Nashville Predators professional prospects are the heart of a stocked system

By Tony Piscotta
Kristian Nakyva - Nashville Predators

Photo: Kristian Nakyva has been top ten in defense scoring in both the SHL and the Liiga but has found offense harder to come by in the AHL thus far (courtesy of Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)

 

 

The Nashville Predators organization has undergone a rapid transition from one that focused on a hard, physical style to a club that employs a high tempo style that relies on speed and a five-man attack to put constant pressure on opponents. The prospect pool of the Predators reflects that philosophy — with several undersized but highly-skilled and fast-skating players coming up through the system.


Last season, the Milwaukee Admirals, Nashville’s AHL affiliate, had one of the league’s youngest rosters with many first and second year professionals – many of whom played in Sweden or Finland prior to coming to North America. Three players from that team – forwards Viktor Arvidsson and Austin Watson and defenseman Anthony Bitetto made the NHL club to start the 2015-16 season. This year’s Admirals team once again is one of the league’s younger squads, though the roster does feature some older AHL veterans not considered NHL prospects at this point in their career.

Left Wing

The Predators have been stocking up on high-end forwards regardless of position. As a result, they have an abundance of left-hand shots now playing either center or on the right wing.

Gifted 19-year-old Kevin Fiala, Nashville’s first-round pick in 2014, has played on the right side early in the season with Milwaukee but can play either wing. Fiala’s offensive ability and technical tools are significant but with the depth in Nashville the Predators’ management can allow him to round out the supplementary areas of his game in the AHL.

While Fiala did not make the opening night roster for Nashville one early season surprise has been the 22-year-old Arvidsson. At 5’9″ and 170 pounds the forward from Sweden was viewed by some as too small for the North American game. After leading the Admirals in scoring last year, Arvidsson impressed in camp and made the Predators to start the year. After sitting out as a healthy scratch in the team’s first three games he scored a goal in his second game.

Watson, a first-round draft pick in 2010, spent all but six games of his first three pro seasons with Milwaukee — scoring one goal during a six-game stint with Nashville in 2012-13. His perseverance was rewarded when he made the Predators’ out of training camp this year. A converted center, he is likely to fill the fourth line role manned by Taylor Beck last year though he also can score, leading Milwaukee with 26 goals last season.

Pontus Aberg, like Arvidsson hails from Sweden and is currently in his second year with the Admirals. Aberg is another creative and quick skating offensive-oriented player who could be a special player if he is able to develop the other areas of his game.

Third-year pro Miikka Salomaki scored a goal in his only NHL game last year with Nashville and is currently back on recall to the Preds. The Admirals’ leading scorer as a rookie in 2013-14, he was hampered by injury last year. Capable of playing all three forward spots, Salomaki’s strong two-way game and the ability to play in all situations make the 22-year-old a solid option for the NHL as opportunity arises.

Nashville’s top prospect at the NCAA level is Harvard University senior Jimmy Vesey. A strong two-way player and a playmaking forward who sees the ice well, Vesey was the ECAC Hockey league’s player of the year last season and is expected to have a big season for the Crimson.

Justin Kirkland is in his third full season with the WHL‘s Kelowna Rockets. Like Vesey he has the prototypical size of an NHL forward and his ability to play in small areas and all-around game could be a nice complement to the other high-fliers in the Nashville system.  

Center

Three of the centermen currently playing in Nashville — Mike Fisher, Mike Ribeiro and Paul Gaustad — are all 33 years old or older so the Predators have begun to address the future. Nashville spent four of its seven draft picks on the center position in 2015 and there are currently ten potential center prospects in the system.

Vladislav Kamenev is in the process of making the transition from playing wing to playing center and early returns have been positive. The 19-year-old Russian played in the KHL for Metallurg Magnitogorsk last season. Like Fiala, he is another player that the Nashville braintrust views as a long-term fixture in the lineup and there is no rush to get him to the NHL. Unlike the diminutive Fiala, Kamenev has the ideal size of a power forward. He can go to the net to score goals but also has significant stickhandling and shooting/passing skills.

