Prospect awards show more talent is on verge of NHL for Nashville Predators

By Peter Prohaska

Marek Mazanec - Nashville Predators

Photo: Goaltender Marek Mazanec made his North American debut in 2013-14, earning 25 NHL starts due to injuries in Nashville as well as 31 starts in AHL Milwaukee (courtesy of Juan Salas/Icon SMI)

Spring 2014 brought about the end of the first phase in Nashville's hockey evolution. The always-appreciated Barry Trotz makes way for unceremoniously-dumped Peter Laviolette, a coach who will be expected to make even more of this always promising team.

The Nashville Predators had a significant injury to Pekka Rinne which probably cost them the playoffs, but they also relied perhaps overmuch on some ineffective veterans. In the AHL, a solid looking Admirals squad got a tough draw in the first round and were swept, but the ECHL affiliate Cincinnati Cyclones remain in contention for a championship. Nashville fans should be looking forward to good things in the future. It was not a great year for the prospect group on the whole, but the Nashville system has plenty of pieces worthy of praise.

Hardest Worker: Félix Girard, C, Baie-Comeau Drakkar (QMJHL)

The award for hardest worker goes to a player who also manages to work intelligently on the ice. To receive the Guy Carbonneau Trophy for Best Defensive Forward in the QMJHL once puts hockey observers on notice that this player has above-average acumen, but to win in it twice in a row means Girard has a special affinity for the defensive side of the game. While part of defensive positioning is understanding how to limit an opponent's options, part of it is being willing to be in the right spot and that takes consistent and extraordinary effort.

Girard's scoring totals have been modest in his junior career, but not entirely absent. In its deep playoff run, Baie-Comeau benefitted from the strong play of goaltender Philippe Cadorette and a balanced scoring attack to make it all the way to the President's Cup Finals. Girard had a respectable twelve points over 21 games. This is a player who thrives in a certain role, and as his professional career unfolds should find a way to play it. Girard's average size is a limiting factor but players with his drive and understanding often exceed expectations.

Hardest Shot: Jonathan-Ismael Diaby, D, Victoriaville Tigres (QMJHL)

The Predators make it clear that one of the chief attributes their scouts like is a player's size. While this can be a self-defeating way to assess a player's talent, it is hard to resist the right mixture of athleticism and a frame that lets a player do things most cannot. Jonathan-Ismael Diaby, a 2013 third-round pick, is shaping up to be a player who possesses such a mixture. Of course generating an effective shot involves more mechanics than height, weight and strength, but those are good places to start. Diaby's shot totals are not in themselves terribly impressive, but he did see his goal totals go up to nine this year in just 38 games. Working on getting shots to net consistently could be the difference between a player coveted chiefly for his imposing size and a player with a real career. Diaby's improvements in his game this year caught the notice of many and give real reason for optimism.

Fastest Skater: Pontus Åberg, LW, Färjestad BK (SHL)

This award is often hard to judge absent an actual race of some kind but Pontus Åberg is another Nashville prospect whose progression has been steadily positive. His greatest strength may even be in his shooting ability, not his skating, but he has the kind of mobility that makes him a consistent threat. Good north-south speed coupled with his creativity and some added strength will make this 2012 second-round pick a possible breakout candidate for next season as well.

Åberg had a better statistical season for recently-relegated Djurgården in the Allsvenskan in 2012-13 than he did with league runner-up Färjestad this past season, but he was second on his team in points regardless. This is a player with all the tools he needs to be successful at the next level. With a new contract in place, what remains to be seen is if Åberg can now adjust to the speed and intensity of the AHL.

Best Defensive Prospect: Anthony Bitetto, D, Milwaukee Admirals (AHL)

The 2013-14 season saw two very promising Nashville defenders graduate from prospect status: Seth Jones and Mattias Ekholm, both of whom probably impressed new head coach Peter Laviolette with solid tournaments at the World Championships. That leaves a few candidates for this award, among them newly signed Johan Alm, Charles-Olivier Roussel, Mikko Vainonen and Jonathan Diaby, but Anthony Bitetto might be the player with most upside in all facets of the game. An effective college player who left Northeastern University after his sophomore season, Bitetto has turned into a productive offensive contributor in two seasons with Milwaukee. This season was a bit of a breakout for him, with 36 points in 73 games.

A sixth-round pick in 2010, Bitetto is not without some concerns. Much of his offensive output was due to power-play time, with six goals with the man advantage. Bitetto had the team's worst plus-minus by a decent margin, which suggests some struggles with the competition and added defensive responsibility, though the Admirals' goaltending was a little below average this season. Finally, Bitetto is without a contract for 2014-15 currently, and the Predators system, as noted above, is flush with possible alternatives if something cannot get done. With Bitetto's offensive game, his main strength he has something in fairly short supply in the system, but he also needs to continue to improve his decision-making to keep his spot on the depth chart.

Underachiever: Magnus Hellberg, G, Milwaukee Admirals (AHL)

Having had some success with goaltenders picked in late rounds like Pekka Rinne and Tomas Vokoun, the Predators must have really had high hopes for Magnus Hellberg when they used a second round pick on him in 2011. Hellberg delivered a very quality season in 2012-13, putting up a .924 save percentage over 39 games in his North American rookie year. It is unfortunate that this year was a down one for Hellberg because a great opportunity was there.

