The Nashville Predators figured to make changes once long-time coach Barry Trotz was replaced and Peter Laviolette was hired. If the addition of veterans like James Neal, Mike Ribeiro, Olli Jokinen and Derek Roy has changed things in the current lineup, the impact that some of the prospects in the pipeline will have could make things really interesting.
General manager David Poile talked about trying to obtain a true No. 1 center during the off-season but when no deal materialized the Predators decided to remain in-house, slotting fourth-year left wing Gabriel Bourque between Neal and Ribeiro to start the year. How permanent that move will be remains to be seen. It is clear in the early going that there will be a lot of mixing and matching until just the right combinations are found.
The offseason moves should provide opportunities for several home-grown prospects— especially in the forward positions— to crack the NHL lineup. Left wing Filip Forsberg, who appeared overwhelmed at times in his brief stint with the Predators a year ago, had a strong camp and has started off strong on a line with Craig Smith and Roy. Right wing Taylor Beck entered training camp without a contract but earned a one-year deal and was seeing fourth line duty to start the year.
Easily the deepest position in the Predators’ system, one or more of the prospects in this group could eventually either shift to the other side or a center spot down the line. With the addition of Neal and Jokinen there may be limited options in Nashville this season but the future is bright.
Forsberg is the leader among this group which also includes the top two Nashville picks in the 2014 NHL Draft — first round pick Kevin Fiala and second rounder Vladislav Kamenev. While it’s still early, it appears that Forsberg is more comfortable in the NHL atmosphere as a 20 year old and is the type of playmaking forward that makes those around him better.
Fiala, 18, made an immediate impression during his first development camp with the Predators before returning to HV71 in Sweden for his second season with the club. The Swiss native split last season between the SHL club and it’s U20 team and played well in the SHL playoffs. He also skated for Switzerland in the 2014 U18 and U20 World Juniors and men’s World Championship tournaments. With a full year of pro hockey under his belt he could be ready to crack the Nashville lineup as soon as 2014-15.
Kamenev, while not as offensively polished as Fiala, has the ideal size for an NHL power forward and is a strong skater with high end technical abilities. He is playing for Magnitogorsk Metallurg in the KHL this season — a team coached by former NHL coach Mike Keenan — and is a candidate to play for Russia in the 2015 World Junior Championship.
No team has been as active in signing players from Finland and Sweden in recent years as the Predators. Three of those players — 21-year-olds Miikka Salomaki, Viktor Arvidsson, and Pontus Aberg — will begin the year in Milwaukee with the AHL affiliate Admirals.
Skating on one of the AHL’s youngest rosters, with just four players on the roster 24 or older, Salomaki is back for his second season after leading Milwaukee in scoring in 2013-14. Arvidsson, one of the heroes for SHL champions Skelleftea during the playoffs last year, was the oldest player selected in the 2014 draft when he was taken in the fourth round by Nashville and signed an entry-level contract over the summer. Aberg, a second round pick in 2012, scored 15 goals with 31 assists in 53 games for SHL runner-up Farjestads last year. Third-year pro Josh Shalla is also on the Admirals’ roster after splitting the last two seasons between the AHL and ECHL.
There are two Predators left wing prospects playing major junior hockey. Justin Kirkland, Nashville’s third round pick in 2014, was off to a fast start with Kelowna of the WHL — scoring five goals in his first seven games. Tommy Veilleux, a sixth round pick in 2013, is in his fourth QMJHL season with Victoriaville. He has yet to sign an entry-level contract with the Predators.
Jimmy Vesey, who skated for the USA in the 2013 World Juniors and was named to the ECAC all-rookie team that season as a freshman, led Harvard in scoring as a sophomore but both he and the Crimson are looking for a bounce back season this year.
While the depth of the left wing position is impressive, the fact that players like Bourque and Craig Smith at the NHL level — and former Portland Winterhawks left wing Brendan Leipsic with Milwaukee — are all now skating at center is an indicator of the club’s lack of depth up the middle.
Twenty-three year-old Calle Jarnkrok made a strong first impression at the end of last season after being acquired from Detroit as part of the David Legwand trade. He scored two goals with seven assists in 12 NHL games after spending the year in the AHL and also played for Milwaukee in the AHL playoffs. He has been skating in the third center spot to start the year.
