Nashville Predators organization features defensive depth and two-way forwards

By David Thicke
Jonathon Blum - Nashville Predators

Photo: Jonathon Blum is one of three top defensive prospects on the verge of cracking the Predators roster when the NHL resumes play. (courtesy of Danny Murphy/Icon SMI)

 
The Nashville Predators have a solid talent pool with good depth and plenty of two-way prospects but the organization is severely missing the high end talent at the forward position.

This shows that Nashville is a team that first defends their own net and second tries to score off the other teams' mistakes. The Predators’ biggest weakness is that they struggle to score goals at both the AHL and NHL levels which forces their teams to play almost flawless defense in order to be successful. Nashville has not been able to draft, develop, and keep any high end offensive forwards. The organization does have some prospects like Taylor Beck, Zach Budish, Michael Latta, Brendan Leipsic and Josh Shalla that could add some scoring punch if they grow into NHL players. This year's second round pick, Pontus Aberg might be a high end talent but it is far too early in his development to predict his overall potential and the Predator fans will have to wait a few years to see any results.

Left Wing

The Predators have a number of centers that could be converted to wing before they reach the NHL, but the team still has some interesting prospects playing left wing. It is the strongest and deepest of the forward positions with a good mix of size, skill, grit and two-way capabilities but is still lacking that high end talent.

At the AHL level, returning players Gabriel Bourque and Taylor Beck are being joined by first year pros Jack MacLellan and Josh Shalla. Bourque has impressive offensive skills and proved that he has the game for the NHL level after playing 43 games with the Predators last season. His size is always going to bring doubters but this young forward plays in the dirty areas of the ice without fear and really steps up his game come playoff time. After missing the first 10 games due to an injury, the solid two-way winger has played six games so far this year for the Admirals and will most likely return to Nashville if the NHL lockout ends. He has scored one goal along with three assists and a minus-one rating in six games. Bourque was given a two-game suspension for an illegal check to the head on November 17th in a game against the Oklahoma City Barons.

Beck is expected to increase his offensive output at the AHL level with Admirals this season. He has the offensive skill-set and size to play the power forward role but will need to improve his skating speed and defensive game in order to play at the NHL level. The big forward is out to a much better start this year, scoring three goals along with nine assists and an even rating in 13 games. Beck could be out for a while after being sent into the end boards by Alex Plante (EDM) and knocked unconscious. He was taken off on a stretcher but was talking and moving his arms. The Admiral forward is listed out indefinitely with an upper-body injury at this time.

MacLellan will start the season at the AHL level in Milwaukee but needs to play a solid two-way game and contribute some offense in order to stay in the Admirals starting line-up. The versatile forward can play all the forward positions and in any situation, providing some offense in a top-six role, playing a defensive shutdown role on the third line, or a checking, energy role on the fourth line. He has struggled to start the year, contributing only one assist and a poor minus-10 in 17 AHL games.

Shalla will mostly be moving between Milwaukee and Cincinnati in his first pro season as he adjusts to the speed of the game at the AHL and ECHL levels. The big winger is a natural sniper that likes to play in the dirty areas of the ice but his work ethic and skating speed must improve to have success at the pro level. He has scored five goals along with two assists in seven games in the ECHL and has played five games in the AHL with two assists.

Ryan Thang was extended a qualifying offer by Nashville thus retaining his NHL rights after he signed with the Augsburger Panther in Germany's DEL in June 2012. It is most likely that the forward no longer fits into the Predators' plans.

Nashville has two left wing prospects, Brent Andrews and Brendan Leipsic playing in the junior level for the 2012-13 season. Andrews is playing his fourth season in QMJHL for the Halifax Mooseheads and is expected to play a solid two-way, up tempo game every night while playing important minutes for his team. He has scored five goals (one shorthanded goal) along with 11 assists and a plus-six rating in 25 games on the top team in the league.

Leipsic was selected in the third round, 89th overall at the 2012 NHL Draft and will play his third season in the WHL for the Portland Winterhawks. The speedy wing hits everything that moves but is also offensively skilled and a gifted finisher that can produce on the power play. He has scored 15 goals (six on the power play) along with 23 assists and a plus-10 rating in 22 games. The third round pick projects into a complimentary top-six or a checker at the NHL level. Leipsic might get the opportunity to play for Team Canada at the 2013 Wolrd Junior Championships if he stays healthy.

