Predators 2004 draft evaluation

By Jason Menard

The 2004 NHL entry draft was the final one with nine rounds, and Nashville was poised to make the most of this opportunity with 11 picks at their disposal. Unfortunately, although they came into the draft loaded for bear, they ended up shooting blank after blank, evidenced by the fact that only two players are legitimate NHLers — and one of them has made more news off the ice in the international courts than on it.

But one of the longest shots of all may turn out to be the bull’s-eye shot they were looking for. At best, the team picked up a coveted sniper and a long-term solution between the pipes. At worst, that sniper has permanently flown the coop, skipping out on the final year of a contract with the Predators to return to Russia, while the goaltender’s been plagued by injury concerns and has yet to completely stake a claim on a NHL career.

In between those picks (numbers 15 and 258), there’s a lot of detritus left over from the foundations of a potential-filled draft. At the time, GM David Poile rolled the dice on taking some older prospects, believing that their development would be further along. Unfortunately, it seems that some of that development’s already maxed out, leaving the draft’s returns rather thin.

The club entered the draft with picks in every round but the second. Thanks to a deal at the previous season’s entry draft, the club began the proceedings with Anaheim’s fourth and fifth-round selections (obtained for Nashville’s 2003 fourth rounder).

Nashville’s second-round selection in the 2004 draft was previously traded in a February 2004 deal that saw Steve Sullivan join the club from Chicago, in return for the pick and Nashville’s 2005 second-rounder. Also that month — and with much less fanfare — Nashville obtained the last pick in the eighth round from Tampa Bay in return for Timo Helbling. Although the trade went by with not much notice, that eighth-round selection ended up becoming Pekka Rinne — the Predators’ starting netminder last season.

In March, Nashville traded Buffalo’s third-round selection, obtained originally in June 2003 in the Andy Delmore trade, along with their own fourth-rounder, to Minnesota for Sergei Zholtok and Brad Bombadir. And on deadline day, Nashville traded Colorado’s third-round selection (which they had obtained in June 2003 in return for Karlis Skrastins) to Ottawa for defenseman Shane Hnidy. In another deadline deal, the club received a sixth-rounder from Tampa Bay in return for Stan Neckar.

Overall, Nashville’s 11 picks averaged 19.36 games, which puts the team in the bottom half of the 30 teams.

Alexander Radulov, RW, Tver (Russia) — 1st round, 15th overall 
Status: NHL Player
NHL Games Played: 145

Radulov arguably is one of the most talented players to come out of the 2004 entry draft. Unfortunately for Nashville, he’s plying his trade in Russia — and in violation of his NHL contract — with a KHL franchise.

A suspension without pay and an IIHF admission that Radulov shouldn’t have signed the contract come as small comfort for the Predators, for whom the 6’1 winger was expected to play a major offensive role this past season. Unfortunately, the 22 goals and 48 points he scored were in an Ufa Salavat Yulayev uniform.

After tearing up the QMJHL in his final season — averaging a hair under a goal per game and over two points per game in both the regular season and playoffs — Radulov made quick work of the minor pro leagues. With 18 points in 11 AHL games with the Admirals, Radulov made the jump to Nashville — seemingly to stay.

Then came the start of the 2008 season. Radulov was in Russia, and the NHL, the Predators, and the KHL were in the courts. In the absence of a formal transfer agreement, there were no real rules about obtaining players — just a gentleman’s agreement of sorts, which was strained by this move. In the end, Radulov was suspended from the NHL and still owes the Preds one season on his contract.

There have been whispers that Radulov is pondering a return to the NHL. Poile has reported positive meetings with the forward, indicating that the bonds between player and team, while strained, are not yet severed. And with a Predators franchise that was at the bottom of the league in offensive production last season, his return would be welcome — after, of course, patching up any strained feelings in the dressing room.

Vaclav Meidl, C, Plymouth Whalers (OHL) — 3rd round, 81st overall
Status: NHL Bust
NHL Games Played: 0

Meidl showed a lot of promise his draft season with the Whalers, combining size with scoring ability to serve as a physical presence on the Plymouth roster — and drawing the eyes of the Predators’ scouts. But that promise was not realized, and Meidl appears headed to a long-term career in the Czech league.

After posting a career high of 42 points and adding 108 PIMs during his draft season, the 6’4 center was unable to recapture that promise over the next two seasons. In his final full year in the OHL, Meidl was traded to the Saginaw Spirit. He began the 2006-07 season with the Oshawa Generals, but quickly returned to the Czech Republic, playing for Znojemsti Excalibur Orli — the club he’s remained with ever since.

Meidl has failed to progress to the level the club expected and will likely remain in the European professional leagues for the remainder of his career.

Nick Fugere, LW, Gatineau Olympiques (QMJHL) — 4th round, 107th overall
Status: NHL Bust
NHL Games Played: 0

If Meidl was a swing and a miss, Fugere would be a spectacular swing for the fence that saw the club come out of its cleats and fall out of the batter’s box. Fugere may not be totally off the hockey map, but he can certainly see the edge of the page from where he’s playing.

After completing his QMJHL eligibility, Fugere was last seen playing in a Quebec-based senior league. He got into just four games this season.

Kyle Moir, G, Swift Current Broncos (WHL) — 5th round, 139th overall
Status: NHL Bust
NHL Games Played: 0

While it’s not unheard of for a player to make the NHL out of the Canadian university ranks (see Steve Rucchin), it’s safe to say that Moir’s NHL aspirations are pretty much over.

The former Swift Current Bronco starting netminder is now attending Lakehead University and playing for the university’s CIS entry. Moir shared netminding duties with Chris Whitley and helped power the perenially strong Lakehead club to a berth in the CIS finals, although the club fell short.

