Nashville Predators have plenty of prospects off to notable starts in 2013-14 season

By Seth Lake

Colton Sissons - Nashville Predators

Photo: Rookie pro Colton Sissons leads the Predators’ AHL affiliate Milwaukee Admirals in goals (4) and points (6) so far this season (courtesy of Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

With training camps over and the season underway, the players throughout the Nashville Predators organization have spread out throughout the various leagues around the world.

For the first time in franchise history, the Predators opened the season with two prospects on watch lists for the Calder Memorial Trophy given to the NHL’s top rookie playing at the NHL level, but the talent in the system does not end there. 

The following is a sampling of some of the remaining talent spread out throughout the organization, junior hockey, amateur hockey, and the European leagues and also some storylines to follow as the season progresses for each of these players.

Pro
Top Pro Prospect
Seth Jones, D, Nashville Predators (NHL)

The Predators top pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, 18-year-old Seth Jones could have been returned to the Portland Winterhawks in the Western Hockey League prior to playing in his tenth game of the NHL season in order to have his entry-level contract in Nashville slide a year and not start the clock towards free agency. However, as much of a long shot as that was entering the season, when the team lost defenseman Roman Josi in the second game of the season and Jones subsequently moved up to the top pairing alongside team captain Shea Weber, that possibility never gained any traction.

In his final weekend of action prior to the team having to make a decision on whether or not to keep him, Jones appeared to slam the door shut on a return to junior hockey this season. He announced his arrival on the NHL stage in grand fashion on October 19 in Montreal scoring a highlight reel goal with 1:27 remaining to lift the Predators to victory on a Hockey Night In Canada broadcast. Not stopping there, Jones followed up his 27:29 of ice in Montreal with another 26:23 in Winnipeg and raised his average ice time through nine games to 24:28 overall ranking him well within the top-20 players in the league.

Seeing an average of 18:39 against the league’s best at even-strength on a nightly basis, Jones has also averaged 3:07 per game on the power play and 2:55 per night shorthanded.  Through twelve games, Jones has scored five points (two goals, three assists), carries an even plus/minus rating, and has only taken a single minor penalty on the season.

First-Year Pro to Watch
Filip Forsberg, RW, Nashville Predators (NHL)

After being acquired in a trade from the Washington Capitals late last season and joining the Predators for five games to wrap up a season spread across two continents, Filip Forsberg entered training camp this season poised to earn a spot on the Predators opening night roster.

Missing the first two games of the season due to a bruised foot suffered in preseason action, Forsberg has appeared in nine of the Predators first twelve games, despite being a healthy scratch on October 22 at Minnesota, registering four points (one goal, three assists) on 17 shots on goal, but has struggled defensively with a minus-seven rating.

Forsberg has played on a line centered by David Legwand and paired with Eric Nystrom on the other wing. He needs to improve his consistency at both ends of the rink as the season progresses, but has shown flashes of the skill and power forward game that made him the 11th overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft and has Nashville excited for the future.

NHL Bound Prospect
Colton Sissons, C, Milwaukee Admirals (AHL)

Coming off a final season in juniors ended early due to injury, Colton Sissons came to training camp looking to earn his way into the pro ranks this season but knowing a return to the Kelowna Rockets (WHL) was a possibility.  With a strong showing at rookie camp and continuing through main training camp in the following weeks, Sissons worked his way into NHL preseason action.

Sissons was not able to crack the Nashville roster at the start of the season, but with a team-leading six points (four goals, two assists) in his first six games for the Milwaukee Admirals (AHL), he has definitely garnered attention for a potential recall later in the year.

Bringing a gritty, two-way style of game Sissons has found himself centering a line with Michael Liambas and Joonas Rask early this season. He helped lead the Admirals back from a 2-0 first period deficit to earn a comeback 4-2 victory on Saturday, October 27 scoring the first and third goals in the win.  

Junior

Top Junior Prospect
Brendan Leipsic, LW, Portland Winterhawks (WHL)

A season after leading the Western Hockey League in goals (49) and points (120) and helping the Portland Winterhawks to the final game of the Memorial Cup tournament, Brendan Leipsic returned to Portland for his final season of junior hockey looking to continue readying himself for NHL action in the near future.

The NHL-CHL transfer agreement specified that Leipsic would return for his fourth season of junior hockey prior to being eligible to play in the AHL. Knowing that he would be returning to Portland this season despite his performance at training camp, Leipsic set out to impress the Predators beginning in conditioning camp this summer continuing throughout rookie camp and into main training camp before being returned to the Winterhawks on September 21.

