With the exception of goaltender Magnus Hellberg being traded to the New York Rangers — and some uncertainty about the progress of top defense prospect Jack Dougherty — little has changed in the top half of the Predators Fall Top 20 from the previous list last spring.
Nineteen-year-old Swiss left wing Kevin Fiala remains the team’s top prospect and has a shot at opening the season in the NHL while goalie Juuse Saros remains in the second spot after signing an entry-level contract with the Predators in June.
With Hellberg no longer in the organization Saros will likely split time with Marek Mazanec for AHL affiliate Milwaukee and appears to be the leading candidate within the organization to one day succeed Pekka Rinne.
Jimmy Vesey, who will return to Harvard for his senior season after playing for the USA in the World Championship last spring, moves up one spot to third as he and Russian forward Vladislav Kamenev flip-flop spots. Kamenev, after skating in the KHL last year, signed an entry-level deal in July and is making the move from wing to center. Another 19-year-old, Kamenev is expected to start the year with Milwaukee but could be with the Predators before the season is over.
Yakov Trenin, the Predators’ first pick in the 2015 NHL Draft when he was taken in the second round, is one of five players appearing in the Top 20 for the first time and is at number seven. Like Kamenev he signed an entry-level deal with Nashville during development camp.
Dougherty also signed an entry-level contract with the Predators over the summer — foregoing his final three seasons of college hockey at Wisconsin — and will skate for the Portland Winterhawks in the WHL. Whether his decision was made to accelerate his path to the NHL or is a reflection on a lack of progress during his freshman season with the Badgers remains to be seen. He slides to 12th after being seventh in the spring list.
Here is the Nashville Predators Top 20 for Fall 2015 (Spring ranking in parentheses, NR – Not in spring Top 20)
20. (16) Jonathan-Ismael Diaby, D, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 64th overall, 2013
Diaby’s drop in the rankings has as much to do with the influx of the four draft picks and free agent signees as it does with his ability. Viewed as a long-range prospect when he was selected, Diaby had the struggles not uncommon for a 20-year-old rookie in pro hockey for Milwaukee last season. His size and demeanor make him an ideal prospect for a shutdown defenseman with the willingness to stand up for teammates and he made steady progress with the Admirals. Diaby should be a welcome physical presence for the Predators with the high-flying smaller forwards coming up through the Predators’ pipeline. The addition of veteran Barret Jackman and Allen means he will likely open the season with Milwaukee continuing to refine his game.
19. (NR) Alexandre Carrier, D, 7.0D
Drafted 4th round, 115th overall, 2015
The second of two fourth-round picks for the Predators in June, Carrier is a smooth skating defensemen with abundant offensive skills. Small and light compared to the prototypical NHL player, he was one of 13 defensemen selected to participate in the evaluation camp for Canada’s U20 team. A teammate of Trenin’s with Gatineau, Carrier was the team’s third-leading scorer and also showed an abrasive side, finishing with 64 penalty minutes. His size and defensive game will be a challenge at the pro level but his skill set is significant.
18. (18) Austin Watson, C, 6.5C
Drafted 1st round, 18th overall, 2010
Watson heads into camp looking to make the opening night roster after spending the bulk of his first three pro seasons with Nashville AHL affiliate Milwaukee. One of three players to skate in all 76 games for the Admirals in 2014-15, he led Milwaukee with 26 goals and was second to Viktor Arvidsson with 44 points. A sniper who is strong in front of the opposing net, Watson has the size to dominate but is not an overly combative player. Like Taylor Beck a year ago, he is more suited to a top-six role at the AHL level but will likely be in a lower line role if he cracks the lineup for the Predators.
17. (NR) Conor Allen, D, 7.0C
Signed as free agent, 2015
Allen was signed as an unrestricted free agent after playing seven games for the Rangers over the past two seasons. The former University of Massachusetts defenseman brings a physical component to the blue line and showed some offensive ability with the AHL’s Hartford Wolfpack. Allen will compete for one of the bottom pairing slots with the Predators but may start the year in Milwaukee. Ranked sixth amongst Rangers’ prospects in that team’s Spring Top 20, Allen is now 25 years old and his upside is limited. He could, however, provide the grit to complement some of Nashville’s high-skill stars while possessing the skating ability to keep up with them.
