Role players populate European and NCAA prospect pool for Nashville Predators

By Connor Jennings
Photo: Ben Ryan recently signed an entry-level deal with the Predators and is now playing for their AHL affiliate. (Photo courtesy of Holly Gunning/HF)

The Predators tend to draft pretty heavily out of Scandinavia, and as a result have five prospects from Sweden and Finland, and a lone German filling out their European ranks. Nashville tends to take Europeans with their later round picks, hoping they can find a diamond in the rough.

The organization has a moderate number of prospects in the college ranks, though only one of them has been taken before the fourth round. As with their European prospects, Nashville likes to take their collegiate players in the later rounds and stash them away for a bit, hoping for a breakout or two.

Europe

Mattias Ekholm, D, 21
Acquired: 4th round, 102nd overall, 2009


Ekholm had a breakout year in his first year in the Elitserien. He was the fourth highest scoring defender in the league, with 10 goals and 33 points in 55 games. The season earned him rookie of the year honors in the Elitserien, placing him among such elite company as Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Backstrom, and familiar Predator Patric Hornqvist.

The 20 year old was one of the better players for Brynas in the postseason, with four points in their five games. Ekholm has certainly impressed so far in his young career as only a fourth round pick. He clearly has the skills, as he is competing against a slew of former NHL and NHL caliber players in the Elitserien. However, due to his age, the positional strength of the Predators, he should spend a few more years seasoning in Sweden.

Patrick Cehlin, W, 19
Acquired: 5th round, 126th overall, 2010

Cehlin showed minimal improvement in his second Elitserien season. He scored four goals, with 12 points in 48 games, a slight improvement over his previous season. However, his number should be taken with a grain of salt. Cehlin is only 19, and his 16 points were good for 11th on his team, or eighth among forwards. That’s not bad for such a young player who has plenty of time to grow his numbers to match his skills.

One thing that is concerning about Cehlin is his size, or lack thereof. He is only 5’11 and listed generously at 174 pounds. He’s going to need to grow a little if his game is going to translate to playing with men, which it has yet to do. In the NHL, everyone is even bigger, so he’ll have to bulk up if he’s going to have a career in the NHL. However, as previously mentioned he’s very young and probably won’t be leaving Sweden anytime soon, so he has time to improve before Nashville would ever call upon him.

David Elsner, F, 19
Acquired: 7th round, 194th overall, 2010

A player drafted based on potential, Elsner has yet to realize any of it following another disappointing season with Landschut. Elsner played in 31 games, scoring four goals and adding a single assist in those games. He also spent a short time on loan in the DEL, playing three games and scoring a goal.

Elsner also racked up a whole bunch of penalty minutes, 65 this season following six in the previous one. Clearly he has stepped up his physical play a bit, but he is still going to have to flash some skill if he wants to make his way to the States. Though, he did just turn 19, so he has a good bit of time to figure things out.


Atte Engren, G, 23
Acquired: 7th round, 204th overall, 2007

Engren spent the majority of his season with TPS, though he did make his way to North America towards the end of the year. He played in 51 games with TPS, posting a 2.82 goals against average, and an impressive .917 save percentage. Engren also spent four games in Milwaukee, going 1-2 despite a 2.43 goals against average and a .914 save percentage.

With Anders Lindback seeming to have locked down the Predators backup spot, Mark Dekanich having a fantastic season, Jeremy Smith having a bit of a breakout year, and Chet Pickard still having a massive pedigree, there is little room for Engren to actually play. Unless they give up on Smith, Pickard, or both, there won’t be room for the talented Finn in Milwaukee.


Jani Lajunen, C, 20
Acquired: 7th round, 201st overall, 2008

Lajunen showed a little bit of improvement this past season. He scored 10 goals and 22 points, placing him near the end of the top 100 scorers list. However, that may be a little misleading considering how poor his team was offensively. He ended up finishing eighth on his team in scoring this season.

Lajunen is improving a little, but he’s going to have to show more if he is going to make it in North America. It seems he is going to make his way to Milwaukee, so it will be seen how he performs in his first taste of the AHL.

