Predators 2005-06 AHL review

By Kevin Wey

What the Nashville Predators lacked in quantity in the AHL in 2005-06, they made for in quality.

First-year pro Shea Weber is one of the most talented upcoming young defensemen. The 20-year-old blueliner has an excellent combination of skill, power, and size, and only needed half of an AHL season to graduate to the NHL. Third-year pro Scottie Upshall emerged from the NHL lockout as one of the most dangerous offensive forwards in the AHL and, like Weber, probably will not be returning to Milwaukee. Talented two-way defenseman Greg Zanon could have played on a number of NHL teams in 2005-06, but Nashville’s depth at defense kept him in the AHL for all but four NHL games. Nashville’s depth at defense was further demonstrated by the fact that Kevin Klein played only two games for the Predators last season despite leading the Admirals in defensive scoring.

The Predators expected excellence from Weber, Upshall, Zanon, and Klein, but goaltender Pekka Rinne proved to be a revelation in Milwaukee. The 23-year-old Finn had been a backup in the Sm-Liiga for two seasons but established himself as a starter in the AHL.

Not only did Nashville have depth at defense, it had an impressive forward corps. It was so good that 70-point scorer and AHL All-Star >Libor Pivko did not play a single game for Nashville despite being an excellent two-way forward for the Milwaukee Admirals. Right wingers Brandon Segal and Paul Brown played a valuable checking role for the Admirals down the stretch and into the playoffs.

The Milwaukee Admirals swept the Houston Aeros and the Grand Rapids Griffins after taking the Iowa Stars to seven games. The talented players Nashville returned to Milwaukee at the end of its own run helped lead the Admirals to the Calder Cup Finals.

Paul Brown, RW
Age: 21 (2nd Year Pro)
Acquired: 3rd Rd, 89th overall, 2003 NHL Entry Draft

Right winger Paul Brown has started each of the last two seasons on the penalty kill, so to speak.

Brown missed half of 2004-05 taking care of some personal issues, and then missed most of the first half of 2005-06 with a concussion suffered in training camp.

“You talk about trying to catch up or play catch-up in both years, it’s really difficult to come into the line-up in January and try and make a contribution when you’ve been out half the year, because you’re just not up to speed like everybody else,” Milwaukee Admirals head coach Claude Noel told Hockey’s Future early in the playoffs.

An early Christmas present, Brown rejoined the Admirals line-up Dec. 21 and played six games to end the month before he was reassigned to the UHL Rockford Ice Hogs Dec. 31 to help Brown get even more ice time in his attempt to get back into optimal game shape. Brown was returned to the Admirals the next day and played in Milwaukee’s next 11 games, but he was scratched Jan. 28 after failing to tally in 17 games and going -6. The second-year pro was scratched in nine of Milwaukee’s next 12 games before being reassigned to Rockford again Feb. 25 for two more games with the Ice Hogs.

After his short stint with Rockford, and with Upshall recalled back to Nashville, Brown played in each of Milwaukee’s final 21 regular season games. Brown went without a point in the final 10 games of the regular season, but he still played a valuable checking role on a line with Zack Stortini and Brandon Segal down the stretch and in 18 playoff games.

“He’s a guy that his game will primarily be taking other people’s game away,” Noel said of Brown. “But he can also add offense, he thinks the game well enough, he can make plays, he can make passes, he needs to just get better in some areas where, he needs to probably get a little stronger, a little bigger.”

At 6’3, 195-pounds, Brown has a good base to work with so as to become a checking forward closer to the size of 6’2, 210-pound Brandon Segal. Like Segal, Brown throws down from time to time.

“He’s probably a middleweight tough guy as well, which is a huge asset in today’s game, guys that can play and handle themselves, and that’s certainly what he can do,” Noel said.

With better fortune, Brown could become a depth forward for the Predators who plays an aggressive forechecking game. The most important thing for Brown heading into his final year of his entry-level contract is to play the entire season.

“He’s a guy that plays with an edge, smart, thinks, and he’ll benefit from starting in September in training camp and going through the year, finally,” Noel said.

“Stepping in halfway through is tough. You’re in survival mode. He needed to be there from the beginning, when we practiced, when we played six games in October, that’s when we had a lot of practices and development. He would have really gained a lot from those practices off the ice.”

Kevin Klein, D
Age:
21 (2nd Year Pro)
Acquired: 2nd Rd, 37th overall, 2003 NHL Entry Draft

The fact that Kevin Klein played only two games for the Predators in 2005-06 speaks volume of Nashville’s depth at defense.

