The most obvious change for the Nashville Predators this season will be behind the bench, where veteran coach Peter Laviolette replaces the only coach in the history of the franchise, Barry Trotz.
Heading into the season the Predators signed several veterans and traded for James Neal from Pittsburgh, so opportunities for prospects may be limited. In looking at the Nashville Predators pool, however, the vast majority of those players are at the pro level and will either make an impact at the NHL level fairly soon or move on. Going into training camp there are nine players among the prospect group who are not signed past this season.
Among the top prospects who will either crack the Nashville lineup or begin the year with AHL affiliate Milwaukee forwards Calle Jarnkrok, Filip Forsberg and Miikka Salomaki have all shown some offensive skills that would appear to address the Predators’ lack of offensive production over the past few seasons.
Defensively, the corps in the NHL is a mix of youth and experience and appears fairly steady, with limited opportunities for prospects to crack the lineup. Jack Dougherty will be a freshman at the University of Wisconsin and is thought of fairly highly by scouts.
Between Tomas Vokoun and Pekka Rinne, goaltending has been a strength for Nashville for much of the franchise’s 15-year existence but it remains to be seen if there is a future starter in the system. Marek Mazanec showed promise during a stint with the Predators last season, while Magnus Hellberg was the first goalie taken in the 2011 NHL Draft and Juuse Saros was the top rookie in Finland‘s Liiga in 2013-14. Whether any of those three can be a legitimate NHL starter one day is still uncertain.
Top Pro Prospect
Filip Forsberg, C/RW, Nashville Predators (NHL) / Milwaukee Admirals (AHL)
Nashville has collected talented offensively-gifted forwards from Sweden of late, and Filip Forsberg may be the most talented of the bunch. While the acquisitions of veterans James Neal, Olli Jokinen, Mike Ribeiro and Derek Roy create a crowded forward group for Nashville, Forsberg could be a key to any success the team has this season.
A year ago Forsberg made the Predators as a 19 year old out of training camp and scored a goal in his first game, but then seemed overwhelmed and lasted just 12 games before being sent to the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals. Forsberg turned his season around with a strong performance for Sweden at the 2014 World Junior Championship and then was one of the top forwards for the Admirals over the second half. He returned to Nashville for one game in March, seeing eight minutes of ice time in a 2-0 shutout win over Chicago.
With players like Forsberg, Jarnkrok and 2014 first round pick Kevin Fiala it appears Nashville is intent on becoming a faster and more offensively-inclined squad while retaining some of the toughness and sound defensive play that led to success in past years. Forsberg’s skill set suggests he will play a big role in that transition.
Magnus Hellberg, G, Milwaukee Admirals (AHL)
To say that the 2013-14 season was disappointing for Magnus Hellberg would be an understatement. The first goalie selected in the 2007 Draft, the 23 year old from Uppsala, Sweden combined with Jeremy Smith to form one of the AHL’s top goaltending tandems in 2012-13. Nashville did not re-sign Smith; creating an opportunity for Hellberg to take the next step in his career.
A lingering injury in training camp prevented him from getting off to a fast start. He appeared in an October game with the Predators before being assigned to Milwaukee. An ankle injury in January further set him back, and when he returned Marek Mazanec was established as the starter with the Admirals so Hellberg ended up finishing the year with the ECHL‘s Cincinnati Cyclones. He served as the backup netminder for minor league veteran Rob Madore as the Cyclones reached the Kelly Cup Finals.
A season like 2013-14 could shake the confidence of any goaltender, and no doubt Hellberg has a lot to prove in 2014-15. What cannot be discounted is his skill level and instincts, and if he is fully healthy he has the potential to be the top-notch prospect that many in the Nashville organization felt they selected seven years ago.
Miikka Salomaki, LW, Milwaukee Admirals (AHL)
With so many young forwards in the mix there are several candidates who may breakout offensively, but Miikka Salomaki was quietly the leading scorer for the AHL’s Admirals a year ago as a 20 year old. His combination of skill, size and physical play would seem to fit in well with the coaching philosophy of Laviolette.
