Nashville Predators junior prospects continue the talent influx

By Tony Piscotta
Anthony Richard - Nashville Predators

Photo: Nashville Predators prospect Anthony Richard had 91 points in his draft season and now forms part of a formidable offensive attack for the Val d’Or Foreurs (courtesy of Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

 
The bulk of the Nashville Predators prospect pool is now skating at the pro level — either with the Predators, the AHL affiliate Milwaukee Admirals, or in Europe. The club has seven players currently skating at the junior level — including Gatineau Olympiques teammates Yakov Trenin and defenseman Alexandre Carrier.

Of the seven, four of them — including Trenin and Carrier — are already signed to entry-level contracts with the Predators. Kelowna Rockets left wing Justin Kirkland and Edmonton Oil Kings defenseman Aaron Irving were both selected in the 2014 NHL Draft, have yet to be signed by Nashville and would re-enter the 2016 NHL Draft if not signed before then.

Goalie Evan Smith is an 18-year-old currently playing for the USHL’s Sioux City Musketeers and is the other unsigned prospect. He was a seventh-round pick this past June and does not have to be signed until 2017.

QMJHL

Alexandre Carrier, D, Gatineau Olympiques
Acquired: 4th round (115th overall), 2015

Carrier was the only defensemen selected by Nashville in the 2015 NHL Draft; when the Predators used four of their seven picks on centers and picked two goalies. The native of Quebec City has built on a strong summer which included participating in camp with Nashville and the Canada U20 team and has been one of the top offensive defensemen in the QMJHL. He was selected as a captain for the QMJHL team that faced Russia in the Canada Russia Series and has a chance to play for Canada in the 2016 World Juniors in Finland.

Undersized for a prototypical NHL defenseman, he uses his speed, stick-handling and passing/shooting skills, and anticipatory instincts to create chances. His lack of bulk could be a challenge at the next level but he is in an organization that values mobile, puck-moving defenders.

In his first 19 games this season, Carrier has three goals with 14 assists and has 14 penalty minutes. He is the leading scorer among defensemen for Gatineau on a team that is currently third in the West Division behind league-leading Rouyn-Noranda and Val d’Or.

Anthony Richard, C, Val d’Or Foreurs
Acquired: 4th round (110th overall), 2015

Of the four Nashville centers taken in that 2015 draft, Richard may have the most offensive upside. After leading the Foreurs with 91 points in 2014-15, Richard is again one of the league’s scoring leaders in his third full season with Val d’Or. (He made his QMJHL debut as a 15-year-old in 2012-13, skating in 42 games and scoring eight points.)

Like Carrier, Richard’s lack of stature is considered an obstacle but few players have been as productive or dangerous in the offensive zone. In addition to his playmaking skills, Richard has cut down on his penalty minutes to start the 2015-16 season and is also playing a strong two-way game as the Foreurs appear poised to make a deep playoff run this season.

A native of Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, Richard also skated for the QMJHL All-Stars in the Super Series against Russia. He is currently the Foreurs’ second-leading scorer behind overage right wing Anthony Beauregard with 16 goals and 19 assists in 23 games and is +10 with 22 penalty minutes.

Yakov Trenin, C, Gatineau Olympiques
Acquired: 2nd round (55th overall)

Trenin opened eyes with his play for the Predators in camp and in the preseason rookie tournament before being returned to Gatineau for his second QMJHL season. The first player taken by the Predators – who did not have a first-round pick – in the 2015 draft, the Chelyabinsk, Russia native has gotten off to a slow start for the Olympiques. Overshadowed by 17-year-old rookie Vitalii Abramov (2016) and 20-year-old Yan-Pavel Laplante — Gatineau’s top two scorers — Trenin will skate for Russia during the Canada Russia Series, facing Gatineau teammate Carrier and Richard.

Trenin’s technical skills and patience with the puck suggest he will be a strong playmaking center at the pro level. To fulfill that potential he must continue developing the bulk and strength to compete in smaller areas and withstand physical play.