Joonas Rask, F, 21
Acquired: 7th round, 198th overall, 2010

Rask, the younger brother of Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask, continued to steadily improve in his third year at the top of the Finnish ranks. He scored 14 goals, and added 13 assists for 27 total points in his 60 games. He finished fifth on Ilves in overall points, and second on the team in goals.

The recently turned 21-year-old has shown constant improvement over his career with Ilves. He hasn’t had a breakout season, but he has flashed the skills he needs to play at the highest level of hockey. However, considering how young he is, he will probably spend a few more years playing in Finland before making his way to Milwaukee.

NCAA

Zach Budish, RW, 19
Acquired: 2nd round, 41st overall, 2009

When Zach Budish was drafted in 2009, he was seen as a steal, so long as he could recover from the knee injury he suffered in his senior season in high school. However, he hasn’t shown he has been able to stay healthy since. This season, after fully recovering from his injury, he injured his other knee just seven games into his season.

Budish started the season hot, with two goals, and six points in his seven games. With his performances in limited games at Minnesota, combined with his massive size and goal scoring potential, Budish has all the potential in the world. However, he just has not been able to stay on the ice to this point in his career. He can easily become a fantastic power forward, if he can stay healthy. But that is proving to be a pretty big if.

Craig Smith, C, 21
Acquired: 4th round, 98th overall, 2009

Smith had a impressive freshman season at Wisconsin last year. He followed that up with an even more impressive sophomore season. Smith ended up leading the Badgers in goals with 19, and second on the team in points with 43.

Nobody has been able to stop the 21-year-old forward since his breakout year in the 2008-2009 season. He has decent size, and enough skill to make one wonder how he fell to the fourth round, and he has produced everywhere he has played, so there is no reason to believe that won’t continue once he leaves Wisconsin.


Anthony Bitetto, D, 20
Acquired: 6th round, 168th overall, 2010

Bitetto had a strong freshman season at Northeastern. He scored only three goals, but chipped in 17 assists for a total of 20 points in 38 games. The year placed him in fifth on his team in scoring, despite being a 20-year-old playing from the blue line.

Bitetto has shown a clear ability to move the puck, in combination with his already solid defensive skills. He has good size, and plays a solid physical game to go with his booming shot from the point. He has all the skills to play in the NHL, but could use a little polish. With all the talent he has, and how impressive he has been in the past two seasons, it makes one wonder how he managed to fall all the way to round six before Nashville scooped him up.


Jeff Foss, D, 22
Acquired: 6th round, 166th overall, 2008

Jeff Foss showed a slight improvement in his senior season at RPI, but continues to look poor on the offensive end, especially for someone considered to be a two way defenseman. He scored three goals and 14 points, a small improvement from the previous season. The season placed him in tenth on his team in terms of points.

The sixth rounder was signed by Nashville, and will spend his next season in Milwaukee. He has decent size, and a pretty good skill set, but he has yet to put it all together and perform as he could. Based on the defensive depth in the Nashville system, Foss probably has limited chances to become what he can, so he is going to have to realize his potential early on in his Milwaukee career.


Cam Reid, F, 19
Acquired: 7th round, 192nd overall, 2009

Reid had a very impressive freshman season at St. Cloud State this season. He scored eight goals, and added on 21 assists, which was good for third on the team in scoring. Reid scored those 29 points in only 37 games, scoring at an impressive pace in his first year.

Reid is still a very young prospect at just 19, and has performed very well since being drafted in 2009. Reid is a very good offensive player, with extremely good size for his age. He could stand to add muscle to his frame, but certainly has the potential to have a long career. As long as he continues to improve in college, there’s no reason not to think Reid will eventually play in Nashville.


Ben Ryan, C, 22
Acquired: 4th round, 114th overall, 2007

Ryan started his Notre Dame career impressively, but has failed to show much in the way of improvement since. In his senior season, he played in 44 games, but he saw his goal totals dip to just six, with 25 total points. This was good for sixth on the team, despite being a down year for Ryan.

However, his numbers were good enough to earn him an entry-level contract with the Predators, so he will have a few opportunities to prove himself in Milwaukee. Ryan isn’t very large, though he has shown good puck moving skills. He is an extremely hard worker, and he has a few seasons to try to earn his way onto the NHL roster, though he might have to carve a niche out for himself if he can’t put his complete package of skills together.

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