The Nashville Predators have not been as dominant this season as they were to start the 2014-15 season — due in part to injury — but the team is once again in the thick of what is a very competitive Central Division race.
One encouraging sign is the success of the club’s two minor league affiliates. Both the AHL‘s Milwaukee Admirals and the Cincinnati Cyclones in the ECHL have had to shuffle their lineups at times but no matter who is in the lineup those players seem to be contributing.
Battling with Rockford (Chicago) and Lake Erie (Columbus) for the top spot in the AHL’s Central Division, Milwaukee had a 10-game winning streak after getting off to a slow start. The Admirals have remained consistent despite the fact that players like Viktor Arvidsson, Colton Sissons, Miikka Salomaki, and defenseman Anthony Bitetto have spent significant time in the NHL with Nashville.
Goalie Juuse Saros, in his first season in North America, was 10-3-0 in his first 13 games. He too made a cameo appearance with the Predators, starting one game at the end of November before being returned to the Admirals after Carter Hutton returned from a minor injury
One-time Calgary Flames prospect Max Reinhart has been a nice addition and is pushing for a call-up with strong two-way play. He is the Admirals’ third-leading scorer in his first season in the Nashville system. Frederick Gaudreau, a second-year pro who is signed to an AHL contract, is the team’s leading scorer while undrafted free agent Trevor Murphy has been another big surprise.
Like the Admirals, Cincinnati is much-improved — trailing only Quad City in the Midwest Division after missing the playoffs last season. 2009 2nd-rounder Zach Budish and non-NHL signees Matt White, Eric Robinson and Joseph Podenza have spent time in the AHL and have contributed when called upon.
Juuse Saros, G, 20
Saros has lived up to expectations after spending two seasons in Finland’s Liiga. Concerns about his size and mixed results during the preseason led to some skepticism but he has quelled much of that with his play.
In his only NHL start he allowed three goals (two of which came on the power play) on 23 shots in a 4-1 loss to Buffalo. His play with the Admirals has been impressive. After allowing five goals in his first start of the season against the Chicago Wolves, he did not allow more than three goals in any of his next 12 starts, going 10-2 during that stretch. For the season he has a goals against of 2.43 with a .919 save percentage and one shutout.
With Pekka Rinne playing at a high level and backup Hutton a reliable fill-in when needed, there is no need to rush Saros’s development. His play thus far suggests he is on track.
Viktor Arvidsson, 22
Arvidsson was recalled by the Predators on November 28th with the team struggling to score goals and has been a welcome addition. The diminutive forward from Sweden had opened the year with Nashville — scoring a goal in his first game of the year and playing three more games — before being returned to Milwaukee.
The Admirals’ leading scorer in 2014-15, Arvidsson had seven goals and 17 points in 14 games for Milwaukee, earning a ticket back to Music City.
With Gabriel Bourque injured and Colin Wilson struggling to score at the same pace he did a year ago, Arvidsson could find a more permanent role if he can continue to contribute.
Colton Sissons, C, 22
Sissons has shuffled between Nashville and Milwaukee in his third pro season and is seeing an expanded role recently with veteran center Mike Fisher out with a lower body injury.
A sniper during his junior career and in his first two seasons with the Admirals, Sissons has scored three goals with five assists in 12 AHL games. He has been a valuable lower line two-way forward skating for the Predators and made a case to stick full-time.
Sissons scored his only goal with Nashville thus far in his first game with the team — a wild 7-5 win against Ottawa in which he finished +4. He also has an assist and is +7 with five penalty minutes in 14 NHL games.
Kevin Fiala, LW, 19
Fiala has had a challenging start in his first full season with the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals. Clearly one of the more skilled forwards in the Nashville organization, Fiala scored 11 goals in 33 games with the Admirals after joining the team mid-season last year and was hoping to make the Predators out of training camp.
Instead he has spent the first half of the year in Milwaukee and has had the struggles not uncommon for a teenager playing in the AHL. Despite his less than impressive numbers — two goals and seven assists in 21 games and a -9 plus-minus — Fiala is a big part of the future for Nashville.
