Predators Top 20 prospects, Spring 2009

By John Jaeckel

Top 20 at a glance

1. Colin Wilson, C
2. Chet Pickard, G
3. Jon Blum, D
4. Kevin Klein, D
5. Cody Franson, D
6. Ryan Jones, RW
7. Antti Pihlstrom, LW
8. Patric Hornqvist, LW
9. Mark Dekanich, G
10. Cal O’Reilly, C
11. Roman Josi, D
12. Nick Spaling, C
13. Mike Santorelli, RW
14. Blake Geoffrion, LW
15. Ryan Thang
16. Konstantin Glazachev
17.  Jeremy Smith, G
18.  Alexander Sulzer D
19. Taylor Stefishen, LW
20. Ben Ryan, C

While the fortunes of the NHL parent Predators have slipped a bit over the last couple of seasons, the team’s talent pipeline has improved over that time. Due to shrewd talent acquisition via both draft and trade, GM David Poile and staff have built what is now one of the top systems in the NHL, particularly strong on the blueline and in the net. If there is one area that is lacking in the system, it would seem to be physical forwards who can score, with top prospect Colin Wilson the one clear exception.

1. Colin Wilson, C 8.0C

6’1, 215 lbs.
Born 10/20/1989
Shoots L
Drafted, Round 1, #7 overall, 2008

The son of former NHL player Carey Wilson, the Preds’ top first-round draft pick of this past summer continues to live up to and exceed his advance billing. Wilson is the prototypical first line center: skilled, strong and excellent in all three zones. Wilson projects as a Jonathan Toews/Steve Yzerman type player in the NHL, with superior all-around skills and leadership qualities. As a sophomore at Boston University, he is currently leading the highly-ranked Terriers in scoring, while centering the team’s top line. Through 28 games, Wilson has 13 goals and 27 assists.

2. Chet Pickard, G 7.5B
6’3, 216 lbs.
Born 11/29/1989
Catches L
Drafted, Round 1, #18 overall, 2008

Pickard has all the earmarks of a solid No. 1 netminder in the NHL. In his fourth season with Tri-City (WHL), Pickard has improved slightly on already stellar numbers from last season. In addition to a 2.33 GAA and a .919 save percentage, he is 29-12-3 in 44 contests, with an outstanding six shutouts for the Americans, who currently occupy first place in the league’s U.S. division. Pickard has ideal size for a goaltender, displays consistent positioning and technique and possesses the unflappable demeanor that is so desirable in an elite goaltending prospect. Along with fellow WHL prospect Dustin Tokarski of the Spokane Chiefs, Pickard manned the nets for Canada’s gold medal-winning entry in the 2009 IIHF World Junior Championship. This kind of high pressure experience should serve Pickard well as he matriculates to the pro ranks. He signed his first pro contract last summer.

3. Jon Blum, D 8.0D

6’1, 170 lbs.
Born 01/30/1989
Shoots R
Drafted, Round 1, #23 overall, 2007

Opinions vary on the upside of the first Californian drafted in the first round of the NHL draft. Some see him as an NHL role player, a purely offensive talent. Others, recognizing the impact of the post-strike rules changes and the resulting premium on mobile defensemen, see Blum as a potential top-pairing defenseman in the Rob Niedermayer mode. Blum possesses elite skating and offensive instincts, evidenced most recently by his 61 points (16 goals, 45 assists) with in 61 games with Vancouver (WHL) this season. Blum was injured in a game against Kelowna on Feb. 13. after taking a couple of shoulder-to-shoulder hits from Dallas prospect Jamie Benn. Blum will miss about two weeks and then be reevaluated. Regardless, he possesses such great anticipation and quickness that, prior to this injury, he had missed only two games in his entire junior career.
4. Kevin Klein, D
6’1, 200 lbs.
Born 12/13/1984
Shoots R
Drafted, Round 2, #37 overall, 2003

Over the last three seasons, this solid, all-around blueliner has split time between Milwaukee and Nashville, seeing increasing playing time with the parent Predators. Though he is a scratch on some nights, Klein has played 40 games with the Preds this season, with four goals and four assists. He is -3. While Klein’s skill has never been in doubt, his size and commitment to physical play have. He has the talent and hockey sense to play in all situations, but coaches and scouts feel his strength and aggression must improve in order to better defend against NHL forwards.