Klein started 2005-06 season by becoming a regular on the scoresheet for the Admirals. The second-year pro tallied four assists in six games in October and then had a point in eight of Milwaukee’s 10 games in November. With one goal and 12 assists in his first 17 games of the season, Klein was recalled by Nashville Dec. 3 when Kimmo Timonen went down with the flu. Klein made his NHL debut and was assigned to Milwaukee again Dec. 4 along with Admirals teammate Greg Zanon.

Klein continued to score upon his return to Milwaukee by scoring eight goals and 17 assists in 43 games from Dec. 4 through March 5. When Danny Markov went down to an ankle injury and Timonen bruised his hand, the Predators recalled Klein to play March 9 in Vancouver. The 21-year-old played in his second NHL game, a 3-2 Nashville victory, and was kept up with the team for the San Jose game to complete a four-game western swing, but Klein was scratched against the Sharks and was returned March 13.

Returning for Milwaukee for the stretch drive, Klein went pointless in his first eight games after being reassigned and finally tallied two assists against Rochester March 29, a 6-0 shutout of the Americans. Klein finished the season with assists in each of Milwaukee’s final two games of the season and finished the season with 10 goals and 32 assists in 76 games, leading the Admirals in defense scoring.

The Calder Cup Playoffs brought more of the same from Klein. He finished second among Milwaukee defenseman scoring with 10 points, on the strength of three goals and seven assists, and tied Zanon in plus/minus at +11. The end of the Calder Cup Finals could have gone better for Klein, though. Generally known for his fair play, Klein exploded with a fight against Graham Mink in a scrum at 6:11 in the first period of Milwaukee’s 7-4 loss to Hershey June 11. With the Admirals down 6-2 in the third period, Klein received two-minute roughing call and a 10-minute misconduct, as the frustration mounted. Klein received another 10-minute misconduct two nights later with eight seconds remaining in Milwaukee’s 6-4 loss to Hershey in Game 5. Picking up a two-minute unsportsmanlike in the same play, Klein 31 penalty minutes over two nights constituted all of his time in the penalty box in the playoffs.

Although Klein was Milwaukee’s top-scoring defenseman in 2005-06, his future with Nashville is not as a replacement to Marek Zidlicky or Timonen.

“He’s a really good skater, he’s got some skill, he makes plays, but I don’t think he’s a top offensive guy,” Noel said of Klein. “I think he’s a good offensive guy at this level, but I don’t think he will be that type of player in the National Hockey League.”

Instead, the reasons Klein received his call-ups to Nashville were because “he plays a solid game up there, moves the puck, gets up the ice, follows it up, plays physical, and is a very good defender,” according to Noel.

“He’s just solid.”

That wasn’t always the case, though. Klein struggled in his first two months with the Admirals in 2004-05.

“He was not too willing to change his game too much, and I think he needed to, from juniors to pro,” Noel said. “I think he needed to pay a little more attention to just defending and not being such an offensive guy as he was in juniors.”

Since then, the 6’1, 195-pound Klein has matured and become a reliable two-way defenseman for Milwaukee, thanks to his numerous strengths

“He’s a really good skater and handles weight, for a guy that’s not real big, but handles weight, defends great, plays off the rush real good.”

However, Klein’s odds of cracking Nashville out of training camp in September are not good. Zidlicky, Timonen, Dan Hamhuis, Weber, and Suter are expected to comprise five of Nashville’s top six defensemen in 2006-07, and it is unlikely that Nashville will allow all three of Mark Eaton, Danny Markov, and Brendan Witt go unsigned, Group III unrestricted free agents all. Assuming Nashville retains at least one of the three, likely Brendan Witt for the size he brings to the line-up, the more experienced Zanon will likely earn the seventh defense spot over Klein. There’s reason for optimism with Klein, though.

“He’ll have a chance to push,” Noel said of Klein’s chances. “He’s knocking on the door.”

If injuries strike the Nashville d-corps in 2006-07, Klein will be one of the first recalls.

Libor Pivko, LW
Age: 26 (3rd Year North American Pro)
Acquired: 3rd Rd, 89th overall, 2000 NHL Entry Draft

While the fact that Klein played only two games was a testament to Nashville’s depth at defense, the fact that Libor Pivko did not play any games for the Predators was even more surprising.

