Nashville Predators hold on hope for prospects in European pros and college

By Tony Piscotta
Joonas Lyytinen - Nashville Predators

Photo: The Nashville Predators have invested a lot of assets in European players like prospect Joonas Lyytinen over the years, but the returns have been somewhat sluggish (courtesy of Atte Rissanen/Champions Hockey League via Getty Images)

 

 

The Nashville Predators have one of their top prospects playing in the NCAA ranks — though Jimmy Vesey’s ultimate destination has been a source of much conjecture. The other five prospects playing college hockey are less established at this point.


With the possible exception of University of Minnesota freshman Tommy Novak, one of the top scorers for the Gophers, the rest of the drafted players in college hockey are well behind Vesey in terms of potential.

The majority of the Predators’ European-born prospects are now with the club’s AHL affiliate in Milwaukee, leaving a handful of second chance-type forwards and defense prospects enjoying successful seasons in the European leagues.

The Predators have several players — three of whom have already played in North America — skating in Europe. With the change in organizational philosophy two years ago most of these players no longer fit in the team’s future plans. The four forwards playing in Europe may have opened eyes with their play but restricted free agents like defensemen Scott Valentine (Germany) and Joonas Jarvinen (Finland) are unlikely ever to play for Nashville.

NCAA

Jimmy Vesey, LW, Harvard University (ECAC)
Drafted 3rd round, 66th overall, 2012

Speculation about Vesey’s professional aspirations has persisted since he decided to return to school following his junior season. Those conversations gained further fuel when his father Jim Vesey was hired as a scout by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Most scouts feel Vesey is talented enough to make the jump directly from college hockey to the NHL and would be a welcome addition to the Predators’ lineup right now.

Like New York Rangers forward Kevin Hayes, a 2010 first-round selection of the Chicago Blackhawks who ultimately signed with the Rangers out of Boston College, Vesey could wait until the summer when he would be come a free agent. Vesey returned to Cambridge after being a Hobey Baker finalist in 2014-15 as a junior and was once again nominated for the coveted award after a big senior season. 

The strength of Vesey’s game is his playmaking ability and instincts. He plays with a determination in all three zones similar to current Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise but also uses his size to advantage.  

Harvard, after winning the ECAC tournament to earn an NCAA Tournament berth last season, reached the conference championship this year with a berth already locked up, but lost,  3-1, to Quinnipiac.

Harvard will face Boston College in their first Tournament game on March 25th.

Tommy Novak, C, University of Minnesota (Big 10)
Drafted 3rd round, 85th overall, 2015

Novak made a smooth transition to college hockey as an 18-year-old — skating on a line with bruising Sabres prospect Hudson Fasching. He finished second on the Gophers with 21 assists.

A skilled offensive player whose hockey instincts and anticipatory skills are top rate, Novak was a bright spot in a roller coaster season for the defending Big 10 champions.

The young Gophers struggled to reach .500 before running off five straight wins in January. Leading the Big 10 late in the year, Minnesota finished second after back-to-back losses on the last two weekends to the league’s bottom two teams — Michigan State and Ohio State. The Gophers defeated Ohio State, 4-2, to reach the Big 10 championship game but fell to regular season champion Michigan, 5-3.

Held to just one assist in the two tournament games, Novak should become more consistent as he adds strength, matures physically and gains experience.

Tyler Moy, C, Harvard University (ECAC)
Drafted 6th round, 175th overall, 2015

The Predators selected Vesey’s Harvard teammate Moy following his sophomore season in his third year of draft eligibility. A native of San Diego, Moy fought through some late season injuries and was a strong third line center for the Crimson. Moy scored 7 goals with 12 assists and was -1 with 26 penalty minutes in 30 games heading into the NCAA tournament.

Moy plays a sound two-way game with some passing and stick handling skill, playing the body when necessary. He will likely return to Harvard for his senior year and will need an impressive 2016-17 season to earn an NHL entry-level contract.

Zach Stepan, LW, Minnesota State (WCHA)
Drafted 4th round, 112th overall, 2012

Stepan had a solid but unspectacular junior season at Minnesota State. Skating on a line with Winnipeg Jets prospect C.J. Franklin he scored 6 goals with 7 assists and was +8 with 14 penalty minutes, playing in 34 of 41 games for the Mavericks.

A big scorer during his USHL career, Stepan has morphed into a two-way winger who plays a strong, responsible game in all three zones. That will likely be his role in pro hockey.

Minnesota State, much like Minnesota, had an up-and-down season — finishing second in the WCHA after a strong second half. Like the Gophers, Minnesota State reached the conference championship game needing a win to make the NCAA tournament, falling to fourth-place Ferris State, 2-1.

