Predators Top 20 prospects, Fall 2009

By Kent Wilson

An organization with strong prospect depth at every position, the Predators greatest area of strength is still their back end, where they feature multiple high quality youngsters at various levels of development.

Top 20 at a glance

1. Colin Wilson, C
2. Chet Pickard, G
3. Jon Blum, D
4. Ryan Ellis, D
5. Cody Franson, D
6. Zach Budish, RW
7. Charles-Olivier Roussel, D
8. Ryan Jones, RW
9. Patric Hornqvist, RW
10. Cal O’Reilly, C
11. Roman Josi, D
12. Mark Dekanich, G
13. Nick Spaling, C
14. Mike Santorelli, RW
15. Taylor Beck, LW
16. Alexander Sulzer, D
17. Blake Geoffrion, LW
18. Ryan Thang, LW
19. Anders Lindback, G
20. Antti Pihlstrom, LW

1. Colin Wilson, C, 19

Acquired: 7th overall, 2008

Wilson took a sizeable step forward this past season, scoring 55 points in 43 games for Boston University despite being one of the youngest players on the team. His output was a 20-point jump over his freshman effort in 2007-08. This past May, Wilson was the only non-NHL player selected to represent the US at the IIHF World Championships. 

Wilson’s combination of size and natural offensive abilities make him as close to a "sure thing" that exists in the Predators organization currently. At 6’1" and 215 pounds, the 19-year-old has an NHL-ready frame. He may be ready to push for a spot on the Predators out of training camp this year, but he is perhaps more likely to start with the farm club in Milwaukee. 

2. Chet Pickard, G, 19
Acquired: 18th overall, 2008

Pickard put together some career bests last season behind the WHL‘s Tri-City Americans. In 50 games, Pickard collected 35 wins with a 2.28 GAA and .921 save percentage. Only the Spokane Chiefs Dustin Tokarski (TB) managed a better save rate in the WHL. In addition, Pickard was selected for Canada’s World Junior team, where he played two games en route to the gold medal. 

Pickard is technically sound and is cool under pressure. With Pekka Rinne capably covering the Predators netminding duties for the near future, there’ll be no need to rush Pickard. He will turn pro and likely spend most of the year in Milwaukee.

3. Jon Blum, D, 20

Acquired: 23rd overall, 2007

The offensively gifted Blum scored 66 points in just 51 games for the powerful Vancouver Giants last season. Blum’s point total was the third highest among defenders in the WHL, despite the fact that he appeared in just 51 contests. Although his team failed to make it to the WHL finals, Blum won the CHL defenseman of the year award. 

Blum has filled out well since he was drafted two years ago, and excels due to his vision and top-notch skating ability. He tends to rely on positioning and a quick stick when defending rather than taking the body. Blum will likely spend the season with the Admirals, where he’ll need to adjust to the larger and faster opposing players of pro hockey.

4. Ryan Ellis, D, 18

Acquired: 11th overall, 2009

Few 18-year-old defensemen have demonstrated the high-level offensive ability and output that Ellis displayed last year for the OHL‘s Windsor Spitfires. In just 57 games, Ellis managed 22 goals and 89 points, as well as an eye-popping +52 rating. His impressive point total was the best among OHL defenders and he was awarded the Max Kaminsky trophy as the OHL‘s most outstanding defenseman. He was also one of the youngest players on Canada’s World Junior Championship team where he collected one goal and six assists in six games.

Ellis already has elite offensive instincts, sound positioning and an NHL-caliber shot from the point. The knocks against him are his small stature (5’9" and 173 pounds) and merely average skating stride, which in combination could prove to be impediments to the NHL. He has at least another year of junior hockey ahead of him.

5. Cody Franson, D, 22

Acquired: 79th overall, 2005

The 22-year-old Franson was stand-out for the Admirals last season, not only leading defenders in points with 52, but he actually placed third overall on the club in scoring behind Cal O’Reilly and Mike Santorelli. Franson also placed third in the entire AHL in production by defensemen and was selected as a second team all-star.