Pivko, a left winger, broke out offensively in 2005-06 thanks to playing the point on the Milwaukee power play. In 69 games, Pivko tallied 36 assists with the man advantage, third most in the AHL in 2006-07. His 58 total assists placed him fourth among all AHL players during the 2005-06 regular season. Despite having a strong shot, Pivko only scored 12 goals for the Admirals, but half of those came on the power play. With Milwaukee’s top four defensemen in scoring in 2004-05 no longer on the team in 2005-06, Hamhuis and Suter to Nashville and Andrew Hutchinson and Brad Tiley to free agency, the Admirals needed somebody to step up. Pivko was that man.

“Missing some of the players that we’d had last year, we didn’t know who would occupy the minutes on the back end on the power play, and so he plays the point on the power play because he’s smart,” Noel said. “He’s very heady, smart, he’s got good hands, good skills, and he’s probably our top guy back there. He’s a very good defender, he doesn’t play like a forward back there.”

Pivko played the point because Milwaukee was missing some of their defensemen from 2004-05, but the Admirals were missing Pivko for the beginning of the Calder Cup Playoffs. Out with a “lower body injury,” Pivko missed the first six games against the Iowa Stars, made an abortive attempt in Game 7, and missed Game 1 in the West Division Finals against Houston. He later missed Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Finals against the Grand Rapids Griffins. Despite battling nagging injuries, Pivko scored 3 goals and 5 assists in 12 games.

Pivko’s offensive poise is evident on the power play, but the 6’2, 195-pounder is also an extremely effective defensive forward due to his skating, speed, size, and defensive awareness.

“He’s a really good checker,” Noel said of Pivko. “He angles, he’s dependable, strong on the walls, he’s just a reliable player that can bring his offense, too.

“You’re not going to get a much better of a checker than him.”

Pivko’s intelligent puck pursuit and work along the walls allows him to create turnovers. The skilled Czech then has the hands and poise to make plays once he gains possession of the puck. His strong two-way game earned him a place in the 2006 AHL All-Star Game Feb. 1 in Winnipeg. In the Skills Competition, Pivko fired a 94 mile-per-hour slap shot in the Hardest Shot Competition, removing all doubt he has all the tools to play the point.

The 26-year-old Pivko also has all of the tools to be a third or fourth line forward at the NHL level on most any team, but Nashville’s depth kept him in the AHL for the entire season, save for a recall to practice Feb. 15 to Feb. 17 during the Olympic break. Despite his age and despite having played only one NHL game in his career, the NHL lockout means Pivko is ineligible to become a Group VI unrestricted free agent. The Predators will still have to tender Pivko a qualifying offer to retain his rights. Given the direction the NHL is going, Pivko should find himself in the NHL.

“I think he can play in the National Hockey League, if not Nashville, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was someplace else,” Noel said of Pivko. “He’s as good, if not better, than some of the players that are there (in Nashville) that I see.

“To me, there’s no question he should be in the National Hockey League next year. No question.”

Pekka Rinne, G
Age: 23 (1st Year North American Pro)
Acquired: 8th Rd, 258th overall, 2004 NHL Entry Draft

Pekka Rinne was a backup goalie on Karpat Oulu in 2004-05, now he looks set to become Nashville’s back-up goalie in 2006-07.

Rinne was No. 2 to Sm-Liiga veteran Niklas Backstrom for two seasons, including Karpat’s Sm-Liiga championship 2004-05 season, but he quickly established himself as a number one goaltender in the AHL with the Admirals. After relieving Brian Finley in Milwaukee’s first game of the season, Rinne started the next seven games for the Admirals and after three close losses, won four straight, including a 4-0 shutout victory over the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights Oct. 29. In that stretch, Rinne made 169 saves on 182 shots for a .929 save percentage.

Finley and Rinne began splitting time more evenly as November wore on, and Finley was even named the AHL Goalie of the Month for November and recalled to Nashville Dec. 9 when Tomas Vokoun went down with a strained left knee, but Rinne got his chance Dec. 14 when Chris Mason went down to a groin injury. Rinne received his first NHL start Dec. 15 against Chicago Blackhawks and made 35 saves in a 5-3 victory. The 23-year-old Finn was re-assigned to Milwaukee Dec. 18 when Vokoun returned to the line-up. By the end of December, Rinne had a 13-8-1 record and a .908 save percentage, enough to earn the respect of the AHL fans to be named the starting goaltender for PlanetUSA for the AHL All-Star Classic Feb. 1 in Winnipeg. Playing the first period of the All-Star Game, Rinne made 10 saves on 12 shots in PlanetUSA’s 9-4 loss to the Canadian AHL All-Star Team.