Teemu Kivihalme, D, Colorado College (NCHC)
Drafted 5th round, 140th overall

Kivihalme was the lone Tigers defenseman to skate in all 36 games in what was a tough season for one of the youngest teams in the nation. The sophomore led all Colorado College skaters with 12 assists and scored three goals, finishing with 28 penalty minutes and a -33 plus/minus for a team that finished 6-29-1.

The Tigers’ struggles have allowed Kivihalme to see more ice time in his first two seasons than he otherwise might have and his game has shown progress. His skating ability and offensive skill set fits in well with the style that Nashville likes to play.

With a deep pool of defensemen in the Nashville system, however, he must continue to add strength and become stronger in his own end to earn an NHL contract.  

Wade Murphy, RW, Arizona State University (Independent)
Drafted 7th round, 185th overall, 2013

Murphy transferred to Arizona State after spending two seasons at the University of North Dakota, sitting out the 2015-16 season as per NCAA rules. With just four assists in 35 games with UND his professional potential appears limited.

Europe

Janne Juvonen, G, Pelicans Lahti (Liiga)
Drafted 7th round, 203rd overall, 2013

Juvonen bounced back from an early injury to have another strong season for the Pelicans. Selected in the same draft as current Milwaukee Admirals’ goalie Juuse Saros, Juvonen has not had the same meteoric rise as Saros but has steadily developed since that draft.

Like Saros’s old club HPK, Pelicans have been in the lower end of the Liiga standings the past few seasons. Juvonen has excelled at times to keep his team in the game. In 30 regular season games he had a 2.59 goals against and .914 save percentage while finishing with a 14-11-4 record and one shutout.

After finishing ninth in the regular season, Pelicans faced KalPa Kuopio in a preliminary series. After an overtime loss in the opening game the Lahti club won the next two games,  2-1 and 4-1, to advance to the quarterfinals. Pelicans trails regular season champion HIFK 2-0 in their best-of-seven series. Juvonen has started all five playoff games.

With Saros and 24-year-old Marek Mazanec playing well for the Admirals, the Predators can be patient with Juvonen — whom they do not have sign to an entry-level contract until June 2017.

His progress to this point — and his combination of prototypical goalie size and strong technical skills — suggests Juvonen has NHL potential, whether with Nashville or elsewhere.

Karel Vejmelka, G, Pardubice (Czech Extraliga)/Horacka Slavia (Czech 2nd League)
Drafted 5th round, 145th overall, 2015

The youngest goalie in the Predators’ system, Vejmelka is just beginning to develop. But the 19-year-old has played well in his first season of men’s hockey. Like Juvonen, he has the ideal size and athletic frame of an NHL goaltender. His technical play and positioning is still maturing but should improve with experience.

Loaned to Horaka Slavia most of the year, he was 21-21 in 43 games with a 2.62 goals against and .920 save percentage. Vejmelka played five games in the Czech Extraliga (one with Pardubice and four on loan to Kometa Brno) posting a 1.45 goals against and .940 save percentage.

Vejmelka is still fairly raw but his early progress has been impressive.

Patrick Cehlin, RW, Rogle (SHL)
Drafted 5th round, 126th overall, 2010

Cehlin is the first of the four players in Europe who spent time in the Predators’ organization — spending parts of three seasons with the Milwaukee Admirals before returning to Sweden last year. Cehlin played some of his best hockey at the end of 2013-14 while skating with Filip Forsberg on the Admirals and was a popular teammate for some of the younger Swedish players in Milwaukee.

Derailed by injuries while recovering from back surgery, he is healthy this season and led Rogle with 20 goals in 52 games. Cehlin was the team’s second-leading scorer with 36 points, one behind former University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldog Jack Connolly. Rogle finished 11th, missing the SHL playoffs.

With players like Viktor Arvidsson and Miikka Salomaki currently in Nashville and other high end forwards on the way there may not be a slot for Cehlin — who will be 25 this summer — in the Predators’ system. His comeback this season is nonetheless impressive.

Emil Pettersson, C, MODO (SHL)
Drafted 6th round, 2013 NHL Draft

MODO, like Rogle, struggled as a team but Pettersson was one of the team’s top forwards as a rookie. The second-leading scorer for the 13th-place club, he scored 12 goals with 14 assists and was -9 with 28 penalty minutes in 52 regular season games. MODO is facing Alsvenskan’s Leksands in a relegation series and Pettersson had a goal and an assist in MODO’s 5-0 win in the opening game.

Like Juvonen, he was drafted in 2013 and has yet to sign a contract with Nashville. Still fairly light and undersized, he impressed with his stick handling and passing skills last summer at the Predators’ development camp and has a skill set that fits with the other young forwards in Nashville. The  22-year-old is  still putting together his all-around game but he does have offensive tools.

