Predators top 20 prospects

By Glen Erickson

The Nashville Predators continue to boast a stable of solid young defensemen, secured primarily through the NHL Entry Draft. Some of this offseason’s roster movement is likely to require at least a pair of these prospects to step up at training camp and demonstrate they deserve an NHL job this season.

Shea Weber likely has the inside track as he played 28 games with the Predators last season. Kevin Klein may also be ready to make the jump from Milwaukee. Up front, where the Preds could really use some playmakers, Alexander Radulov is ready to step in. Beyond them, Cal O’Reilly and John Vigilante bring solid OHL resumes to our ranking. The two goalies on our list, Pekka Rinne and Teemu Lassila, both Finns, played 50 games each last season for their respective clubs.

Nashville’s current Top 20 includes seven Canadian-born players, four
Russians, four Americans, three Finns, one Swede and one Latvian. Five of the seven players drafted by Nashville in 2005 and two from the 2006 Entry Draft appear. Seven of the top 10 and half of the top 20 played their junior hockey in Canada. Three players are slated to suit up for NCAA teams this season. Four of the players skated together last spring for the Milwaukee Admirals in the AHL Calder Cup championship series.

Top 20 at a Glance

1. Shea Weber, D
2. Alex Radulov, RW
3. Scottie Upshall, F
4. Pekka Rinne, G
5. Kevin Klein, D
6. Cody Franson, D
7. Ryan Parent, D
8. Cal O’Reilly, C
9. Teemu Laakso, D

10. Dennis Kulyash, D
11. Blake Geoffrion, LW
12. Patric Hornqvist, LW
13. Grigory Shafigulin, C
14. John Vigilante, LW
15. Lauris Darzins, RW
16. Kevin Schaeffer, D
17. Teemu Lassila, G
18. Konstantin Glazachev, LW
19. Ryan Flynn, RW
20. Brandon Segal, LW

1. Shea Weber, D
49th overall, 2003 Entry Draft

If there were ever any doubts about the durability of Shea Weber, they were likely put to rest last season as the 6’3, 215-pound defenseman played a total of 92 games between Nashville and Milwaukee.

While in the Predators lineup last season, Weber scored two goals and added eight assists with 42 penalty minutes. He scored two goals in four playoff games. With Milwaukee, Weber played 46 regular season games, scoring 12 goals and 15 assists while accumulating 49 penalty minutes. In 14 playoff games, he scored six goals and five assists.

One of the Predators potentially high-end prospects on defense, Weber has the skills to distinguish himself offensively. He is also clearly comfortable and capable of taking the initiative physically. Weber may be looked upon to provide leadership in both areas, particularly in light of the off-season departure of veterans Danny Markov and Brendan Witt.

2. Alexander Radulov, RW
15th overall, 2004 Entry Draft

Non-stop superlatives are the order of the day in assessing Radulov’s performance last year during the Quebec Remparts’ run to a Memorial Cup championship.

Over the course of the regular season, Radulov scored a mind-boggling 61 goals and 91 assists in 62 games. In the playoffs, he added 21 goals and 34 assists in 23 games. He had a rather quiet Memorial Cup tournament with nine points in four games. However, those numbers include the two goals and three assists he scored in the Remparts’ 6-2 win over the Moncton Wildcats in the championship game.

Radulov is likely to get a long look at training camp this season, as he impressed the Preds at training camp last year. Some observers see the Preds giving Radulov perhaps a 20-game stint to begin the season, assessing whether or not he is capable of fitting into a top six role on a consistent basis in his first NHL campaign.

While the new NHL rules associated with obstruction should work in Radulov’s favor, the 6’1, 190-pounder may have to bulk up to withstand the rigors of the physical battles he will encounter with NHL defensemen.

3. Scottie Upshall, RW
6th overall, 2002 Entry Draft

Scottie Upshall has played 63 regular season NHL games over three seasons, 48 of them last year. The 2006-07 season may not be a make-or-break proposition, but Upshall will be looked upon to demonstrate a more consistent effort at the NHL level.