Eighteen-year-old Yakov Trenin was the first of the four centers taken in the 2015 NHL Draft. He opened eyes in his first prospect camp with Nashville, earning an entry-level contract and pushing for a roster spot before being returned to Gatineau for his second QMJHL season. A highly-skilled playmaker who had 49 assists with the Olympiques last year, he should push for a spot on Russia’s U20 team for the 2016 World Juniors.

The Predators have three other center prospects in Milwaukee in Colton Sissons, recent acquisition Max Reinhart, and hard-nosed Felix Girard. Sissons appeared in 17 games with Nashville as a 20-year-old two seasons ago and was Milwaukee’s second-leading goal scorer with 25 goals last season. Reinhart spent three seasons in the Calgary organization, appearing in 23 NHL games with the Flames, before being acquired by Nashville in July and re-signing with Nashville as a restricted free agent. Girard, a two-time winner of the QMJHL’s Guy Carbonneau Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward while with Baie-Comeau, is in his second season with the Admirals.

Like Trenin, Anthony Richard skates in the QMJHL and was selected in the 2015 NHL Draft (4th round). He too is a dangerous offensive player. Now in his third season with Val d’Or, Richard is a bit small and light by NHL standards but after finishing with 91 points in 66 regular season games for the Foreurs last season he is off to a fast start in 2015-16, scoring 10 goals in Val d’Or’s first 13 games.

Of the three Nashville center prospects playing college hockey, University of Minnesota freshman Thomas Novak has the most offensive upside. Drafted out of the USHL last June, Novak is a long-term project who should add the strength and size he needs and develop the other areas of his game with the Gophers. Zach Stepan, a junior at Minnesota State-Mankato, plays a strong all-around game and is an opportunistic scorer. Tyler Moy, a teammate of Vesey’s at Harvard, is a California native and was selected in the sixth-round last spring after a big sophomore season for the Crimson.

Emil Pettersson, a sixth round pick in 2013, is one of the few Predators’ prospects still playing in Europe. Yet to sign an entry-level contract, the 21-year-old is seeing limited ice time for MODO in his first full SHL season. Pettersson showed flashes of ability during the most recent prospect camp but is a long-shot at securing a deal with Nashville.

Right Wing

The talent pool is less deep at the right wing position — where diminutive 26-year-old Steve Moses is currently the top prospect in the Nashville system. Signed to a one-year contract as a free agent after leading the KHL in scoring last season, the former University of New Hampshire star spent three seasons with Jokerit (two in Finland’s Liiga before the club joined the KHL in 2014-15). Moses’ combination of speed and skill made him an intriguing acquisition but with the depth of the Predators’ forward group he faces a tough challenge in cracking the Nashville lineup.

Max Gortz, a 22-year-old from Sweden, is the only other right-wing prospect currently with the Admirals. Gortz is a big player who is in the first year of a two-year contract with Nashville after scoring 14 goals for second-place Frolunda in Sweden’s SHL last year.

Saku Maenalanen and Patrick Cehlin are the lone Predators’ winger prospects skating in Europe. Maenalanen, 21, is seeing significant ice time in his first full season with two-time defending champion Karpat Oulu in Finland and could earn an entry-level deal if he continues to play well. Cehlin spent two seasons with the Admirals before returning to Sweden last season. The 24-year-old is playing for Rogle BK but is not expected to return to North America.  

The Predators’ other right wing prospect is Wade Murphy. Murphy struggled to crack the lineup for the powerful University of North Dakota program in two seasons in Grand Forks before transferring to Arizona State. He is sitting out the 2015-16 season due to NCAA rules but will have two seasons of eligibility left with the Sun Devils.

Defense

The Predators have one of the deepest defense corps in the NHL with a nice mix of veterans like Shea Weber, Roman Josi and Barret Jackman and younger players Mattias Ekholm, Seth Jones and Ryan Ellis. The club has a nice mix of puck movers and defenders and veteran Victor Bartley and the rookie Bitetto have struggled to crack the lineup.

That depth in Nashville has left limited opportunities for players to work their way up through the system but the Predators have a large group looking to make the jump one day.

In the long-term, 19-year-old Portland Winterhawks defenseman Jack Dougherty appears to have the most upside in terms of skill, size and skating. His game to this point, however, is very much a work in progress. Dougherty played for the University of Wisconsin last season and is in his first WHL season this year.