Thirty-year-old Mark Van Guilder appeared in his first NHL game last year after six pro seasons and a four-year college career at Notre Dame. He should provide leadership and experience to the young group of forwards in Milwaukee, possibly earning an NHL call-up.
Colton Sissons, a teammate of Kirkland’s with Kelowna two years ago, appeared in 17 games with the Predators last season and led Milwaukee with 25 goals. The 20-year-old forward was named an assistant captain for the Admirals. Leipsic was Portland’s third-leading scorer and had 111 penalty minutes last year. Former first-round pick Austin Watson, who played both wing and center last season, is now in his third pro season while rookie Felix Girard, 20, begins his pro career after playing four seasons with the QMJHL’s Baie-Comeau Drakkar.
Zach Stepan, a fourth round pick in 2012, had an impressive freshman season for Minnesota State last year and is back with the Mavericks for his sophomore year. Nick Oliver has appeared in 105 games for St. Cloud State in his first three seasons, playing mostly a checking role. The senior has four goals and 10 assists in his college career.
Emil Pettersson is playing in Sweden with Timra IK in Allsvenskan. A sixth-round pick in 2013, he has yet to sign an entry-level contract with Nashville.
Of the three forward positions, the right wing spot appears to be the thinnest in terms of number of prospects. Laviolette has experimented with the position in the early going, using center Colin Wilson on the right side at times. Ribeiro and Roy, one-time 20-plus goal scorers, are being counted on to provide offense despite diminishing numbers the past few seasons.
Among the prospect pool Beck may be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the coaching change in Nashville. One of the top scorers for the AHL’s Admirals the past three seasons, he scored three goals with four assists in 16 NHL games during the 2012-13 season but appeared in just seven games with Nashville with no points last season. Shifted from the left side to the right side, the 23-year-old winger was tendered a qualifying offer in June but went to camp as a restricted free agent before signing a deal just before the season started. Beyond Beck there are no players that project to be cannot-miss scorers.
Twenty-three-year-old Patrick Cehlin played well down the stretch skating with Forsberg and Jarnkrok for Milwaukee last year. He will start the season with the Admirals but is still recovering from off-season hip surgery. Sissons and Arvidsson have also spent time playing on the right side for Milwaukee.
Former Minnesota Golden Gopher Zach Budish is another player who may benefit from the coaching change. Selected by Nashville in the second round (41st overall) in the 2009 draft, Budish saw limited action with the Admirals in his rookie season last year — skating for the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones during their run to the Kelly Cup Finals. He will be watched closely with the Admirals this season.
The Predators have two promising right wings in Europe in Max Gortz and Saku Maenalanen.Gortz split last season between Farjestad and Frolunda in Sweden in his second SHL season. He signed an entry-level contract with the Predators in June after playing well in the playoffs for Frolunda and was back with the club on loan from Nashville this season.
Maenalanen, a fifth-round pick in 2013, has not yet signed a contract with the Predators. Maenalanen was the top goal scorer at last year’s World Juniors tournament skating for Finland’s gold medal squad on a line with Blackhawks’ prospect Teuvo Teravainen. He played in 25 games for Liiga champion Karpat last year, spending most of the year with the club’s junior team. He is now skating for Lahti Pelicans after an early season trade this year.
Wade Murphy is in his sophomore season at the University of North Dakota. Murphy played in 19 games for the Fighting Sioux as a freshman last year and had three assists, but he was not in the lineup for the NCAA tournament as North Dakota reached the Frozen Four semifinals.
The defense corps in Nashville, anchored by Shea Weber, is one of the strengths of the club, with a nice mix of older veterans such as Weber and Anton Volchenkov and younger promising players Mattias Ekholm, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Seth Jones. Jones, who turns 20 in October, was the first defenseman taken in the 2013 NHL Draft and is among the top prospects in hockey.
With nine defensemen on Milwaukee’s AHL roster to start the season, the Predators have an intriguing mix of young defensemen; only Joe Piskula (30) and Anthony Bitetto (24) are above the age of 22. Bitetto was the top offensive defenseman for the Admirals a year ago; scoring 11 goals with 25 assists and 85 penalty minutes in 73 regular season games.