Perhaps one of his strengths is also a weakness, as the 22-year-old native of Fort McMurray, Alberta has always played on the edge. Finding balance in his play, maintaining intensity while also controlling his emotions, is a goal the 6’, 190-pound Upshall should be capable of achieving.

During the 2005-06 regular season, Upshall scored eight goals and 16 assists with Nashville. With Milwaukee, he scored 17 goals and 16 assists in 23 regular season games. During the Ads playoff run, he scored six goals and nine assists in14 games.

Upshall has become a mature, proven performer at the AHL level. With a Calder Cup title (2003-04) under his belt, he has played well under playoff pressure. While the NHL lockout may have cost Upshall some important NHL seasoning, his grit and determination are attributes that never get tired.

4. Pekka Rinne, G
258th overall, 2004 Entry Draft

Pekka Rinne established himself as an upper-echelon goaltender in the AHL last season, earning the starting assignment for the PlanetUSA side in the annual All-Star Game.

With Milwaukee, Rinne played in 51 games, posting a 30-18-0-2 record and a 2.86 goals against average. He had two shutouts and a .904 save percentage.

With Tomas Vokoun unable to play, Rinne was the backup goaltender to Chris Mason during the Predators playoff series against San Jose. When Nashville was eliminated, Rinne was returned to Milwaukee for the Admirals playoff run and played well to help the club into the league championship final.

A long-term future with the Predators is certainly within Rinne’s grasp, although he will have to be patient. A healthy Vokoun and competent Mason will make it difficult for Rinne to see the valuable playing time required to get accustomed to the game at the NHL level. Another solid season in Milwaukee will continue to force the Preds to take notice of the 6’5, 210-pound Rinne.

5. Kevin Klein, D
37th overall, 2003 Entry Draft

Kevin Klein epitomized solid play last season in Milwaukee and is likely ready for a full-time NHL job. He is a disciplined defenseman who played a huge role in the Ads Calder Cup run.

In 72 games with Milwaukee last season, Klein scored 10 goals and 32 assists with 31 penalty minutes. During the AHL playoffs, he played 21 games, scoring three goals and seven assists.

The 6’1, 190-pounder has begun to show signs of offensive prowess, a welcome complement to his steady defensive skill set. Some suggest his size is perhaps an issue and others suggest he is not a physical force. However, there is certainly something positive to be glean in observing a young defenseman playing significant minutes in playoff pressure situations without taking damaging, undisciplined penalties. Klein has matured during his AHL career and is ready for a serious shot at a No. 5 or 6 spot on the Predators blueline.

6. Cody Franson, D
79th overall, 2005 Entry Draft

Already considered a professional-level passer, Cody Franson had a breakout season in the WHL last year.

With the Vancouver Giants, Franson finished tied for third in scoring among WHL defensemen. He played in 71 regular season games, scoring 15 goals and 40 assists. During the playoffs, he was tied for third overall in scoring with five goals and 15 assists in 18 games. At the Memorial Cup, the native of Sicamous, BC, scored three goals in the Giants 6-0 tiebreaker win over Peterborough. In five games, he also tallied two assists.

At 6’5, Franson sees the ice very well and has the ability to vary the velocity of his shot to maintain accuracy through narrow shooting lanes. An obvious offensive talent, Franson will continue to build his strength and work on techniques to make him more efficient in front of his own goal. The 215-pounder has the physical tools to take charge in his own end, but could use a measure of nastiness to create even more space for himself and his teammates.

Franson will likely return to Vancouver this season and will be looked upon to play a leadership role as the Giants are the host team for the 2007 Memorial Cup tournament.

7. Ryan Parent, D
18th overall, 2005 Entry Draft

At 6’2, 200 pounds, Ryan Parent brings a dominating physical presence to OHL rinks. How soon he can parlay this into a position on the Predators roster remains to be seen. It is likely he will return to junior for another season where it is hoped he can add some offensive development to his already competent defensive skills.

