New era Nashville Predators loaded with award-worthy prospects

By Tony Piscotta
Pontus Aberg - Nashville Predators

Photo: Nashville Predators 2012 second-rounder Pontus Aberg showed promise in adapting to North American hockey early in the season (courtesy of Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)

 

 

The 2014-15 season saw a shift in focus in the Predators’ organization from the Smashville philosophy of the early years to a more wide open skating style. Partly due to necessity, Nashville featured bigger, hard-hitting players playing tight defense and making things difficult on opposition players during its early years.  That changed this season as new coach Peter Laviolette emphasized a north-south skating game that fit the talents of scorers like rookie Filip Forsberg and veteran Mike Ribeiro, who had a resurgence in his first year with the Predators.

While the first-round playoff exit put a damper on what was a successful regular season (Nashville’s 47 regulation wins were the third-most in the team’s 16-year-history), young players like Forsberg and defenseman Seth Jones continue to progress and should be top players for years to come.

In looking at the prospect pool, minor league affiliate Milwaukee was one of the AHL‘s youngest teams. The Admirals just missed the playoffs but the team featured several players who could be moving into the NHL relatively soon. Further, the Predators have relied heavily on players from Sweden and Finland in the past and that trend looks likely to continue.

Hardest Worker: Joonas Lyytinen, D, KalPa Kuopio (Liiga)

The 20-year-old defenseman from Espoo, Finland was not highly regarded as a prospect during his junior career and is neither imposing physically nor does he have flashy skating and stick handling skills. What makes him an NHL prospect, however, and what caught the attention of Predators’ scouts, is his consistency and the ability to maintain his level of play even in adverse situations.

Selected in the fifth round in 2014 in his second year of draft eligibility, Lyytinen was among the leaders in minutes played for much-improved KalPa this season and also stood out for Finland at the World Juniors on a team that underperformed.  While he will likely need added bulk to compete at the NHL level on a regular basis, his consistency and ability to read the play suggests he could fit in well as a partner capable of supporting some of the risk-taking defensemen in Nashville and has the mindset to provide composure in tough situations.

Hardest Shot: Austin Watson, C/LW, Milwaukee Admirals (AHL)

At  6’4, 195 pounds it is likely that the Predators envisioned the former Peterborough Pete as a banging, power forward when he was selected in the first round in 2010. That has not been the case as Watson has never had more than 34 penalty minutes in his three AHL seasons, but he has been a sniper and led Milwaukee with 26 goals this season. While the bulk of his goals are the result of hard work in tight areas and come from within 10 feet of the net, he has the ability to step to the top of the circles and blast shots and has a lightning quick release.

Overlooked by some with several flashier types coming through the Predators’ pipeline, he is an interesting option to provide the supplementary scoring that was missing from the Nashville attack late in the year. It is equally likely that Watson brings interest from another organization that does not have as big an emphasis on skating and where his skill set would more closely match that team’s philosophy.

Fastest Skater: Pontus Åberg, LW, Milwaukee Admirals (AHL)

Recently-signed Steve Moses, the KHL’s leading goal scorer last season, could challenge Aberg for this title in the future but for now the dynamic but undersized 21-year-old from Sweden retains the award he won last season. One of six players from Sweden to skate for the Admirals this past season – including leading scorer Viktor Arvidsson – Aberg has a highly entertaining package of offensive skills, especially the ability to get from place to place quickly. Rather than by physical play, Aberg can intimidate opposition defenders with his speed and shiftiness.

The demands of the longer North American season and the tighter play in smaller rinks appeared to wear on him in his first season with the Admirals following a breakout year with Farjestad in 2013-14. Aberg scored 13 goals with six assists in his first 27 games but after January 1st scored just two goals with four assists before a two assist game on March 15th — a span of 28 games. With the experience he gained playing a full season this year he should be better prepared for the rigors and challenges in 2015-16.

Best Defensive Prospect: Jack Dougherty, D, University of Wisconsin Badgers (NCAA)

The 2014-15 season — both from a team perspective and in terms of his individual numbers — was a tough one for Dougherty. Looking at the progress he made in terms of being a prospect, however, the year may turn out to be a blessing in terms of his long-term development. Skating against players several years older and in many cases stronger and more experienced, the 18-year-old from St. Paul, Minnesota appeared overwhelmed at times early in the season.

