The Nashville Predators have historically been able to squeeze everything out of every penny they spend. Without the money to bring in a star free agent or the luxury of having a top five draft pick, the organization has prided itself on winning with top-notch, homegrown goaltending and defense.
This mentality is evident in the Nashville Predators prospect pool, which is deep at the goaltending and defense positions. However, there is finally some hope when it comes to developing a number of homegrown, goal-scoring forwards. Surprisingly, the Nashville Predators had two forwards in the top ten in points at the conclusion of the 2010-11 OHL season in teammates Taylor Beck and Michael Latta of the Guelph Storm. The emergence of Craig Smith, who is currently producing at a strong pace at the NHL level, has also been a pleasant surprise. During the past five seasons, the Predators have only had one forward surpass the thirty goal mark. A new fleet of forwards can change that history and write its own.
The Nashville Predators prospect pool is deep at the left wing position. The Predators added three more left wingers during the 2011 draft.
Leading the way is Taylor Beck, who ranked seventh in the OHL last season with 95 points in 62 games. Beck is a pure goal-scorer who has a very quick release and an accurate shot. His skating however could use some work as he takes a while to get out of the gates. After only putting up an assist in three pre-season games Beck was sent to the AHL for more seasoning. If he can adjust to the speed of the AHL game and then eventually that of the NHL game, he should become a solid second line goal-scorer for a team that is in desperate need of scoring.
Blake Geoffrion is an excellent two-way player who enjoys playing along the boards and in front of the net. As a result, most of his goals come from around the net, off of rebounds, deflections and a quick one-timer. His size and strength allow him to win puck battles and make him a force down low.
Standing at 5'9, Gabriel Bourque is a shifty skater who has a great release but can also make plays. He made his AHL debut in 2010-11 and managed to produce at a half-a-point-per-game pace. Now in his second season in the AHL, it will be crucial for Bourque to show that he can improve on those totals and continue to prove his doubters wrong.
In 2010-11, Josh Shalla ranked fifth in the OHL in goals with 47. Shalla was passed over in the 2010 draft, perhaps due to his lack of speed. However, his ability to get open and finish plays is undeniable and perhaps that is why the Predators made him their fourth round pick in 2011.
Drafted in the second round of the 2011 draft, Salomaki is a hardworking and physical forward who is currently playing in the SM-Liiga. Just how much offensive upside he possesses is still up in the air.
Ryan Thang is a two-way forward who has the upside to play on the third line. His toughness and attention to detail was rewarded with a one game stint with the Predators this season.
Three other left wingers round out the position. David Elsner is an agitator with some power forward potential. Robert Slaney is a checking line forward with very little in terms of offensive talent. Brent Andrews is a smart two-way forward.
The Nashville Predators are also deep at the center position. Without a true number one center at the NHL level, the Predators have a few intriguing center prospects that could challenge for that role one day.
In terms of size and style of play, Michael Latta is similar to current Predators center Mike Fisher. Latta ranked ninth in points in the OHL last season with 34 goals and 55 assists. A teammate of goal-scorer Tayler Beck, Latta is more of a playmaker. Despite being only 5'11, Latta also led his team in penalty minutes with 158. He is also able to play on both special teams.
Craig Smith really burst onto the scene at the 2011 World Hockey Championship in Slovakia. Despite being the only college player on Team USA, he was able to finish second in points for Team USA with six points in just seven games. To prove that it was not a fluke, Smith followed it up with a very impressive showing at the Florida rookie tournament, which included a four goal game against Tampa Bay. Continuing to impress in training camp, Smith made it straight onto the Predators opening night roster. A player of average size, he has a knack for finding loose rebounds and has an incredible one-timer. Scoring at close to a point per game pace, Smith has a good chance to break Alexander Radulov's record for most points in a season (37) by a Predators rookie.
Chase Balisy is a sixth round pick in 2011 who has great upside. He is a superb play-maker who just needs to work on his consistency. In 2010-11 he had 30 points in 42 games in the CCHA. He is off to a fast start this season, scoring at a point per game pace.