As the season wore on, Rinne continued to impress and when Vokoun went down to a sore back, which was later discovered to be blood clots that took him out for the rest of the season, Nashville recalled Rinne over Finley April 3. When he was recalled, Rinne had a 30-18-2 record and a .904 save percentage and a 2.82 goals-against average in his first season of North American pro hockey. Rinne made his second NHL appearance April 5 against Chicago, but only played the final 3:08 of the first period after giving up a goal and two shots. Mason received the rest of the action for the Predators down the stretch and played every minute of Nashville’s Western Conference Quartfinal loss to San Jose in five games, but Rinne had established himself in front of Finley on the Nashville depth chart.

Rinne was assigned to Milwaukee again May 1 and went on a nine-game winning streak by sweeping Houston in the Western Conference Semifinals and Grand Rapids in the Western Conference Finals and beating Hershey in Game 1 of the Calder Cup Finals. Among Rinne’s top games in that stretch was a 32-save, 7-0 shutout victory over Houston May 6 and a 36-save, shutout victory over Grand Rapids May 18. The next game, Rinne made 41 saves on 42 shots to beat the Griffins 2-1.

Unlike the Aeros and the Griffins, the Hershey Bears were able to find Rinne’s number. Rinne had a 21-save, 2-0 shutout victory over Hershey in Game 3 of the Calder Cup Finals, but he had trouble in the other four games. The Bears scored six goals on 32 shots in Game 2, five goals on 21 shots in Game 5, and chased Rinne from the net less than 10 minutes into Game 4 and less than six minutes into Game 6. Rinne’s less-than-stellar performances limited him to a .905 save percentage and 2.86 goals-against average, but his 10-4 record and three shutouts still stood out.

Rinne’s development in 2005-06 allowed to let Chris Mason test the free agent market this summer. If Rinne does in fact become Vokoun’s backup in 2006-07, the 6’5, 207-pound netminder has a number of strengths.

“He’s athletic, he’s big, he handles the puck well, he understands goaltending, he has great goaltending sense, he’s got a good poke check, he’s smart, quick, covers the bottom of the net and, with that, has an unbelievable work ethic,” Noel effused.

That work ethic helped Rinne adjust from the European game to the North American game and should help ensure he has a future in the Nashville organization.

“You just had to watch him in practice to know that this guy is good player, he just needed to play,” Noel said of the former Karpat back-up. “We took him out of the backup role and just put him into a role, just any role, the role that he would earn.”

On top of having a solid work ethic, Rinne is also a student of the game, a quality Noel finds important in players.

“You’re going to find that your best players are always your self-learners, the guys who look in the mirror and are students of the game and they assess situations, they assess their own play, they assess practices,” Noel said. “We can teach all we want, but the player’s got to be willing to learn, and when they’re willing to learn on their own, you can help teach them, and Rinne has all those attributes.”

Needing experience heading into 2005-06, Rinne could face a developmental problem in 2006-07 if he is Vokoun’s back-up. Vokoun played 61 regular season games despite missing 11 games due to injury in 2005-06, and played 69 games in 2002-03 and 73 games in 2003-04, meaning Rinne may only receive spot duty as Vokoun’s backup, as Chris Mason did before him. If Rinne is not Vokoun’s backup next season, playing over 60 games in the AHL next season could really help him.

“You’ve got some of the strengths he has and you work, it’s just a matter of time,” Noel said of Rinne. “Then, all you need is to season that with a little bit of experience and you’re on your way.”

Whether he’s a back-up in the Nashville or Milwaukee’s starter next season, the 2004 eight round draft pick is already well on his way toward paying dividends for the Predators.

Brandon Segal, RW
Age: 22 (3rd Year Pro)
Acquired: 4th Rd, 102nd overall, 2002 NHL Entry Draft

Third-year pro Brandon Segal played an important role for the Milwaukee Admirals down the stretch and in the playoffs, but it may not be enough to earn another two-way contract from Nashville.

Segal got off to a quick start with 3 goals and 1 assist in 6 games in October, but the offense became more sporadic as the season went on. The 22-year-old right winger had two-goal games Nov. 8 against the Iowa Stars and Dec. 17 against the Chicago Wolves, but after going pointless in his last six games in January, Segal only had 10 goals and 7 assists in 46 games.

However, February proved that Segal still had the offensive ability he demonstrated in 2003-04, when he scored 11 goals and 10 assists in 44 games for the Admirals. Segal played on a line with Chris Durno and Rich Peverley during February and was able to play as a finisher while Durno and Peverley fed Segal the puck. In Milwaukee’s first 10 games in February, Segal scored 6 goals and 5 assists, including scoring a goal and two assists and a +4 rating in Milwaukee’s 7-4 victory over Manitoba Feb. 17.