Joining the Winterhawks after the start of their season, Leipsic returned to action on September 24 against Tri-City going scoreless with a minus-one rating and six penalty minutes in his season debut, but it did not take long for Leipsic to return to form. In the 10 games since then he has scored 16 points (eight goals, eight assists) with a plus-six rating to move into fifth place on the team scoring list despite playing in five games fewer than the team leaders.

Drafted as a gritty, two-way winger with offensive upside, Leipsic blew away expectations last season evolving into a skilled, speedy, top-line winger with an edge to his game. With another strong season of junior hockey under his belt, Leipsic could very well work his way into dark horse contention for NHL action as soon as the start of next season.

Bounceback Prospects
Jonathan-Ismael Diaby, D, Victoriaville Tigres (QMJHL)
Tommy Veilleux, LW, Victoriaville Tigres (QMJHL)

Members of the Nashville Predators 2013 NHL Draft class, defenseman Jonathan-Ismael Diaby and left wing Tommy Veilleux have a couple of things in common: both play their junior hockey with the Victoriaville Tigres in the QMJHL and both will look to have a big second half after starting the season on the injured list.

Injuring his shoulder during the summer while training prior to the NHL Draft Combine, Diaby missed all of the on-ice portions of the Combine but was drafted by the Predators in the third round of the NHL Draft with the 64th overall selection before undergoing surgery on July 3 that will keep him out for six months.

Having missed the on-ice portion of summer evaluation camp and the entire rookie and training camps in Nashville, Diaby is on track for a January return to action. He will be looked upon to provide a physical, veteran presence to the Tigres blue line, from which he scored 26 points (four goals, 22 assists) in 67 games last season along with 117 penalty minutes.

The Predators eighth selection in the 2013 NHL Draft, Veilleux (sixth round, 171st overall pick) participated in both the summer evaluation and rookie training camps in Nashville prior to suffering a broken collarbone in an exhibition game against the Florida Panthers. He will be out through December.

A physical, two-way winger that the Predators hope will develop into a power forward capable of providing scoring in a bottom-six role in the future, Veilleux scored 28 points (11 goals, 17 assists) in 66 games last season in Victoriaville to go along with 124 penalty minutes.

Getting back both Diaby and Veilleux will provide Victoriaville with veteran leadership and plenty of physical play for the second half of their season.

Breakout Prospect
Felix Girard, C, Baie-Comeau Drakkar (QMJHL)

Returning to Baie-Comeau for his final season of junior play after becoming the Predators third selection (fourth round, 95th overall) in the draft this summer, Felix Girard hopes to lead the Drakkar back to the top of the QMJHL standings as returning team captain.

The winner of the 2013 Guy Carbonneau Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward, Girard will look to expand his offensive presence in his final year as Baie-Comeau enters the season among the favorites for the league title. Participating in the Predators summer evaluation, rookie, and main training camps along with the Team Canadia World Junior Summer Evaluation camp this summer, Girard has received a lot of instruction heading into the season.

Through 14 games this season, Girard ranks among team leaders with 14 points (three goals, 11 assists), a plus-nine rating, and 41 penalty minutes as the Drakkar sit atop the East Division of the QMJHL.  Another gritty, two-way forward in the Predators system, Girard will be one to watch as the season continues.

Amateur

Top Amateur Prospect
Jimmy Vesey, LW, Harvard University (ECAC)

After working his way into the lineup for Team USA at the 2013 World Junior Championships with a quick start to his freshman season at Harvard and earning a gold medal at the tournament in Ufa, Russia, 2012 Predators draftee (third round, 66th overall) Jimmy Vesey returned to the Crimson, and despite battling an injury in the second half of the season, finished with a team-high eleven goals in 27 games.

Awarded the Ivy League Rookie of the Year and named to the ECAC All-Rookie team, Vesey looks to take on a bigger role this season at Harvard where an academic scandal plagued the team last season leading to the midseason departure of several players.

Using his frame to shield the puck from defenders and win battles in all areas of the ice, Vesey is a gifted goal scorer who impressed at Predators Summer Evaluation camp in July and will be counted upon to help drive the offense for Harvard this season.  While Harvard does not get the attention of some other schools in college hockey, do not forget to watch Vesey this season as he continues to develop into one of the NCAA’s top forwards.

