In many ways, the Nashville Predators 2012 NHL Draft strategy mirrored the one they used for their 2011 draft. As in 2011, the Predators once again focused on forwards and selected only two defensemen and one goalie. The organization also once again selected a handful of overage prospects as well as several who are bound for the NCAA.
It was clear that Nashville wanted to address their lack of talented, goal-scoring forwards. Their first five selections were all forwards, and two of those, Pontus Aberg and Jimmy Vesey, are known mostly for their ability to score.
Pontus Aberg, LW – Djurgardens IF Stockholm (SEL)
2nd round, 37th overall
Height: 5'11 Weight: 189 lbs
It is no surprise that the Predators went for a skilled forward with their first selection in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. This pick, along with the 50th overall selection, was acquired when the Predators traded Anders Lindback to the Tampa Bay Lightning. For a team desperately in need of forwards who can score, that trade was clearly made with the purpose of using those two draft picks to select talented forwards.
What Pontus Aberg brings to the table is just that, scoring. He is known for having an NHL-caliber shot and has a knack for finding ways to score goals, which bodes well for his eventual transition to North America. His skating is also solid. What Aberg lacks is an all-around game. He does not think like a playmaker and his defensive game is also not where it needs to be yet.
In his short stint in the SEL, he showed potential by putting up 15 points in 47 games. That is impressive considering he only played around 10 minutes per game in the highest league in Sweden. He produced at an even higher pace when demoted to the Allsvenskan.
It is hard to predict his NHL upside at this point. If he does not improve his playmaking and defensive game, he could end up being a prospect similar to Taylor Beck. Therefore, Aberg must work on other aspects of his game so as not to become a one-trick pony. He still has a contract in the SEL and will remain there for the time being.
Prior to the acquisition of Paul Gaustad at the trade deadline, the Nashville Predators did not possess any power forwards.
While Sissons is of average size, he is a very physical player. He loves to hit and will fight if necessary. He also fits the mold of a Predators prospect in that he is a well-rounded player who plays well in all three zones. Sissons was named the top defensive forward at the Kelowna Rockets team awards ceremony. He was also the captain of the team last season. Potting 26 goals last season, he is starting to showcase his shot as well.
The 18-year-old does not have any real weaknesses. However, his skating is just average. It is hard to project his offensive upside at this point, as his production improved only slightly from his rookie season in the WHL. If he continues to improve offensively, a future as a power forward on the first three lines is very possible. For the near future, he will remain in the WHL.
Jimmy Vesey, LW – South Shore Kings (EJHL)
3rd round, 66th overall
Height: 6'1 Weight: 194 lbs
After selecting more proven talents in Aberg and Sissons, the Predators went a little off the board to grab Jimmy Vesey. Undrafted in 2011, Vesey played for a prep school leading up to the 2011 draft and was therefore not on a lot of hockey radars. However, a switch to the EJHL really helped his draft stock. In 45 EJHL games, Vesey managed 48 goals, 43 assists, and 52 penalty minutes, and for his effort was named MVP and offensive player of the year as a rookie.
In terms of weaknesses, Vesey must improve his first few steps. He also though needs to improve his strength and conditioning, two things that are typical of teenage prospects.
For next season, the 19-year-old has already committed to take his game to Harvard. He cherishes the educational opportunity but also knows that he will have to improve his game as well while there. He is still years away from becoming a professional player.
Brendan Leipsic, LW – Portland Winterhawks (WHL)
3rd round, 89th overall
Height: 5'8 Weight: 165 lbs
The Predators decided to make another risky selection by taking 5'8 player Brendan Leipsic. However, the Predators have had success with drafting smaller players in the past. One needs to only look at Gabriel Bourque and Jordan Tootoo for evidence of that.
Leipsic does have a bit of Bourque in his game in that he is skilled yet feisty. Unlike some smaller player, he seems to enjoy the physical side of the game. That, along with his obvious skill and speed, can make him more likely to make the NHL than other small players.
