Filip Forsberg’s Calder Trophy-caliber campaign has pushed Nashville to the top of the NHL standings, making his the most notable graduation of the season. Add to that the trade that sent Brendan Leipsic to the Leafs, Patrick Cehlin’s return to Sweden, and solid pro seasons for Calle Jarnkrok and Taylor Beck, and the result is a shake-up in Nashville’s Top 20.
1. (2) Kevin Fiala, LW, 8.0C
Drafted 1st round, 11th overall, 2014
Fiala began the season with HV71 in Sweden before skating for Switzerland in the 2015 World Juniors and subsequently joining Nashville’s AHL affiliate in Milwaukee at the end of January. Of Milwaukee’s group of somewhat undersized skilled forwards, Fiala may be the best of the bunch. While other areas of his game are still in development, there is no questioning his stick handling and passing skills or his scoring instincts. Much like Forsberg last year, it is hoped that a strong second half in Milwaukee may have him NHL-ready by next summer, though Fiala likely needs to add some mass and strength to compete at that level on a nightly basis.
2. (5) Juuse Saros, G, 8.0C
Drafted 4th round, 99th overall, 2013
Saros has been outstanding for HPK Hameenlinna — keeping the otherwise overmatched small town team in contention for a playoff spot. Appearing in 39 of HPK’s first 51 games he has 10 of the club’s 13 wins while recording five shutouts and posting a 2.01 goals against and .933 save percentage.
He faced his first bit of adversity with Finland’s junior team this year — having won a bronze medal at the U18 level two years ago and then backstopping the U20 team to a gold medal last winter. Saros shared the goaltending duties with HIFK’s Ville Husso (STL) at the recent WJC and started two games, both losses, including a 2-1 loss to Slovakia in which Finland had a 38-12 shot advantage. In terms of NHL potential Saros is a bit shorter than the average starting goalie and the caliber of shooter he will see at that level could make that an issue. What cannot be questioned is his productivity and durability to this point.
3. (3) Vladislav Kamenev, LW 8.0D
Drafted 2nd round, 42nd overall, 2014
Kamenev, like Fiala and Saros, represented his country at the 2015 World Juniors — skating for Russia as an 18-year-old. Unlike Fiala and some of the other dynamic offensive forwards in the Nashville system, Kamenev has the prototypical frame of a power forward though he doesn’t play an overly abrasive style. Rather, he possesses high level passing and stick handling skills and should put them to good use as he learns the positional aspects of the game. In seven games at the WJC he scored 1 goal with 3 assists as Russia advanced to the gold medal game against Canada. He is currently playing for defending KHL champion Metallurg Magnitogorsk. In limited ice time with the Mike Keenan-coached club he has scored 5 goals with 3 assists and is -3 with 8 penalty minutes, averaging 9:31 minutes of ice time. Much like Tampa Bay, Nashville suddenly has a glut of forwards so they can afford to be patient with players like Kamenev. Long-term he should be an integral part of the Predators’ attack.
4. (10) Jimmy Vesey, LW, 7.0B
Drafted 3rd round, 66th overall, 2012
Vesey has the prototypical size of a power forward but plays with an abundance of offensive instincts and is very good at reading the play and finding open teammates. While determining a player’s pro potential coming out of the ECAC can be tricky at times, Vesey’s high energy level and consistent two-way play should serve him well. Now in his junior season at Harvard, he has dominated on a nightly basis for the Crimson, scoring 19 goals in his first 24 games. Harvard, after finishing tied for 10th in the league in 2013-14, has been in the thick of the conference race this year, at one point winning nine of 10 games. Vesey will likely have a decision to make following this season as to whether to sign a contract with the Predators or return to Harvard for his senior season.
5. (11) Magnus Hellberg, G, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 38th overall, 2011
Healthy after a trying season in 2013-14, Hellberg is displaying the form that made him the first goalie taken in the 2011 NHL Draft. Sharing the goaltending duties for Milwaukee with Marek Mazanec, he is 14-5-4 in 26 games and has a 2.02 goals against average and .925 save percentage. Hellberg has all the physical and technical attributes of an elite NHL goaltender and has started to produce at the level his talent suggests he can. With Pekka Rinne returning to all-star form with the NHL club and the emergence of Hellberg and Mazanec along with the potential of Saros, the goaltending situation in Nashville appears set for years to come.