Conor Allen and Kristian Nakyva have been the top pairing for Milwaukee to start the season but neither appear to have high end NHL potential.

Allen, 25, is in his third pro season following a college hockey career at Massachusetts-Amherst and played seven games with the New York Rangers over the past two seasons. He is more of a depth defenseman. Nakyva is a skating defenseman whose style fits that of the Predators but his defensive game has sometimes been an issue. He was signed in the off-season after several seasons playing in Finland and Sweden’s top leagues.

The rest of the Admirals’ defense group has a varied skill set. Jonathan-Ismael Diaby is a huge 20-year-old who was used in mostly a punishing, enforcer role in his first season last year. Johan Alm is another defense-first defenseman who was hampered by injuries in his first year in North America. Trevor Murphy, 20, is an undersized skating defenseman who earned an entry-level contract as an undrafted free agent in training camp. Taylor Aronson skated full-time in the AHL for the first time in his pro career last season and had a solid offensive season but his defensive game is limited.

With the additions of Murphy, Nakyva and Allen, former Boston University defenseman Garrett Noonan, who played 40 games for the Admirals in 2014-15, and punishing 22-year-old Jaynen Rissling opened the year in the ECHL with Cincinnati.

In addition to Dougherty, the Predators have two other defensemen currently playing in major junior. Alexandre Carrier, a teammate of Trenin with the Olympiques, was a fourth-round pick in 2015 and opened eyes in camp with his skating and passing before being returned to Gatineau. Aaron Irving is more of a traditional defenseman who was selected in the 2014 draft after winning a Memorial Cup with the Edmonton Oil Kings. He will need an impressive season to earn an entry-level contract or would re-enter the 2016 NHL Draft.

Joonas Lyytinen is a hybrid defenseman who plays for KalPa Kuopio in Finland. Poise and steadiness are the hallmarks of his game as the 20-year-old is now in his third Liiga season.

Finally, Teemu Kivihalme is an underweight defenseman playing for the NCHC’s Colorado College Tigers. He is a good skater who has put on weight coming into his sophomore season and is tied for his team’s lead in scoring.

Goalies

Perennial workhorse Pekka Rinne, 32, is playing at a high level in his eighth season as the Predators’ starter and with 29-year-old Carter Hutton a capable backup the goaltending situation in Nashville is one of the better ones in the league.

Below the NHL level the situation is far from certain in terms of an eventual successor to Rinne but the Predators do have some promising prospects. Juuse Saros and Marek Mazanec figure to share the goaltending for the Admirals.

Saros, 20, was one of the top goalies in Finland’s Liiga the past two seasons as a teenager. Due to his lack of prototypical goalie size, he will be one of the more highly-scrutinized young players in the system and early results have been mixed. Unlike some organizations, Nashville tends to be patient with its goaltending prospects and has been rewarded for that patience.

Less heralded than Saros when he was selected in the sixth round in 2012, Mazanec is an example of that patience. He is now in his third season in North America after playing for Plzen in his native Czech Republic and has made steady progress. Mazanec appeared in 25 NHL games in his rookie season in 2013-14, when both Rinne and Hutton were injured, and has continued to refine his game.

Nashville selected Janne Juvonen in the final round of the 2013 NHL Draft (the same year they selected Saros). He has flown under the radar but could prove to be a diamond in the rough. In his second season with Pelicans Lahti but currently out with an injury, he played in 46 games for the struggling club as a 20-year-old in 2014-15 and was frequently the team’s best player. Juvonen should continue developing under the tutelage of former NHL goalie Pasi Nurminen .

The Predators selected two goaltenders in the latter rounds in the 2015 NHL Draft and both are considered long-range projects at this point. Karel Vejmelka, a 19-year-old from Pardubice in the Czech Republic, was selected in the fifth round in his second year of draft eligibility. He is currently playing for SK Horakca Slavia Trebic in the Czech Extraliga second league. Evan Smith is a lanky 18-year-old from Colorado whose WHL rights are held by Victoria. He was a seventh-round selection after impressing Nashville scouts while playing the NAHL’s Austin Bruins and is currently with the Sioux City Musketeers.

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