Faced with a crisis in net with injury to Pekka Rinne, the Predators let Hellberg have one rather ugly NHL game before relying on a tandem of AHL veteran Carter Hutton and rookie Marek Mazanec to preserve their season. Now with an opportunity to be the full-time starter in Milwaukee, Hellberg saw his save percentage dip to .911 in 21 games. Worse was a seven game ECHL stint where his save percentage was a dreadful .901. However, the season started out about as poorly as possible with a training camp injury and continued with mixed results until he sustained an ankle injury in January that had him out of action for months. Hellberg has shown very good ability in his young career and will likely get back on track next season.

Overachiever: Marek Mazanec, G, Nashville Predators (NHL)

The flipside to Hellberg's season is that experienced by Marek Mazanec, who did not necessarily solidify his place in the Predators' depth chart but at least enjoyed an NHL paycheck for a good chunk of the season. It must have been a bit of head-spinner for the young Czech to jump into the NHL and be expected to duplicate the numbers put up by Vezina finalist Pekka Rinne. Mazanec was clearly at times playing in a league above his skill level, and the numbers bear it out, with a .902 save percentage in those 25 games. To his credit, he battled hard before a more veteran hand in Carter Hutton took over for him.

The 2012 sixth-round pick will probably go head-to-head with Hellberg for the backup role again next year. Mazanec won the battle this season, but a healthy Hellberg makes it a very compelling matchup to observe.

Highest Risk/Reward: Filip Forsberg, LW, Milwaukee Admirals (AHL)

Nashville's acquisition cost for Filip Forsberg was relatively low in retrospect, as veteran Martin Erat never really found a way to contribute to the Capitals' cause and Michael Latta has yet to make the leap to the NHL. Nonetheless, Forsberg is a player who was generally regarded as a steal when he slipped to 11th overall at the 2012 draft and has elite upside waiting to manifest. He was the top rated European skater heading in to the 2012 draft, scored well as a teenaged pro in Sweden, and has been fairly consistent ever since making the transition to North America. Even though he has yet to impress at the NHL level, 34 points in 47 games with Milwaukee last season is a fine indicator of his potential production. One should not let the distortion of high expectations make that total look mediocre.

Forsberg's great strengths of shielding the puck to make plays and using intelligent checking to win battles and generate chances will not be immediately obvious when a rookie goes against AHL or NHL competition. As he puts on muscle and refines those techniques, Forsberg will certainly be a very effective top-six player in the NHL and could be more with the right opportunities. Having a team give up on him so quickly probably provides additional incentive to perform. Finding a way to maximize his potential next season may be the coaching staff's greatest challenge.

Breakout for 2014-15: Calle Järnkrok, C, Nashville Predators (NHL)

It has been an interesting journey for Calle Järnkrok. An outstanding prospect drafted 51st overall by the Detroit Red Wings in 2010, he was part of a great young cluster for Brynäs of the Swedish Elite League that captured a league title in 2012. Typically Detroit allows even top prospects plenty of time to grow as pros, and Järnkrok stayed in Sweden even as teammates Johan Larsson (BUF) and Jakob Silfverberg (ANH) were making their pro debuts in North America. In 2103-14, Järnkrok finally made his AHL debut and showed his potential on a deep Grand Rapids squad, putting up 36 points in 57 games. With a glut of young talent somewhat blocked from developing properly, Detroit made a deal to acquire veteran center David Legwand from Nashville and thus Järnkrok found a new home.

He played very well after the trade deadline last year as the Preds pushed for a playoff berth scoring seven points in twelve games, but next season should really see him hit his stride. Despite a tough World Championships tournament where he failed to register a point, Järnkrok enters this summer penciled in for a Predators roster spot. A new yet likely much more up-tempo system in place under Peter Laviolette should lead to Järnkrok as well as several other young offensive talents such as Craig Smith, Ryan Ellis, and Filip Forsberg putting up career numbers with any luck.

Prospect of the Year: Brendan Leipsic, LW, Portland Winterhawks (WHL)

Though Leipsic fell off a little from his 120-point 2012-13 season, he amassed an admirable 91 points this season in 60 games. Portland again was one of the best teams in the WHL despite falling to an inspired and skilled Edmonton Oil Kings team in the finals and Leipsic certainly drove them there with a league-leading 33 points in 20 playoff games. He attracted some controversy too, earning a one-game suspension for getting his stick in the gut of Kelowna's Tyrell Goulbourne (PHI). It should not take away from his ability to get the most out of himself and his teammates.

Leipsic has a bit of the trickster in his playing style and his career penalty minute totals are proof of a player who sometimes ignores the lines of sporting play. Leipsic's defenders will call it a credit to his intensity, but what is clear is that he is a prolific scorer and tenacious checker who cannot be dismissed easily. Leipsic is also a leader and well-spoken, and though some AHL seasoning will certainly be a good path in order for him to get his frame up to professional standards, this is a positive difference-maker that most teams would be very happy to have developing in their systems.