In 20 games with the Olympiques to start the season he has scored six goals with seven assists and is -7 with 16 penalty minutes.  A natural winger who made the move to center last season, as with many offensively-inclined teenagers his positional play in his own end is still evolving.

WHL

Jack Dougherty, D, Portland Winterhawks
Acquired: 2nd round (51st overall), 2014

Dougherty — after playing for the University of Wisconsin as a freshman last season — signed an entry-level contract with the Predators over the summer and is in his first WHL season as a 19-year-old. A skating defenseman with the size and technical skills to be effective in both ends of the ice, he has been skating on Portland’s top pairing with fellow Minnesotan Blake Heinrich since returning from an injury.

Dougherty had three assists and was +2 in a 6-2 win over Tri-City on November 11th in his first game back after missing 10 days. He is not an overly punishing player despite his size but has the two-way game that fits in well with the way the Predators like to play.

In his first 18 games with the Winterhawks he has 3 goals with 9 assists and is +3 with 22 penalty minutes. With several new faces in the lineup, Portland struggled to start the year but is now in the thick of the U.S. Division race. Portland has reached the Western Conference the past five seasons and Dougherty is expected to be a big part of things this year.

Aaron Irving, D, Edmonton Oil Kings
Acquired: 6th round (162nd overall), 2014

Like Portland in the Western Conference, the Oil Kings have been one of the top teams in the East and the two actually met in the 2013-14 WHL Finals. Irving was selected by Nashville following that season after skating for Edmonton in the Memorial Cup.

Viewed as a player who plays with a great deal of passion and whose overall production exceeds his skill set when he was drafted, Irving is now in his third WHL season. A native of Edmonton, he has not matched the offensive numbers he put up as a 17-year-old and is more of a two-way defender who is focused on his own end of the ice. Irving also brings a physical component to his game with the size and strength to play that style effectively.

In his first 25 games with the Oil Kings this season he scored two goals with seven assists and had an even plus-minus. Irving’s 29 penalty minutes are the fourth-most on the team.

Justin Kirkland, LW, Kelowna Rockets
Acquired: 3rd round (62nd overall), 2014

Coming off of last year’s run to the Memorial Cup finals the Rockets are once again loaded with top-line forward talent including top scorers Tyson Baillie and Nick Merkley (ARI) as well as 2016 draft-eligible Dillon Dube. With the depth in Kelowna, Kirkland finds himself playing a third-line role for the Rockets but has excelled in that role.

Kirkland has scored eight goals in his first 23 games despite frequently skating against the top scoring lines for the opposition. Kirkland’s stick-handling skills and quick shot have also made him a shootout option for Rockets’ head coach Brad Ralph. Likely to require time at the minor pro level once his WHL career is finished, the 19-year-old from Camrose, Alberta possesses many of the supplementary elements to his game that should complement the high-flying skills of the other forwards in the Nashville pipeline.

In addition to his eight goals Kirkland has ten assists and is +2 with 20 penalty minutes to start the 2015-16 season as the Rockets battle surprising Victoria for the top spot in the B.C. Division.

USHL

Evan Smith, G, Sioux City Musketeers
Acquired: 7th round (205th overall), 2015

Smith was in camp with the WHL’s Victoria Royals and is signed with the club but with 20-year-old Coleman Vollrath expected to handle the bulk of the goaltending and promising 17-year-old Griffen Outhouse also with the club Smith was loaned to the USHL’s Musketeers.

A raw but physically imposing goalie, Smith bears some physical resemblance to current Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne, particularly when he is down on the ice in his butterfly crouch. The Colorado native has played well in limited action behind 20-year-old Harvard recruit Cameron Gornet. As with most 17-year-old goaltenders, Smith’s long-term potential is far from certain but his stature and athleticism suggest some potential.

In four games with Sioux City to this point he is 3-1 with a 2.81 goals against and .903 save percentage. Smith stopped 36 of 37 shots — including 17 first period saves — in a 2-1 win at Fargo on October 31st.