Jimmy Vesey is the only left wing prospect playing at the NCAA level this year for the Predators. He was chosen by Nashville in the third round, 66th overall at the 2012 draft and will play his freshman year at NCAA level for the Harvard University Crimson. The big winger possesses skill and smarts that make him a dangerous player in the offensive zone. He has jumped out to a good start to his season, scoring five goals along with three assists in seven NCAA games. Vesey could have four years of development at the NCAA level to become a power forward before possibly turning pro like his father, Jim Vesey.

There are two left wing prospects, Miikka Salomaki and newly-drafted Pontus Aberg in Nashville's organization that will be playing in Europe this season. Salomaki will play at least this season for Karpat in the SM-liiga and continue his overall development in Europe. He has an excellent work ethic and is a tenacious defender that has some sandpaper to his game. The versatile winger can play all the forward positions and could become a good two-way player with his already reliable defensive-zone play. He has not put up the numbers that were expected, scoring just three goals along with eight assists and a plus-eight rating in 24 games. The former second round pick will be one of Finland's top offensive players at the 2013 WJC tournament if he can stay healthy.

Aberg was selected in the second round, 37th overall by the Predators at the 2012 NHL entry draft and will continue his overall development in Europe over the next two years. The talented forward is a really speedy player with some high caliber offensive skills. The two-way winger has good hockey sense, passes the puck well, and possesses a hard accurate shot. He has struggled with consistency to start the season, scoring four goals along six assists and a plus-two rating in 24 Allsvenskan games for Djurgården. Aberg should have the opportunity to help Sweden defend its gold medal at the 2013 WJC tournament.

Center

The Predators have good depth and versatility at the center position but there are some prospects that could be converting to the wing position if needed. It is a good mix of two-way abilities, grit, physicality, and good offensive skill. At the present, Nashville's talent pool is lacking the high end centerman.

At the AHL level, Michael Latta, Jani Lajunen, and Ben Ryan are returning while Austin Watson will make his pro debut. Latta is starting his second professional season with the AHL Admirals after a successful rookie year. He has the complete package for a two-way centerman and only needs to prove it at the AHL and NHL levels. Latta is off to an okay start in the 2012-13 season with Milwaukee, scoring two goals along with seven assists and a minus-four rating while taking 52 penalty minutes (six fighting majors) in 18 games.

Lajunen will play his second season in North American with the AHL Admirals and has adjusted to the smaller rinks and game style. The Finnish-born centerman has the skating and offensive skills, but he needs to improve his defensive zone play. He does not play a physical game for his size and has started this year slowly like the Admirals, collecting no points along with a minus-nine rating in 18 games. The skilled center could find him a healthy scratch if he cannot pick up his offensive game.

Ryan will start his second pro season at the AHL level but could find himself playing in the ECHL if he cannot pick up his offensive production. The hardworking forward tries to make the most of his opportunities, moves the puck well, and has good vision. He needs to work on his shot selection and the physical side of his game while improving his overall game. Nashville's fourth round pick in 2007 has one point along with a minus-three rating in 17 games and could be a healthy scratch or re-assigned to the ECHL in Cincinnati very soon.

Watson will start his first pro season at the AHL level with the Admirals and has the versatility to also play on the wing. He is a clutch player who fits the Predators' mold perfectly. The big centerman plays a strong two-way game with maximum effort and a moderate amount of offensive ability. The first round pick can shut down the opposition's best forwards and even outperform them offensively on occasions. He is out to a strong start to the year, scoring seven goals along with six assists and a team-leading plus-seven rating in 18 games.

Joonas Rask is the only centerman playing this year in Europe. He is a technically-skilled hockey player that can play as both a center and winger while being very useful on both power play and penalty kill. The Finnish-born winger is not a particularly physical player and needs to increase his strength to play at the pro level in North America. The versatile center was loaned to Jokerit of the SM-liiga in Finland this season, scoring three goals along with three assists and a plus-one rating in 26 games.

At the NCAA level, the Predators have two centerman, Chase Balisy and Nick Oliver, returning for another year of development. Balisy has returned to play his junior year at Western Michigan University and will be expected to help carry the Broncos' offense while playing on the team's top line and both of the specialty teams. The speedy center has a solid hockey IQ that gives him a unique ability to control the tempo of the game while making his linemates much better. He possesses great hands, excellent puck-moving ability and can makes pretty tape-to-tape passes to his teammates. He has played solidly to start the year, scoring three goals (two power play goals, one shorthanded tally, and two game-winning goals) along with three assists and a good plus-four rating in 10 games for the Broncos.