Expected to join Switzerland for the 2016 World Junior Championship, Fiala was not released by the Predators and will continue to hone his game with the Admirals. There is some speculation that a call-up could be coming but it is equally likely that the Nashville personnel people want the young forward to work through his issues and become consistent in all facets of the game.
Selected in the second round in that same 2014 NHL Draft, Kamenev is also in his first season in North America with Milwaukee after skating in the KHL for Metallurg Manitogorsk in 2014-15.
Making the adjustment from playing wing to the center position, Kamenev has struggled at times with his defensive play but is among the Admirals’ leading scorers.
A big player with the size that Fiala lacks, Kamenev is able to dictate the play at times with his size and skating ability. The leading scorer for the Admirals before Arvidsson arrived from Nashville, Kamenev has had ups and downs but should benefit from the experience and ice time he is gaining in Milwaukee.
Max Reinhart, 23
Reinhart played 23 NHL games in his three years with the Calgary organization before signing a one-year extension with Nashville over the summer. After playing just four NHL games with the Flames last year, Reinhart is making the most of his fresh start with Nashville and could earn an NHL call-up if there is an opportunity.
In 25 games for the Admirals he is a career-best +8 and his seven goals and seven assists have him on pace to match the career-high 62 points he had for Abbotsford in 2013-14.
Not likely to match the point-per-game scoring numbers he put up in his final two seasons of junior hockey with Kootenay, Reinhart provides depth should injuries arise.
Felix Girard, 21
Girard is a solid, reliable lower line center for the Admirals and continues to improve in his second pro season.
Known for his combination of toughness and scoring while with Baie-Comeau in junior hockey, he has been more focused on the defensive side of the game as a professional. He has played a disciplined game — reducing his penalty minutes significantly — and has chipped in offensively with two goals and five assists in 25 games.
Girard plays a solid game that doesn’t draw a lot of acclaim but his willingness to do the dirty jobs that some players prefer not to do could earn him an NHL opportunity.
Miikka Salomaki, 22
Salomaki began the year with Milwaukee, spending four games with the Admirals, before being recalled by Nashville. A healthy scratch in five games for the Predators, he also missed four games with an undisclosed injury.
When he has had an opportunity to play, the third-year pro from Finland has been a solid lower line forward who has played both wing and center.
A 20-goal scorer for Milwaukee as a rookie in 2013-14, Salomaki was limited due to injuries last year. He is at his best on the forecheck and the transition, using his size, skating ability and stick handling skills to make things uncomfortable for opponents.
Pontus Aberg, 22
Aberg is another skilled offensive forward from Sweden and is among the Admirals’ team leaders with seven goals in his first 25 games. He is now in his second year with Milwaukee and like Fiala must continue to develop in the supplementary areas of his game to reach his full potential.
A second round pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, his skating and technical stick skills are on par with most of the players in the Nashville system. It is hoped that if he can develop his two-way game Aberg will fit in well with what the Predators are trying to accomplish at the NHL level.
Max Gortz, 22
Another skill forward from Sweden, Gortz is bigger and thicker than some of the other players in the system and is willing to go into tight areas to make plays.
In his first AHL season after skating for Frolunda in the SHL last year, Gortz has steadily gained more ice time with the Admirals. He appeared in one ECHL game with Cincinnati and in 21 games for Milwaukee he has scored three goals with six assists.
Not an overly combative player despite his size, Gortz provides value to the organization in that he can play in a variety of situations.
Trevor Murphy, 20
The emergence of Murphy has been one of the big stories for the Nashville organization over the first half of the season.
Never drafted despite an impressive junior career that saw him display speed and skill with an abrasive edge to his game, he earned an entry-level contract with the Predators in training camp.
With Anthony Bitetto with the Predators for the first part of the year, Murphy and Taylor Aronson were the top offensive defensemen for the Admirals to start the year. Despite his lack of stature, Murphy has not backed down from confrontations and is solid in his own end.
The addition of NHL veteran Barret Jackman and recent waiver claim Petter Granberg to an already deep blue line in Nashville has made it difficult to crack the NHL lineup but Murphy’s play to this point nonetheless suggests he may have an NHL future.
