Nashville Predators’ Top 20 boasts NHL defensemen, intriguing forwards

By Brian Fogarty
Roman Josi - Nashville Predators

All-around defenseman Roman Josi is one of three Nashville blue line prospects with NHL experience in this edition of the Predators' Top 20 ranking. (courtesy of Russell Lansford/Icon SMI)

 

The Nashville Predators have some bright light defensemen in their pipeline, and several two-way forwards that look like they just came out of the Nashville mold. The top three prospects in the organization are all blueliners with NHL experience, led by the youngest of the three, Ryan Ellis. The remainder of the top ten prospects includes some interesting forwards that run the gamut from a top checking-line, shutdown type in Austin Watson to the pure scorer Pontus Aberg, one of many 2012 draft picks making their debut in the Predators Top 20 this fall.

1. (1) Ryan Ellis, D, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 11th overall, 2009

Ellis made his NHL debut last season and saw 32 games of action in Nashville over the last half of the season. Although he averaged less than fifteen minutes per game, he was effective when he was on the ice. His offensive production per sixty minutes of ice time was second amongst all Nashville defensemen, behind only superstar blueliner Shea Weber. Ellis possesses true offensive talent and tremendous potential as a key contributor on the Nashville power play, and although small by most NHL standards, the 5’10” defender has improved his positional play in his own zone. Ellis looks to make the Predators lineup and begin to earn additional ice time once the season gets under way. Though it appears unlikely that he will ever become a top-pairing defender in the league, as a power-play specialist with a good level of reliability in the back end, Ellis has the tools to become one of the better offensive defensemen in the league.

2. (3) Roman Josi, D, 6.5B
Drafted 2nd round, 38th overall, 2008

Josi also made his NHL debut last season. The Swiss-born defender played in 52 regular-season games for the Predators in 2011-12, and is nearing the point of graduation from the prospect ranks. He also appeared in ten playoff games, though with diminishing ice time and zero points registered. Josi plays a solid, two-way game, and could have a legitimate argument to be the top name on the list of Predators prospects. Although he shows no glaring weaknesses in his overall game, neither does Josi have the sparkling, standout talent in any particular area, either. He lacks the kind of offensive firepower of Ellis or the skating ability of the number three prospect on this list, Jonathon Blum. Still, Josi’s solid, top-to-bottom play and good size should have him playing out a nice NHL career.

3. (2) Jonathon Blum, D, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 23rd overall, 2007

As the elder statesman among the top three Nashville defenders, Blum has the most NHL experience and at one point had the highest NHL expectations. After two years of splitting play between the NHL and the AHL, some of the luster has faded from Blum’s star, but at 23 years of age, he still has time to become the defenseman the Nashville staff saw when they drafted him. Blum can skate with the best and uses his on-ice hockey smarts to his advantage, but he needs to hone his game into a dependable, second-pair player with the speed to turn the flow of the game.

4. (4) Michael Latta, C, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 72nd overall, 2009

Latta plays the game one expects from a big power forward: tough in the corners, willing to scrap for pucks and goals, a kind of greasy, bare-knuckle game complete with a decent scoring touch. Yet Latta is not the NHL prototype power forward. Though he weighs in at 209 pounds, Latta stands just under 6’0” tall. In his first year of professional hockey, Latta managed to not only finish the season near the top of the Milwaukee Admirals in penalty minutes, but he finished near the top of the points production chart, as well. Latta makes the players around him better, and is the true team player. Another year of AHL hockey should help prepare him for the next step in his career and a run at the NHL roster in 2013.

5. (5) Austin Watson, RW, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 18th overall, 2010

Watson embarks on his professional career not as a top-flight scorer or offensive wizard like some of his London Knights teammates, but as a true two-way forward that can take over games with sheer effort and determination. Watson was named the OHL Playoff MVP last spring, and became a hockey household sensation during the Memorial Cup for his hustle, shot-blocking and shutdown play against some of the CHL’s most explosive players. Watson can play in the offensive zone, too. Though never a prodigious scorer, Watson was better than a point-per-game player last season. He looks to have a better than even chance to line up for the Predators as soon as the upcoming season.