Nick Oliver will play his sophomore at St. Cloud State for the Huskies. The large centerman plays a defense-first kind of game and generates his offense off opportunities from his opponents’ mistakes. He always brings a physical presence to the ice and has a knack for playing hard in the dirty areas. So far this season, the big, gritty center has only three assists and a plus-one rating in 12 games.

Zach Stepan will play this season at the US junior level for the Waterloo Black Hawks of the USHL and has committed to Ohio State University for the 2013-14 year. He has the skating speed and offensive skills to make plays in the open spaces on the ice which helps him to create offensive chances. The hardworking centerman looks like a player that could eventually spend time on the second or third line, depending on how his offensive game progresses over his four years at the NCAA level. This year's fourth round selection has jumped out to a great start to his season, scoring 12 goals along with 15 assists and a solid plus-nine rating in 15 USHL games.

Right Wing

Nashville's weakest position in the organization’s prospect pool is the right wing; although not lacking in quality, it does have a real lack of depth. As usual for the Predators, there is a good mix of grit, speed, skill, and two-way capabilities in this group of prospects.

There are only two players at the right wing position this season at the AHL level with the Admirals in first year pro Patrick Cehlin and the returning Juuso Puustinen. Cehlin should play his rookie season at the AHL level in Milwaukee while he adjusts to the size and speed of the North American game. The excellent skating winger is an offensive minded player with good technical skills and creativity. The playmaking winger is a good passer with the capabilities to bury his offensive chances but needs some work in the defensive zone. The Swedish-born forward is one of the Admiral's top point-getters so far this season, scoring five goals along with seven assists and a minus-one rating in 16 games.

After a solid first year, Puustinen will play his second pro season for the Admirals at the AHL level and in North America. There are some doubts about his physical and defensive play but the talented winger has creativity, quick hands and scoring abilities with a hard accurate shot. The Finnish-born forward needs to improve his overall game this year in order to have a chance to play at the NHL level. He has struggled to start his season, scoring only two goals along with seven assists and an even rating in 17 games, but offensive players can be streaky scorers so it is too early in the year to write him off.

Zach Budish is the only right winger playing at the NCAA level this year. The potential power forward will captain the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers in his red-shirt junior year and hopes to help his team make the Frozen Four this season. The big forward uses his size effectively and has impressive skating ability for a man of his size as well as having quality hands. The physical winger needs to remain healthy for the entire year and could turn pro as early as this spring. He is off to an okay start to his season, scoring three goals along with seven assists and a plus-two rating in 13 games.

Colton Sissons is the only right wing prospect with Nashville playing at the junior level. He was selected in the second round, 50th overall in the 2012 NHL entry draft and will return for his third season in the WHL with the Kelowna Rockets. His defensive skills are excellent at this stage of his development but the physical forward needs to improve his offensive game in order to become a more complete two-way player. He could have the opportunity to play for Team Canada at the 2013 WJC tournament. The Rockets' captain has jumped out to a good start this season, scoring 10 goals along with 15 assists and a team-leading plus-23 rating in 25 games.

The Predators organization has only one right wing prospect playing in Europe this year. Max Gortz was taken by Nashville in the sixth round, 172nd overall in the 2012 NHL entry draft and is under contract with Färjestad of the Elitserien for at least the next two years. The two-way winger is hard to contain in the dirty areas of the ice and likes to shoot the puck. He has a solid defensive game due to his sound skating abilities and good positioning in his own end of the rink. The big winger will continue to develop his overall game in Europe before possibly making his way to North America. He has struggled at times but the 19-year-old has scored four goals along with two assists and a plus-two rating in 25 games in the Elitserien.

Defense

Nashville's defense pool is the deepest position and the strength of the organization. It has three NHL-caliber prospects in Jonathon Blum, Ryan Ellis, and Roman Josi that are ready to make the jump to the NHL should the lockout actually end. There is a large quantity of solid defensemen with a good mix of offensive skills, grit, size but only Ellis has possible high end offensive talent in this group.

The Predators could have three prospects in Blum, Ellis, and Josi on their starting NHL defense corps when or if the NHL settles its lockout. Blum will start the season at the AHL level in Milwaukee but the offensively skilled defender needs to show that last season's struggles were just a bad year and that he has regained his confidence. He has started the year having difficulties in his defensive zone, scoring one goals along with seven assists in 18 games. His minus-seven rating is the worst among the team’s defensemen. The fourth year pro needs to get more consistency to his game at the AHL level in order to have the opportunity to play at the NHL level if there is a 2012-13 season.

