The Nashville Predators organization has undergone quite a transformation in the nearly 17 months since Peter Laviolette took over as the second coach in franchise history. That transformation figures to continue as some of the veterans brought in to revive the franchise eventually retire or are moved to make room for the young prospects coming up through the system.
The 2015-16 season will be an interesting one in Nashville. The Predators appear poised to once again challenge for the top spot in the Central Division and ultimately compete for a Stanley Cup while at the same time several promising youngsters are pushing for full-time spots in the lineup.
Nashville has an interesting mix of veterans and players just reaching their prime. Two 35-year-old centers — Mike Fisher and Mike Ribeiro — are team leaders up front while veteran Barret Jackman (34) and long-time fixture Shea Weber (30) provide experience on the blue line. Goalie Pekka Rinne is at the top of his game as a 32-year-old though his heir apparent is not obvious at this time. Twenty-year-old Juuse Saros is the top young goaltender in the Nashville system and is in his first season in North America with the AHL affiliate Milwaukee Admirals.
On the blueline after Weber and Jackman both Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm are 25 with the rest of the system being stocked with young players like Seth Jones (21), Ryan Ellis (24), Kristian Nakyva (24), Taylor Aronson (23) and Jonathan-Ismael Diaby (20).
None of the first-year Predators will have the impact that Filip Forsberg had as a 20-year-old last year when he was the team’s leading scorer and the league’s best rookie for most of the season. But the Predators’ young prospects like forwards Viktor Arvidsson, Kevin Fiala, Vladislav Kamenev, Jimmy Vesey and Yakov Trenin — all 23 years old or younger — are reason for optimism.
Top Pro Prospect
Kevin Fiala, LW, Milwaukee Admirals (AHL)
Fiala, a highly-skilled Swiss-born forward who played in Sweden before coming to North America following last year’s World Juniors, made his NHL debut with the Predators at the end of last season — appearing in one regular season and one playoff game for Nashville.
Many felt Fiala might open the season with the Predators as a 19-year-old but he was returned to Milwaukee prior to the end of training camp. The move should benefit Nashville in the long run as Fiala and Kamenev – who is making the move from winger to center – should have time to develop chemistry together with the Admirals. Fiala was the first player taken by Nashville in the 2014 NHL Draft (11th overall) while Kamenev was their second round pick in that same draft.
Long-term, Fiala has an offensive set of skills and hockey instincts that suggest he can be a consistent scorer. At the same time there are areas of positional play that sometimes make him a defensive liability and his lack of bulk and stature is sometimes an issue. He should continue to add strength as he matures physically.
It would not be surprising to see Fiala in the NHL at some point this season but with the depth in Nashville the Predators can afford to be patient.
Vladislav Kamenev, C, Milwaukee Admirals (AHL)
Used primarily in a lower line role by head coach Mike Keenan while playing for Magnitogorsk in the KHL as an 18-year-old last year, Kamenev finished with six goals and four assists in 41 regular season games and scored one goal in ten playoff games for Metallurg. He is expected to have a lot more opportunities skating for Milwaukee this season.
Kamenev’s combination of size and shooting ability appear to be the perfect complement to Fiala’s craftiness and playmaking skills, and the Predators’ envision the two as a dangerous tandem for years to come. Like Fiala, there was some talk of the 19-year-old playing for the Predators this season but with both the move from wing to center and the cultural adjustment from Russia to North America it made sense for Kamenev to start the year in the AHL. Nashville is fairly deep at the center spot — though with players like Fisher, Ribeiro and Paul Gaustad all in their thirties, Kamenev represents a bright future.
Unsigned for 2016-17
Johan Alm, D, Milwaukee Admirals (AHL)
Alm is one of several players in the suddenly-deep Nashville system that fit this category as competition for roster spots is fierce. The defenseman from Sweden was a teammate of current Predators’ rookie Viktor Arvidsson on the SHL champion Skelleftea squad in 2013-14 when Nashville signed him to a two-year contract as an unsigned draft pick following the SHL playoffs.
Alm’s first season with the Admirals last year was a disappointment — due both to injury and inconsistent play. In 44 games for Milwaukee in 2014-15 he had 11 assists and was -11 with 18 penalty minutes.