Some projections have Parent penciled in as a No. 3 or 4 defenseman over the long term. A leader on every select team he has played for, Parent understands his role and has gained the confidence of his coaches and teammates by making certain to take care of his own responsibilities first.

Last season, Parent scored four goals and 17 assists in 60 games. He added one goal and four assists in 15 playoff games.

Parent, along with Marc Staal (NYR), were without question the most effective twosome on defense in the entire tournament during Team Canada’s run to a gold medal at the 2006 World Junior Championship.

8. Cal O’Reilly, C
150th overall, 2005 Entry Draft

A proven playmaker at the junior level, Cal O’Reilly finds himself in a somewhat enviable position in the Predators organization. He is clearly the top centerman among current prospects playing in North America.

A native of Seaforth, Ontario, O’Reilly’s passing ability is everything it’s been advertised to be. He’s effective managing the offensive zone on a power play, but just needs to add some other dimensions to his game like shooting and a bit of grit.

In 64 regular season games, the 5’11, 180-pound O’Reilly led the Windsor Spitfires in scoring with 29 goals and 70 assists for 99 points, good for an eighth place tie in league scoring. He added three goals and eight assists in seven playoff games. He’s slated for a spot with the Milwaukee Admirals this season.

9. Teemu Laakso, D
78th overall, 2005 Entry Draft

Teemu Laakso is another among many tremendously talented young defensemen in the Predators organization. Unfortunately perhaps, he is likely to be plying his trade in Finland this season while his counterparts will be developing on North American ice.

Last year, Laakso played 47 games in his second season with HIFK Helsinki, scoring two goals and one assist. The number of games played is good news as the stocky defenseman has struggled through a pair of injury-plagued seasons in recent years. He also played in the 2006 World Junior Championship on Finland’s bronze medal-winning team, where he clearly established himself as the club’s offensive catalyst among the blueline corps during the tournament.

At 6’, 195 pounds, Laakso is able to cover the ice well and, on the offensive side he showed good anticipation during the WJC. If he can stay healthy, he will likely continue to represent his country internationally for many years. He will spend this, likely his last year in Finland, also serving his mandatory army duty.

10. Dennis Kulyash, D
243rd overall, 2004 Entry Draft

As always with Russian prospects, speculation runs rampant during the off-season as to which players will come to North America to pursue an NHL job. Among the Predators prospects now playing in Russia, Dennis Kulyash may be the best all-around player.

Last season, Kulyash played 44 games, scoring 12 goals and four assists while accumulating 115 penalty minutes for Moscow Dynamo.

If the 6’2, 205-pound Kulyash continues to develop, it is said he could potentially become a top-four defenseman at the NHL level. He is very strong physically, hits with a purpose, skates well, has a monster of a shot to go along with great size and reach.

11. Blake Geoffrion, LW
56th overall, 2006 Entry Draft

Blake Geoffrion has garnered the attention of professional scouts primarily through his association with USA Hockey programs, most recently the USA U18 National Developmental Team.

In 54 games last season with the U18 team, Geoffrion scored 18 goals and 23 assists, while collecting 68 penalty minutes. For the 2006-07 season, Geoffrion is enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, where he will play for the Badgers. Current Predators defenseman Ryan Suter attended the school as well.

At the Preds recent conditioning camp, Geoffrion showed his speed and appeared to fit in well despite being the youngest player present. He could stand to add some weight (and probably will) to his 6’2, 195-pound frame.

Geoffrion was invited to the U20 Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, New York along with 13 other members of the U18 team. Head coach Ron Rolston hails from Ann Arbor, where Geoffrion attended high school. Prior to his experience with USA Hockey programs, Geoffrion played minor hockey in the Nashville Youth Hockey League. His grandfather, Bernie Geoffrion, and great grandfather, Howie Morenz, are both in the NHL Hall of Fame.

12. Patric Hornqvist, LW
230th overall, 2005 Entry Draft

A native of Sweden, Patric Hornqvist is slated to play a second season Djurgardens IF Stockholm in the Swedish Elite League.

