Nashville Predators pipeline runs deep in NCAA and European leagues

By Shaun Bisson
Miikka Salomäki - Team Finland

Photo: Miikka Salomäki ranked fourth on Team Finland in points at the WJC before finishing his third pro season with Kärpät in the SM-liiga (courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

 
The Nashville Predators have a lot of youth in various European leagues as well as the NCAA right now. Out of their 13 prospects that play either overseas or in the NCAA, eight of them have been drafted in the past two entry drafts. The presence of players like Jimmy Vesey (Harvard, ECAC) and Pontus Åberg (Djurgårdens, Hockey Allsvenskan) suggests high offensive capability down the road for the Predators; however, true to Nashville tradition their prospects are predominately two-way players, and there are no better examples of this than Kärpät Oulu’s Miikka Salomäki and Minnesota Golden Gophers’ captain Zach Budish.

Europe

Marek Mazanec, G, HC Plzen (Czech Extraliga)
Drafted 6th Round, 179th Overall, 2012

Another of Nashville’s standard goaltender picks, Marek Mazanec is a large individual, listed at 6’4 and 187 pounds. While he played behind Boston's Tuukka Rask during the lockout, Mazanec has taken over the starting role for HC Plzen and has led the team into the quarterfinals of the Czech Extraliga playoffs. Mazanec boasts a 2.49 goals against average on the season as well as a .912 save percentage, but a lackluster 9-12 record. His numbers have improved in the playoffs with a 1.83 goals against and .938 save percentage through nine games. Mazanec is large and athletic, but is a late bloomer who has not yet reached his potential. He has spent his entire junior and professional career in the HC Plzen system and having been drafted only last year, the next logical step in his development would be to come over to North America to play. The Predators are fairly deep at the goaltending position though, and the primary focus with Mazanec right now will be adding strength and a bit of size before he makes the transition to AHL or NHL play.

Chet Pickard, G, Djurgårdens (Hockey Allsvenskan)
Drafted 1st Round, 18th Overall, 2008

The clear-cut starter for Djurgårdens is Chet Pickard, who appeared in 45 of the team’s 52 regular season games this year. Pickard is another large goalie, but he favors the butterfly approach to his game. After having spent the last three seasons bouncing between the Milwaukee Admirals of the AHL and the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL, it seems as if Pickard’s time as a prospect of the Predators has come to an end, with the amount of younger goalies in front of him on the depth chart. Pickard was solid for Djurgårdens this year and has carried them into the playoffs with hopes of advancing back to the Swedish Elite League next year. A very smart goaltender who likes to use his body to cut down angles, Pickard seems to be at home on the larger ice surface of Europe, posting a 2.15 goals against average and a .918 save percentage during the regular season this year.

Max Görtz, RW, Färjestads BK Karlstad (SEL)
Drafted 6th Round, 172nd Overall, 2012

One of many young two-way players in the prospect pool for the Predators, Görtz enjoyed an increased role in his second year in the Swedish Elite League that saw him score nine goals and add six assists, up from two goals and three assists last year. Görtz is a big, two-way winger whose strongest assets are his strength and his affinity for shooting the puck from anywhere on the ice. A good skater who possesses physicality that is perfect for the North American game, Görtz will look to improve on his offensive capabilities before his contract with Karlstad expires in two years. At 6’2 and 196 pounds, the 20-year-old winger is set up well to continue his development, and is the type of prospect the Predators are known for having.

Pontus Åberg, LW, Djurgårdens (Hockey Allsvenskan)
Drafted 2nd Round, 37th Overall, 2012

The Nashville Predators have to be excited about the potential they see in Pontus Åberg, who played his second season with Djurgårdens in the 2012-2013 season. Åberg led Djurgårdens in points on the season, notching 12 goals and 28 assists in 52 regular season games, good enough to be tied for 12th overall in the Allsvenskan scoring race. Åberg is fast and a good shooter of the puck, but is still a bit undersized for the North American game at 5’11 and 187 pounds. However with his combination of speed and puck skills, Åberg possesses the tools necessary to make an offensive impact wherever he plays. Djurgårdens holds his contract rights to the end of the 2013-14 year, which allow the 19-year-old a good chance to develop before he is thrust into a new environment in North America.

Miikka Salomäki, LW, Kärpät Oulu (SM-liiga)
Drafted 2nd Round, 52nd Overall, 2011

Salomäki is a highly skilled role player for Kärpät Oulu who is frequently used in penalty killing situations. He gained international experience this season when he played for Team Finland at the 2013 World Junior Championships. Despite missing 18 of Oulu’s regular season games, Salomäki contributed 19 points and 44 penalty minutes, proving his worth as grinding forward with offensive potential. A bigger player, Salomäki’s skating improved over the course of the season and allows him to use his size and physicality even more effectively. Another example of a traditional Predators forward, Salomäki should have no problem adjusting to the North American game as he is comparable in size and game style to Milwaukee Admirals center, Michael Latta.

Ryan Thang, LW, Augsburger Panther (DEL)
Drafted 3rd Round, 81st Overall, 2007

Ryan Thang is the oldest of the Predators’ prospects currently playing in Europe, and the 25-year-old Chicago, Illinois native enjoyed a strong year in the German first league this year. Thang tied for third on Augsburger in scoring with 29 points in 50 games played in the regular season. Thang signed in Augsburg in June 2012 after completing two seasons mostly with the Milwaukee Admirals as a grinding third and fourth line player. While possessing a two way game, Thang’s greatest strength is his hockey sense which has fared him well on the larger ice in Europe, but his skating skills are undeniable as well. Unfortunately for Thang, the Predators are quite deep at the two-way forward position, but he should excel in the competitive DEL, a league that features many North American players. Thang possesses above average hands, but he has never returned to the form that saw him compile 41 points in 42 games for Notre Dame as a rookie in 2006-07 and will likely play out his career in Europe.