Big and mobile, Franson has a hard shot from the point and NHL projectable frame, standing at 6’4". He was a capable scorer from the back end in junior, twice managing 15+ goals and 50+ points for the Vancouver Giants, and has already become one of the Admirals top defenders. Franson will be pushing to make the Predators out of training camp this fall.

6. Zach Budish, RW, 18

Acquired: 41st overall, 2009

A highly-ranked right winger out of high school, Budish fell to the Predators in the second round of the draft this summer thanks to injury concerns that all but wiped out his season. In 2007-08, Budish dominated his peers at Edina High School, scoring 26 goals and 63 points in just 30 games. He was also selected to represent Team USA in the 2008 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.

Budish is already of NHL size, standing 6’3" and weighing in at 230 pounds. Built like a linebacker, Budish’s ACL injury was actually suffered playing high school football. His high-scoring totals also speak to his top-notch offensive awareness and relatively soft hands. Like all big men, Budish will probably have to improve his quickness and skating stride before making the leap and will also have to make up for a lost year of development in the process. He’ll be a freshman at the University of Minnesota this season and is a few years away from competing for a roster spot at the NHL level.  

7. Charles-Olivier Roussel, D, 17

Acquired: 42nd overall, 2009

Roussel’s sophomore effort saw him more than double his rookie output, from 16 points in 2007-08 to 44 points last season. He placed second on the Shawinigan Cataractes in scoring by defenseman (behind the much older Simon Lacroix) and placed 11th among all defenders in the QMJHL. He was also ninth overall in plus/minus with an impressive +31 rating and was selected as a second-team all-star.

Roussel is a well-balanced defender with both good offensive and defensive instincts. He can play the power play and penalty kill with equal aplomb and is poised to become the Cataractes top defender. Roussel is progressing nicely, but is still years away. He won’t be 18 until September.

8. Ryan Jones, RW, 25

Acquired: From Minnesota, 2008

A former fourth-round pick by the Minnesota Wild, Jones broke into the NHL last year with the Predators, although he spent the season bouncing up and down between the parent and farm clubs. In the AHL, Jones was nearly a point-per-game player, scoring 22 points in 25 contests. In the NHL, he was limited to just over 11 minutes per game, and his output wasn’t quite as impressive as a result (22 points in 47 games).

A scorer in college, Jones three times managed 20+ goals and 30+ points for Miami University, suggesting he may improve his totals at the NHL level if given more ice time. A tireless worker, Jones may become a fixture on the Predators power play due to his willingness to set up in front of the opposition’s net during the man advantage. Look for him to stick with the Predators for good this year and to experience an increase in playing time and responsibility.

9. Patric Hornqvist, RW, 22

Acquired: 7th round, 2005

After spending three seasons in the Swedish Elite League, Hornqvist made his professional North American debut to somewhat disappointing results last year. Thought to have a chance to stick with the big club all season, the winger played in 49 games for the Admirals, compiling 17 goals and 35 points. The Predators called Hornqvist up several times during the course of the regular season, but he managed just two goals and five assists in 28 games, playing mostly on the third and fourth lines.

Already 22, with three seasons of pro hockey in Sweden under his belt, Hornqvist is further along his development curve than many other prospects. He is willing to go to the net and into the corners in the offensive zone. His skating is not perfect, however, and he may need talented linemates to produce as he can’t carry the play himself. There’s a chance Hornqvist will make the Predators roster out of camp this season.

10. Cal O’Reilly, C, 22

Acquired: 5th round, 2005

Last season was O’Reilly’s third in the AHL, and he had a team-high 56 assists in 67 games and was second on the club in scoring with 69 points. During a brief stint in the big league last season, O’Reilly had five points in 11 games. 

Slightly built, O’Reilly has a very good passing game and excellent vision, and has the high assist totals to prove it. A respected teammate, O’Reilly is only held back by his relatively diminutive stature (5’11" and 185 pounds) and lackluster physical game.