Saku Maenalanen, RW, Karpat Oulu (Liiga)
Drafted 5th round, 125th overall, 2013

Maenalanen skated in a career-high 46 regular season games for defending Liiga champion Karpat. Maenalanen scored six goals with 10 assists and was +9 with 14 penalty minutes, averaging 12 minutes of ice time during the regular season.

Selected in the same 2013 NHL Draft as Juvonen and Pettersson, he too has yet to sign an entry-level deal. Karpat takes a slow and steady approach with its younger players (current San Jose Shark Joonas Donskoi and Bruins’ rookie Joonas Kemppainen were both in their mid-20’s before making an impact, ultimately being signed as free agents). The 21-year-old Maenalanen may have to follow the same route to one day reach the NHL.

Karpat finished second to HIFK in the regular season and is facing seventh-place TPS Turku in the best-of-seven playoff quarterfinals. After a 2-1 overtime loss in the first game Karpat exploded for a 6-1 win in a penalty-marred Game 2, with Maenalanen scoring one goal with an assist.

Joonas Lyytinen, D, KalPa Kuopio (Liiga)
Drafted 5th round, 132nd overall, 2014

Lyytinen battled injuries and inconsistency in his third season with KalPa Kuopio. Placed in a larger role with the young KalPa team, he looked to be trying to do more than possible at times, struggling with inopportune turnovers He is not a punishing defenseman nor gifted in terms of technical or skating skills. Lyytinen’s calling card is his cerebral game and ability to maintain composure in tough spots.

The 20-year-old seemed to regain his confidence late in January before suffering an injury in a game against Assat on February 2nd that kept him out almost all of February. In 47 regular season games he scored two goals with seven assists and was -2 with 22 penalty minutes.

Lyytinen returned to the lineup for KalPa’s three-game preliminary series with Pelicans — finishing -1 with no points nor penalties while averaging just under 18 minutes of ice time.

Lyytinen is expected to again play a top-four role for KalPa next season and should benefit from the experience gained this year.

Scott Valentine, D, Krefeld Pinguine (DEL)
Acquired as free agent, 2011

Originally drafted by Anaheim in 2009, the 24-year-old spent the 2014-15 season on loan to Dallas AHL affiliate Texas after three seasons with the Milwaukee Admirals. He is largely only a Predators’ prospect on paper since he was tendered a qualifying offer in June 2014.

A hardscrabble throwback defenseman who plays a tough game and is sound in his own end, Valentine scored 5 goals with 10 assists and was -4 with 126 penalty minutes in 43 games for Krefeld in his first season in Germany. Krefeld finished 13th in the 14 team league.

Joonas Jarvinen, D, HIFK Helsinki (Liiga)
Acquired as free agent, 2012

Jarvinen like Valentine was tendered a qualifying offer in June 2014 and is a restricted free agent. At 26-years-old he is too old to be considered a prospect under Hockey’s Future criteria but unlike Valentine he could have a future in North America after enjoying a successful season in his return to Finland.

Jarvinen spent two seasons with the Admirals after signing with Nashville in 2012 before heading to HK Sochi for a disappointing season in the KHL last season. He is a big defenseman whose mobility has sometimes been an issue but he is at his best when he plays with a physical edge and that has been the case this year.

HIFK was the top team in Finland this season after finishing seventh last year and Jarvinen was a big part of that success. Averaging just under 20 minutes of ice time in 49 regular season games, he scored two goals with 16 assists and was +19 with 73 penalty minutes. In the first two games of HIFK’s quarterfinal series against Pelicans he was +2 with 1 assist and no penalties.  

Prospect of the Month

Justin Kirkland - Nashville PredatorsThe Kelowna Rockets’ Justin Kirkland is making amends for his injury-filled 2014-15 campaign in his third season with the defending WHL champions. Relegated to a lower line role while recuperating last spring, he was overshadowed by players like current Edmonton Oiler Leon Draisaitl, NHL first-round pick Nick Merkley and Sharks prospect Rourke Chartier. The Rockets rolled to the league championship and the Memorial Cup final.

With Chartier and Merkley both missing significant time this year, Kirkland was the Rockets’ second-leading scorer behind 20-year-old Tyson Baillie. A big-bodied forward with significant stick handling skills and surprising mobility for a player his size, Kirkland took his game to a new level after Christmas.
 
He was especially lethal in February, scoring six goals with 12 assists in 13 games with a +12 plus/minus. The Camrose, Alberta native finished the regular season with 31 goals with 36 assists in 69 games and was +23 with 69 penalty minutes.

The Rockets will face Kamloops in a first-round Western Conference playoff series after finishing second in the B.C. Division to the surprising Victoria Royals.  A third-round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, Kirkland has yet to sign an entry-level contract with the Predators. He would re-enter the 2016 NHL Draft if not signed before then.

Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @Piscottas_Way