5. Cody Franson, D 7.0B
6’5, 217 lbs.
Born 08/08/1987
Shoots R
Drafted, Round 3, #79 overall, 2005

Now in his second pro season at Milwaukee, Franson appears poised to play a role with the Predators in the not too distant future. In 2007-08, he had a great deal of difficulty adjusting to the tempo of the pro game, often resulting in poor positional play, evidenced by a -11 rating for the season. But he has improved, with seven goals and 27 assists, as well as an overall +1 rating through 49 games, playing against opposing teams’ top forward lines. Franson has also added a solid 10 pounds to his frame since his draft year, and looks like he will be a nice complement to players like Shea Weber when he reaches Nashville.

6. Ryan Jones, RW 7.0B

6’1, 205 lbs.
Born 06/14/1984
Shoots L
Drafted, Round 4, #111 overall, 2004 (Minnesota)

While not a complete surprise, Jones has emerged as a solid NHL forward with the Preds this year. The former Miami RedHawk was acquired along with a second-round selection in July 2008 from Minnesota, in exchange for defenseman Marek Zidlicky. Jones is an old-school grinder who is willing to work in the corners, but also knows what to do with the puck when it’s on his blade. He has also been a winner throughout his career, joining Chicago prospect Nathan Davis in leading Miami to solid seasons throughout his NCAA career. Thus far this season with the Predators, Jones has five goals (two on the power play) and eight assists and in 33 games is -1. He has seen two stints with Milwaukee totaling 25 games.

7. Antti Pihlstrom, LW 7.0B
5’10, 181 lbs.
Born October 22, 1984
Shoots: L
Signed as a free agent, June 1, 2007

Nashville fans are quickly learning why this gritty winger is a minor legend among fans in his native Finland. Gifted with very good hands and speed, Pihlstrom plays the game hard, often delivering a big hit to stir up a game. Much like fellow Finn Tuomo Ruutu, if anything, he can be prone to mistakes of over-aggression. There is also some question as to whether Pihlstrom’s smallish frame can endure his style of play for very long. Averaging about 10 minutes a game, Pihlstrom has not lit up the scoreboard in 34 games with the Preds this season, registering just one goal and four assists. In plus/minus, he is even for the year.

8. Patric Hornqvist, RW 7.0B
5’11, 194 lbs.
Born 01/01/1987
Shoots R
Drafted, round 7 #230 overall, 2005

Hornqvist has been up and down between Milwaukee and Nashville this season, performing respectably with both clubs. He was most recently recalled to Nashville on February 3, and returned to the Admirals 11 days later. In 34 contests with the Admirals, he has nine goals and 14 assists, for 23 points and is -5. over 20 games with the Preds, the 22-year-old Swede has two goals and five assists, and was -2. Hornqvist has top-six skill, but needs to prove that he can produce effectively in the NHL as he did in Sweden.

9. Mark Dekanich, G 7.5C
6’2, 192 lbs.
Born 05/10/1986
Catches L
Drafted, round 5 #146 overall, 2006

After a slow start as a rookie at Milwaukee (AHL) this year, Dekanich has lived up to expectation and delivered stellar numbers for the Admirals. The former Colgate University netminder is 10-6-1 through 19 games with a 1.96 GAA and .926 save percentage, emerging from a backup role to Drew MacIntyre earlier in the season to earn increased playing time over the course of the year. Dekanich has good size and solid fundamentals. Along with Pickard and current Pred Pekka Rinne, Dekanich is part of a very strong young organizational goaltending corps.