Alm is not expected to be a high-scoring defenseman so the limited offensive numbers are not much of an issue. What was more troubling was his inconsistent defensive play and the lack of the dominant physical presence that he displayed while playing for Skelleftea. Whether that was due to his physical maladies, the adjustment from Sweden to North America, or other issues remains to be seen.
With several veterans no longer in Milwaukee and Anthony Bitetto now with the Predators, the 22-year-old Alm will be expected to play a more prominent role for the Admirals in 2015-16.
Yakov Trenin, C, Gatineau Olympiques (QMJHL)
Trenin impressed during summer camp and in the Estero prospects tournament for the Predators before being returned to Gatineau for his second QMJHL season. The first of four centers selected by the Predators in the 2015 NHL Draft when he was taken in the second round, 55th overall (Nashville did not have a first round pick), Trenin was panned by some scouts for his awkward skating style. The Predators thought enough of the 18-year-old’s performance over the summer to sign him to a three-year entry-level contract.
Trenin has flourished under coach Benoit Groulx with the Olympiques, making the move from wing to center and being one of the league’s consistent scorers. He is a candidate to play for Russia in the 2016 World Juniors in Finland and should fit in well with players like Forsberg, Fiala and the other young guns in Nashville.
Dougherty had a challenging freshman year at the University of Wisconsin last year as the Badgers struggled from the start. Signed by the Predators to an entry-level contract this summer, he makes the move from college hockey to major junior and is expected to play in all situations for the Winterhawks as a 19-year-old.
Coming out of the National Team Development Program, Dougherty was expected to be a strong, all around defenseman with the size and skating ability to be effective in all three zones. An assistant captain for a Portland squad that has been one of the WHL’s top franchises the past few seasons, Dougherty will likely see a lot of ice time on a team that lost several top prospects to pro hockey. He was one of the early cuts from the USA Hockey evaluation camp in Lake Placid in August but could earn a trip to the World Junior camp with a strong first half this season.
Unsigned for 2016-17
Justin Kirkland, LW, Kelowna Rockets (WHL)
While all eyes will be on Dougherty with the Winterhawks one player who is playing for an NHL contract this season is the Rockets’ Justin Kirkland. Playing for the WHL champions last season, Kirkland was a point-per-game scorer until being slowed by an injury in February.
When he returned, the Rockets had added several older prospects including Edmonton Oilers’ 2014 first- round pick Leon Draisaitl, and Kirkland played more of a supplementary role during the WHL playoffs and Memorial Cup Tournament. Kirkland should be a team leader for for Kelowna this year with Draisaitl no longer around and overage forward Gage Quinney now in Kamloops.
The Predators’ third round pick in 2014, Kirkland’s combination of size, scoring ability, and physical strength offer an intriguing complement to the speedy playmakers in the Nashville pipeline. It is always difficult to gauge a forward from a high-scoring team like Kelowna but Kirkland’s progress to this point suggests some potential.
Jimmy Vesey, LW, Harvard University (ECAC)
Vesey had a memorable junior season for Harvard last year — leading the Crimson to an NCAA Tournament berth after a sixth-place regular season finish as Harvard captured the ECAC playoff title. Vesey was named the league’s Player of the Year and finished the season skating for the USA men’s team at the 2015 World Championship.
There was some speculation that Vesey would begin his NHL career last spring but the Massachusetts native is headed back to Cambridge for what should be a strong senior season both from a personal and team perspective. The Crimson have their top five scoring forwards returning including Tyler Moy, a sixth-round selection by the Predators in this past June’s draft.
Vesey is a strong playmaker who reads the play well and can score timely goals. He is not overly punishing but his size makes him difficult to defend and is an asset in taking away passing and shooting lanes in his own end.
Freshman to Watch
Thomas Novak, C, University of Minnesota (Big 10)
Novak and linemate Brock Boeser, also a former Minnesota high school player, formed one of the USHL‘s most potent scoring tandems while skating for the Waterloo Black Hawks last year and both made the jump to the college ranks for the 2015-16 season. While Boeser will play for the University of North Dakota, Novak, a River Falls, Wisconsin native, will play much closer to home with the Gophers.
