be a valuable lower pairing skating defenseman in the right situation.

2015 World Junior Tournament Update

Four Predators prospects participated in the World Junior Championships, two of whom skated for the defending gold medal champions, Finland.

Goalie Juuse Saros — among the heroes of Finland’s championship in 2014 — returned for his second tournament while defenseman Joonas Lyytinen was making his first appearance in the tournament.

Saros, who started five of seven games the previous year, split this year’s tournament with St. Louis prospect Ville Husso and was not in net in the quarterfinal game when Finland fell to Sweden, 6-3. In two starts at the tournament he was 0-2 with a 3.03 goals against and .875 save percentage.

Lyytinen, a fifth round pick in the 2014 draft, earned a spot for Finland after a strong first half with KalPa Kuopio in Finland’s Liiga. The 19-year-old is a bit undersized for NHL competition but has been reliable on both ends of the ice and is also capable of chipping in offensively. In five games at the WJC he had 1 assist and was +3 with 4 penalty minutes.

Nashville’s top two picks in the 2014 NHL Draft — forwards Kevin Fiala and Vladislav Kamenev — also skated for their respective countries.

Fiala, a talented forward from Switzerland who played for HV71 in Sweden’s SHL, scored four goals with one assist in six games and was +6 with 16 penalty minutes in six games at the World Juniors. Switzerland struggled during round robin play before sweeping Germany in the best-of-three relegation round to maintain its spot in the top group. Fiala left HV71 in January and is now skating in the AHL with Milwaukee.

Kamenev plays for defending KHL champion Metallurg Magnitogorsk and had a solid, if unspectacular, tournament playing for silver medal-winning Russia. He scored one goal with three assists and was +1 in seven games. Russia lost to host Canada, 5-4, in a wild gold medal game.

Nashville Predators Prospect of the Month
jimmy_vesey_harvard_1
The 2013-14 season did not go as expected in Cambridge, but Jimmy Vesey and the Harvard Crimson are making up for lost time this season.

Vesey, now in his junior season, led Harvard in scoring last year with just 13 goals and nine assists in 31 games. Harvard, amongst the league favorites in many ECAC Hockey pre-season polls, finished tied for 10th and were swept by arch-rival Yale in a preliminary round series.

Things have been back to normal this year and Vesey has been a catalyst for Harvard — particularly since New Jersey prospect Alex Kerfoot went down with an injury.

Vesey’s 18 goals in his first 19 games are impressive but that is just part of the story. The rangy forward appears to play every shift at full speed and is adept at finding teammates with passes and putting pressure on opposition defenders. His size, skating ability and strong two-way awareness suggest he will be a valuable part of the Predators’ forward corps in the future.

Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @HockeyNJ12