10. Cal O’Reilly, C 7.0C
5’11, 185 lbs.
Born 09/30/1986
Shoots L
Drafted, Round 5, #150 overall, 2005

O’Reilly continues to prove he is a point-per-game scorer as a pro — at the AHL level. On a similar pace to last season at Milwaukee, this season he has 11 goals and a whopping 44 assists in just 53 games. He is also a solid +6, continuing to also demonstrate a commitment to play in all three zones. But like a lot of other offensive overachievers in the AHL, it remains to be seen if he can effectively translate his production to a top-six role in the NHL. He has extraordinary vision and hockey sense, with the quick hands necessary to make plays. He is also effective on face-offs, winning roughly 57 percent of his draws through December. He is on the small, lean side however, and must continue to work on strength. There is also a sense among observers that O’Reilly will forgo a good shot in order to pass, sometimes missing the better scoring opportunity for himself. O’Reilly, Franson and Mike Santorelli represented the Admirals on the Canadian team at this year’s AHL All-Star Classic.

11. Roman Josi, D 7.5D
6’0, 190 lbs.
Born 06/01/1990
Drafted, Round 2, #38 overall, 2008

Josi is a bit of a wild card in the Nashville prospect pipeline. He was highly regarded in his draft year, though he also bore the caveat that his native Switzerland has produced very few NHL players. One need look no further than the bottom of the Nashville pipeline to see another highly-touted product of Swiss hockey, also chosen in the second round of the NHL draft (2003), Tim Ramholt. For comparison sake, Ramholt has yet to establish himself as a legitimate NHL prospect. Josi is a smooth-skating, two-way defenseman, considered to have elite skill. He has represented Switzerland in the last three Division 1A World Junior Tournaments, winning Best Defenseman honors in 2009, with three goals, two assists and a sparkling +10 for the 5-0 Swiss entry. He plays his regular season hockey for Bern HC in the Swiss A League.

12. Nick Spaling, C 7.0C
6’1, 183 lbs.
Born 09/19/1988
Shoots L
Drafted, Round 2, #58 overall, 2007

Another pleasant surprise for the Admirals in 2008-09 has been former OHL Kitchener Ranger Nick Spaling. Spaling was signed by the Preds in August, and has enjoyed a solid rookie season with Milwaukee. Through 53 games, he has nine goals and 16 assists, but more importantly, is a strong +10, evidence of his effort in all three zones. Spaling projects as a third-line, shutdown center in the NHL with some offensive upside.

13. Mike Santorelli, C/RW 7.0C

6’0, 190 lbs.
Born 12/14/1985
Shoots R
Drafted, Round 6 #178 overall, 2004

Santorelli, like Milwaukee teammate O’Reilly, is a skill player who is currently excelling at the AHL level. Both players were cited by Predator head coach Barry Trotz in a Milwaukee interview this season for their unique “small space” abilities. Through 47 games with the Ads, he has 16 goals and 32 assists. A product of the Vernon Vipers in the BCHL and Northern Michigan University (CCHA), Santorelli has all the offensive tools one could want in a winger: explosive speed, good hands and instincts. He has gotten stronger through work in the weight room, but needs to continue to build strength in order to play a regular role in the NHL.

14. Blake Geoffrion, LW 6.5C
6’2, 195 lbs.
Born 02/03/1988
Shoots L
Drafted, Round 2, #56 overall, 2007

In addition to elite NHL bloodlines (Geoffrion is the grandson of legend, Bernie “Boom-Boom” Geoffrion), the Nashville-area resident displays all the traits of a future NHL power forward. He has good size and a solid all-around game, due to exceptional coaching he has received throughout his career, first with the U.S. National Under-18 Program, and now under Mike Eaves at perennial NCAA powerhouse Wisconsin. He struggled as a freshman, but had a breakout year as a sophomore with the Badgers, and now as a junior has 11 goals and eight assists in 27 games.

15. Ryan Thang 6.5C
6’0, 200 lbs.
Born 05/11/1987
Shoots R
Drafted, Round 3, #81 overall, 2007

Thang is an offensively skilled forward, currently serving as alternate captain for the top-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish (CCHA). Playing in all situations, including the top power-play unit, he has nine goals and seven assists in 28 games. Like fellow Fighting Irish forward and Nashville prospect, Ben Ryan, Thang is a product of the USHL. Evidenced by the “A” on his sweater and the praise of teammates and coaches, Thang is a leader and a critical component in the success of the Irish program.