Freshman to Watch
Zach Stepan, LW/C, Minnesota State-Mankato (WCHA)

The Predators fifth selection (fourth round, 112th overall) in the 2012 NHL Draft, Zach Stepan spent last season playing in Waterloo of the United States Hockey League (USHL) while preparing for his freshman season of collegiate hockey. After initially committing to Ohio State University in the fall, Stepan changed his mind after the Buckeyes made a coaching change and in the spring announced he would be playing at Minnesota State University at Mankato for the Mavericks.

A season removed from finishing third in league scoring with 78 points (32 goals, 46 assists) in 56 games with Waterloo, Stepan will be looked upon to play a scoring line role in his freshman season as one of just four NHL draftees on the Mavericks roster. Through four games, Stepan has yet to register a point, but he will be a freshman to watch as the season continues throughout the winter. 

Unsigned Prospect
Garrett Noonan, D, Boston University (Hockey East)

Heading into his final season of NCAA eligibility, Boston University defenseman Garrett Noonan also faces the prospect of doing enough to warrant a contract at the end of the season to justify the Predators making him their fourth selection (fourth round, 112th overall) in the 2011 NHL Draft.

After a disappointing junior season that saw his production drop from 27 points (16 goals, 11 assists) in 38 games during his sophomore year to 19 points (six goals, 13 assists) in 34 games last year, Noonan will be counted upon as a leader on and off the ice as he enters his senior season with the most experience (110 games) and career points (61) on the roster.

A veteran of three Summer Evaluation camps in Nashville, Noonan is poised for a big senior year, and through the first six games of the season, finds himself in a three-way tie for the team lead with seven points (two goals, five assists). Named the first star of the game twice already this season (October 12 vs. Holy Cross and October 19 vs. Wisconsin), Noonan is off to a great start to the season and will seek to keep the attention of the Predators as the season continues to earn his spot in the organization starting next season.

Europe

Top European Prospect
Pontus Åberg, RW, Farjestad (SHL)

Making the leap this season from Djurgardens in Sweden’s second-tier Allsvenskan to Farjestad in the top-tier Swedish Hockey League (SHL), Pontus Åberg is looking to build on a strong season a year ago and take the next step in his development this season before coming across the ocean to make his North American debut.

A veteran of two summer development camps in Nashville, Åberg is off to a quick start this season and finds himself second in team scoring with nine points (five goals, four assists) on a team-high 45 shots on goal, skating an average of 18:10 per game through 14 contests. Åberg recently returned to the lineup after missing three games due to injury and looks to remain consistent in his production this season.

Signed to be one of the offensive catalysts in Farjestad, the 20-year-old right wing led the Allsvenskan in assists (28) and points (40) by a junior eligible player last season. Drafted with the Predators top pick in the 2012 NHL Draft (second round, 37th overall), Åberg must be signed this summer in order to retain his NHL rights.

First-Year Pro to Watch
Juuse Saros, G, HPK (Liiga)

The Predators fourth selection (fourth round, 99th overall) in the 2013 NHL Draft, goaltender Juuse Saros can be found manning the nets for HPK in Finland’s top-tier Liiga this season and is also scheduled to play for Finland at the 2014 World Junior Championships in December.

Last season, Saros won best goaltender honors at the junior level and at the 2013 World Junior Under-18 Championships. Continuing his climb through the ranks of Finnish hockey and making the move from junior hockey, Saros is off to a hot start for HPK this season posting a league-leading 1.32 goals against average, second best .945 save percentage, and two shutouts through ten games.

Despite having Magnus Hellberg and Marek Mazanec in front of him on the Nashville depth chart, Saros is a prospect to watch in the upcoming season and will likely be on the Predators radar to make the move overseas within the next two seasons.

Unsigned Prospect
Max Gortz, RW, Farjestad (SHL)

Another member of Nashville’s 2012 NHL Draft class (sixth round, 172nd overall), 20-year-old right wing Max Gortz must too be signed to a contract by the Predators this summer to preserve his draft rights.

In his third season of play in Sweden’s top-tier Swedish Hockey League for Farjestad, Gortz will draw plenty of attention from the Predators scouting staff playing alongside Åberg this season. A physical, two-way winger, Gortz has appeared in all 17 games for Farjestad this season scoring three points (two goals, one assist) on 34 shots while playing an average of 13:13 per game.

Fans in North America looking to catch a glimpse of Gortz and Åberg will get the opportunity in February as Farjestad is scheduled to come overseas to participate in the AHL All-Star Game this season, facing off against the AHL’s best.