6. (NR) Pontus Aberg, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 37th overall, 2012

The first new entrant on the Predators Top 20 list is 2012 draftee Pontus Aberg, the Stockholm speedster with a big shot and nifty moves. Aberg’s primary weapon is his shot. He can rocket slap shots with accuracy from all over the ice, but is equally capable of snapping off deceptive wrist shots from his forehand or backhand. Combined with his quickness and willingness to throw his body despite his smaller-than-average size, Aberg can be a dangerous player. The downside to all of reckless abandon appeared last season, however, as Aberg missed some significant time to injuries. His talent level is unquestioned, but his ability to adapt his game to the physical hazards of NHL play will ultimately determine whether he hits his full potential or not. He will skate in Sweden again in 2012-13 with the Djurgarden men's team, which was relegated to the second-tier Allsvenskan league.

7. (9) Zack Budish, RW, 7.5D
Drafted 2nd round, 41st overall, 2009

Budish would be higher on this list and much more recognizable if not for a few non-hockey knee injuries that have threatened his career. On the ice, Budish is a big man with soft hands and ill-tempered intentions, but his development has been slowed first by a football injury while a senior in high school, then a moped accident during his 2010-11 season at Minnesota. Budish gets around the ice, and his skating has begun to show improvement after his unfortunate injuries. He outmuscles opponents in the corners and in puck battles, and has a nose for the net. The redshirt junior will captain the Gophers this fall as the team attempts to return to the NCAA Frozen Four.

8. (10) Gabriel Bourque, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 132nd overall, 2009

Bourque shot the lights out in limited minutes during the Predators playoff run last spring. In just ten games, Bourque scored three goals on thirteen shots and produced a couple of assists, as well. His rookie regular season production (though not as outstanding as in the playoffs) was notable, too. In 43 games over the last half of the season, Bourque scored at a pace similar to David Legwand and notched 19 points in just under 13 minutes per game. Still, there is little in Bourque’s past performances to suggest that he will be able to sustain that kind of offense. Bourque has been much more of a checking-line player, and although the offense is an added benefit, no one should expect those kinds of numbers in the future. Instead, Bourque should become a stable third-line presence for the Predators.

9. (NR) Colton Sissons, RW, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 50th overall, 2012

Sissons seems to be a perfect Nashville Predator: a tough forward known more for his leadership, work ethic, and two-way abilities than for his foot speed or pure offensive talents. Sissons captained his WHL team in Kelowna last year, and he leads through relentless effort on the ice and his smart, well-rounded game. His point totals in the WHL in his draft year were about average and are unlikely to translate into a scoring role in the NHL. However, because of his tenacity and attention to the details of the game, Sissons could become a valuable defensive forward in the NHL.

10. (7) Jeremy Smith, G, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 54th overall, 2007

Jeremy Smith enters his fourth year of professional hockey having worked his way up through the ranks to earn a starting role in the AHL. Now he looks ready to challenge for some NHL playing time, having played in 56 games for Milwaukee last season with a .922 saves percentage and a goals against average of 2.17 per game. Smith is small by today’s NHL standards. He is only 6’0”, but he is lightning quick and extremely agile. He must continue to use his athleticism and his intelligence to excel in the net if he is going to work himself into a steady job for the Predators.

11. (15) Chase Balisy, C, 6.5C
Drafted 6th round, 170th overall, 2011

Balisy’s development has accelerated since joining Western Michigan University. Passed over in his initial draft year and then selected late the following year as a 19-year-old collegiate player, Balisy has become an integral part of the Broncos offense and was their leading scorer last season. He is neither the biggest nor the best skater on the ice, but Balisy is a playmaker who makes good, quick decisions and more often than not gets the puck to the player with the best chance to make something happen. Balisy has solid puck skills and is an exceptional passer. He also plays a sound defensive game that will serve him well on his path to the NHL.

12. (14) Mattias Ekholm, D, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 102nd overall, 2009

Ekholm played two NHL games for the Predators last season before returning to Sweden on loan to Brynas. Once he got there, all Ekholm did was play outstanding hockey for the eventual league champion and earn the Salming Trophy as the Elitserien’s Defenseman of the Year. Ekholm will return to North America this fall to play with Milwaukee and get more acclimated to the smaller ice surface. He is a 6'4” and 204-pound player who moves well for his size, and he makes good decisions at both ends of the ice. Ekholm displays the calm, positional play common for Elitserien defensemen, but he will have to get stronger and learn to play a more physical game before he will be ready for the NHL. He is, however, a player to watch, and he has the potential to become a better than average NHL offensive defenseman.