16.   Konstantin Glazachev 7.0D
6’0, 161 lbs.
Born February 18, 1985
Drafted, Round 2, #35 overall, 2003

Though originally drafted as an offensive prospect in 2003, Glazachev had put up unspectacular numbers until joining Astana Barys (KHL) this season. Through 51 games, the 24-year-old winger has 24 goals and 20 assists, playing with and against a significant number of NHL-caliber players. With the Kazakhstan-based club, Glazachev often exploits his great speed and hands to beat opposing blue-liners outside. He has developed nicely this season, gaining confidence in a system that plays to his unique strengths.

17. Jeremy Smith, G 6.5C
6’1, 170 lbs.
Born April 13, 1989
Catches L
Drafted, Round 2, #54 overall, 2007

Smith’s career has taken quite a few twists and turns this season alone. A graduate of the U.S. National Under-18 program in Ann Arbor, MI, Smith was the first goalie chosen in the 2007 draft. Later, he was the No. 1 netminder on the U.S. entry in the World Junior Championships. He had also backstopped some very strong Plymouth (OHL) clubs. But this year Smith abruptly lost his starting position to 18-year-old Matt Hackett and languished as the backup on a bad Whaler team, posting a .873 save percentage. But a midseason trade to Niagara, and the opportunity for regular minutes between the pipes, has been transformative for the Brownstown, MI netminder. Through 17 games with the IceDogs, Smith is 10-4-2 with a 2.87 GAA and a .923 save percentage.

18.  Alexander Sulzer D 6.5C

6’1, 207 lbs.
Born May 30, 1984
Shoots Left
Drafted Round 3, #92 overall, 2003

Though originally drafted nearly six years ago, Sulzer remains a potential future NHL blueliner. Like other European defensemen, the native of Hessen, Germany displays good hockey sense and an outstanding point shot on the power play. But he has had to work on his physical play. The Preds signed Sulzer to a two-year contract in January 2009, then almost immediately called him up for two games, before returning him to Milwaukee. He was recalled again on January 26, and suffered an unspecified shoulder injury on a hit, earning a trip to the IR. This season, he was paired with Franson on the top defensive tandem for the Ads. With the Admirals, he has eight goals and 23 assists in 43 games. He is scoreless in two contests with the Predators.

19. Taylor Stefishen, LW 6.5D

6’0, 180 lbs.
Born August 15, 1990
Shoots R
Drafted Round 5, #136, 2008

One of the latest in a growing number of prospects drafted directly from the BCHL, Stefishen was considered a bit of a roll of the dice because while he was highly regarded for his offensive skill leading up to the 2008 draft, his commitment to three-zone play was questioned. Thus far in his freshman season on a resurgent Ohio State (CCHA) squad, Stefishen has laid those questions to rest, earning top line minutes in recent contests, and scoring a critical goal in a recent victory over top-ranked Notre Dame. Through a season shortened by mononucleosis to just 11 games, he has three goals and five assists.

20. Ben Ryan, C 6.0C

5’11, 190 lbs.
Born 10/16/1988
Shoots R
Drafted, Round 4, #114 overall, 2007

Now in his second season at Notre Dame, Ryan continues to demonstrate a solid two-way game. A playmaking center, Ryan put up good numbers in two seasons with Des Moines (USHL) and continues to progress in South Bend. Through 30 games with the Irish, he has nine goals and 11 assists.

Missing the cut
Ryan Flynn, RW 6C

6’3, 215 lbs.
Born 03/22/1988
Shoots R
Drafted, Round 6, #176 overall, 2006

Minnesota Golden Gopher Flynn, now a junior, will never be a first-line offensive forward. He is an awkward skater and not a natural scorer. But he has the potential to be a checking line forward in the NHL due to his size, strength and commitment to physical play. Further, experience with the U.S. National Under 18 program and a career of WCHA hockey only add to his seasoning and potential to compete at the pro level.  He has 14 points in 28 games this year.

Alessandro Seren Rosso and Glen Erickson contributed to this article.