The first three roster cuts are complete and the remaining Nashville Predators prospects are entering the most important weekend of their careers. Nashville plays three games in as many nights and the trio of contests will offer the final chance for most prospects to earn roster spots. Here is the first of two reports that will provide updates on all the notable prospects who have participated in the Predators rookie camp and NHL training camp …
David Legwand (8.5)
Believe it or not, David Legwand is already at a crossroads in his career. After a quiet season in the OHL, Nashville expects Legwand to show the intangibles that he focused on at the expense of his offensive production last year. According to Legwand, his statistics suffered last season because he focused on improving his defense, physical play and faceoff ability. As a continuation of that effort, Legwand spent much of the off-season working with a strength and conditioning coach in Nashville, after the organization made it clear that he needs to add muscle and get stronger.
Legwand will definitely make the Nashville roster this season and will likely play on a checking line to start the year. That would give him an opportunity to prove that his work on the intangibles has been worthwhile. It would also allow him to start his NHL career gradually, much like Joe Thornton and Vincent Lecavalier did with their respective teams. A conservative approach is probably best for Legwand, who is not yet ready to be a star player.
Even in his stellar first season in the OHL, Legwand showed signs of weakness. He struggled at times to handle the physical game and was often overpowered in the corners. In his second season, he showed more grit and determination and was much tougher to knock off the puck. But he was moved down to the second scoring line, while Vancouver Canucks prospect Harold Druken took over on the first line and had a breakthrough season.
So despite the high expectations for Legwand, Nashville will probably want him to fit in with a hard-working team and focus on the less glamorous aspects of the game. If fans expect Legwand to put up the big offensive numbers that got him drafted, they may be disappointed. Instead, he must first prove that he has the size, strength and toughness to be more than a finesse player.
Brian Finley (8.5)
Unfortunately, Brian Finley had a tweaked groin during the early part of the Predators training camp and it cost him an opportunity to play in the first two exhibition games. However, Nashville is already convinced that he is a star prospect. Finley was outstanding during rookie camp and dazzled coaches with his play, especially during the rookie tournament games in Traverse City, Michigan. He saved 81 of 87 shots during the tournament for a .931 save percentage, including a 34-save performance against the Detroit Red Wings. Finley finally saw his first exhbition action in a game against the Florida Panthers on September 16. He made nine saves on 11 shots and got a better test of his ability against NHL veterans. Despite the shaky statistics, Finley was impressive and will probably play in one more game before he is sent back to the OHL.
Marian Cisar (6.5)
This might be the season that Marian Cisar finally reaches the NHL, but his chances to make the team out of training camp are limited. Cisar is primarily an offensive forward and it would be difficult for him to earn a spot on the top two scoring lines for the Predators. Sergei Krivokrasov and Vitali Yachmenev will likely be the top two right wings and Nashville will surely have team captain Tom Fitzgerald on the checking line and new enforcer Phil Crowe on the fourth unit. With considerable depth at center, Nashville might want to use Scott Walker at right wing as well, so it may be difficult for Cisar to get regular playing time, even if he makes the roster.
So it appears that Cisar may have to start the season in Milwaukee, where he spent all of last season. However, he has been very impressive in exhibition games and has clearly maintained his status as the top Nashville prospect at right wing. If he is sent to the minors, he will definitely be one of the first call-ups if the Predators need help. But if Cisar can get some regular season playing time, he might find himself in the NHL to stay.
Petr Sykora (6.5)
He has already been sent down to Milwaukee of the IHL, but Petr Sykora is still one of the best prospects in the Nashville organization. Unfortunately, he has been caught in a numbers game at center, where the Predators have more legitimate prospects than they can handle. Sykora saw action during the first two exhibition games, but with David Legwand breaking into the NHL and other players like Steve Washburn and Randy Robitaille competing for jobs at center, his future is probably as a left wing.
Sykora was used at that position toward the end of last season in Milwaukee and the move helped increase his ice time and production. If he can make an effective transition to left wing, Sykora will probably see some action in Nashville this season and it could be the break he needs to start a successful NHL career.
Randy Robitaille (6.5)
He escaped the Boston Bruins organization, where he faced nearly impossible odds to make the NHL, but Randy Robitaille is facing an almost tougher battle to earn a roster spot with the Predators. Robitaille brought impressive minor league credentials to training camp and has backed them up with a strong performance during the exhibition season. But as a center, he is vying for a spot at the deepest position in the organization. If he continues to play well, he will make it very tough for Nashville to cut him from the roster, but he will likely be sent to the minors. His stay could be a short one though, especially if Darren Turcotte does not regain his past form and Sebastien Bordeleau takes longer than expected to recover from neck surgery.
Martin Bartek (6.5)
The Predators were pleased to learn that Martin Bartek will return to North America this season, after spending a year playing in the Slovakian elite league. He turned heads in Slovakia, where he scored 10 goals and added eight assits in 28 games. It was an impressive performance for an 18 year-old playing at the professional level.
Bartek continued his success with a strong rookie camp. He scored a goal and two assists during the rookie tournament and maintained his status as the best left wing prospect in the organization. Without major competition at his position, he could quickly ascend to the NHL level, but he will likely need at least two more years of development. Bartek will return to North America this season and play for the Moncton Wildcats of the QMJHL. Two years ago, he played in that same league for the Sherbrooke Castors.
Jonas Andersson (6.5)
Jonas Andersson continues to impress the Nashville coaching staff with his skating, speed and overall skill. Ever since he participated in a rookie mini-camp in Nashville over the summer, he has been the most talked-about prospect other than David Legwand. Nashville scouts describe his skating as phenomenal and in a class with Legwand, while his maturity and dedication to learning the North American game have made him a favourite among the coaches.
He was sent to North Bay of the OHL in the first training camp roster cuts, but he made a strong showing during the rookie camp tournament. He was not given the opportunity to play during the exhibition season, since the Predators want to give him more time to adapt to the smaller ice surface and more rugged style of play in North America. Andersson was a surprise pick early in the second round of the 1999 NHL draft, but he is proving worthy of that selection. If he has an impact season in the OHL, he could be back to challenge for a roster spot next year.
Richard Lintner (6)
One of the final defensive prospects remaining in camp, Richard Lintner has an outside chance of making the Nashville roster, but will likely be back in Milwaukee this season. He skates well and can move the puck effectively, making him one of the candidates to fill the offensive defenseman role that the Predators need. However, Kimmo Timonen appears set to play that role for Nashville and Lintner will have to spend more time in the IHL. Lintner will be one of the first call-ups if the Predators need help on defense, so he will almost certainly see some playing time in the NHL this season, but he will have to wait until next year to compete for regular ice time.
Bubba Berenzweig (6)
As expected, Bubba Berenzweig is already getting media attention in Nashville because of his first name. But he has also garnered attention as a solid defenseman during training camp. He survived the initial roster cuts and will remain in Nashville, at least for a few more days. Berenzweig has impressed the coaches with his ability and has the potential to become the offensive defenseman the Predators need, without a sacrifice of good defense or physical play. It is very doubtful that Berenzweig can beat out established veterans and make the team, but he has emerged as one of the best defensive prospects in the organization.
To be continued …