Nashville Predators have a mix of rookies and NHL-ready prospects at pro level

By Shaun Bisson
Mattias Ekholm - Nashville Predators

Photo: Finnish defenseman Mattias Ekholm is one of three defensive prospects on the Milwaukee Admirals roster with NHL experience. (courtesy of Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

 
The Nashville Predators have traditionally been a team that appears to be both on the verge of a rebuild and getting ready for a championship run. This is mirrored by their AHL and ECHL prospects, who could be considered phenomenal fits for the system run by the Predators but are also a little weaker in terms of talent compared to other teams.

Regardless, it is indisputable that they have a few players that are waiting for the NHL lockout to end in order to make the jump from the Milwaukee Admirals to the Preds full time. On the defensive end it is clear that Ryan Ellis is ready to crack the lineup once the injury to his wrist is fully healed. Jonathon Blum looks poised to crack the top-six on the back end as well, and up front Gabriel Bourque is proving that his big time minutes in the playoffs last year were no fluke and that he is ready to make the jump to the NHL full time.

While the prospects for the Preds are somewhat thin on the wings, they have a lot to look forward to at center, on defense, and in net with Jeremy Smith and Magnus Hellberg proving to be a capable tandem for the Admirals.

AHL

Gabriel Bourque, LW, 22

The Nashville Predators have one of the best left wing prospects in the American Hockey League in Gabriel Bourque. Bourque missed a month of the early season with a lower body injury, but since returning to the Admirals lineup, he has found the form that saw him earn a late season call up to the Predators last year. Bourque has five goals in his last four games with Milwaukee and is showing off the talent that earned him top-six minutes in the Predators 10 game playoff run last year. Bourque appears slated to return to the Predators lineup once the lockout ends and will be expected to contribute in a big way. Most would consider him a steal, seeing as he was the Predators 132nd pick in the 2009 NHL Draft but his long-term effectiveness will come into question as Bourque measures in at 5’9, 200 pounds.

Taylor Beck, LW, 21

Playing behind Bourque in Milwaukee is Taylor Beck, who is seeing a decreased role this year because of the addition of the NHL caliber winger. Beck was a 40 point man last year in his first full AHL season and appears to be looking to contribute even more offensively this year. He already has scored four goals and 14 assists in only 20 games played, which is tops on the Admirals squad. He is a big power forward who has a penchant for parking in front of the net, but will need to work on his power skating and skill side of the game to progress in his development.

Jack Maclellan, LW, 24

The Milwaukee Admirals list 24-year-old Jack Maclellan as their fourth line centerman, but he has played predominantly on the left wing this year after signing a free agent contract in March of 2012. The Brown University graduate averaged more than a point per game over his last three NCAA seasons, but seems to be struggling to find his form as he adapts to the faster, more physical game of the AHL. With only one assist in 17 games thus far this season, the number that stands out the most for Maclellan is his -10 rating. The Admirals are hoping that he finds the play that earned him a contract again, and finds it soon.

Austin Watson, C, 20

The Predators, while struggling for depth at the wings, are both deep and young at the pivot position and have to happy with two of their youngsters in particular. Austin Watson was an 18th overall pick in the 2010 draft. Watson had a particularly impressive junior career that saw him play a role in the Windsor Spitfires Memorial Cup championship run in 2008-09. Watson is a versatile and physical center who can put up points and drop the gloves, making him a very valuable asset to the Predators. Watson made his AHL debut two seasons ago playing in five games for the Admirals before returning to the Peterborough Petes for the remainder of the season. After a run to the Memorial Cup finals with the London Knights last year, Watson made the transition to the professional ranks permanently this year, appearing in all 26 games for the Admirals and playing a predominant role on the team with nine goals and seven assists.

Michael Latta, C, 21

Another highly touted prospect down the middle who is seeing big time minutes in Milwaukee this year is Michael Latta. Latta spent all of last year with the Admirals and appears poised to prove that he is going to be a future NHL player along with Watson. Another player who does not shy away from the rough stuff, Latta has 17 points and 71 penalty minutes this year while also appearing in all 26 games for the Admirals. Latta’s penalty minutes are by far the most on the team and he is taking his energy player role seriously, as it appears he will be the future grinder/agitator for the Predators despite his small stature. Both he and Watson have the unique ability to put up points while simultaneously spending heavy minutes deep in corners grinding the other teams down.