As quickly as Segal’s scoring had come, it went. When Nashville assigned David Legwand to Milwaukee Feb. 22 for a conditioning stint after missing over two months with a knee injury, the Admirals shuffled their lines and Segal was the odd man out. From Feb. 23 on, Segal only had 2 goals and 3 assists in 23 games, giving him 18 goals and 15 assists in 79 games. Although the offense dried up, the 6’2, 210-pound Segal contributed to Milwaukee’s success in a checking role on a line with Paul Brown and Zack Stortini.

Admirals head coach Claude Noel said of the line, “They have a huge impact on games, because they take people’s game away.”

Segal continued to skate in this role in the Calder Cup Playoffs, where he scored 1 goal and 2 assists in 21 games. Milwaukee placed Segal into a checking role because he regularly finishes his checks along the boards and in the corners and has the size to win many of those battles, although he does need to improve his balance to win even more of his one-on-one battles. A 43-goal scorer in the WHL for the Calgary Hitmen in 2002-03, Segal has a strong shot and has good hands around the net. An established shooter, Segal must learn to use his size even better when skating the puck.

“He has a little bit of a power game, that’s one of the areas he has to improve on,” Noel said of Segal.“He needs to work on protecting the puck a little better.”

Segal finished tied for fifth in Admirals goal-scoring in 2005-06, but it is uncertain whether Nashville will tender him a qualifying offer. If the Predators do re-sign Segal, it will be with the hope that he can eventually develop into a fourth line or depth forward who provides a physical presence along the boards and has the hands to put home the scoring chances he gets around the net. However, given Nashville’s organizational depth at forward, demonstrated by the fact that the far-superior Libor Pivko did not play an NHL game in 2005-06, Segal is a long shot to don the Predators jersey any time other than training camp.

Scottie Upshall, LW
Age: 22 (4th Year Pro)
Acquired: 1st Rd, 6th overall, 2002 NHL Entry Draft

Scottie Upshall is ready to take his place in Nashville.

A third-year pro, Upshall started 2005-06 in Milwaukee and scored 2 goals and 4 assists in 6 games before being recalled by Nashville Nov. 1 when right winger Adam Hall went down to an ankle injury. Injuries to other Predator forwards, such as fellow right winger Scott Walker, helped keep Upshall up with the Predators until Jan. 10, 2006, when Walker returned after missing 33 games. In his 30 games during his two-plus month stint, Upshall scored 4 goals and 8 assists, with 3 goals and 5 assists coming in a 10-game stretch from Dec. 13 through Jan. 1.

Re-assigned to Milwaukee Jan. 10, Upshall proceeded to decimate the AHL by scoring 8 goals and 7 assists in his next 6 games, including a hat trick and an assist in a 6-4 victory over Chicago Jan. 21. Upshall was recalled by Nashville Jan. 24 when Martin Erat went down to a hip flexor injury and played two games, but was assigned to Milwaukee again when Erat returned to the line-up Jan. 28.

Upshall’s onslaught on the AHL continued upon his return with 6 goals and 2 assists in his next 4 games, including a hat trick and an assist in a 6-5 shootout victory over the Houston Aeros Feb. 4. When Walker again went down to injury, this time a wrist injury, Upshall was recalled again leading up to the Olympics. After two games, including the game-winning goal against Columbus Feb. 11, Upshall was re-assigned to Milwaukee during the Olympic break. His eight-game stint during the Olympics only included 1 goal and 3 assists for the Admirals, but Upshall was again recalled when the NHL resumed action. Upshall remained with Nashville for the rest of the regular season, so he finished the AHL season with 17 goals and 16 assists in 23 games and the highest points-per-game average (1.43).

Recalled Feb. 27 to finish the season with the Predators, Upshall scored 3 goals and 7 assists in his final 14 games of the regular season, including three assists in a 4-2 victory over the Minnesota Wild April 13. Upshall finished 2005-06 with 8 goals and 16 assists in 48 games and a Nashville-best +14 rating. Upshall only played in Games 4 and 5 against San Jose in the Western Conference Quarterfinals, scoring no points, and was assigned to Milwaukee May 1, after the Admirals had defeated the Iowa Stars in seven games in the AHL West Division Semifinals.