In terms of weaknesses, he does need to improve his consistency. He goes hot and cold quite often even after spending two seasons in the WHL. He also needs to control his temper at times.
The diminutive forward is likely to spend at least another season in the WHL. That will buy him time to improve his consistency.
Zach Stepan, C – Shattuck St. Mary's (Minn-Prep)
4th round, 112th overall
Height: 6'0 Weight: 165 lbs
Hailing from one of the top prep school programs in North America, Zach Stepan is a playmaking center with good hockey sense, speed, and offensive awareness. He also plays a solid two-way game and is good at pressuring on the forecheck. Primarily a playmaker, Stepan has a quick deceptive shot and is able to find open spots when not controlling the puck. Though he stands at only 165 pounds, Stepan plays a physically robust game and can throw ferocious, game-changing body checks.
The cousin of New York Rangers forward Derek, Zach is still far away from being an NHL player. He will play for Penticton next season and then for Ohio State the season after that.
Mikko Vainonen, D – HIFK U20 (Jr. A Sm-liiga)
4th round, 116th overall
Height: 6'2 Weight: 222 lbs
Already rich in defensive prospect depth, the Predators did not select a defenseman until the fourth round. The Predators prospect pool is already deep in offensive defensemen like Jonathon Blum and Ryan Ellis, so selecting a defensive defenseman such as Vainonen made sense.
Vainonen has good size and strength. He also possesses good hockey sense, which helps him in terms of positioning in the defensive zone. He is also quite mobile for his size.
If there is a deficiency in Vainonen's game it is that he is a one-dimensional defenseman. While he does have a some offensive smarts and a good overall hockey IQ, he lacks creativity with the puck.
Vainonen was recently signed to a three-year contract extension with HIFK, but was also drafted 6th overall by the Kingston Frontenacs in the CHL Import Draft and 68th overall by Donbass Donetsk of the KHL. He'll likely spend at least one more season in Finland, but the CHL and KHL shouldn't be ruled out entirely.
Simon Fernholm, D – Huddinge IK J20 (SuperElit)
6th round, 164th overall
Height: 6'4, Weight: 187 lbs
Simon Fernholm may remind some of another recent Predators selection, Mattias Ekholm, who was also playing in the SuperElit league when he was drafted in 2009. Both defenseman are 6'4, mobile for their size, and possess good hockey IQs. Both are also known for making smart simple plays in their own zone.
The rangy Fernholm is scheduled to play for Frolunda next year, where he will likely see the opportunity to play in some SEL games.
Max Gortz, RW – Farjestad J20 (SuperElit)
6th round, 172nd overall
Height: 6'2 Weight: 196 lbs
Max Gortz continues a trend by the Predators of taking players who have been passed over in previous drafts. He is also part of an ever growing group of Swedes within the Predators prospect pool.
The 19-year-old is a typical Swedish forward in that he is a good skater, controls the puck well, and plays a strong two-way game. He also has good size at 6'2.
The big strong forward does not really stand out in any one facet of the game. He has some offensive talent, but he is not very dynamic. In 18 games in the SEL he did manage five points.
Gortz is signed for two more years with Frolunda, and is expected to spend the entire 2012-13 season in the SEL.
Marek Mazanec, G – HC Plzen (Czech)
6th round, 179th overall
Height: 6'4 Weight: 187 lbs
Not only is Marek Mazanec the only goalie the Predators selected, he is also the first player from the Czech Republic they selected since 2004. He is also yet another overager picked by the Predators in recent years.
Mazanec has a unique story. Now 21 years old, he was listed at 6'0 when he was first draft eligible, but currently stands at about 6'4. Despite his size, he is a very talented and athletic goalie. He really stood out for his team, Plzen, in the playoffs, posting a .919 save percentage and 2.15 goals against average.
Next year he is likely to become the clear number one goalie for Plzen. That should be a good challenge for him and a barometer for his progress.