Nashville Predators possess loads of skill at CHL level

By Connor Jennings
Photo: Having topped 100 points as a defenseman, Ryan Ellis nothing left to prove at the CHL level. He is expected to take his game to the AHL next season. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

The Nashville Predators have a large contingent of quality junior prospects headlined by Taylor Beck and Ryan Ellis. Of the eight prospects playing in the junior ranks, six have been selected in the first three rounds of the draft and five produced at around a point-per-game clip.

QMJHL

Charles-Olivier Roussel, D, Montreal Juniors
Acquired: 2nd round, 42nd overall, 2009


Roussel had a disappointing season this past year, struggling to transition to the Juniors’ style of play. He played in 59 games, scoring only five goals, with 25 assists, both totals his lowest since his first year in the QMJHL. That said, he put up good plus/minus numbers, posting a plus-17, which is a vast improvement over the minus-two he posted in the previous season. That number comes with a grain of salt though, since four other defenders on his team posted a better plus/minus.

His game during the playoffs was less than inspiring. In ten games, Roussel scored one goal, and added in three assists.

A down year is not the end of the world for the highly thought of prospect. He is still very young and talented, and as a result will have ample chances to prove this season was nothing more than an aberration. He has decent size for an offensive minded defenseman, but he’s going to have to make adjustments faster, and show his offensive skill, if he’s going to stand out as a defender in a deep Nashville system. Roussel has an entry-level deal, and has exhausted his four QMJHL seasons, so he should see time in Milwaukee next season.


OHL

Taylor Beck, LW, Guleph Storm
Acquired: 3rd round, 70th overall, 2009

Beck continued to impress this season, leading his team in goals and points, with 42 and 95 respectively. The season was good for seventh in the OHL scoring race, where Beck ended up sandwiched between two fellow Nashville prospects, fourth place Ryan Ellis, and ninth place (and teammate) Michael Latta. Not a bad season for someone who is just turned 20.

Beck also played well in the playoffs, participating in six games, scoring three goals and eight points. He earned a short trip to Milwaukee at the end of the season, where he played in four games, getting one assist. He also played in eight playoff games for the Admirals, scoring two goals in limited action.

The young power forward is big, and can score. He has also shown solid playmaking ability. At this point, Beck appears to be the complete package, and has impressed everywhere he has played, be it the juniors or training camp. It seems like only a matter of time before Beck puts on a Predator uniform. He has also played his four years in juniors, and even spent a short time in Milwaukee, so he will almost certainly be with the Admirals next season. That is unless he is playing for the Predators.


Austin Watson, RW, Peterborough Petes
Acquired: 1st round, 18th overall, 2010

Coming off an injury shortened season, Watson had a good year, scoring exactly a point per game, with 34 goals and 34 assists in 68 games. That put him in a tie for first on his team in goals, and second in points, one point behind leader Matt Puempel. The numbers are even better than they seem at first glance because the Petes were an extremely bad team. They finished second to last in points, and third from the bottom in both goals scored and goals against, the result of which is a plus/minus of around minus-30 for most full time players on the time. The quality of play for the Petes this year is a testament to those who put up quality seasons playing for them. He also performed well on special teams, netting 14 powerplay goals and two shorthanded goals.

The very young Watson is a Nashville type player. He plays hard, and on both ends of the ice. However, he is a bit more skilled than some that have come through the Nashville pipeline in the past. Though, he has had limited playing time with a high quality cast surrounding him. He has performed well, but it will be interesting to see how he performs with a better supporting cast, albeit in the tougher AHL.

Watson also got a taste of AHL action this season, playing in five regular season and three playoff games. He was held pointless in those games. He should also be in Milwaukee next season, since he has accumulated four years of playing time in the OHL.

Ryan Ellis, D, Windsor Spitfires
Acquired: 1st round, 11th overall, 2009

Every once in a while, one has to check to make sure Ellis is still playing defense, since his numbers scream forward. He had an outstanding season, scoring 24 goals and 101 points, tying him with Russian phenom Nail Yakupov for fourth in the league scoring race. Ellis blew every other defender out of the water in the points race, with the next highest finished being Ryan Murphy in 24th, with 79 points. Ellis also blew away his own team in terms of points, finishing 24 points ahead of second place, and 60 points ahead of the next highest defenseman. And he did it all in only 58 games, for an astounding 1.74 points per game.