O’Reilly should be pressing for a spot on the Predators this fall.

11. Roman Josi, D, 19
Acquired: 2nd round, 2008

Born and raised in Switzerland, Josi has played for Bern of the Swiss-A league for the last two years. Despite being the youngest skater on Bern by a wide margin (only two other players were teenagers), Josi managed to play a significant role, scoring seven goals and 24 points through 42 games on the back end.

The fact that Josi played competently against mature opposition in a professional league before his 19th birthday speaks well of his abilities. Not overly gifted in any one area, Josi is nonetheless a complete defender who can play capably at both ends of the ice. At just 185 pounds, he’ll have to gain weight in order to be effective in the NHL and will likely have to add more of a physical aspect to his game as well. He plans to remain in Switzerland for the 2009-10 season and hopes to cross the pond next summer.

12. Mark Dekanich, G, 22

Acquired: 5th round, 1006

A stand-out for Colgate University during his college career, Dekanich didn’t seem to take a step back last season despite turning pro. The 22-year-old played in 30 games for Milwaukee, winning 15 while stopping 92.3% of the shots he faced. That impressive save percentage was marginally better than that of his veteran partner Drew MacIntyre (.921) and also the fifth best in the entire league (second among rookies).

Both athletic and sound fundamentally, Dekanich will share time with Pickard for the Admirals this year.   

13. Nick Spaling, C, 20
Acquired: 2nd round, 2007

A solid if unspectacular scorer in junior, Spaling’s rookie season in the AHL was good though not great. The 20-year-old was tied for fourth on the team in points with 35, including 12 goals. Spaling was the youngest player on the Admirals last year and will be in line for more ice time and responsibility in his sophomore season, especially if players like O’Reilly, Mike Santorelli or Hornqvist make the Predators full time.

Spaling is a quality utility forward who can play capably in various positions and situations. Not overly big or gifted in any one area, He will have to continue to develop his defensive and mental games in order to make the jump to the big league. Look for the soon-to-be 21-year-old Spaling to spend at least another season on the farm.

14. Mike Santorelli, RW, 23

Acquired: 6th round, 2004

A winger out of Northern Michigan University, Santorelli stepped up in his second year of pro, scoring a team-best 27 goals and 70 points in 70 games, earning him a seven-game stint with the Predators.

A fast skater with good acceleration and agility, Santorelli has soft hands as well as good on-ice vision. Not overly big or heavy at 6′ and 190 pounds, Santorelli may have some issues fighting through checks at the NHL level. He’ll also have to improve his abilities in the defensive end of the ice in order to be effective as a second or third line forward. There’s a good chance the soon-to-be 24-year-old will split time between the Admirals and Predators this year, depending on injuries and the performance of other hopefuls like Hornqvist.

15. Taylor Beck, LW, 18

Acquired: 3rd round, 2009

Beck showed significant improvement in his sophomore season with the Guelph Storm, more than tripling his rookie goal output (7 to 22) and more than doubling his total point production (21 to 58). He also played for Team Orr in the 2009 Top Prospects games, scoring one goal.

Already filled out for his age at 6’1" and 209 pounds, as one of the youngest players on Storm last season, Beck managed to place fourth on the team in scoring. He trailed only first rounder Peter Holland (ANA) in production by 17-year-old players on the club.

Beck has good offensive tools, including size, decent vision and a good shot. He is also a capable puckhandler and a hard worker. He is somewhat limited by an average skating stride and a lack of edge to his game, which is considered a must for prospects that project as power forwards. He will return to Guelph this year.

16. Alexander Sulzer, D, 25

Acquired: 3rd round, 2003

Drafted out of the DEL in 2003, Sulzer decided to remain in his native Germany for four years before finally making the leap to the AHL in 2007. His debut in North America was a strong one, with Sulzer gathering seven goals and 32 points in 61 games from the blueline. He upped his point-per-game pace significantly in 2008-09, scoring eight goals and 34 points in 48 contests, a pace that projects to a 56-point season over a full 80-game schedule. That total would have placed him inside the top five in AHL scoring by defenders.