Last season, Hornqvist played 47 games for Djurgardens IF Stockholm, scoring five goals and two assists. He attended Predators 2006 conditioning camp this summer as well.

Hornqvist was a very late cut from Sweden’s national junior team. At 5’11, 180 pounds, he will have to continue building strength to be able to compete in the NHL. He is a strong skater, plays well defensively and is not afraid to shoot the puck.

13. Grigory Shafigulin, C
98th overall, 2003 Entry Draft

At 6’1, 180 pounds, Grigory Shafigulin seems bigger on the ice and plays an honest two-way game. Like many Russian players, his future in North America remains uncertain.

He played in 32 games last year in his fourth season with Yaroslavl Lokomotiv, scoring three goals and five assists. Shafigulin uses his size well and is a smart player. He exhibits an offensive upside, but not on a consistent basis.

Shafigulin is a player who would benefit from some development in the AHL. Out of necessity, Nashville may have to exercise patience with him, until they can have a closer look at his performance in a North American league. He is said to have the potential to become a third or fourth line center, however, this is a commodity quite readily available from a talent pool where transfer complications are less of a concern. Shafigulin’s time may be running out.

14. John Vigilante, LW
Free Agent, 2005

The highlight of the past season for John Vigilante, who was a free agent, may well have been signing his contract in December with the Nashville Predators.

On the ice last season, in 55 games with the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL, Vigilante scored 23 goals and 53 assists. Near the end of January in a game against the Barrie Colts, he seriously injured a finger while blocking a shot. While not 100 percent healthy, he suited up near the end of the regular season and played in 13 playoff games, scoring 4 goals and 12 assists.

Over the course of his four-year career in junior hockey, Vigilante has shown the ability to produce offensively on a consistent basis. The 6’, 195-pound native of Dearborn, Michigan, could potentially fill a role in an area the organization has struggled to strengthen over the years. Vigilante is an offensive-minded forward who should benefit from the new NHL rules. While ‘defense first’ has been the philosophical edict in Nashville since the inception of the franchise, he is a player who could bring offensive creativity to the mix.

15. Lauris Darzins, LW
268th overall, 2003 Entry Draft

In what will be a homecoming of sorts, Lauris Darzins will play this season in the Finnish Elite League for the Tampere Ilves under head coach and former NHL defenseman, Kari Eloranta. Prior to his two-year stint in the Western Hockey League, Darzins had left his home in Riga, Latvia at 15 years of age to play three seasons of junior hockey in Finland.

Last season, Darzins probably underachieved as he scored 13 goals and 20 assists in 47 regular season games for the Kelowna Rockets. It was an injury-shortened season as a nagging shoulder injury and subsequent surgery cost the amicable import over 30 games. He managed to hit his stride in the playoffs, scoring five goals and one assist in six games against the Kootenay Ice before a knee injury in the seventh game of the series ended his season.

An average skater with a knack for finding open ice, Darzins exudes offensive skills and was especially productive during the over two seasons of WHL playoffs. However, he was unable to escape the bite of the injury bug through junior hockey in Canada. If he can become more durable and build his upper body strength, there might eventually be room for his skill set in Nashville. A successful, healthy season or two in Finland might be just what the 6’3, 190-pound winger needs to regain his confidence and return for a realistic shot at the NHL.

16. Kevin Schaeffer, D
193rd overall, 2004 Entry Draft

Kevin Schaeffer is making the best of his NCAA opportunity while also keeping himself on the Predators radar. When he is ready for a concerted attempt to break into the Preds lineup, the NHL team will be auditioning a mature and skilled leadership candidate.

Last year, his third at Boston University, Schaeffer scored four goals and nine assists in 40 games.

At 6’1, 195 pounds, Schaeffer played last season with senior Dan Spang (SJ) on what many saw as the club’s top pairing. He plays on special teams although he is regarded as more of a defensive player who often lines up against opposing team’s top forwards. With Spang now departed, the Predators will be watching to see how Schaeffer responds to an important leadership role at BU.