So, clearly he can score, but can he defend at all? Well, in short, yes. He finished with far and away the best plus/minus on the team, with other defenseman struggling to break even Ellis was at plus-24. He also did well on special teams, with ten of his goals coming on the powerplay, and another two coming shorthanded. Ellis has all the skills an NHL player could ever need, but the knock on him is the same as ever: size. He’s bulked up a little more than previous seasons at 179 pounds, but he’s generously listed at 5′ 10.

Ellis scored over a point per game in the playoffs as well, with six goals and 13 assists in 19 games. However, unlike other players he did not get a taste of Milwaukee at the end of his season. Despite not getting a cup of coffee there, Ellis should play for the Admirals next year as well, since this was his fourth OHL season. He may be small, but nobody has been able to hold Ellis and his brilliant offensive ability off the board yet, we’ll see if that changes as he moves up a few levels.


Michael Latta, C, Guleph Storm
Acquired: 3rd round, 72nd overall, 2009

The third Predator prospect in the OHL top ten scoring list, Latta has continued his march among the OHL scoring elite. He scored 34 goals this season, with 55 assists in 68 games, good for ninth in the league and second on his team (the first being fellow Preds prospect Taylor Beck). Latta also performed fairly well on special teams. He scored 11 powerplay goals, but also chipped in three shorthanded goals to lead the team in that category. He also continued to show a good level of toughness, leading the team in penalty minutes with 158. Latta also performed well in the playoffs for the Storm, scoring five goals and five assists in six games.

Latta’s work ethic and drive are nothing short of spectacular. It is difficult though to tell whether he will be able to maintain this level of play as he progresses. Regardless, he will most likely find a way to be a very useful player in some regard.

Like a few other Nashville prospects, and like he did last year, Latta got a brief taste of AHL action with Milwaukee towards the end of the year. He spent four games during the regular season with the Admirals, tallying an assist. He also spent seven playoff games with the team without scoring a point. Latta is another player who has exhausted his OHL eligibility, and will play with Milwaukee next season.


WHL

Taylor Aronson, D, Portland Winterhawks
Acquired: 3rd round, 78th overall, 2010

Aronson may not be the most offensively talented player, but he is an absolute rock defensively. He played in 71 games this season, posting five goals and 32 assists while being a plus-36 on the season. He was the third highest scoring defender on his team, and led the team in plus/minus, with nobody else breaking the plus-30 barrier. He also played in 19 playoff games, but was less than stellar, posting only two assists and failing to record a goal.

Aronson is still very young, as it was just his second WHL season, but he has performed admirably thus far. However, he remains far from a finished product. He has the tools to be a solid blueliner, but he has yet to put it all together over the course of a season. He shows flashes, but needs a little seasoning if he is to become a complete player.
The young defender was only drafted last season, and didn’t start in juniors until he was 17, so there is still considerable room for improvement. As a result, Aronson will return to the WHL next season.


Taylor Stefishen, LW, Prince George Cougars
Acquired: 5th round, 136th overall, 2008

The seemingly well traveled Stefishen spent his first season in the WHL this season, after things didn’t work out as planned at Ohio State. However, he impressed in his debut season, scoring 24 goals and 67 points, good for second on his team. His season also places him 50th in the league in total scoring, and second among rookies. It should also be taken into consideration that Stefishen did not have the best team around him, as the Cougars struggled to make the playoffs this season. However in the playoffs, Stefished performed well, scoring two goals and two assists as the Cougars exited after four games.
Stefishen has re-shown some of the talent that made him a third round pick in 2008, though his seasons at Ohio State cannot be discounted. He has offensive talent, but showed none of that while at Ohio State. At this point, one has to question Stefishen’s commitment to defensive play. Ohio State asks for everyone to play defensively, and he obviously struggled doing that. The Predators would also ask him to make a similar commitment to defense, something he may not be able or willing to do.

Due to the two years he spent at Ohio State, this was Stefishen’s first season in the WHL. Being that he will be 21 next year, he could either play as an overage player in the WHL or join the Predators, possibly on an AHL contract.


USHL

Nick Oliver, C, Fargo Force
Acquired: 4th round, 110th overall, 2009

Oliver had another poor year in the USHL. He played in 56 games, scoring seven goals with ten assists. He was the seventh ranked forward on his team in scoring, and needs to show a whole lot more if he is ever to make it in professional hockey.

Oliver is very big, and a hard hitter, but he needs to show a little talent to go with his physical play. He is one of the older USHL players and should be among the top performers, but still has yet to show much talent.

He should head to St. Cloud State this upcoming season, unless he has his scholarship deferred again. He is going to have to perform in college, and perform immediately if he is going to resurrect his prospect status.