The addition of Upshall to the Milwaukee line-up gave Milwaukee the firepower to sweep Houston and Grand Rapids in four games each to advance to the AHL Finals against the Hershey Bears. Upshall scored 3 goals and 9 assists in his first eight playoff games, but Hershey was able to limit him to 3 goals and 1 assist in Milwaukee’s six-game series loss to the Bears. Despite not winning the Calder Cup, Upshall had an impressive 6 goals and 10 assists in 16 playoff games.

The sixth overall pick of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, Upshall’s third season of professional hockey proved to be his breakout season in the AHL.

“The difference with Scottie Upshall from his first year to his third year, this year, was probably maturity,” Noel said. “He’s always had the skills, he always had been a really good player, the difference was that Scottie Upshall needed to figure out that in order for him to have success he needed to play in the games and want to have success because you want to be a good player.”

In order to find success, the offensively talented Upshall needed to seek one-on-one battles.

“When I first got him, he would go into the hard areas because I would force him into the hard areas,” Noel said. “Now, he goes into the hard areas because he wants to have success for himself.”

Upshall has averaged well over a penalty minute per game ever since his days in major juniors with the Kamloops Blazers, but the 6’0, 187-pound winger’s defensive game is not based on physicality.

“What he does more than anything is he gets on you quickly,” Noel said of Upshall’s forechecking. “He’s got tremendous speed, he can really get at you quickly. His strength is going to be probably pursuit more than weight.”

Upshall’s primary asset, be it offense or defense, is his speed. He has explosive power and excellent acceleration, which gives him superior separation when mixed with him two-way awareness. After three seasons in the Nashville system, Upshall is ready to become a full-time contributor in the Predator line-up. Long term, Upshall figures to become a top-six forward that can play on the power play due to his skill and awareness and on the penalty kill due to his speed.

Shea Weber, D
Age: 20 (1st Year Pro)
Acquired: 2nd Rd, 49th overall, 2003 NHL Entry Draft

Like Upshall, don’t expect to see Shea Weber in the AHL in 2006-07.

Weber, a first-year pro, started 2005-06 in Milwaukee and by December was consistently contributing offensively. In 16 December games, Weber scored 7 goals and added 6 assists, boosting his season totals to 10 goals and 12 assists in 32 games the first three months of the season. After playing in Milwaukee’s Jan. 5 game against the Iowa Stars, Weber received his first NHL recall Jan. 6 when Marek Zidlicky was out for one game with a bruised hand. Weber was sent back to the Admirials the very next day, after receiving 11:08 of ice time in Nashville’s 3-1 loss to Detroit Jan. 6, but he had received the nod over seventh defenseman Jamie Allison.

The 20-year-old played in Milwaukee’s 3-1 victory over Omaha Jan. 7, but was again called up to Nashville on Jan. 13 after Danny Markov went down to a knee injury. Weber played in three games and tallied his first point, an assist, Jan. 15 in a 5-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins during Markov’s absence but was sent back down to the Admirals again Jan. 20. Somewhat dejected, Weber returned to Milwaukee and played two games before the Admirals coaching staff sat down with Weber during a two-game swing in Cleveland.

“We sat down with [Weber] and had a conversation with him and since that time, he really got a good handle on his game,” Noel said. “He was really disappointed that he came back, he thought his door had opened, he thought he wouldn’t be back in Nashville, that the door had closed for him, at least for this year, and we explained to him that he just needed to trust his game and trust us a little bit and that these things would work themselves out.

“And ever since that time, his game started to progressively get better quicker.”

Weber’s AHL stats did not skyrocket after the talk, but he did receive recall Feb. 6 to play two of Nashville’s four games before the Olympic break, with the Predators scratching highly-touted rookie Ryan Suter each time. The Predators re-assigned Weber to Milwaukee for five games during the Olympics but recalled him Feb. 22 to begin practicing with the team even before the break was over. Milwaukee’s Feb. 19 game against the Peoria Rivermen ended up being Weber’s last game of the AHL regular season, as he played for Nashville the rest of the way. In 46 AHL games, Weber scored 12 goals and 15 assists and established himself as one of Nashville’s most talented prospects.

After the Predators resumed action March 1, Weber played 22 of Nashville’s 24 games after the Olympics and scored 2 goals and 6 assists in his final 10 games of the season, giving him 2 goals and 8 assists in 28 games. Weber was especially effective on the power play, where he scored his 2 goals and 3 of his assists in his final 10 games filling in for an injured Zidlicky.

