Predators possess tons of character and depth in Europe and NCAA

By Evgeny Oliker
Photo: Zach Budish is one of several prospects the Predators have in the NCAA who could develop into a solid top-nine forward. (Photo courtesy of Josh Holmberg/Icon SMI)

The Predators may not have any blue chip prospects in Europe or the NCAA. However, there are a few project prospects with intriguing upside. In the SEL, Magnus Hellberg has the size and raw talent but is still very young and inconsistent. Making a name for himself as a physical force in the SM-liiga, Miikka Salomaki also has a finesse side to his game that is just starting to percolate to the surface. Zach Budish of the WCHA has a very diverse skill set and if he stays healthy, his ceiling is higher than his statistics may show. Chase Balisy of the CCHA is turning into a true leader who makes his teammates better. The Hockey East defense duo of Garrett Noonan and Anthony Bitetto are two lesser known names to keep an eye on.

Europe

Magnus Hellberg, G, Vastra Frolunda HC (SEL)
Drafted 2nd round, 38th overall, 2011

Magnus Hellberg had a somewhat average season as a rookie in the SEL. He started the season battling with Frederik Andersen (CAR) for the starting job with Frolunda. However, Andersen asserted himself as the clear number one on the team. Whenever Andersen did falter, Hellberg was given a chance to play but he did not rise to the occasion. When it came time for the playoffs, Hellberg was therefore moved to the lower league (Allsvenskan). That league does have strong competition so Hellberg was able to gain valuable experience. He managed to even play in two playoff games at that level.

While Hellberg has been strong down low and has handled traffic around the net well, he can still improve his glove hand and overall reaction time. With another year on his contract with Frolunda, Hellberg is likely to again compete for more playing time in the SEL next season.

Mattias Ekholm, D, Brynas IF Gavle (SEL)
Drafted 4th round, 102nd overall, 2009

Ekholm began the season with Nashville because of a number of key injuries on defense. He managed to play in only two games for the Predators but showed that he is not ready for the NHL grind. Amid some controversy over his options for where to play next, Ekholm returned to Brynas, the SEL team that he played for last season.

The move could not have worked out any better. After a strong regular season, Ekholm finished tied for first among all playoff defensemen, eventually winning the SEL Championship. He consistently plays key minutes for Brynas.

While he has had great success in the SEL, that league plays its game on a much larger ice surface, giving defensemen more time to react. If Ekholm wants to succeed in the NHL, he will have to eventually move to North America.

Patrick Cehlin, RW, Djurgarden IF Stockholm (SEL)
Drafted 5th round, 126th overall, 2010

Despite a SEL career high of 10 goals, Cehlin showed little improvement this season. It did not help his cause to play on a team, Djurgarden, which scored the second-fewest goals in the SEL this season. The legendary club's play was so poor that after 35 consecutive seasons in the SEL, it was relegated to the second league due to the Kvalserien (qualification tournament between the bottom two teams in the SEL and the top four teams in the Allsvenskan).

Despite his team's poor season, Cehlin still finished fourth on Djurgarden in goals and played with a lot of heart.

With Nashville's rights to Cehlin about to run out this summer, there is a strong chance that the Predators will sign him and bring him to the AHL.

Simon Karlsson, D, Malmo Redhawks J20 (SuperElit)
Drafted 5th round, 142nd overall, 2011

Despite being viewed as a two-way defenseman, Simon Karlsson does have offensive upside. In 2010-11 he finished first in goals and points among all J18 Elit teams. This season, while playing in the SuperElit (J20), he finished ninth among all defensemen. The 18-year-old has also had success in International play for Team Sweden.

Prior to the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, Karlsson was viewed by most sources as unlikely to even be drafted. Yet, when the Predators took him in the fifth round he joined a very deep group of promising prospects on defense. He has similar size and skating ability to fellow Swede Mattias Ekholm.

Being so young, Karlsson is likely to remain in the SuperElit for at least one more season to hone his skills.

Miikka Salomaki, RW, Karpat Oulu (SM-liiga)
Drafted 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2011

Miikka Salomaki is coming off a strong second season with Karpat. However, he still finished outside the top 10 on his team in points, despite getting power-play time. Where Salomaki really stood out is with his physical play. On March 30th in a playoff game against the Pelicans he blindsided Justin Hodgman with a vicious hit. It earned him his second game misconduct penalty in a span of just three games. His antics resulted in a total of 56 penalty minutes in just seven playoff games.

Salomaki also had a great World Junior Championships, where he performed at close to a point-per-game pace. He was able to showcase not just his physical and defensive play, but also a knack for cycling the puck down low. An injury at this tournament caused him to miss about a month and a half of playing time.