Wisconsin would win just four games, and Dougherty would finish with an unsightly -25 plus/minus rating but he was clearly a more confident and effective player down the stretch, when he was playing some of his best hockey. Skating alongside junior Eddie Wittchow (Florida) at times with the Badgers, he seemed to gain a better grasp of some of the intricacies of the position. Going forward, the 2014 second round pick should begin to use the physical and technical skills more frequently as his decision making continues to develop.

Underachiever: Saku Maenalanen, RW, Karpat Oulu (Liiga)

In fairness to Maenalanen it is difficult to label any fifth round pick an “underachiever”. But after a strong 2013-14 season when he saw time in Liiga as a 19-year old and was the leading goal scorer at the 2014 World Juniors it looked like the Predators may have discovered a diamond in the rough.

With a strong 2014-15 season in Liiga this year it was thought that he could earn an entry-level contract with Nashville. That did not occur and as of this writing Maenalanen is still unsigned and may re-enter the 2015 NHL Draft. In retrospect much of Maenalanen’s breakout performance at the WJC may have been attributable to playing on a line with Chicago’s Teuvo Teravainen and the fact that he is bigger and stronger than players at the junior level.

The defending Liiga champions Karpat featured a veteran squad, making it difficult for the 20-year-old to crack the lineup. He scored four goals with one assist in 20 games and was briefly loaned to Pelicans Lahti, where he had one goal in eight games. Maenalanen had some success playing for Hokki in Mestis and there is some potential, particularly giving his size and skill set. He may end up in an NHL organization one day but whether he is signed by the Predators remains to be seen.

Overachiever:  Teemu Kivihalme, D, Colorado College Tigers (NCAA)

Kivihalme, like Dougherty, saw loads of ice time as a freshman on a team that struggled. However, unlike Dougherty not much was expected of the undersized defender from Cloquet, Minnesota. Kivihalme exceeded expectations and was an offensive threat from the blueline in his first season with the Tigers.

At this point — while his skating ability and offensive instincts are first rate — Kivihalme is still very much a work in progress in terms of positional play and will have to add some bulk and strength to handle the demands of professional hockey on a nightly basis. His skating style may be more suited to the college game and he will have to refine the supplementary areas of his game if he his to earn an NHL deal one day.

The 2013 fifth-round pick will return to Colorado College for his sophomore season, likely stepping into a key role for the Tigers with the graduation of Jets prospects Peter Stoykewych and Aaron Harstad. Jaccob Slavin (Carolina) and Kivihalme provide second-year coach Mike Haviland with two important building blocks from which to start rebuilding his team.

Highest Risk/Reward: Juuse Saros, G, HPK Hameenlinna (Liiga)

In terms of organizational assets the risk in signing the goalie from Finland is relatively low — the Predators used a fourth-round pick to acquire Saros in 2013 and as of this writing had yet to sign him to a contract. What earns the young netminder this award is the potential he possesses to one day be an elite netminder despite his lack of  prototypical NHL goalie size.

Saros, who turned 20 on April 19th, has been HPK Hameenlinna’s top player on most nights for the past two seasons and was a key factor in Finland’s 2014 World Junior Championship. Things did not go as smoothly in this year’s WJC but much of that could be attributed to the play of Finland’s team in general. At 5’10 he would be among the smaller goalies in the NHL level. His play to this point suggests that that lack of size might not be as big an obstacle as it appears.

Rumors in Finland have him heading to North America next fall but as of now nothing had been confirmed. If not signed by June he would re-enter the 2015 NHL Draft. His talent level and production to this point suggest a significant upside. However, facing more talented shooters who could take advantage of his lack of stature will be the ultimate test.

Breakout for 2014-15: Kevin Fiala, LW, Milwaukee Admirals (AHL)

No rookie had as big an impact on his team as Nashville’s Forsberg — who led the Predators in scoring yet was somehow not a Calder Trophy finalist. If there is a player in the Nashville organization capable of having that type of a season next year it is the offensively-gifted Fiala. The 18-year-old made his NHL debut with the Predators, skating in one regular season game and one playoff contest. He will likely push for a permanent spot with Nashville in training camp.