13. (NR) Garrett Noonan, D, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 112th overall, 2011

Noonan is a left-shooting, two-way defenseman who likes to play a physical game. Now in his third year at Boston University, Noonan has been, and will continue to be, counted on to provide offense and power-play points while also playing tough minutes on defense. Noonan was recently named to the pre-season All-Hockey East team. Noonan plays the game like a professional with a calm demeanor in his own end but he is willing to throw his body around when necessary.

14. (12) Miikka Salomaki, LW, 7.0D
Drafted 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2011

Salomaki advanced his offensive skills over the past year, and in so doing displayed a scoring ability that could see him land a second-line role in the NHL one day. He has always been known as a hard worker and tenacious defender who plays with some grit to his game. Salomaki will play at least another year for Karpat in the SM-liiga as he continues to refine his offensive talents and improve on his already reliable defensive-zone play.

15. (8) Taylor Beck, LW, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 70th overall, 2009

Beck is something of an enigmatic player. He plays the game like a power forward. He is big and strong and hard to move when he sets up, but he also has the hands of a scorer and typically converts incoming passes into goals. Yet even with his standout abilities, Beck often appears to blend into the crowd when he is on the ice, gliding through the neutral zone or trying to find an open spot in the offensive zone. He needs to improve on his skating. He displays decent edge work and keeps his feet underneath him, but he lacks the kind of speed that will allow him to turn NHL defensemen. Beck has the tantalizing size and skill, but without showing some improvement in his skating, he could have a difficult time sticking in the NHL.

16. (11) Magnus Hellberg, G, 7.0D
Drafted 2nd round, 38th overall, 2011

Hellberg joins the North American depth chart vying for a spot in the AHL with fellow prospect Jeremy Smith. Hellberg uses his 6’5” size well, playing angles and challenging shooters such that they have little to nothing to see of the net. He reads plays well, and uses his intelligence to get to the right position in the net. Like most young goaltenders, Hellberg needs to continue to work on his technique, but he has a bright future in front of him and he has the potential to be a starter in the NHL.

17. (NR) Jimmy Vesey, LW, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 66th overall, 2012

Jimmy Vesey is more than just his bloodlines. The 2012 draft pick is the son of former journeyman center Jim Vesey, but even though he plays with a passion for the game similar to his father’s, Jimmy brings some skill to the ice, as well. Like many of the prospects in the Nashville system, Vesey is smart and plays a two-way game with some offensive upside. This fall, Vesey will be playing in the NCAA for Harvard. The college route will give Vesey plenty of time to develop his game into what could make him a respectable third-line NHL player down the road.

18. (16) Atte Engren, G, 7.0D
Drafted 7th round, 204th overall, 2007

The door to NHL success may be closing on the 6’1” goaltender from Rauma, Finland. After several years playing in the Finnish leagues, Engren finally made to move to the AHL last season, where he played 23 games backing up Jeremy Smith. His numbers were respectable (.911 saves percentage and 2.45 goals against), but he saw no playoff ice time, and never took hold of the starting job for Milwaukee. This off-season, Engren returned to Finland and signed a two-year contract with TPS in the SM-Liiga.

19. (NR) Brendan Leipsic, LW, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 89th overall, 2012

Leipsic enjoyed a successful draft-age season with the Portland Winterhawks, scoring 28 goals and 30 assists for the WHL Western Conference champions. Leipsic packs a lot of offensive skill into a small 5’8”, 165-pound frame, and he has plenty of speed to go with it. He plays a tough game for a smaller player, and he knows how to put the puck in the net. His difficult climb up the hockey ladder will be interesting and entertaining to watch.

20. (NR) Zach Stepan, C, 7.0D
Drafted 4th round, 112th overall, 2012

Stepan has the look of a player who will do whatever it takes to win a game, and he has the drive that could see him all the way to a checking-line role in the NHL. He plays with determination, intensity and non-stop effort, and although he does not have the skill level of his cousin Derek Stepan (NYR), Zach can chip in the occasional goal. Zach will skate this season with one of the top teams in the USHL in the Waterloo Blackhawks before beginning his collegiate career in 2013-14 with the Buckeyes of Ohio State.

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