Zidlicky also missed the first three games of the Western Conference Quarterfinals, keeping Weber in the line-up for Games 1 through 3 against the San Jose Sharks. Weber scored a power play goal in Nashville’s 4-3 victory in Game 1, and even dressed as a seventh defenseman and scored a goal in Nashville’s 5-4 loss to San Jose in Game 4, but the Predators decided to just go with six defensemen in Game 5 and Weber was scratched. Nashville lost 2-1 in Game 5 and Weber was assigned to Milwaukee as the Admirals continued their AHL playoff drive.

Assigned to Admirals May 1, Weber arrived in plenty of time to play in all four games of Milwaukee’s sweep of the Houston Aeros. Weber scored 2 goals and 1 assist in Game 2 and added another goal in Game 3. When Milwaukee swept Grand Rapids in the Western Conference Finals, Weber contributed with a goal and an assist in Game 3 and a goal in Game 4. Weber’s plus/minus took a beating in the Calder Cup Finals against the Hershey Bears, finishing the series at -5, but he managed to score a goal and three assists, giving him 6 goals and 5 assists in the 14 playoff games. Despite not playing in the seven-game series against Iowa, Weber still led the Admirals playoff defenseman scoring with 11 points.

Although Weber draws attention on the stat sheet for the numbers he puts up, his 6’3, 213-pound frame added even more to the Nashville organization in 2005-06. Only 6’2, 212-pound Mark Eaton and 6’2, 219-pound Brendan Witt offered similar size on the Nashville blue line. While his skill is considerable, Weber’s size may have given him the advantage over the more-experienced Greg Zanon and Kevin Klein.

“The one thing Shea Weber had was he had size and strength, and that helped him, that alone, because it’s an element they really needed,” Noel said. “They needed somebody to control weight in Nashville.”

With the 2004-05 WHL First Team All-Star’s combination of skill, smarts, power, and size, the Milwaukee coaching staff knew it was only a matter of time before Weber made the move to Nashville.

“We knew when we got him here in our program that he would probably be here three or four months and that all he needed was experience,” Noel said.

That said, the former Kelowna Rocket also needed to make the customary acclimation to professional hockey at the AHL and NHL level at the beginning of the season.

“He had a good game then, but it was a little bit erratic, a little bit inconsistent, and that’s just a part of growth, maturity, and all he needed to do was settle in and learn the pro game a little bit.”

Weber has certainly settled in. He received the nod over Ryan Suter in the playoffs and looks set to become one of Nashville’s top defensemen over the next few years, if not the top Predator defenseman. No other Nashville defenseman currently in the system has Weber’s combination of size and skill. Add in his two-way awareness and his work ethic, and Nashville has all the making of a future NHL All-Star.

Or as Milwaukee Admirals head coach Claude Noel told Hockey’s Future during the AHL playoffs:

“Weber’s going to be a stallion for Nashville.”

Greg Zanon, D
Age: 25 (3rd Year Pro)

Acquired: Signed as Free Agent

Put Greg Zanon in a number of other NHL organizations, and he’d probably would have become an NHL regular in 2005-06.

With Dan Hamhuis and Ryan Suter up in Nashville after playing for Milwaukee during the lockout, and with veterans Andrew Hutchinson and Brad Tiley no longer in the organization, the Admirals expected Zanon to step up in his third season of pro hockey. By November, he was scoring at a pace reminiscent of his college hockey days with the University of Nebraska-Omaha. After tallying only one assist in six games in October, Zanon scored 2 goals and 9 assists in 12 games in November.

Nashville took notice and recalled Zanon Dec 1 when Danny Markov went down with a groin injury. Zanon earned an assist in his first NHL game, a 2-1 victory over the Minnesota Wild Dec. 1, and played in the Predators 4-3 overtime victory over the Philadelphia Flyers Dec. 3 before being re-assigned to Milwaukee Dec. 4.

Three games after returning to the Admirals, with a goal and an assist, Zanon went down to injury for five games. Returning to the Milwaukee line-up Dec. 21, it wasn’t until January that Zanon’s offensive output picked up again. In 12 January games, Zanon scored 3 goals and 4 assists and then followed that up with 2 goals and 4 assists in 13 February games and a two-assist performance in Milwaukee’s 6-4 victory over the Peoria Rivermen March 4. When injuries struck the Predators d-corps in early March, Zanon got the call.

