Nashville Predators still searching for a breakthrough player in the system

By Tony Piscotta
Juuse Saros - Nashville Predators

Photo: After spending last season as one of the Liiga’s best starters as a 19-year-old, Juuse Saros is performing well as a rookie goaltender in the AHL (courtesy of Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire)

 

 

Coming off of last year’s breakout season the Nashville Predators went into the 2015-16 with their roster largely intact. With much of the lineup from last year intact, and free agents Cody Hodgson and defenseman Barret Jackman added in the offseason, there were few opportunities for rookies to crack the Predators lineup.


The Predators got off to a decent start by winning seven of their first nine games but have not been the same since, at one point being shutout in three straight games in November. Struggling to score goals this season — with several players who had big offensive seasons a year ago struggling — the Predators recently acquired center Ryan Johansen from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for defenseman Seth Jones, the fourth player taken in the 2013 NHL Draft. Jones is expected to be a top-pairing defenseman for years to come but Johansen fills Nashville’s need for a true number one center; something the Predators have lacked perhaps since David Legwand scored 27 goals with 63 points in 2006-07.

The addition of Johansen should bolster the Nashville attack but for the prospect forwards who have seen NHL action this season — Austin Watson, Viktor Arvidsson, Miikka Salomaki, and center Colton Sissons — it might lessen their roles. The Predators’ top prospect, 19-year-old Kevin Fiala, recalled on January 13 and appearing in two games so far, has the weight of being expected to contribute to the offense and perhaps provide a spark that helps the team solidify a playoff spot.

With Jones gone, 2009 first-round pick Ryan Ellis is expected to see more ice time. 25-year-old rookie Anthony Bitetto and recent addition Petter Granberg will also look to fill the sixth defense spot.

Veteran Pekka Rinne has not matched the microscopic 2.13 goals against of a year ago, but continues to get the bulk of the starts. Carter Hutton is a capable backup but the Predators also allowed 20-year-old Finnish phenom Juuse Saros a chance to get his first taste of the NHL. Currently 15-5-0 in 20 games with AHL affiliate Milwaukee in his first season in North America, he was called up at the end of November while Hutton was out with a minor injury; making his only NHL start to date against Buffalo before being returned to the Admirals.

One player who could make his NHL debut before the end of the season is 19-year-old center Vladislav Kamenev. Making the move from his natural winger position to center in his first season in North America with Milwaukee, Kamenev was Russia’s top player at the World Junior Championship. Harvard forward Jimmy Vesey, now in his senior season, is another player who could see time with the Predators once his college season ends.

Viktor Arvidsson, LW, 22

Arvidsson is a small but highly-skilled forward from Sweden who was Milwaukee’s leading scorer in 2014-15. After making the Predators out of training camp, he scored a goal in the first game of the season against Carolina. After sitting out four of the next seven games he was reassigned to the Admirals at the end of October. He scored seven goals with 17 points in 14 games with Milwaukee and was re-called by Nashville at the end of November.

Willing to engage in physical play despite his small stature, he scored goals in back-to-back games against Detroit and Boston following his return. Arvidssson had seen limited ice time recently with the Predators and had just one assist in his last 11 games before being returned to Milwaukee.

Miikka Salomaki, RW, 22

Salomaki, now in his third season in North America, began the year with Milwaukee before being recalled at the end of October. Like Arvidsson and Watson he has been a consistent scorer in the AHL with the Admirals. What separates his game from the others is his versatility. In addition to playing either center or his natural winger position, Salomaki uses his skating ability and positional instincts to be effective in all areas of the ice. His speed and in-your-face play frequently draws penalties from opposing players and makes him effective in penalty kill situations.  The Finland native missed five games with an undisclosed injury at the end of November but has been a solid contributor in a lower line role since returning to the lineup. In 22 games with the Predators he has scored two goals with two assists and is +4 with 12 penalty minutes, averaging 12:20 minutes of ice time.

Colton Sissons, C, 22

Sissons was recalled in November when veteran Paul Gaustad went down with an injury. After appearing in 17 games with the Predators as a 20-year-old in 2014-15, the former Kelowna Rockets star scored 25 goals in each of the last two seasons for Milwaukee. In 19 games with Nashville this year he scored his only goal in his first game — a wild 7-5 win over Ottawa in which he finished +4 — and had an assist in a game with Colorado before returning to Milwaukee.

Long-term Sissons doesn’t figure to be a big-time scorer but his willingness to engage in physical play and compete in all three zones suggest he could be back with Nashville as some of their older players are either moved or retire.

Austin Watson, D, 23

A veteran of 229 AHL games, Watson spent the bulk of the past three seasons with Milwaukee before making the Predators out of training camp this year. The Ann Arbor, Michigan native was a first round pick in the 2010 Draft and was the leading scorer for the USA at the 2012 World Junior Championship two seasons later.  

Watson has the prototypical size of a power forward but does not play a particularly physical style, relying on his size, quick and accurate shot, and stick handling skills to be effective. Dangerous on the power play in the AHL, he has seen more of a support role for Nashville and has not registered a point in 19 games since scoring a goal with two assists in a game against Ottawa on November 10th.