Jani Lajunen, C, 22

Jani Lajunen is one of two capable centers for the Admirals stuck behind two guys that could play key parts for the franchise in a few years. Lajunen and Ben Ryan have combined for only 3 points all season long while appearing in 24 and 21 games, respectively. Lajunen was never a big point producer for the Espoo Blues in the Finnish SM-liiga, but he has a distinct offensive flair and the Predators are hoping to see that side of him more often.

Ben Ryan, C, 24

The Admirals coaching staff and the Predators player development group would also enjoy seeing Ryan return to the near point-per-game production that he displayed in his two years with the Des Moines Buccaneers of the USHL, or at least the steady offensive contributions from his four years with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the CCHA. In order to do this, Ryan will need to work on his physical play in order to open more room for himself on the ice.

Juuso Puustinen, RW, 24

The thinnest part of the Predators' prospect group is right wing, which sees a couple of European prospects who are playing energy line minutes in the AHL this season. Juuso Puustinen signed on as a free agent in 2011 after being a Calgary Flames pick in the 2006 draft. Puustinen put up a respectable 32 points in 55 games with the Admirals last year, but is well off that pace this season with only two goals and seven assists through 25 games. The Finnish winger needs to increase his productivity along with his physicality or may be seeing his chances at developing into an NHL player slip away.

Patrick Cehlin, RW, 21

The only other young right wing that the Predators have in their system is 21-year-old Swede Patrick Cehlin, who amassed 41 points over the course of three-plus years playing for Djurgardens in Sweden. A late round pick by the Predators in the 2010 draft, his stock looks to be rising as he has 13 points in 24 games so far this year with Milwaukee, which is only three points less than his best season in the Swedish Elite League. Both Puustinen and Cehlin need work on their physicality before making a large impact in the AHL.

Ryan Ellis, D, 21

The deepest position for the Predators at the pro level is undoubtedly on the back end with future NHL players like Ryan Ellis and Jonathon Blum leading the way for the Admirals. It Is almost certain that these prospects, who have 88 regular season and 15 post-season NHL games on their combined resume, will see a permanent move to Nashville after the lockout ends.

Ryan Ellis is a dynamic power play specialist who is known for his vision and puck movement, as well as an incredible shot from the point and the ability to keep pucks in the offensive zone. While somewhat undersized – he is smaller than his listed 5’10 – he is more than capable of running a productive power play and that is exactly what the Predators will be expecting from him when he makes the transition to full time NHL minutes. Ellis has missed all but 12 games so far this season because of a broken wrist he suffered in the off-season, but since returning to the lineup he has netted six assists. This is expected to pick up as he regains his feel for the game, and the 11th overall pick of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft should see time as the seventh defenseman for Nashville once the lockout is settled.

Jonathon Blum, D, 23

Complimenting Ellis on the back end is the more conventional defenseman Jonathon Blum who was Nashville’s 23rd overall pick in 2007. The explosively quick defenseman has contributed ten points in his 26 games with the Admirals this year and has amassed six goals and nine assists in 56 games with the Nashville Predators over the course of two seasons spanning 2010 to 2012. Blum did not see any action in the playoffs for the Predators last year, but expect his role to change in a big way now that Ryan Suter is gone and the Preds look to fill a hole on defense. Blum will benefit from his exceptional positional play and his textbook defensive technique.

While Blum and Ellis will not be able to completely replace the All-Star defenseman right away, they are two of the best defensive prospects that the Predators have. The duo, along with the likes of Roman Josi, will be called upon to contribute soon.

Mattias Ekholm, D, 22

The Predators have another prospect with NHL experience in Mattias Ekholm, who saw action with the big club last year. Ekholm played in two games with the Predators while spending most of the season with Brynas in the SEL. Now playing in his first season in the AHL since being selected 102nd overall in the 2009 draft, Ekholm is the Admirals leading point scoring defenseman with four goals and ten assists through 26 games so far this year. The 6'4, 176-pound blueliner is still experiencing the adjustment period that goes with being a European in his first full North American season, and this is evident in the way he responds to physical play on the smaller ice surface.