Joonas Rask, C, Jokerit Helsinki (SM-liiga)
Drafted 7th Round, 198th Overall, 2010

A smaller player, Rask stands at 5’11 and tips the scales to 180 pounds, which might be a reason for his going undrafted in 2009. While smaller, Rask is a dynamic offensive player who possesses the ability to move the puck in and out of defenders with ease. Despite his offensive talents, Rask has struggled this year, managing only five goals and five assists on a Jokerit team that finished first in the regular season and earned a bye to the SM-liiga quarterfinals. While a versatile forward who can play both in the middle and on the wing, to succeed at the next level Rask will need to gain a substantial amount of weight and work on his below average shot, especially when one considers he has been lauded as an exceptional power-play contributor.

Simon Fernholm, D, Frölunda J20 (Swedish Jr. SuperElit)
Drafted 6th Round, 164th Overall, 2012

Another European product of the 2012 draft for the Nashville Predators, Simon Fernholm has spent the majority of the 2012-13 season playing for Frölunda’s junior team after making a five game debut in the Swedish Elite League to start the season. Fernholm recorded his first professional point this year with an assist, but it has been another statistical category that has been an eye-opener for viewers of the young defenseman this year. In 41 games with the Frölunda Indians junior team, Fernholm is a remarkable +30 with 10 assists, solidifying his label as a reliable, stay-at-home defenseman. While Fernholm is tall, he is fairly undersized for his height and will need to work on his strength and skating ability before he moves on, either to Frölunda’s main team, or to North American hockey. Despite this, Fernholm is a remarkably smart player with the ability to make good passes, and the simple, correct play most of the time.

 

NCAA

Zach Budish, RW, Minnesota Golden Gophers (WCHA)
Drafted 2nd Round, 41st Overall, 2009

Zach Budish is a homegrown Minnesotan from Edina, Minnesota who is now captaining the Golden Gophers in his redshirt junior season. Budish has provided leadership for the Gophers not just with his spectacular production – he has 35 points in 39 games – but is also a prototypical power forward who is willing to do anything for his team to win. The big winger is gifted with soft hands and has seen his skating improve over the course of this season despite having two significant ACL injuries over the last four years. Budish has never shied away from engaging in physical activity, but has taken his captaincy role to heart this year, with only 14 penalty minutes, down from 43 last year. There is nothing yet to suggest Budish will vacate his spot on the Gophers squad next year, but when he does graduate to professional hockey, the Nashville Predators will be getting a very versatile and very impressive player.

Jimmy Vesey, LW, Harvard Crimson (ECAC)
Drafted 3rd Round, 66th Overall, 2012

Jimmy Vesey has been the most impressive player on the Harvard Crimson this year, despite being a freshman. Vesey only recently relinquished his title of team scoring leader, even though he missed a good amount of time due to international duty with the gold medal winning USA World Junior squad. Vesey has provided Harvard with 11 goals and seven assists in 27 games this year, and his adjustment to the faster paced collegiate game has been impressive. As a rookie, Vesey is effectively using his size, speed, and skill to create room, allowing him time to make decisions that benefit both himself and the team as a whole. While Vesey’s offensive upside is undeniable, the rookie will benefit from being able to develop his defensive game at the NCAA level.

Chase Balisy, C, Western Michigan Broncos (CCHA)
Drafted 6th Round, 170th Overall, 2011

In his third year with the WMU Broncos, Chase Balisy finds himself atop the team in scoring for the second year in a row with 25 points in 38 games. Balisy is an effective pass-first player who is also an apt two-way forward with a keen eye for defense. The focus of Balisy’s season has been developing his skating, which is the weakest part of his game but has seen improvement thus far this year. The 6'0, 170-pound center is on the smaller end of the spectrum as far as NHL prospects are concerned, but Balisy makes up for it in his drive and willingness to compete in the dirty areas.

Nick Oliver, C, St. Cloud State Huskies (WCHA)
Drafted 4th Round, 110th Overall, 2009

Primarily used in a checking line role this year, Nick Oliver has been hampered by injuries over the past few seasons and as such has not been able to contribute too much offense to the Huskies. Oliver is another example of a typical Predators power forward as his physical play has been a big benefit to the St. Cloud roster this year. Oliver, who has six points on the year in 31 games, is a hard forechecker that can skate well and be an imposing figure for his team. As mentioned before, Oliver has been haunted by injuries and will need to maintain his health in order to best develop his overall game over his final two years with the Huskies.

Garrett Noonan, D, Boston University Terriers (Hockey East)
Drafted 4th Round, 112th Overall, 2011

A highly skilled two-way defenseman, Garrett Noonan is in his third year with the Terriers and is quickly proving he has the tools to be an NHL blueliner down the road. Noonan has put up 19 points in 34 games for the Terriers this year courtesy of 13 assists, but has shown to be more than just an offensive threat. Noonan is a big bodied, mobile defenseman that plays with an extreme sense of calm and a great deal of hockey sense. He does not shy away from the physical game, which allows him to create room for his accurate passes and hard shots. Noonan was expected to make the move to the AHL after last season but chose to return to BU. While not scoring as many points this year, he has showed a growth to his overall game that will make him an asset at the next level for the Predators.

Follow Shaun Bisson on Twitter at @BissonSports

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