Nashville Predators Top Performing Non-Junior Prospects

With the bulk of last year’s team returning and veteran free agents Cody Hodgson and defenseman Barret Jackman signed over summer, opportunities have been limited for younger prospects with the parent club. Of the five rookies who have skated for Nashville this season, 2010 first-round pick Austin Watson has the made the most of his opportunity. While seeing mostly fourth-line duty, he has two goals and three assists in 17 games. A scorer for the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals in his three seasons with the club, the 23-year-old has not looked out of place and has gradually earned more ice time.

Viktor Arvidsson opened the year with the Predators — scoring a goal in four games before being assigned to Milwaukee — while Colton Sissons and Miikka Salomaki started the year with the Admirals before being recalled. Arvidsson has scored at a point-per-game pace since returning to Milwaukee.

Arguably the most heralded addition to the Admirals this season 20-year-old Finnish goaltender Juuse Saros, has been as good as advertised early in the year, going 6-2 in his first eight starts with a 2.25 goals against and .923 save percentage. Other standouts in Milwaukee have been defensemen Trevor Murphy and Taylor Aronson as well as 19-year-old Russian center Vladislav Kamenev. Kamenev is making the move from wing to center this year and was the club’s leading scorer, now sharing the lead with Arvidsson since the Swedish forward’s return.

With most of the Nashville prospects from Sweden and Finland now playing in Milwaukee or with the Predators there are only a handful of prospects still in Europe. Of those the two most promising to start the season this year have been right wing Saku Maenalanen and goalie Karel Vejmelka. Now 21, Maenalanen is seeing regular ice time with the two-time defending Liiga champions Karpat Oulu for the first time in his pro career and had eight points in his first 23 games. Vejmelka, selected in the fifth-round this past June in his second year of draft eligibility, has played well for SK Horacka Slavia Trebic in the Czech Extraliga second division as a 19-year-old and could play for the Czech Republic at the 2015 World Juniors.

At the NCAA level, top prospect Jimmy Vesey played just one game in October as the Ivy League teams start later than most but it was a memorable opener. The senior scored one goal with three assists in a 5-2 win over Dartmouth (teammate Tyler Moy, another Predators’ draft pick, scored one goal for the Crimson). Vesey is considered one of the candidates for the Hobey Baker Award and in six games this season he’s scored five goals with six assists.

Minnesota State junior Zach Stepan, while not as offensively dominant as Vesey, has been a consistent two-way player for the Mavericks. After being swept in consecutive non-conference series against NCHC opponents Nebraska-Omaha and St. Cloud State to open the year. Minnesota State won five of six WCHA games to start their league season and split a home-and-home series with the University of Minnesota. Gophers’ freshman Tommy Novak, another Predators’ prospect, played in both of those games and has played in nine games. Novak scored one goal with an assist in an October 23rd game against Northeastern for two of his three points.

Nashville Predators Prospect of the Month

Nashville PredatorsThe big offensive numbers for Richard of Val d’Or and Gatineau’s Carrier have been impressive, as has the start for Saros in goal with Milwaukee and Arvidsson’s scoring spree since returning to the Admirals. While Kamenev was expected to contribute to the Milwaukee attack, one player who has been a big surprise has been Trevor Murphy.

Never drafted, the 20-year-old Windsor native was invited to camp as a free agent and earned an entry-level contract. Eligible to return to the Windsor Spitfires for an overage season, the free wheeling defenseman has fit right in in Milwaukee and as a result is our Prospect of the Month. In addition to being a point-per-game scorer for the Spitfires last year Murphy also had 104 penalty minutes despite his lack of prototypical NHL size. Scratched at times early in the season, he scored four goals with four assists in his first eight games and is a team best +6 with just six penalty minutes.

In terms of defensemen, the Predators’ pipeline is fairly well-stocked and the club has been patient with its prospects so Murphy may have to bide his time. But his skill set suggests he can be a valuable part of the future if the opportunity presents itself.

Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @Piscottas_Way