Fiala began the 2014-15 season in Sweden, where he had 14 points in 20 games for HV71. After representing Switzerland in the 2015 World Juniors he joined the Admirals in January, scoring 11 goals with nine assists in 33 games. Still developing in terms of his positional game and defensive awareness, Fiala may need more seasoning at the minor pro level before reaching his full potential. His scoring ability and anticipatory skills compare favorably with the other elite prospects.

Fiala was the Predators’ first round pick in 2014 (11th overall) and after seeing Forsberg struggle in his first NHL experience Nashville may be patient with the young star. A strong pre-season or a quick start with the Admirals could speed up that timetable.

Most Improved Prospect: Justin Kirkland, LW, Kelowna Rockets (WHL)

Nashville general manager David Poile, during his comments to the media following the 2014 NHL Draft in Philadelphia, mentioned that the Predators’ personnel staff felt that Kirkland, a third-round pick, had an offensive upside to his game that had not yet emerged. Following the 18-year-old’s 2014-15 season with the Rockets those remarks appear to be right on the mark.

With the ideal size (6’2, 175) and combative nature to fit in a power forward role, Kirkland has emerged as a consistent scorer on what has been a dominant Kelowna team this year. Kirkland scored 21 goals with 30 assists in 51 regular season games for the Rockets before suffering a lower-body injury in February that kept him out until the second round of the WHL playoffs. Kirkland had an assist in the Rockets’ series-clinching win over Everett in the Western Conference semifinals in his first game back and was +4 with two goals in four games during the conference final series against Portland.

Kelowna’s dominance this season suggest that Kirkland’s offensive output may be a bit inflated. What makes his progress encouraging is the manner in which he has competed in all three zones and uses his size to advantage.

Prospect of the Year: Jimmy Vesey, LW, Harvard University (NCAA)

There were player personnel types that thought Vesey would be a valuable addition to the Nashville lineup for their 2015 playoff run if he were to sign an entry-level contract following his junior season at Harvard. The North Reading, Massachusetts native is intent on finishing his schooling and returning to Harvard for his senior season, however, and will skate for the Crimson in 2015-16. He is currently skating for the USA in the 2015 World Championship and his play to this point suggests those scouts were right.

Vesey was dominant in ECAC Hockey play this season and played a key role for Harvard in its resurgence this year. Vesey led the Crimson in scoring with 32 goals and 26 assists in 37 games. He scored the decisive double overtime goal in Harvard’s quarterfinal series against rival Yale and scored twice in the 4-2 win over Colgate in the ECAC championship game to clinch an NCAA tournament berth.

Vesey’s combination of size and skill are rare at the NCAA level and he may not put up the same type of offensive numbers in pro hockey. What makes the 2012 third round pick such an attractive pro prospect, however, is his ability to read the game and support the players around him. He is highly active in all three zones and is consistently inside the play. Vesey is especially adept at finding open teammates and making crisp passes to either start a transition or create scoring opportunities.

Prospect of the Month
Magnus Hellberg - Nashville Predators
Hockey’s Future no longer includes a Bounceback Player of the Year in these awards but had it done so that honor clearly would have belonged to Magnus Hellberg. After being hampered by injury and struggling with inconsistency in 2013-14, the goalie from Sweden, who was the first goalie selected in the 2011 NHL Draft, re-established himself as an NHL prospect with his play this season.

After finishing last season as a backup to minor league veteran Rob Madore with the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones during that team’s run to the Kelly Cup finals, Hellberg combined with Marek Mazanec to give Milwaukee one of the AHL’s top goaltending tandems this past season.

Hellberg was at his best in the final month of the season. He was 7-1 in his last eight starts, including three shutouts, as the Admirals came up just short in their playoff push. In 10 games in April he had a 1.81 goals against and .937 save percentage.  Hellberg played in 38 games for Milwaukee in 2014-15 and was 15-10-6 with three shutouts, posting a 2.33 goals against and .913 save percentage.

Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @HockeyNJ12