Minnesota has been one of the dominant teams in college hockey historically and Novak will have his work cut out for him in trying to crack the lineup. His scoring skills and hockey instincts compare favorably to most young forward prospects but it is his ability to consistently compete in all areas of the game — including the smaller, tighter spaces — that will determine how quickly Novak becomes a force for the Gophers.
Zach Stepan, C, Minnesota State University-Mankato (WCHA)
Considering the nagging injuries and illness that hampered Stepan during the 2014-15 season, and the success that the Mavericks had as a team, it is difficult to say that Stepan had a tough season — except when compared to the big offensive numbers he put up two years ago as a freshman.
Playing mostly second and third line minutes for Minnesota State when healthy last year, he scored three goals with nine assists and was +6 in 34 games, well short of the 21-point campaign he enjoyed in his first season in Mankato.
Like Novak, Stepan put up big numbers in junior hockey while playing for Waterloo and though he is more of a two-way forward than a pure scorer the expectations are there that he can provide points on a more consistent basis.
With a deep group of elite forwards coming up through the pipeline Stepan faces steep odds of securing a contract with Nashville. His skill set, however, suggests he can be a strong, reliable center that can play in any situation.
Top European Prospect
Janne Juvonen, G, Pelicans Lahti (Liiga)
The Predators have been stocking up on prospects from Sweden, Finland, and Russia in recent years but – with the exception of six players – most of those players are now playing in North America. Of those six players only one, 24-year-old forward Patrick Cehlin, is signed to a contract with Nashville. After spending parts of three seasons with the Admirals he is back in Sweden trying to get his career back on track after a series of injuries.
Of the five players looking to earn an entry-level contract the one closest to earning an NHL deal may be Juvonen — though that opportunity could come with another club. The final player selected by Nashville when he was taken in the seventh round in the same 2013 draft in which the Predators selected Saros, the 21-year-old appeared in a career-high 46 games for Pelicans last season.
Despite a heavy workload, Juvonen battled through the season. He started two games this year before suffering an injury that is expected to keep him out for a month. One-time JyP goalie Sami Rajaniemi is playing in his absence but Juvonen is expected to reclaim the starter’s role once he is healthy.
Juvonen is not as highly-acclaimed as Saros but he is a sound goalie who has the prototypical size that Saros does not. Like the former HPK netminder, he has been productive playing on a team that has been overmatched at times.
Saku Maenalanen, RW, Karpat Oulu (Liiga)
One of the heroes for Finland’s U20 team when it won a world championship two years ago Maenalanen has had to be patient trying to crack the lineup for two-time defending Liiga champion Karpat. After seeing limited time down the stretch and in the playoffs last spring, the 21-year-old appears to be coming into his own and flourishing in a larger role this year.
Selected by Nashville in the fifth round of the 2013 draft, Maenalanen is one of several forwards in the Predators’ system who may get caught up in the numbers game. Despite the prototypical size of a power forward, he is not an abrasive player, relying more on his technical skills and scoring instincts. His style may be more suited to playing in Europe but if Maenalanen continues to produce the way he has early in the 2015-16 season, he is likely to get a second look — either from the Predators or from another club.
Unsigned for 2016-17
Emil Pettersson, C, MODO (SHL)
Pettersson, like Maenalanen and Juvonen, is one of the six players taken by the Predators in the final three rounds of the 2013 NHL Draft – none of whom have signed entry-level contracts as of yet (Teemu Kivihalme and Wade Murphy are still playing college hockey). Unlike the others, some Nashville fans are familiar with Pettersson following his impressive performance during this past summer’s prospect camp. The 21-year-old was especially impressive during the 3-on-3 sessions, where his technical skills and skating ability stood out.
Impressing against younger players in a summer setting and having that same type of production at the pro level are two different things. Now in his first season in Sweden’s SHL after leading second-division club Timra IK in scoring last year, Pettersson faces a tough time in cracking a veteran lineup that includes former NHLers like Bobby Butler, Byron Ritchie and Kyle Wilson. His play this season will determine if he receives an entry level deal.
Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter at: @Piscottas_Way