Cameron Reid is a dark horse prospect for the Predators. He is not your typical seventh round pick in that he does possess strong offensive skills. He has a sneaky wrist shot and he is also a creative passer. Reid put up 29 points in 37 games in the WCHA in 2010-11. He is an intriguing prospect who could definitely surprise in the near future.
Another seventh round pick, Joonas Rask is the brother of NHL goalie Tuukka Rask. Being at only around 170 pounds, he needs to add weight but also needs to be more willing to get involved physically in the play.
Ben Ryan's professional career may be in jeopardy as his goal totals in the CCHA have dropped for the past few seasons. Now getting a chance to play in the AHL, he has to make the most of it.
Jani Lajunen had a modest 22 points in 60 games in the SM-Liiga in 2010-11. This season he is making his AHL debut but is yet to score a goal.
The Predators only have six right wing prospects. However, that could very well be because they are rather deep at that position at the NHL level.
During Austin Watson's draft year, the late and great E.J.McGuire compared Watson to Kris Draper. That comparison still holds true as Watson is a high energy two-way player who does a lot of the little things right. He can play the power-play and the penalty-kill. Watson will bang bodies and score garbage goals. However, he does have some talent, as he is a strong skater and has an accurate shot. Now in his fourth season in the OHL, he is producing at close to a point per game pace.
Zach Budish has had to deal with a number of injury problems dating back to his senior season in high school, most notably multiple knee injuries. His 2010-11 season in the WCHA was cut short by a moped accident that left him with a torn ACL. He missed all but seven games that season. He is big, fast, and has pretty soft hands for a guy his size. Once thought of as a steal in the second round of the 2009 draft, his stock can still rise to that height again if he can stay healthy. Currently producing at a point-per-game this season in the WCHA, the potential is certainly still there.
Only a few games from graduating as a prospect, Matt Halischuk has impressed thus far at the NHL level. Halischuk is another prototypical Predators player in that he is a solid two-way player who is physical and has some skill. He has also shown to be able to score timely goals.
Patrick Cehlin is a rather underrated player, potentially due to his size. In terms of size and skill set, he can be compared to Rangers prospect Mats Zuccarello. Both prospects are rather small, seem to prefer a long stick, and have a similar ability to quickly maneuver around defenders. Cehlin, like Zuccarello, also has a pretty accurate shot and does not mind going to the net. At only around 175 pounds, Cehlin needs to add strength if he wants to compete in the NHL. He will spend another season in Sweden.
Juuso Puustinen was originally drafted by the Calgary Flames in 2006. He was signed in the summer of 2011 to a two-year, two-way contract by Nashville. Puustinen can be compared to current Predators forward Patric Hornqvist in terms of style of play. Like Hornqvist, Puustinen has a knack for scoring goals around the net and loves to shoot. In 59 games in Finland last season, he managed 293 shots.
At this point in his career, Ryan Flynn's upside is that of a third or fourth line player, if he makes the NHL. After only marginal production in the AHL last season, Flynn needs to continue working on his skating.
Defense has been a strength for the Predators for a number of years now. The current pool of defense prospects is once again very deep and talented.
Jonathon Blum, despite still being prospect eligible, is a full-time NHL player at this point. After playing in 22 games with the Predators last season, he is averaging close to twenty minutes per game this season. Blum is a very mobile defenseman who has a good shot. He should continue to develop into an excellent top four NHL defenseman and is currently in contention for the Calder Trophy.
Ryan Ellis was the only defenseman to rank in the top ten in points in the OHL last season. For a defenseman to put up 101 points in any league is rather impressive. While Ellis is only 5'10, he does not shy away from the physical play. He is an excellent skater who can pass and score equally well. Being less than 180 pounds, he needs to add weight and strength to be better prepared physically for the NHL.
Charles-Olivier Roussel is a great all-around defenseman who can contribute offensively, defensively and even play a physical game when needed. Roussell sites Dion Phaneuf as his favorite player and wants to play a similar style. After an off season in 2010-11 in the QMJHL, Roussel hopes to rebound in 2011-12 by playing again in the QMJHL as an overager.