A healthy scratch in six of the last nine games, he is another player who could be returning to Milwaukee with Johansen joining the team.

Anthony Bitetto, D, 25

Bitetto has been with the Predators all season as Nashville did not want to risk losing him in waivers, but the native of Island Park, NY has appeared in just one game to this point. He was -1 with one shot on goal in 13:27 minutes of action in a 5-4 win over Tampa Bay on October 20th and has spent most of the year practicing and watching from the press box.

Now in his fourth pro season after two seasons at Northeastern University, Bitetto was Milwaukee’s top offensive defenseman the past two seasons before making Nashville out of training camp in 2015-16. His style of play suits the skating game played by the Predators but he will need to be more consistent in his positional play to stay in the lineup.

Petter Granberg, D, 23

Granberg, after missing the first 30 games with an achilles injury, was in pretty much the same situation as Bitetto with the Maple Leafs. But when Toronto tried to get him through the waivers process at the end of November, he was claimed by the Predators. A teammate of Milwaukee Admirals’ defenseman Johan Alm when both played for Skelleftea in Sweden, Granberg spent six games with the Admirals on a conditioning assignment in December before being recalled by Nashville.

In two seasons with the Toronto Marlies, he was a defense-first defensemen who uses his expansive reach and massive size to break up scoring opportunities. He is not particularly combative for a player of his size but is more mobile than most bigger players.

He played eight NHL games with the Maple Leafs in his first two seasons in North America but only drawn into one game with the Predators, a January 9 tilt against Arizona in which he logged around 13 minutes but produced little of note.
 
Juuse Saros, G, 20

Saros has done much to dispel any concerns about his lack of prototypical size in his first season with the Admirals. A starter for HPK Hameenlinna in Finland the past two years, Saros has been impressive in his rookie season with Milwaukee. With Hutton suffering a minor injury at the end of November, he was recalled and with back-to-back games scheduled following a five-game road trip he made his first pro start. In a home game the night after a 3-2 overtime loss in Philadelphia, he stopped 23 of 26 shots in a 4-1 loss to Buffalo.

Saros was returned to Milwaukee two days later. He did not let the loss to the Sabres adversely affect him. In his first start after returning to Milwaukee he stopped 37 of 39 shots in a win over the Chicago Wolves. Saros has won six of his eight starts since returning to the Admirals, including five straight wins between December 13th and January 2nd.

His 15 wins trail only six other goalies in the AHL despite the fact that he has appeared in only 20 games, and he sits in the top 20 among starters in goals against average and save percentage.

2016 World Junior Tournament Update

With forward Kevin Fiala staying with the Admirals rather than playing for Switzerland and forward Yakov Trenin (Russia) injured in early December, Kamenev was the lone Predators’ prospect to skate in Helsinki after goalie Karel Vejmelka was cut from the Czech Republic roster.

The 19-year-old was the team captain for Russia and was dominant at times in the tournament, particularly on the power play. Kamenev’s tournament came to an ignominious end, when he was assessed a misconduct penalty late in the gold medal game against Finland. Following Mikko Rantanen‘s apparent game-winning goal on a power play with just over three minutes left (Russia later tied the game at 3-3 in the closing seconds), Kamenev was assessed a penalty for protesting and then received a second 10-minute penalty after smashing his stick in the penalty box.

While playing against teenagers is far different from playing against polished professionals, Kamenev led Russia with five goals in seven games. He also had one assist and finished the tournament -1 with 32 penalty minutes.

Russia, despite an impressive lineup, reached the gold medal game in spite of struggling to score throughout the tournament.

After an underwhelming shootout win over the Czech Republic, Russia overcame a 3-1 deficit against Finland, scoring four straight goals en route to a 6-4 win. Kamenev scored his first goal of the tournament on the power play to give Russia a 4-3 lead.

He scored arguably two of the team’s biggest goals in the 4-3 overtime win in the quarterfinals against Denmark. With under a minute left and the goalie pulled he scored to tie the game, avoiding a monumental upset, and then tallied the game-winner in overtime.

Kamenev was kept under wraps by the USA in Russia’s 2-1 win in the semifinals, finishing -1 with no points and just three shots on goal. He opened the scoring with a power play goal in the first period of the gold medal game against Finland for his final goal of the tournament.

Nashville Predators Prospect of the Month

Max Gortz - Nashville PredatorsThe 22-year-old Max Gortz figured to have some scoring potential after scoring 14 goals in 53 games last season for Frolunda in Sweden, but no player was as hot in the Nashville system in December as Gortz was for Milwaukee. Now the Admirals’ leading scorer after scoring just two goals with four assists in his first 15 AHL games, Gortz finished December with a six-game scoring streak, including three three-point games. Named the AHL’s Rookie of the Month, he scored five goals and 10 assists in 13 games in December and was an even plus/minus playing in all situations including killing penalties. A sixth-round pick in the 2012 draft, Gortz does not play a particularly punishing style despite his size (6’2″, 202 lbs.) but has a quick, accurate shot and skates well. Admirals’ coach Dean Evason has been equally impressed with his defensive awareness and positional play.

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