6. (7) Pontus Åberg, LW, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 37th overall, 2012
Åberg is another of the undersized but offensively-gifted young forwards with the Admirals. In his first season in North America, he is among Milwaukee’s goal-scoring leaders with 15 goals in his first 47 games. Like Fiala he is a work in progress when it comes to playing an all-around game and will need to develop physically and in the other areas of his game to compete at the NHL level. His skating and skill level, however, should fit in well with the high energy style of play being played in Nashville.
7. (8) Jack Dougherty, D, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 51st overall, 2014
The 2014-15 season has been a nightmare for the Wisconsin Badgers and a baptism by fire for Dougherty who has held up thus far as a freshman. Frequently teamed with junior Eddie Wittchow (FLA) on the Badgers’ top defense pair, Dougherty is seeing a lot of ice time and gaining experience. Wisconsin has won just three of its first 26 games and just won its second game in Big 10 Conference play (2-10-2). One of 42 players invited to USA Hockey’s evaluation camp for the World Junior tournament last summer Dougherty’s size and skating ability suggest he can be a top pairing defensemen at the NHL level one day.
8. (12) Viktor Arvidsson, LW, 7.5D
Drafted 4th round, 112th overall, 2014
Originally expected to return to Sweden for at least one more season, the 21-year-old Arvidsson is proving to be as dangerous in the AHL as he was for Swedish champion Skelleftea in last year’s SHL playoffs. Even smaller than Fiala or Leipsic, he is the Admirals’ leading scorer and has made a smooth transition from the larger European rinks to North America. Much like Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau, his ability to anticipate the play and use his skating speed to avoid tight areas has allowed him to be successful despite his lack of stature. He should continue to improve as he adds strength and becomes more proficient in the other areas of his game.
9. (13) Justin Kirkland, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 62nd overall, 2014
The Predators selected Kirkland assuming that with the prototypical size and skills of a power forward the 18-year-old would increase his scoring production as he gained experience. That has been the case. Now in his second season with the Kelowna Rockets he has already exceeded his scoring totals from a year ago — scoring 21 goals with 29 assists in his first 49 games this season. Long-term his package of offensive skills, size, and strong two-way play should provide a nice complement to the many high-flying scorers in the Nashville pipeline.
10. (6) Colton Sissons, C, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 50th overall, 2012
Sissons had an outstanding rookie season with Milwaukee in 2013-14, leading the Admirals with 25 goals and making his NHL debut as a 20-year-old. While he continues to score goals (16 in his first 49 games), Sissons has been a streak scorer in his second season. As a result he has slid a little in terms of his place in the organization with the breakout seasons of Forsberg, Arvidsson and others. A valuable player on the power play and a consistent scorer, Sissons is a bit of a ‘tweener: not quite physical or aware enough to be used in a lower line, defensive role and not as skilled a playmaker as some of the other prospects in the Nashville system.
11. (16) Miikka Salomaki, LW/C, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2011
Salomaki had a memorable NHL debut — scoring a goal against Dallas on January 8th in his only game with the Predators before being returned to Milwaukee — and continues to be a strong two-way forward in his second season with the Admirals. Versatile enough to play wing or center, he has scored seven goals with 11 assists in 38 games with the Admirals and is a team best +15 plus/minus. Long-term the 21-year-old projects as a valuable second or third line forward who can play in all situations.
12. (19) Marek Mazanec, G, 6.5C
Drafted 6th round, 179th overall, 2012
Mazanec was with the Predators during January due to an injury to Rinne and appeared in two games – finishing 0-1 with a 2.27 goals against and .915 save percentage. A large goaltender, he continues to share the goalie duties with Hellberg in Milwaukee after starting for the Admirals in the playoffs last spring. Mazanec isn’t the most technically sound goalie but is very athletic and competes at a high level. He has worked hard to clean up the areas in need of improvement, which are sometimes exposed at the NHL level, and his physical tools suggest there is potential.
13. (NR) Joonas Lyytinen, D, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 132nd overall, 2014
Overshadowed by defensemen with higher-end skills or better physical attributes heading into last summer’s draft, Lyytinen has been productive in the Finnish elite league as a 19-year-old. The KalPa Kuopio defender first garnered attention in the second half of last season, playing significant minutes on a nightly basis on the last-place club. KalPa is much-improved and Lyytinen plays full-time minutes with one of the better plus/minus numbers (+13) on the club. He played well for Finland in what was an otherwise disappointing 2015 World Juniors tournament. Long-term Lyytinen will need to add bulk and strength to compete against the bigger, physical forwards at the NHL level. His smarts, awareness and ability to move the puck suggest he can be an effective mobile defenseman one day.