The longer AHL season did take its toll on Salomaki at the end of 2013-14 and his numbers tailed off a bit. He finished the year skating for Finland at the 2014 World Championship in Belarus and appears ready to step up to the NHL. Like Forsberg, his fate will largely depend on the opportunities and ice time available, but in the right situation he could flourish. The presence of veteran Finnish forward Olli Jokinen as well as Pekka Rinne, a teammate with Team Finland, should have a positive impact.
Unsigned for 2015-16
Anthony Bitetto, D, Milwaukee Admirals (AHL)
As mentioned above, several players fit in this category including former high round picks Austin Watson (first-round selection in 2010), Zach Budish (second-round selection in 2009) and Hellberg (second-round selection in 2011). As an offensive defenseman and the fifth-leading scorer overall for the Admirals last year, Bitetto is at the crossroads of his career and will be challenged to prove that he can have that same type of success in the NHL.
A sixth-round pick in the 2010 Draft after playing for the Indiana Ice in the USHL, the Oceanside, NY native spent two years at Northeastern University before signing an entry-level contract following his sophomore season. Bitetto enters his third pro season after splitting his first pro seasons between the AHL and NHL and then skating in 73 games for Milwaukee last season. Nashville has several young defensemen already playing at the NHL level, and with prospects like Dougherty in the pipeline Bitetto has to show that his defensive game (he was minus-13 last year in the regular season) can match his offensive ability.
Top Junior Prospect
Justin Kirkland, RW, Kelowna Rockets (WHL)
With the majority of the Nashville prospects currently at the pro level, the club has few players in the junior ranks. Barring an unlikely situation where one of the organization’s four 20-year-olds is sent back to junior for an overage season, just three players from the Predators organization — Kirkland, Victoriaville forward Tommy Veilleux and defenseman Aaron Irving of the Memorial Cup champion Edmonton Oil Kings — will be playing junior hockey this year.
While all three are far from blue-chip prospects at this juncture of their career, Kirkland has the potential and large frame to be a solid two-way forward with some supplementary scoring ability. Selected by the Predators in the third round of the 2014 NHL Draft, he scored 17 goals with 31 assists in 68 regular season games and then had five goals with five assists in 14 playoff games for the Rockets as a WHL rookie in 2013-14. The Nashville personnel staff feels he may be just scratching the surface in terms of his offensive potential.
Tommy Veilleux, LW, Victoriaville Tigres (QMJHL)
Any late round selection is hardly a sure thing and that is the case with Tommy Veilleux, who was taken in the sixth round in the 2013 Draft. The fact that he plays a taxing physical game more suited to the “Smashville” style of past years and appeared in just 17 regular season games and two playoff contests last season due to injury would appear to further suggest the odds are against him making an impact in the Nashville organization.
While anything that happens during development camp should be taken with a grain of salt, Veilleux scored two goals in the Predators’ split squad game at the end of camp and has shown a competitive nature that fits in well with any team. While his skating and stick handling skills are not the caliber of some of Nashville’s top prospects, his heart-on-his-sleeve attitude and willingness to compete suggest there is some professional potential.
Top Amateur Prospect
Jack Dougherty, D, University of Wisconsin (NCAA)
Of the five Nashville prospects slated to play college hockey in 2014-15 none enter their freshman season with as much expected of them as future Badger Jack Dougherty, who was chosen by the Predators in the second round of the 2014 Draft with the 51st overall selection. A product of the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, Dougherty has already drawn comparisons to another former Wisconsin and Predator defenseman: Ryan Suter.
Such expectations are unfair for any player given what Suter, who was the seventh player taken in the 2003 Draft, has achieved in his career. But there is a lot to like about Doughtery’s game and Mike Eaves and the staff at Wisconsin have been churning out NHL-caliber defensemen in recent years. In terms of skill, Dougherty moves well for a big man and is good at starting the transition from his own end.