Roman Josi is one of the more underrated prospects for the Predators. He can be a real force offensively as he has a hard shot and an effective passing game. In 2010-11, playing for the AHL Admirals he had a 13 game point streak and eventually finished with 40 points in just 69 games. During training camp this season, due to the trade of Cody Franson and Francis Bouillon being out with a concussion, Roman Josi had a great chance to crack the Predators lineup. However, during camp he suffered an upper body injury and is still on Injured Reserve. Upon his return, he will head to the Admirals in the hopes of being one of the first call-ups for the Predators this season.
Winner of the Elitserien Rookie of the Year award in 2010-11, Mattias Ekholm finished with 33 points in 55 games in the SEL. Particularly impressive considering Ekholm was a rookie defenseman playing in a men's league. Partly due to Roman Josi and Francis Bouillon being hit with injuries in training camp, Ekholm ended up making the Predators roster and playing for two games. He was then assigned to Brynas IF of the SEL since Predators coach Barry Trotz felt he was not ready to play the North American style of game.
The rest of the Predators defense prospects are most likely going to be third pairing defensemen if they make the NHL. This group includes Anthony Bitteto, Scott Valentine, Teemu Laakso, Taylor Aronson, Victor Bartley, Simon Karlsson, and Garrett Noonan.
Anthony Bitteto could be a steal for the Predators as he was taken in round six in the 2010 draft. Bitteto is mainly a defensive defenseman but he has shown some offensive upside last season for Northeastern University.
Scott Valentine is a very mean defenseman who put up 106 penalty minutes in 2010-11 in the OHL. This season he is playing for the Admirals and already has displayed his physical game.
Teemu Laakso is at a make or break point in his career. At twenty four years of age, he is older than most prospects. Laakso did make the Predators lineup this season and has played in nine games, but has no points and at times has been a healthy scratch. The problem that Laakso faces is that he does not have any outstanding qualities.
In May of 2011, the Predators signed free agent Victor Bartley to a two year contract. At the age of 23, Bartley may be more of a depth signing for the Predators. However, over ten games with the Admirals this season, he has already accumulated six points.
A Predators fifth round pick in 2011, Simon Karlsson is a project pick for the Predators. Very young and yet to play in the SEL, he also needs to add on some weight. Karlsson projects as a solid two-way defender but he is many years away from the NHL.
The Predators fourth round pick in 2011, Garrett Noonan is not an exciting player but he gets the job done. He is more of a defensive defenseman.
Anders Lindback is currently the backup to Pekka Rinne at the NHL level. At 6'6, he takes up a lot of the net, yet he also has good mobility for his size. It remains to be seen if his ceiling is just that of a backup goalie or higher.
Chet Pickard was picked 18th overall in 2008. However, being picked that high can at times be a curse for a goalie. Thus far, he has struggled in the AHL and the ECHL. He will attempt to rebound in the ECHL this season.
Jeremy Smith has excelled at the AHL level thus far. In 2010-11 he had a 16-8 record with a stellar .921 save percentage. He will continue to play big minutes for the Admirals this season. Being of average size, he needs to continue to work on his quickness.
Atte Engren is another highly underrated prospect for the Predators. Just like Roman Josi may be somewhat overshadowed by defensemen like Jon Blum and Ryan Ellis, Engren is overshadowed by the likes of Anders Lindback and Chet Pickard. Engren is likely the most athletic of all the Predators goalie prospects. He can make some spectacular saves due to his quickness. This season will be his first full season with the Admirals and it will give him a chance to adjust to the smaller North American ice surface.
In a somewhat surprising move, the Predators picked a goalie, Magnus Hellberg, with their first pick of the 2011 draft. This season, his rookie season in the SEL, he has a 1.76 goals against average and a .928 save percentage. Those are incredible numbers for a rookie in any league, but the SEL is one of the best leagues outside of the NHL.
Article was written by Evgeny Oliker.