Joonas Jarvinen, D, 23

Another European on the back end for the Admirals is Joonas Jarvinen, who is also seeing his first season of North American hockey after signing a free agent deal with the Predators in May of 2012. He was a physical, point-scoring defenseman with the Lahti Pelicans of the SM-Liiga in Finland a season ago, but he is barely a top-four defenseman in Milwaukee with Ellis, Blum, and Ekholm ahead of him. The 6’3, 230-pound blueliner is playing well in his new role as a banger and has contributed three points thus far this year along with 37 penalty minutes while playing alongside fellow grinder Scott Valentine.

Scott Valentine, D, 21

Valentine was a free agent signing in 2011 and is in his second year with the Admirals. The 6’0, 213-pound defender is not a big scorer, but instead is relied on for his checking abilities and defensive reliability. This is noted in his +5 rating through 23 games this year. At 21 years old, Valentine may not overpower bigger forwards at the next level, but he still has a chance to develop into a bottom two NHL defenseman in a Predators system that is known for grinding opponents down rather than piling points up on the offensive end.

Jeremy Smith, G, 23

The Admirals are deep at the goaltending position, having two second round selections in Jeremy Smith and Magnus Hellberg make up the pairing in Milwaukee, while having a former first round pick in Chet Pickard developing his game over in Europe. Jeremy Smith sees most of the action for the Admirals after claiming the starter's position last year posting a record of 31-19-2 for Milwaukee. While a small goaltender, Smith is extremely agile and moves quick laterally. His work ethic along with his swiftness in the goal bode well for the 54th overall pick in the 2007 draft. His 2.66 goals against average and .900 save percentage are very respectable in a lockout season that is seeing quite a bit of NHL talent make their way to the AHL.

Magnus Hellberg, G, 21

Backing up Smith is a younger Magnus Hellbergy who was the Preds 38th pick in 2011. Hellberg has seen action in eight games for Milwaukee this year, as well as two for Cincinnati in the ECHL. The big bodied goalie is the typical Predators goaltender who is efficient in positioning his body well and making shooters hit him with the puck. Hellberg projects well for his future, but being used to European sized ice, he will likely need time to adjust to the North American game before making strides towards playing in the NHL. So far he has earned a 4-2-0 record in the AHL with a 3.20 goals against average and .893 save percentage.

ECHL

Josh Shalla, LW, 21

Josh Shalla is a promising prospect for the Predators and is currently tied for third on the points list for the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones despite having been called up to the Admirals for five games earlier this season. The 21-year-old was a fourth round pick for the Predators in the 2011 draft and is producing at almost a point-per-game rate in an effort to make a move up to the AHL and eventually the NHL. Perhaps the start in the ECHL is what was needed to motivate the Shalla to take the steps necessary off the ice to improve his game.

Anthony Bitetto, D, 22

As mentioned previously, the Predators prospects are the deepest at the defensive position, and this is proven with three Cincinnati Cyclones who have also seen significant time in the AHL alongside their predominant roles on the ECHL affiliate. Anthony Bitetto and Charles-Olivier Roussel have both been call ups to the Milwaukee Admirals this year, appearing in five and four games respectively for Milwaukee. Bitetto was the Predators 168th selection in 2010 and is further down the depth chart for Cincinnati this season. Only appearing in 13 games for the club while registering one assist, Bitetto fits the traditional Predators mold of a shutdown defenseman. 

Charles-Olivier Roussel, D, 21

Roussel was more highly touted in his draft class and was Nashville's 42nd selection in 2009. He has played in 15 ECHL games contributing two goals and three assists. The versatile blueliner has high value because of his ability to play multiple roles on the point, whether it be power play or penalty kill, and logging more ice time in Cincinnati should help ease his transition to the pro level.

Taylor Aronson, D, 20

Taylor Aronson is in his second year with the Cyclones and spent 14 games with the Admirals in the 2011-12 season. The 78th pick in the 2010 entry draft is the youngest on the Cyclones back end, and is in place to learn quite a bit from an experienced ECHL defensive team. Much like Roussel, Aronson is able to contribute in a variety of different roles, which only increases his value as he gains more and more experience. He has one goal and four points in 17 games for the Cyclones so far this season.

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