Hard-working players and goaltending backbone of Nashville minor-league system

By Evgeny Oliker
Photo: In his rookie professional season, Taylor Beck has gradually developed into a solid offensive contributor at the AHL level. (Photo courtesy of CHL Images)

The Milwaukee Admirals are currently in ninth place of a very crowded Western Conference and are in danger of missing the playoffs this season. One of the biggest contributors to their struggles have been the numerous call-ups to key players, including Ryan Ellis, Jeremy Smith, and Gabriel Bourque.

AHL

Victor Bartley, D, 23

The Predators signed the 23-year-old Victor Bartley in May. A former standout in the WHL, Bartley played last season in Sweden's Allsvenskan league where he ranked second among defensemen in points and assists.

He has not looked out of place at all with the Admirals this season. Playing a sound two-way game, he is showing that he is a very capable passer and is first among Admirals defensemen in points.

Taylor Beck, LW, 20

In his rookie pro season, Taylor Beck spent some time on the fourth line with center Jani Lajunen to start the season. He gradually adjusted to the speed and structure of the professional game, and on December 18th got a chance to play with former Guelph Storm teammate Michael Latta. The move paid immediate dividends as Beck received an assist on Latta's goal in that game. Through December and January, Beck has 15 points through 22 games and has been a plus-eight, a stark contrast from the minus-eight he was through October and November.

Jonathon Blum, D, 23

After finishing last season with the Predators, Jonathon Blum started this season in the NHL. However, his struggles at the NHL level prompted an assignment to the AHL on December 12th. A brief recall on December 19th was following by a second assignment in early January.

Blum's struggles have continued in the AHL. He is a minus-six in 15 AHL games and a minus-14 in 33 NHL games. Never a minus player in his career, his poor rating is due to a lack of confidence he has had in himself and his game.

Atte Engren, G, 23

After wrapping up his SM-Liiga career in 2010-11, Engren joined the Admirals, playing in four AHL games last season and jumpstarting his acclimation to the North American game.

This season has seen some ups and downs for the Finnish goalie. He has given up some questionable goals and has also been pulled a few times. Destined to a backup role for now, he will have to make the most of his infrequent opportunities to play.

Ryan Flynn, RW, 23

Using his 6'2 and over 200 pound frame, Ryan Flynn plays a physical checking game. So it should not be expected for him to put up huge numbers with the Admirals let alone the NHL level.

This season he is mainly playing on a checking line with Mark Van Guilder, though he has spent time alongside Gabriel Bourque as well. Through 42 games, Flynn has a goal and 11 assists.

Blake Geoffrion, LW, 23

The future looked very bright for Blake Geoffrion last season. He impressed enough during the regular season to stay on the Predators roster for their entire playoff run. This season the hope was that he would solidify himself in the bottom six for the Predators. However, that has not been the case.

Geoffrion has split time between the NHL and AHL this season. He has three points in 22 NHL games, averaging around 10 minutes per game with the Predators. Now with the Admirals, he has six assists in 13 games, seeing considerably more ice time then he did in the NHL.

Roman Josi, D, 21

Roman Josi started this season on the IR due to an upper-body injury. In early November he returned from injury and played in five games with the Admirals.

On November 26th, Josi played in his first NHL game. In his 28 NHL games since, he has shown flashes of creativity. His quickness has allowed him to penetrate deep into the offensive zone. What he still has to work on is making faster decisions in the defensive zone as the NHL game does not allow for much time to make a play.

Teemu Laakso, D, 24

Due to a number of injuries during training camp, Laakso received the chance to start 2011-12 playing for the Predators. However, he struggled in nine NHL games before being assigned to the AHL.

Solid defensively but unable to really distinguish himself yet at the professional level, this is a critical season for the 24-year-old. He seems to be making the most of it thus far at the AHL level, playing in all situations for the Admirals.

Gabriel Bourque, LW, 21

Entering his second season of professional hockey, Gabriel Bourque was expected to not only build on his relatively successful rookie campaign, but vie for a spot on the NHL roster, if not out of training camp, through call up later in the season.

After managing two goals and 14 assists through 25 games, he was called up in late December and has remained in the NHL ever since. With the Predators, he has averaged around 13 minutes a game, primarily in a checking role, though he has skated an occasional shift on a scoring line. In many regards, he is a prototypical Nashville forward in that he plays physical and brings lots of energy every shift.