Johan Alm, 22, was signed as a free agent last spring after winning an SHL championship in Sweden with Skelleftea. Jonathan-Ismael Diaby, who will be 20 in November, was a third round pick in 2013 and has an intriguing mix of size and skill. Garrett Noonan is in his first season of pro hockey after a four-year career at Boston University.
Third-year pro Taylor Aronson has spent the bulk of his first two seasons in the ECHL with Cincinnati; he also appeared in 12 games with Milwaukee last season. Mikko Vainonen (Kingston) and Jaynen Rissling (Calgary) are in their first seasons of pro hockey after playing major junior hockey and one or both could spend time in the ECHL, though Vainonen is young enough to play an overage season in junior hockey.
At the other end of the spectrum, University of Wisconsin freshman Jack Dougherty, a second round pick in 2014, is one of the more highly-regarded prospects in the Nashville system. One of two Predators prospects currently at the NCAA level along with Colorado College freshman Teemu Kivihalme, Dougherty was one of five defensemen drafted out of the USA Hockey National Team Development program last June. He has a nice blend of skating ability, skill and toughness. Wisconsin has developed several NHL caliber defensemen in recent years including former Predator Ryan Suter.
Kivihalme, a Minnesota native who has spent summers skating in his father’s native Finland, played for the USHL‘s Fargo Force last season and will have an opportunity to see ice time right away with the Tigers under new coach Mike Haviland.
Two Nashville prospects are currently playing in Europe: Finland natives Joonas Lyytinen and Joonas Jarvinen. Lyytinen, a fifth round pick in 2014, is in his second season with KalPa Kuopio in Liiga. Jarvinen was tendered a qualifying offer in June and is a restricted free agent. Signed by Nashville as a free agent in 2012, he spent the last two seasons with the Admirals and is currently playing for KHL expansion team Sochi.
Aaron Irving, selected in the sixth round last June after skating for Memorial Cup champion Edmonton, is back with the Oil Kings this season and is the only Nashville prospect currently playing junior hockey.
Pekka Rinne has been among the NHL’s top goaltenders since assuming the starter’s role in Nashville in 2008-09 but the club suffered in his absence when he went down with an injury last season. The 31 year old is back in net this season and is once again playing at a high level.
In terms of long-term prospects, there are three talented goalies with plenty of potential, but each has some question marks as to whether they can one day be a top NHL starter.
Magnus Hellberg, a 23-year-old from Sweden who was the first goalie selected in the 2011 draft, appeared set to assume the heir-apparent role after splitting time with Jeremy Smith in Milwaukee in 2012-13 but had a nightmare season due primarily to injury last year, finishing the season as a backup for the ECHL’s Cyclones during the Kelly Cup playoffs. Now healthy, he is with Milwaukee, where Marek Mazanec started the first two games.
Mazanec, while not as highly-touted as Hellberg, originally took over for Rinne after the veteran’s injury last season before yielding to Carter Hutton. After impressing in his first few 10 starts, including shutout wins against the Red Wings and Blue Jackets, some of the flaws of his game were eventually exposed. He played well in the final month of the AHL season after being returned to the Admirals and started all three playoff games in the series against the Toronto Marlies.
The third goalie in the mix is Juuse Saros, who plays for HPK Hameenlinna in Finland. Assuming the starting role for the Liiga club as an 18-year-old last year, he was named the league’s rookie of the year after playing 44 games: finishing with a record of 16-16-8 with seven shutouts and posting a 1.76 goals against average and .928 save percentage. Saros was also the starting goalie for Finland’s gold medal winning U20 team at the World Juniors. His size (5’10” 180) concerns some and the Predators have yet to sign the 2013 fourth round pick to an entry-level contract.
The Predators drafted two goalies from Finland in the 2013 NHL Draft. Janne Juvonen, the club’s seventh round pick, appeared in four Liiga games last year as a backup with Pelicans Lahti, spending time playing in Finland’s second league Mestis and for the Pelicans U20 team. He is back with Pelicans Lahti as a backup to veteran Jere Myllyniemi but at this point would seem a long-shot to earn a contract with Nashville.
Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter at @HockeyNJ12