Ellis could start his second pro season at the AHL level with the Admirals while the NHL is locked out but should see playing time in the Predators' top-four defensemen. The offensively talented blueliner should get the opportunity to help run Nashville's power play with the loss of Ryan Suter this past off-season to the Minnesota Wild. The defender has been sidelined with a wrist injury, which had him in a cast to start the season. He returned to playing on November 19th in a game against the Chicago Wolves and has skated in four AHL games with two assists so far this season.

Josi returned home to Switzerland to play for Bern in the NLA while the NHL was locked out. The two-way defender finished last season in Nashville and will be expected to improve on last year’s step forward at the NHL level. He is a good passer and possesses a hard shot from the point. The blueliner has played okay offensively so far, scoring five goals along with one assist and a poor minus-four rating in 14 NLA games.

There's a larger group of six minor league defensive prospects with Taylor Aronson, Anthony Bitetto, Mattias Ekholm, Joonas Jarvinen, Charles-Olivier Roussel, and Scott Valentine that could all play at the AHL level in Milwaukee this year.

Aronson was sent for the second year to the ECHL level to play with the Cincinnati Cyclones and improve his overall game while gaining more confidence handling the puck. He does not have ideal size and has yet to show any real consistency, but he has the skills to be a top-four defenseman if he puts it all together. The two-way defender has played solidly to start the year, scoring one goal along with two assists and a plus-two rating in 12 games.

Bitetto started the season at the AHL level with Milwaukee but was recently assigned to the ECHL Cyclones after playing only five games. The big defensive defender has the all-around ability to be an NHL player, but lacks the polish or consistency at this stage of his development. He has not yet contributed any offense and needs to use his hard shot more often. The first-year pro should spend time shuffling between the two leagues as needed for most of this year.

Ekholm has come back to North American to start the season at the AHL level with the Admirals and hopes to play well enough to get a called-up to Nashville if the NHL lockout is settled in time for the 2012-13 season. The puck moving defender makes the simple and smart passes to get out of his zone. He has good hockey sense, plays with poise and patience while possessing a pretty heavy shot. The big defender needs to work on his physical game while improving his reverse pivots and angling techniques. He is off to a good start, scoring four goals along with six assists and an even rating in 18 games this year.

Jarvinen will start his first season at the AHL level with the Admirals while adjusting to North America and the style of the game. The big blueliner is a steady, no frills defenseman whose best assets are his positioning, ability to move the puck out of his end, and take away shooting and passing lanes. His biggest challenge is to develop the mobility, speed, and strength to compete at the professional level. He has contributed a goal and an assist to go along with a minus-five rating in 17 games. The smart defender needs to bring more physicality to his game and make decision quickly in order to get the opportunity to play in the NHL.

Roussel will start his pro career season at the ECHL level for the Cincinnati Cyclones but the young defender jumped out to a good start with solid play at both ends of the ice. He had one shorthanded tally along with two assists and a plus-three rating in eight ECHL games. The rookie defenseman was re-assigned to the Admirals as an injury replacement but has played only one game so far. The two-way defender can fill whatever role is asked whether it is operating the power play, playing physically, or shutting down the opposition's top offensive weapons.

Valentine will play his second year at the AHL level in Milwaukee. The physical defender can dish out devastating hits and play a solid defensive game with some offensive upside potential. His skating and puck skills have improved over last season but he needs to use his hard point shot more often. The solid blueliner leads Admiral defensemen with a plus-five rating to go along with two goals and three assists in 18 games.

Nashville has two defense prospects, Simon Karlsson and Mikko Vainonen, playing at the junior level in the CHL this year. Karlsson decided to play in North America earlier than expected and will play in the OHL for the Plymouth Whalers. He has the potential to be a smooth skating, puck moving defenseman with offensive upside to his game. The fifth round pick is still very raw but all the skills appear to be there for him to develop into a quality blueliner. After a late arrival to Plymouth, he has played solidly, scoring one goal along with seven assists and a plus-four rating in 18 OHL games. Karlsson could have the opportunity to help Sweden defend their gold medal at the 2013 WJC tournament.