Taylor Aronson, 24
Aronson, now in his fifth season of pro hockey, has steadily developed his defensive game to go with his skating ability and attacking instincts.
A third-round pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, he has played in over 260 minor league games in the Nashville organization but has yet to play an NHL game.
Aronson’s progress has taken time but he could be an option for a team in need of some offense from the blueline.
Johan Alm, 23
Alm is in his second season with the Admirals after winning a championship with Skelleftea in Sweden in 2013-14. He has shown progress despite once again battling injury.
Limited to 44 games with Milwaukee a year ago, he has skated in 15 games this season and is -1 with two assists and six penalty minutes.
With the prototypical size of a shutdown defender, Alm’s mobility and skill set suggest he can play at the NHL level one day.
Petter Granberg, 23
A teammate of Alm’s with Skelleftea before coming to North America in 2013-14, Granberg spent two-plus seasons in the Toronto organization — appearing in eight NHL games — before being claimed on waivers by the Predators in November.
Granberg did not appear in any games with the Maple Leafs this season due to an achilles injury. He made his season debut on a conditioning assignment with Milwaukee on December 12th.
As is the case with Alm, the strength of Granberg’s game is his defensive play; with little offensive upside to his play. His mobility for a big man fits in well with the Nashville organization’s philosophy.
Kristian Nakyva, 24
A native of Finland, Nakyva was signed to a one-year entry-level contract as a free agent after scoring 10 goals with 29 points in 55 games for Lulea in the SHL last year. He is slowly adjusting to the physical nature of the game at the AHL level.
With a logjam at the position in Milwaukee, he has struggled to find consistent ice time and will have to have a big second half if he is to remain in the Nashville organization.
Conor Allen, 25
Allen was signed as a free agent over the summer after appearing in four games with the New York Rangers last season. Now in his third season of pro hockey, the former Massachusetts-Amherst defenseman provides toughness and some puck moving skills for the Admirals but his upside appears limited.
Barring injury it is likely Allen spends the rest of the season in Milwaukee. Like some of the veteran forwards with the Admirals he should be able to handle spot duty if a need arises.
Marek Mazanec, 24
Mazanec has shared the goaltending duties with Saros in Milwaukee in his third season in North America. The two have formed a solid tandem and have benefited from the balanced offensive attack of the Admirals.
In 12 games the Czech netminder is 6-5-1 and has a 2.70 goals against and .907 save percentage. Like Saros he must bide in time in an organization with an elite goaltender like Rinne. The progress Mazanec has made during his minor league career suggests he is getting closer to being NHL ready — though whether that role will be as a starter is uncertain.
Cincinnati Cyclones (ECHL)
Diaby has appeared in two AHL games with Milwaukee, recording 17 penalty minutes and posting a -1 plus/minus.
A third round pick in 2013, he was viewed as an ideal stay-at-home defensemen with the size and strength to complement Nashville’s highly-skilled defensemen. Now in his second pro season, he has spent most of the year with Cincinnati where he can get more ice time in all situations. Diaby has yet to contribute offensively the way he did in junior hockey, recording one assist in 15 games. He figured to be a long-term project when he was drafted and that has been the case.
Garrett Noonan, 24
Noonan, has spent the bulk of the season with Cincinnati but appeared in five AHL games with Milwaukee.
The former Boston University defenseman is in his second pro season after playing 40 games with Milwaukee in 2014-15. With Jackman, Allen, and Nakyva added in the off-season, Noonan has slid lower on the Predators’ depth chart.
Skating for the Cyclones, he is second to rookie Steve Weinstein in scoring amongst defensemen with three goals and seven assists in 17 games.
Nashville Predators Prospect of the Month
Several Nashville prospects enjoyed big months in November but none of those players were impressive as Viktor Arvidsson, who was a key factor in Milwaukee’s turnaround after his demotion from the Predators.
In a month when the Admirals began their 10-game win streak it was Arvidsson in the middle of things. Recording a point in 10 of 11 games played in November, he scored six goals with eight assists and was +5; earning a re-call to the Predators. After re-joining Nashville on November 28th, he had goals in back-to-back games and has been a solid presence in the Predators’ lineup.
Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @Piscottas_Way