14. (NR) Max Gortz, RW, 6.5C
Drafted 6th round, 172nd overall, 2012
Gortz lacks the high end skating and stick handling ability skills of some of the other Predators prospects from Sweden but has one thing they lack — size. Drafted as a long-range prospect late in the 2012 NHL Draft, he has come into his own in his third season in the SHL. After going from Frolunda to Farjestads in a mid-season deal last year, he has been one of the club’s top scorers. Farjestads is currently second in the SHL behind Skelleftea. Gortz signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Predators last June and could join Milwaukee following the SHL playoffs. If not he will likely be with the Admirals next season.
15. (NR) Anthony Bitetto, D, 6.5C
Drafted 6th round, 168th overall, 2012
Bitetto made his NHL debut in January before being returned to Milwaukee and has recently re-joined Nashville. Now in his third pro season, the 24-year-old was Milwaukee’s top offensive defenseman last season. He continues to play an offensive style but has played a much more complete game this year. At the NHL level he can sometimes get caught flat-footed against the rush. At the same time, he has shown the same willingness to skate with the puck and find open teammates that made him effective with the Admirals. His anticipatory skills should improve as he becomes more accustomed to the higher tempo of play.
16. (14) Jonathan-Ismael Diaby, D, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 64th overall, 2013
Diaby has had the ups-and-downs not uncommon for a player making the jump from juniors to pro hockey as a 20-year-old but has two attributes that make him an attractive prospect as a shut-down defender — size and an aggressive disposition. Still a work in progress in terms of his skating and overall skill and positioning game, he has shown steady progress in his first season with Milwaukee. He is third on the team in penalty minutes behind veterans Michael Liambas and Richard Clune.
17. (NR) Johan Alm, D, 7.0D
Signed as a free agent, May 2014
A teammate of Arvidsson’s with Skelleftea last season, Alm has been slowed by injuries in his first season with Milwaukee. He is a bit of a late bloomer in terms of hitting his potential but has the size, skating ability and defensive awareness to be an effective two-way defenseman one day. Alm was mostly concerned with defending while playing in Sweden but scouts feel that with his stick handling and mobility there is an offensive component to his game that is still untapped. He is another player who fits in well with the Nashville philosophy.
18. (15) Austin Watson, C, 6.5C
Drafted 1st round, 18th overall, 2010
Watson leads Milwaukee in goals (18) and is third in points (29) but continues to toil in the AHL in his third pro season. Still just 23-years-old, the Ann Arbor, Michigan native played in six games with the Predators in his first pro season in 2012-13 but has not been recalled since. Watson has the ideal size of a power forward but does not play an overly combative style. At the same time his skating and offensive skills, while effective at the AHL level, are not the same caliber as some of the other players coming through the Nashville pipeline.
19. (NR) Teemu Kivihalme, D, 6.0C
Drafted 5th round, 140th overall, 2013
Kivihalme, like Dougherty, has been thrown into the fire as a freshman on a college team that is struggling. Frequently paired with senior Peter Stoykewych, a Jets prospect, he is one of seven players to skate in all 29 games for Colorado College in what has been a rebuilding season for the Tigers under first-year coach Mike Haviland. Overshadowed at times by sophomore teammate Jaccob Slavin (CAR), Kivihalme shares the team lead in goals by a defensemen (four) and has made a smooth adjustment to college hockey as a 19-year-old. Still a work in progress when it comes to defending and positional play, his unsightly plus/minus is partially a product of the Tigers’ struggles (5-23-1).
20. (NR) Taylor Aronson, D, 6.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 78th overall, 2010
Aronson has made huge strides this season. Now in his fourth year of pro hockey the 23-year-old defenseman from California spent most of his first three seasons in the ECHL, playing just 12 games for the Admirals in 2012-13. After playing a key role for the Cincinnati Cyclones during their run to the Kelly Cup finals last spring, he has been a key part of Milwaukee’s attack from the back end this season. Aronson recently received his first NHL call-up, though he did not play in any games with Nashville before being returned to the Admirals. While there are still parts of his game that need refinement if he is to play at the NHL level, the fact that he has progressed this season is encouraging.
Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @HockeyNJ12