Freshman to Watch
Teemu Kivihalme, D, Colorado College (NCAA)
Teemu Kivihalme skated for the Fargo Force in 2013-14 after an outstanding high school career in Minnesota. He is one of three defensemen entering the lineup under new head coach Mike Haviland at Colorado College this season. While the Tigers appear deep on the blue line with three seniors returning, the team suffered a key loss when Gustav Olofsson signed a pro contract with the Minnesota Wild following his freshman season.
Like the rest of the Fargo team, Kivihalme struggled with consistency. One year after reaching the Clark Cup finals the Force missed the USHL playoffs completely. One of the better skating defensemen entering college hockey, Kivihalme is a bit light and not overly physical but his game could fit in well in the NCHC. Long-term, he must continue to develop physically and become more consistent in his own end.
Wade Murphy, RW, University of North Dakota (NCAA)
North Dakota was once again one of the top college teams in the country in 2013-14. From an individual perspective, Wade Murphy struggled to crack the lineup as a freshman, finishing with three assists in 19 games while playing mostly a lower-line role.
One of the top scorers in the BCHL with Penticton in his final season two years ago, Murphy could see a more prominent role in 2014-15, particularly with Rocco Grimaldi, the Fighting Sioux’ leading scorer in 2013-14, signing a pro contract following his junior season. As always, the competition for lineup spots will be intense in Grand Forks, but should Murphy find a slot on one of the top three lines his offensive numbers should increase.
Top European Prospect
Kevin Fiala, LW, HV71 (SHL)
No team has been as active in drafting and signing players from Sweden and Finland the past few seasons as the Predators. Several of those players signed over the summer and will be in North America for the 2014-15 season, but barring a surprise in training camp Kevin Fiala will return to the SHL for at least one more season.
The 11th player taken in the 2014 NHL Draft, Fiala appeared in 17 regular season games and eight playoff contests with HV71 last spring as a 17-year-old and skated for Switzerland in the U18, U20 and men’s World Championship Tournaments. After watching Filip Forsberg struggle last year, the Predators are understandably reticent about inserting Fiala into the NHL lineup right away.
But his offensive tool bag, as well as his instincts and ability to create offensive opportunities seemingly at will, is impressive. Still developing physically, Fiala had two assists in his first two Champions League games for HV71 this summer and will benefit from spending a full season at the pro level in Sweden.
Breakout Offensive Season
Vladislav Kamenev C/LW, Metallurg Magnitogorsk (KHL)
As with Kevin Fiala, there was talk about Vladislav Kamenev coming over to North America for the 2014-15 season after he was selected by Nashville in the second round (42nd overall) this past June. While size-wise he has the height and bulk that Fiala lacks, Kamenev too will likely spend the season in Europe.
He appeared in 16 regular season games for KHL champion Metallurg Magnitogorsk — scoring his first professional goal — and was the captain for the Russia U18 team last season. Selected by Quebec with the second overall pick in the 2014 CHL Import Draft, there was some thought that he might play major junior hockey in 2014-15 but the 18-year-old is currently back with Magnitogorsk, which is coached by former NHL head coach Mike Keenan.
Unsigned for 2015-16
Juuse Saros, G, HPK Hameenlinna (SM-liiga)
Production-wise no prospect in the Nashville system had a more successful season in 2013-14 than the 19-year-old goalie from Finland. In Liiga play he seized the starting job for his hometown club HPK. He then lead the club to a playoff berth, recorded seven shutouts, finished with a 1.76 goals against and .928 save percentage, and was named the league’s rookie of the year. In international play Saros backstopped the Finland U20 team to a gold medal in the World Junior tournament and went to Belarus as the third goalie for the Finland men’s team; winning a silver medal along with Pekka Rinne and Miikka Salomaki.
With two years left on his original contract with HPK, he will be back in Finland for at least one more season and likely once again be in net for Finland at the 2015 World Junior Championship in Canada. The knock against Saros is his small size, which is the primary reason he lasted until the fourth round (100th overall) in the 2013 NHL Draft. But with another season like last year’s it will be hard to imagine him not receiving a contract with the Predators.
Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter at: @HockeyNJ12