16. (10) Colton Sissons, C, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 50th overall, 2012
Sissons, like Watson, has been a dependable scorer for AHL affiliate Milwaukee the past two seasons but is in a tough spot between veterans such as Mike Ribiero and Mike Fisher and some of the highly-skilled import forwards the Predators have added the past few years. Second to Watson with 25 goals for Milwaukee last season, Sissons is a player whose skill set fit the style of former Predators coach Barry Trotz. His defensive awareness could give him an advantage for a fourth line role with Nashville, though veteran Paul Gaustad is a faceoff ace in that spot.
15. (NR) Steve Moses, RW, 6.5B
Signed as a free agent, 2015
Overlooked coming out of the University of New Hampshire due likely to his lack of size — and not interested in beginning his pro career in the ECHL during the lockout season of 2012-13 — Moses headed to Finland to play for Jokerit. With the club moving from Finland’s Liiga to the KHL this past season, Moses had a breakout year in his third season with the Helsinki club. He scored 36 goals in 60 regular season games and earned a free agent deal with Nashville. Older than most prospects at 26, Moses is unlikely to score at the same pace in the NHL. At the same time his skating ability and willingness to do what it takes to create scoring chances make him an intriguing option for Predators coach Peter Laviolette.
14. (NR) Anthony Richard, C, 7.5D
Drafted 4th round, 100th overall, 2015
Like Moses, the 18-year-old center from Trois-Rivieres, Quebec lacks the ideal size of an NHL forward. But Richard has been a scoring whiz in the QMJHL the past two seasons with Val-d’Or and plays with a feistiness that belies his lack of stature. Richard, like the other smaller forwards in the Nashville system, will have to add bulk to withstand the punishing nature of pro hockey. But his skill set is reminiscent of other speedy waterbug types who have had success at the NHL level in recent years.
13. (NR) Thomas Novak, C, 7.5D
Drafted 3rd round, 85th overall, 2015
A former high school teammate of Dougherty’s at St. Thomas Academy in Minnesota, Novak is a highly-skilled, cerebral center who recognizes scoring opportunities quickly. The University of Minnesota recruit is a highly-skilled stick handler with the skating, passing and shooting skills to execute at a high pace. Still developing in terms of his physical stature and strength, Novak can at times be a perimeter player and has yet to dominate at the consistent level at which his skills suggest he can. These areas should be addressed during his college career.
12. (7) Jack Dougherty, D, 7.5D
Drafted 2nd round, 51st overall, 2014
Expected to be the latest in a line of NHL defensemen to come out of the University of Wisconsin — a list that includes former Predator Ryan Suter and current Oiler Justin Schultz — Dougherty spent just one season in Madison, signing an entry-level contract with the Predators in July. A talented and mobile defender whose size suggests he can fit in the Nashville system, he was cut from the USA Hockey U20 team at the evaluation camp in Lake Placid (though he could be invited to December’s final camp). After attending training camp with Nashville he will likely skate for the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks this season. On the positive side, the decision to leave Wisconsin early could be a way to accelerate his ascension to the NHL. Few players in junior hockey will be scrutinized as closely in 2015-16.
11. (14) Max Gortz, RW, 6.5C
Drafted 6th round, 172nd overall, 2012
Gortz enjoyed his most productive offensive season to date — scoring 14 goals with 14 assists in 53 regular season games on loan to Frolunda and adding three goals with one assist in 12 playoff games. Slated to skate in North America this season, Gortz will challenge for a spot with the Predators in training camp but is likely to open the season in the AHL. Not as offensively-polished or slick as some of the top prospects in the organization, he has the size that some of the others do not. Though he does not play an overly physical game Gortz’s bulk and skating ability are better suited to a lower line role and he could make it to Nashville before some of those more-skilled players do.