Jani Lajunen, C, 21

In his rookie season with the Admirals, Lajunen has seven points in 42 games. Offense really is not his game though, as Lajunen's game has always been predicated around good zone play and smart decision making. He has been playing primarily in the bottom-six this season as a checking center. He will have to continue to round out his offensive game though if he wants to compete for an NHL job.

Michael Latta, C, 20

Now in his rookie season with the Admirals, Latta has been able to transition his all-around game to the AHL. He is currently in the top 20 among AHL rookies in points and penalty minutes. In November he produced at a point per game pace and is currently fourth on the Admirals with 24 points. He has also dismissed concerns regarding his slight frame, dropping the gloves on a number of occasions and generally playing a rough, physical style of game. A late season call-up may be in the cards for his efforts.

Juuso Puustinen, RW, 23

This past June the Predators signed free agent Juusto Puustinen to a two-year, two-way contract. The transition to the North American game has been easier for Puustinen than most, as he played with current teammates Victory Bartley and Jani Lajunen in the WHL and SM-Liiga respectively.

This season Puustinen got off to a quick start with the Milwaukee Admirals. He scored a goal in each of his first two games while scoring the game-winning shootout goal in his third game. Known for his strong shot, he has also impressed the coaching staff with his defensive play, which has earned him more ice time as of late. Through 40 games he has 14 goals and 12 assists.

Ben Ryan, C, 23

In his rookie pro season, Ryan has split time between the ECHL and the AHL. Following an injury in training camp, he quickly accumulated three points in three games with the Cincinnati Cyclones.

Ryan was called up to the Admirals on October 31st. However, through six AHL games, he has only managed three points. The forward has spent the past two months on the IR.

Ryan Thang, LW, 24

Thang has played everywhere in the lineup this season. A heart and soul player who makes his living in the slot area, Thang can help any line. Often times it is his mere presence around the net that creates opportunities for his teammates.

On October 31st Thang played in his first NHL game and did not look out of place. However, since his assignment to the Admirals, his production has really slowed down. Through 13 games in January, he managed only two points.

Jeremy Smith, G, 22

Last season Jeremy Smith led the Admirals to the Western Conference semi-finals. With the way he is playing this season, that feat can be repeated.

This season Smith's numbers are very similar to last season. On November 19th the Michigan native stopped not one, but two penalty shot attempts against the Grand Rapid Griffins. This is a rare feat as the last AHL goalie to do so was Wade Dubielewicz in 2005. On January 6th, Jeremy Smith finally earned his first call-up to the NHL but did not get any playing time. He is back starting for the Admirals.

Through 35 starts Smith has an 18-13-1 record, a goals against average of 2.35, and a save percentage of .913, all of which rank among the tops in the AHL.

Scott Valentine, D, 20

Scott Valentine finished his senior season in the OHL last season. Originally drafted by Anaheim in 2009, the Ducks did not offer Valentine a contract by June 1st. Thus, Valentine became a free agent the Predators swooped in to sign him.

Now in his rookie season with the Admirals, Valentine has continued to play a very physical game. He already has two fights and 32 penalty minutes under his belt. Valentine's hits tend to be quite ferocious and he also occasionally dishes out hip checks, a seemingly lost art in modern hockey.

ECHL

Taylor Aronson, D, 20

Last season Taylor Aronson played in the WHL for the Portland Winterhawks. At about the midway point of last season the Predators signed Aronson to a three-year entry level contract.

Making his debut in the AHL this season, Aronson struggled during his 14 game stint. He only amassed one assist and was often caught out of position. Demoted to the ECHL on December 13th, Aronson has two goals and five assists through 16 games.

Robert Slaney, LW, 23

The Nashville Predators acquired Robert Slaney and Brett Lebda for Matthew Lombardi (TOR) and Cody Franson (TOR) on July 3rd. Last season he played mainly in the ECHL.

This season he has travelled between the ECHL and the AHL. At the AHL level he has played mostly on the fourth line, registering only one assist in nine games. He is currently back in the ECHL. With Brett Lebda bought out, Slaney is now the Predators only remaining piece of that July trade. While Cody Franson has been a useful player for Toronto, Slaney is still far from making any kind of impact with the Predators.

Chet Pickard, G, 22

Pickard has seen a meteoric decline since his draft year in 2007-08, when he was one of the top goaltenders in the WHL and subsequently selected 18th overall by the Predators. Now in his third year with the Predators organization, he has been surpassed by several players including Anders Lindback, who the Preds selected 189 spots later in the same draft.

Having played at the ECHL level the entire season, Pickard has amassed a 2.98 goals against average and .891 save percentage to go along with an 8-10-1 record.