Vainonen was selected in the fourth round, 118th overall in 2012 NHL entry draft and also chose to come to North America early in order to play his junior hockey in the OHL for the Kingston Frontenacs. He has played on the penalty-killing unit and shown some offensive upside but still needs to get more comfortable with the smaller ice surface and rougher style of play at the junior level. The big defender has played well offensively with one goal along with seven assists but has struggled defensively with a minus-five rating in 25 games. The Finnish defenseman could represent his country at the 2013 WJC tournament.

Garrett Noonan is the only defensive prospect for the Predators organization playing at the NCAA level this year. The offensively skilled defenseman chose to return for his junior year at Boston University instead of turning pro with Nashville. The mobile, smooth skating defender has a very good first pass, a hard accurate shot, and can operate the power play unit. The fourth round pick has surprised many people with his fast development over the last few years and could project into a top-four defenseman in the NHL. Through 11 games of the season, he has not put up the offensive numbers expected of him this year. The skilled two-way blueliner has only scored one goal along with five assists and a plus-two rating for the Terriers.

Simon Fernholm was taken in the sixth round, 164th overall in the 2012 NHL entry draft by Nashville and was signed by Frolunda of the Swedish Elite League. After just five games in the SEL, the only defense prospect playing Europe for the Predator's organization was returned to the J20 SuperElit as NHL players arrived during the NHL lockout. His hockey IQ and hockey sense are very high which allows him to be extremely poised under pressure and he makes a really good first pass out of his zone. He is not very spectacular because he just makes the simple and easy plays when in trouble. After 15 games, the big stay-at-home defenseman has collected seven assists and has a plus-18 rating by using a very sound game in the defensive zone for his Frolunda junior team. The Swedish-born player could help his country defend their gold medal at the 2013 WJC tournament.

Goaltending

From a talent perspective, goalie is still one of the stronger positions in Nashville's organization from top to bottom. From Pekka Rinne at the NHL level to Jeremy Smith in the AHL, the Predators have good goaltending depth in their talent pool.

At the AHL level, the Predators have two goalie prospects, returning Admirals starter Jeremy Smith and first-year pro Magnus Hellberg, who could reduce the number of games played by Smith this year.

Smith will return for his third year with the Admirals at the AHL level this season and should be the starter and an injury replacement for Nashville if the NHL lockout is settled. The athletic netminder is very intelligent, hardworking, and uses solid positioning to excel at stopping the puck. The young goalie can be scored on when his timing going down in butterfly is off and he is not getting square to the shooter. Although his numbers have been good, he has struggled along with the Admirals to replicate last season’s success, posting a 5-9-1 record, one shutout, a 2.61 goals against average, and a .899 save percentage in 15 AHL games.

Hellberg should be the back-up to starter Smith but could be assign to the ECHL if he struggles with his game or needs more playing time as a starter. The lanky netminder plays a butterfly style where he stays deeper in the net with his hands in tight to his body and allows the puck to hit him. The young goalie can over-play the angles and needs to stay more upright and improve his timing when going down to cover the lower part of his net. He has started five games but has been pulled in two of them and has posted a poor 3.82 and a weak .862 save percentage with three wins. The Swedish-born netminder will take time to adjust his positioning on the smaller ice surface and to the fast style of the North American game.

Chet Pickard left North America to play this year in Europe but his NHL rights still belong to Nashville. The newly drafted prospect Marek Mazanec will also be playing for at least the next two years in Europe.

After struggling for the last three years to find his game, Pickard has been loaned to the Djurgården in the Allsvenskan for this season to hopefully regain his confidence. His NHL entry level contract ends at the end of this year and the first round pick could be released if he cannot show good improvement to his overall game. Through 20 games, the big goalie has played quite well for Djurgården, registering a 2.06 goals against average and a solid .920 save percentage in the Allsvenskan.

Mazanec was selected by the Predators in the sixth round, 179th overall in the 2012 NHL entry draft and might have been HC Plzen’s number one goalie this year in the Czech Extraliga. The NHL lockout signing of Tuukka Rask (BOS) pushed the young goalie to a lower league in the Czech Republic. The big netminder is another typical Nashville late round overage pick that has raw talent, athleticism, and is a late bloomer. After five games with pretty good numbers at the Czech elite level, the young goalie was loaned to IHC Pisek (Czech2) where he has posted a poor 4.25 goals against average and a .880 save percentage in 12 games. He could come to North America in the next few years and develop under the Predators' excellent goalie coach, Mitch Korn.