Nashville recalled Zanon March 7 with Mark Eaton, Danny Markov, and Kimmo Timonen all injured. Zanon tallied a shorthanded assist in his NHL return March 7 against the Calgary Flames and also played March 9 against the Vancouver Canucks, wins both, but when the Predators acquired Brendan Witt March 9 and Timonen returned to the line-up March 11 from his bruised hand, Zanon was again re-assigned to Milwaukee. In his four NHL games, Zanon scored two assists and averaged 17:18 of ice time per game.

Zanon played 15 more games for Milwaukee down the stretch and tallied five assists to give him 8 goals and 27 assists in 71 games, as well as a team-leading +17 rating. The Calder Cup Playoffs saw more of the same from Zanon. In 21 games, Zanon finished tied with Kevin Klein for a team-best +11 rating and also scored 1 goal and 7 assists, all tallied in a 9 game stretch from Game 7 against the Iowa Stars to Game 4 against the Grand Rapids Griffins, all part of Milwaukee’s 10-game winning streak for the Admirals from the final game against the I-Stars to Game 1 against the Hershey Bears.

While Zanon may have contributed offensively for Milwaukee in 2005-06, nearly doubling the 19 points he had in 2004-05, his biggest contributions come in his attention to the finer points of the defensive game.

“You talk about a solid defenseman, he’s just a solid defensive defenseman, blocks shots, takes away passing lanes, plays physical, good leader, he communicates well.”

At 6’0, 205 pounds, Zanon does not have the size of Shea Weber, but he’s still able to effectively compete physically. Like Carolina’s Aaron Ward, Zanon will sacrifice his body to make the defensive play. On many lesser NHL teams, Zanon would already be a fifth of sixth NHL defenseman. Zanon, who turns 26 on June 5, faces an uphill struggle to crack Nashville’s line-up in 2006-07 if the Predators re-sign Group III unrestricted free agents Mark Eaton, Danny Markov, and Brendan Witt. The fact that Nashville ate up a lot of salary cap by signing Marek Zidlicky to a four-year $13.4 million contract might make Zanon an attractive option as a seventh defenseman to start 2006-07. Besides, Zanon doesn’t have much more to prove at the AHL level.

“I don’t think he has to do anything other than just get the opportunity and take advantage of it,” Noel said. “I’ll be very surprised if Greg Zanon is not in the National Hockey League next year.”

“He’s ready to play there.”

Nashville Predators AHL/UHL Prospect Stats 2005-06
PlayerTeamLeag.GPGATP+/-PIMPGSGGWSH
Paul Brown MilwaukeeAHL
41
3
1
4
-9
59
2
0
1
32
RockfordUHL
3
0
0
0
-1
4
0
0
0
4
MilwaukeeAHL*
18
0
0
0
-5
27
0
0
0
Kevin Klein MilwaukeeAHL
76
10
32
42
+4
31
3
2
1
119
NashvilleNHL
2
0
0
0
-1
0
0
0
0
0
MilwaukeeAHL*
21
3
7
10
+11
31
1
2
Libor Pivko MilwaukeeAHL
69
12
58
70
+3
63
6
1
2
166
MilwaukeeAHL*
12
3
5
8
-2
16
1
0
Brandon Segal MilwaukeeAHL
79
18
15
33
-10
124
5
2
1
160
MilwaukeeAHL*
21
1
2
3
-6
16
0
0
Scott Upshall NashvilleNHL
48
8
16
24
+14
34
1
0
2
72
MilwaukeeAHL
23
17
16
33
+11
44
5
1
3
97
NashvilleNHL*
2
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
4
MilwaukeeAHL*
14
6
10
16
+3
20
3
0
Shea Weber MilwaukeeAHL
46
12
15
27
+1
49
9
1
2
137
NashvilleNHL
28
2
8
10
+8
42
0
1
0
46
NashvilleNHL*
4
2
0
2
-3
8
1
0
0
4
MilwaukeeAHL*
14
6
5
11
-2
16
5
0
Greg Zanon MilwaukeeAHL
71
8
27
35
+17
55
3
0
0
130
NashvilleNHL
4
0
2
2
0
6
0
0
0
3
MilwaukeeAHL*
21
1
7
8
+11
24
0
0
Nashville Predators AHL Prospect Goalie Stats 2005-06
GoaltenderTeamLeag.
GP
MIN
W
L
SL
SO
SV
GA
SV%
GAA
Pekka Rinne MilwaukeeAHL
51
2960
30
18
2
2
1312
139
.904
2.82
NashvilleNHL
2
63
1
1
0
0
36
4
.900
3.81
MilwaukeeAHL*
14
734
10
4
0
3
333
35
.905
2.86


Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.