Janne Niskala, D, Lukko Rauma (Finland) — 5th round, 147th overall
Status: NHL Bust
NHL Games Played: 6

Niskala’s NHL career prospects seem very dim. After being drafted by the Predators, he signed a one-year contract with the club, spending his entire time with the Milwaukee Admirals.

He was later traded to Philadelphia and Tampa Bay, finally seeing action in six NHL games this season before asking for his release from the franchise. Niskala ended up being waived by the Lightning, passing unclaimed through the league, before latching on with Vastra Frolunda HC Goteborg of the Swedish Elite League.

Niskala, who did show some promise at the minor-pro level, has been unable to latch onto a club and is in the midst of a two-year contract with Frolunda. He remains an intriguing prospect as he continues to play for Sweden‘s national team, including appearances at this year’s World Championships. While a return to the NHL is possible, it looks more likely that Niskala will continue to ply his trade in his homeland.

Mike Santorelli, C, Vernon Vipers (BCHL) — 6th round, 178th overall
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL Games Played: 7

Santorelli’s selection appears to have broken the string. The Northern Michigan University graduate has translated two solid seasons at the AHL level into a look-see with the Predators.

After posting 42 goals evenly spread between goals and assists in 2007-08, his a point-per-game season with the Admirals led to a seven-game stint with the Predators this year. Returned to the Admirals, Santorelli keyed Milwaukee’s playoff performance with six goals and five assists in 11 games.

Santorelli’s offensive game is solid, but the 6′, 190-pound center has to improve the other aspects of his game, including defensive awareness and physical play. He will be given an opportunity to crack the Preds’ roster full time next year, but likely will be a key member of the Admirals roster next season.

Kevin Schaeffer, D, Boston University (NCAA) — 6th round, 193rd overall
Status: NHL bust
NHL Games Played: 0

Schaeffer’s been bouncing around the minor-pro leagues, signing a contract with the Providence Bruins, being loaned to the Binghamton Senators, and coming back to Providence. He’s also found his way to Reading in the ECHL after a four-year career with Boston University.

At 6’1, 200 pounds the South Huntington, NY native hasn’t shown the offensive abilities that he displayed in college. His defense has been just OK, but he needs to work on both consistency and productivity to make the jump to the next level — or at least a permanent roster spot in the AHL.

Stanislav Balan, C, Zlin Jr. (Czech Republic) — 7th round, 209th overall
Status: NHL Bust
NHL Games Played: 0

Slight is an understatement when it comes to describing both this Czech forward and his NHL prospects. A very slight 5’9, Balan is well under NHL size. He’s unable, or unwilling, to increase his weight, and seems comfortable playing out his career overseas.

Balan was drafted out of Zlin Jr. and spent one season with the Portland Winter Hawks, where he fared comfortably well, scoring 37 points in 67 games. He also showed a willingness to play aggressively with 102 PIMs that season.

The next year, he returned to the Czech league and has remained there ever since, continuing with the Zlin organization, but now comfortably ensconced at the senior ranks.

Denis Kulyash, D, HC CSKA (Russian Jr.) — 8th round, 243rd overall
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL Games Played: 0

Kulyash has risen to the tops of the KHL ranks, joining Radulov this year in the league’s all-star game. After two years with CSKA, Kulyash moved to the Moscow Dynamo organization. He returned two years later to CSKA and has spent the past two seasons with the organization.

This year, Kulyash took a huge step forward in his game, scoring 16 goals and adding 10 assists in 56 games. The 6’2, 205-pound blueliner has NHL size and has an offensive game that would be a welcome asset to the Predators. However, the question remains whether Kulyash is willing to make the social sacrifices he’d need to take to work through the ranks in Nashville. He’s a bubble player who is earning a comfortable living in his homeland, and the lure of the NHL may not be so hard to resist for a player of his stature.

Pekka Rinne, G, Karpat (Finland) — 8th round, 258th overall
Status: NHL Player
NHL Games Played: 55

Rinne was the second netminder taken by the Predators in the 2004 draft, and it’s safe to say they got a steal in obtaining the Finnish goaltender with the 258th overall selection. Add to that the fact that the selection the Preds used to take Rinne was obtained from the Lightning for little-used (and NHL washout Timo Helbling), and this pick takes the sting off the lack of success in the earlier rounds.

Rinne was 21 when he was selected, so he was farther along in his development than most players. That said, he hadn’t played a lot of games at the elite level when drafted.

After three years in the AHL with Milwaukee, the 6’5 Finn finally made the jump to the NHL this season, beating out Dan Ellis for playing time. The climb has been adventurous to say the least — an attack in Finland in 2006 left him with a shoulder injury and caused him to miss some of the following season. Since then, Rinne’s come back stronger and better than ever.

This season, Rinne played in 52 games, winning 29. He posted a 2.38 GAA behind a .917 save percentage. He combines size and athleticism to fortify the crease and leave Nashville comfortable with its last line of defense — and its eighth-round flyer.

Craig Switzer, D, Salmon Arm Silverbacks (BCHL) — 9th round, 275th overall
Status: NHL bust
NHL Games Played: 0

After four years with the University of New Hampshire, Switzer made the jump to the professional ranks this past season. He spent the majority of his time — save for two AHL games — with the ECHL‘s Elmira Jackals (and one game with the Florida Everblades).

The 6’1 blueliner finished the season with two goals and 15 assists in 64 games and enjoyed a successful transition to the pro ranks. He signed a professional try out agreement with the Quad City Flames, but failed to stick with that franchise, getting cut after two games. He’ll look to latch on with an AHL franchise this off-season.