With his Karpat contract running out this off-season, Salomaki will have to decide where to play next. With a solid defensive game and adequate strength, he could be ready for the AHL.

Joonas Rask, C, Ilves Tampere (SM-liiga)
Drafted 7th round, 198th overall, 2010

Joonas Rask did not have a very successful season with Ilves, but neither did his team. Ilves finished last in the SM-Liiga this season with an atrocious 18-42 record. It did not help that Rask also missed about two month of playing time due to a number of injuries. The injuries included a knee injury which sidelined him for a month.

Despite only scoring four goals for the entire season, Rask was actually on pace to finish among the point leaders on his team if he were to stay healthy. This despite not seeing a lot of power-play time. Rask is not a big player but he plays well at both ends of the ice. He has some skill, but he is not a goal scorer.

On March 23rd the Predators signed Rask to a two-year, entry-level contract. However, he also recently signed a new contract with Jokerit so his plan is to stay in Finland for next season.

NCAA

Zach Budish, RW, Minnesota Golden Gophers (WCHA)
Drafted 2nd round, 41st overall, 2009

After numerous injuries, Zach Budish is finally getting his hockey career back on track. Budish actually managed to play in every single game for the University of Minnesota this season. Playing on the best team in the WCHA did not hurt his numbers. Yet Budish did set career highs in goals, assists, and points.

It took Budish some time early in the season to get his timing back after only playing in seven games last season. He finished the season strong however, with seven points in his last five games.

The Predators own Budish's right for another season. While he may be ready for the AHL, another healthy season in the NCAA would not hurt either.

Nick Oliver, C, St. Cloud Huskies (WCHA)
Drafted 4th round, 110th overall, 2009

Nick Oliver did not have a very successful rookie season with St. Cloud State. He managed only four points in 33 games. However, he did gain some valuable experience. Oliver was able to participate in the WCHA Final Four, playing mostly on the first line centered by Ben Hanowski (PIT).

Despite not putting up a lot of points, Oliver did continue to play his physical style of game. As a freshman, he is still adjusting to the college game.

Next season, the Huskies will see four senior forwards graduate. That should allow Oliver to play more minutes and take on more responsibilities.

Cam Reid, C, St. Cloud Huskies (WCHA)
Drafted 7th round, 192nd overall, 2009

A teammate of Nick Oliver when with St.Cloud State, Cam Reid split this season between the WCHA and the WHL. When the Portland Winterhawks came calling and offered him to center a line with Ty Rattie (STL) and Sven Bartschi (CAL), it was an offer he could not refuse.

The 21-year-old had a decent season with St. Cloud, performing at close to a point-per-game. He was also a leader on the team. However, his departure did leave the Huskies with a hole to fill at forward.

Chase Balisy, C, Western Michigan Broncos (CCHA)
Drafted 6th round, 170th overall, 2011

Balisy continues to prove himself to be a diamond in the rough prospect after being picked in the sixth round in 2011. He helped Western Michigan win its first CCHA Championship. However, his own game reached new heights this season.

Already a strong two-way player, having former NHL head coach Andy Murray has only helped Balisy hone his game even more. He finished first on his team in assists, points, and game-winning goals.

Chase Balisy still has two years of college eligibility. He still needs to add more weight before moving on to the AHL.

Garrett Noonan, D, Boston University Terriers (Hockey East)
Drafted 4th round, 112th overall, 2011

Known as more of a two-way defenseman, Noonan exploded for 16 goals in a season that saw no other Hockey East defenseman reach the 10 goal mark. Growing up near Boston, one of the highlights of his season was scoring two goals against Boston College in the Beanpot Championship.

With a very deep group of exciting defense prospects already in the NHL and AHL level, the Predators can take their time in developing Noonan.

Anthony Bitetto, D, Northeastern University Huskies (Hockey East)
Drafted 6th round, 168th overall, 2010

Like Noonan, Anthony Bitetto is a late round pick who could surprise. Despite being considered more of a defensive defenseman, Bitetto has averaged around half a point-per-game in his last two seasons with Northeastern University.

Playing for one of the worst teams in Hockey East, Bitetto led all Northeastern defensemen in goals and points for the second season in a row. While Northeastern had a below .500 record, when Bitetto scored a point, their record was 8-4.

The Predators took notice of Bitetto's fine play and signed him to a two-year entry-level contract on March 26th. With NHL size and a solid two-way game, he may be ready for the AHL next season.

Chapin Landvogt contributed to this article.