Already 25, Sulzer is fast running out of time as a prospect. A solid all-around defender with good offensive capabilities and a mean streak in his own end, Sulzer will have to remain consistent and healthy in order to contend for spot on the Predators blueline this year. With the exit of Greg de Vries and Ville Koistinen, there’s ample opportunity for Sulzer to make a permanent move up the depth chart, although he may face stiff competition from Blum and Franson. 

17. Blake Geoffrion, LW

Acquired: 2nd round, 2006

In his third season for the University of Wisconsin, Geoffrion placed fourth on his team in scoring with 28 points in 35 games. He was also tied for the club lead in goals with 15.

Although a fast skater with decent offensive instincts, Geoffrion is known more for his stable two-way play and utility as a forward. Geoffrion uses his 6’2" frame well on the ice, frequently delivering hard hits along the boards. Although he shows a willingness to drive to the hard areas in the offensive zone, Geoffrion’s offensive abilities aren’t quite as high other Nashville prospects so he’ll have to continue to grow the other aspects of his game in order to eventually make the NHL. He’ll return to Wisconsin for another season.

18. Ryan Thang, LW

Acquired: 3rd round, 2007

After leading the Notre Dame in goals with 18 in 2007-08, Thang took a small step backwards this year managing just 10 goals and 19 points in 33 games. An injury to his leg suffered in February caused Thang to miss seven regular season games and was one of the primary reasons for his lackluster output.

Considered a smart player with a strong work ethic and commitment to improving, Thang’s greatest assets are his coachability and defensive awareness. A good puckhandler who is strong on his skates despite his relatively small stature (5’11", 190 pounds), Thang can play on both sides of the puck, but is especially dependable in his own end of the rink. Thang is unlikely to be a scorer at the professional level, so improvements in size and strength as well as continued maturation of his defensive game would go a long way to moving him up the Nashville depth chart.  

19. Anders Lindback, G, 21
Acquired: 7th round, 2008

A giant goalie out of Sweden, Lindback made significant strides this year by moving up to the Swedish Elite League and appearing as a backup for Brynas behind Florida Panther draft pick Jacob Markstrom. Lindback’s .916 save percentage and 2.57 GAA numbers in 24 appearances were strong and only slightly behind Markstrom’s stats (.917 SV%, 2.38 GAA). Lindback was also selected for Team Sweden in the 2007 World Junior Championships, where he made two starts and posted a .915 save percentage.

At 6’6", Lindback is an imposing figure in the net. When on his knees, Lindback fills most of the net, making it difficult for shooters to find gaps even up high.

This coming season, Lindback will remain in the SEL, although this time playing for Timra with the slightly older Magnus Akerlund. Lindback is expected to get the opportunity to start.

20. Antti Pihlstrom, LW, 24

Acquired: Free agent, 2007

A scorer signed out of the Finnish Elite League, Pihlstrom’s first real taste of NHL hockey may end up being his last. After putting up 45 points for the Admirals in 2007-08, Pihlstrom struggled to be effective for the Predators when he was called up in 2008-09, managing just two goals and five assists in 53 games. As the season wore on, Pihlstrom’s ice time and opportunity started to fade and by March he frequently played less than 10 minutes a night — if he was in the line-up at all.

Pihlstrom’s primary strength is his blazing speed. He also has strong offensive instincts and a good shot which helped him put up numbers in lesser leagues, but it didn’t translate to the NHL. At 5’11" and just 185 pounds, he doesn’t possess an ideal frame and would have to find a way to battle through the relatively stiff checking of the big league.

This summer, Pihlstrom signed a contract with Farjestads BK of the SEL since the Predators were unwilling to offer him a one-way deal after his disappointing rookie effort. As such, there’s little chance he’ll be in Nashville colors again. But he remains an asset for the team.