17. Teemu Lassila, G
117th overall, 2003 Entry Draft

Since being drafted three years ago, Teemu Lassila has yet to make it over to North America to play. The 6’1, 200-pound Finn attended 2005 conditioning camp in Nashville, but has not been signed to a contract.

After four seasons with TPS Turku in Finland, Lassila signed to play last season with Djurgardens IF Stockholm in the Swedish Elite League. He played in 50 games, posting a 3.12 goals against average and a .899 save percentage.

18. Konstantin Glazachev, LW
35th overall, 2003 Entry Draft

Konstantin Glazachev played with Yaroslavl Lokomotiv last season along with fellow Nashville prospect Shafigulin. He scored seven goals and four assists in 29 games. At 6’, 185 pounds, he has gained over 20 pounds since he was drafted by Nashville. However, he has yet to play more than 34 games in a season over the course of four years in the Russian Elite League.

Glazachev is an intense player who works hard to play as a power forward. Born in Arkhangelsk, Russia, Glazachev has been criticized often for trying to do it all himself, although he is learning to utilize his teammates more effectively.

It is unclear if or when Glazachev will come to North America. With the trade of Timofei Shishkanov to the St. Louis Blues last season, Glazachev became a top Russian prospect on the wing in the Nashville system, although he may be the one that is the most far away from NHL at this point. He doesn’t thrive in physical play. On the other hand, he has great speed and has shown some scoring touch. Currently, he’s likely at least a couple years away from being ready for the NHL, but if he doesn’t improve his defensive play or bulk up soon, he might never get a shot.

19. Ryan Flynn, RW
176th overall, 2006 Entry Draft

The USA Hockey U18 program produced another Nashville prospect in right winger Ryan Flynn. Flynn is a native of Lino Lakes, Minnesota.

In 59 games with the U18 team, Flynn scored 16 goals and 17 assists while compiling 77 penalty minutes. He attended the recent U20 Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, New York.

A power forward, Flynn brings toughness to the ice and has impressed
with his ability to provide a combination of physical play and discipline.
Flynn will be required to significantly improve his skating and foot speed.
Ultimately, his size and determination are attributes the Preds can use
up front. The 6’3, 212-pound forward attended Ann Arbor Pioneers High
School and is a graduate of the USA U17 and U18 programs.

Next season, Flynn will play in the NCAA at the University of Minnesota.

20. Brandon Segal, LW
102nd overall, 2002 Entry Draft

Like a number of Nashville prospects playing in Milwaukee, Brandon Segal knows what it takes to win a Calder Cup championship. That seasoning may hold him in good stead, but the time has come to distinguish himself at the NHL level.

Last season with Milwaukee, Segal played a total of 100 games. During the regular season, he scored 18 goals and 15 assists in 79 games. In the playoffs, he played 21 games, scoring one goal and two assists.

The native of North Delta, BC, Segal has played three seasons in the AHL. A teammate who could be counted on to play a physical game during his four years with the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL, Segal has always shown offensive skills as well. At 6’2, 210 pounds, developing more foot speed and acceleration are becoming important keys for Segal.

Missing the cut

Ryan Maki, RW
176th overall, 2005 Entry Draft

Ryan Maki, a native of Medford, New Jersey, is entering his senior year at Harvard and will be looked upon as a veteran leader with the Harvard Crimson this season.

Last season, Maki scored 10 goals and 12 assists for a career-high total of 22 points. He battled injuries through most of the season but finished strongly with 12 points in his final 12 games. Skating on a line with fellow junior Kevin Du and senior Dan Murphy, the 6’3, 215-pound winger was perhaps the most physical player on the club. His size and grit will always garner a serious look from scouting staff.

Given the renewed emphasis on skating speed and quickness, Maki will have to make a concerted effort to improve his foot speed. While many players of smaller stature may benefit from the new NHL rules, the standards could potentially become a disadvantage for Maki.

Zoran Manojlovic, Dustin Neilson and Holly Gunning contributed to this article. Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.