The Nashville Predators will be looking to dip into their system next season in an attempt to better their normally non-existent offense. The Milwaukee Admirals, Nashville’s top affiliate, may not be able to help the Preds out very much in the future, however. After missing the postseason, the Nashville/Milwaukee management teams decided it was time for a change in Milwaukee, and did not renew the contracts of the Admirals’ head coach Dave Allison and top assistant Claude Noel.
The Predators have some very talented prospects on the Admirals roster, but many of these players did not play up to their potential, with a couple others missing much of the 01-02 season due to injury. Nashville is still confident that at least a handful of these players have a shot at becoming solid NHL players. Let’s dig into the system and go to Milwaukee …
Legitimately, eight players from the Milwaukee team have a shot at cracking the Predators’ pro roster either this year or in 03-04. The eight candidates include Jonas Andersson, Martin Bartek, Konstantin Panov, Timo Helbling, Peter Smrek, Jan Lasak, Adam Hall and Andrew Hutchinson. Hall and Hutchinson played most of this season in the collegiate ranks with Michigan State before turning pro; both played a handful of games in Milwaukee, and Hall even registered a point in his one game with Nashville.
Before we guess which prospects will make the Nashville roster next season, we should analyze the NHL team position by position. The following are projected to have already earned a spot on the pro roster for the 2002-2003 season:
Center David Legwand, Denis Arkhipov, Greg Johnson, Steve Dubinsky
Left Wing Scott Hartnell, Martin Erat, Vitali Yachmenev
Right Wing Scott Walker, Vladimir Orszagh
Defense Kimmo Timonen, Andy Delmore, Jere Karalahti, Bill Houlder, Cale Hulse
Goalie Mike Dunham, Tomas Vokoun
Nashville has announced that they will be more active in the free agent market in this off-season than they have been in previous seasons. So, figure that the Predators sign at least one decent offensive winger. I also think that if the right deal is on the table, the Preds would trade one of their top goalies, some of their prospects, and maybe even draft picks. Vokoun or Dunham would probably be available if the right deal was on the table. Also remember to factor in the so-called "bubble" players – players like Bubba Berenzweig, Peter Tenkrat, Greg Classen, Mark Eaton, Karlis Skrastins, Nathan Perrott, and Jukka Hentunen.
Let’s now meet some of Nashville’s top prospects from the Milwaukee roster:
First, Martin Bartek had an injury-filled season, including a broken collarbone which put him out for the year. Bartek is expected to return to full health in time for the summer rookie camp. Martin will be given the opportunity to make the team because of his offensive ability, since he is probably the only true sniper of these eight players, and has one of the best shots on the Milwaukee team.
Konstantin Panov was also limited by a number of injuries, and had season-ending surgery in mid-December. Panov, who is also expected back in time for rookie camp, was a top player the previous season in the WHL, scoring 44 goals and 100 points. The scouting report on this young winger is that he is a good skater with both offensive and defensive skill, to go along with an above average shot and a dose of good hockey sense.
Jonas Andersson was a 2nd round draft choice in the 1999 draft. Andersson has the size and speed to make it in the NHL. Jonas has not put up the big offensive numbers that some expected, but his skills are fairly polished, and his desire to make it to the NHL should certainly put him in a Nashville uniform in the near future.
Timo Helbling is the youngest of this group of Nashville prospects. Helbling is known as a physical defensemen with a good, but inaccurate, shot. One area Timo needs to improve is his plus/minus figure, as his –10 rating this season would attest. However, Helbling has good size, and, with proper development, he could become a solid defensemen in the NHL.
Peter Smrek is a 23-year old defensemen acquired from the New York Rangers at the trade deadline (Richard Lintner was sent to the Rangers in the deal). Smrek was considered a solid defensive prospect in the Rangers system, so he should have an outside chance of cracking the Preds blueline next season. To help Peter improve his conditioning, Nashville has invited him to work with Nashville’s strengthening staff in the off-season (Hall, Hutchinson, and Hamhuis were also invited to these workouts).
Andrew Hutchinson probably falls into the category of defensive defenseman. Hutchinson, a 2nd round choice for Nashville in the 1999 draft, was an alternate captain this season with the Michigan State hockey team. Nashville thinks very highly of Andrew Hutchinson, but it is expected that he will play at least one season with Milwaukee, as he will need to improve his decision-making and puckhandling.
Adam Hall is one of the better-known prospects in the Preds organization. Hall is known for his leadership qualities, as evidenced by his being named MSU’s captain this past season. Adam has the intensity, grit, and physical size to play in the NHL, and will be given every opportunity to make the club next fall. In one game with the Nashville Predators this season, Hall registered an assist for his first NHL point, so he already has gotten a look with the big club.
Jan Lasak may have opened some eyes in Nashville while playing goalie for the Preds in their final three games. Though his stats were not too impressive (4.41 GAA and a save % of .875), Jan kept Nashville in all three games, making some pretty impressive saves in the process. Lasak is considered by many to be overshadowed by the oft injured, but more highly touted goaltending prospect, Brian Finley. Lasak has the natural talent of a NHL goaltender, but he tends to give up soft goals, and he sometimes wanders too far from his crease. Lasak will probably start again in Milwaukee, but he could become a solid NHL backup in the future.
My prediction is that Adam Hall and Jonas Andersson will make the 2002-2003 Predators’ roster. Hall and Andersson both have the size, skills, and desire to make it in the NHL. Bartek is the closest to those two, as far as having a good chance of making the team, because of his major league slap shot. However, any of these eight players have the potential to step up and become good players in the National Hockey League. So, don’t be surprised if one of them makes a Martin Erat-like jump to the NHL next season.
Thanks to Jillian Smith and James Robert Jahnke for contributing information on the Nashville prospects.