Although the top prospects in the Nashville Predators organization currently skate for AHL affiliate Milwaukee, there are many players competing at the NCAA level or in European leagues this season.
The distance from North American professional hockey is telling in some cases, but there is no lack of quality prospects in the two different developmental venues.
Juuse Saros is one of the top young goalies in goalie-rich Finland, freshman defensemen Jack Dougherty of the University of Wisconsin is the Predators’ top blueline prospect, hulking winger Vladislav Kamenev is in his second KHL season, and Harvard forward Jimmy Vesey is among the top players in college hockey.
Those four seem fairly certain to receive entry-level contracts one day and highlight a group of 15 prospects — six in the NCAA and nine in Europe — with a wide range of NHL potential.
Jimmy Vesey, RW, Harvard Crimson (ECAC)
Drafted 3rd round, 66th overall, 2012
Other than possibly junior defenseman Patrick McNally (VAN), no player has been as responsible for Harvard’s big turnaround this year as Vesey. One of the ten finalists for the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in college hockey he has seemingly done it all for the Crimson. He is Harvard’s leading scorer and plays a sound game in all three zones, using his long reach to take away space or battle for pucks along the walls.
Harvard qualified for an NCAA tournament berth after defeating Colgate in the ECAC Championship game on the strength of Vesey’s two-goal effort.
With little more to prove at the college level, Vesey could be an intriguing option for Nashville if he were to sign an entry-level contract following Harvard’s post-season run. More likely, he will return to Harvard for his senior year before signing with Nashville following the 2015-16 season.
Jack Dougherty, D, Wisconsin Badgers (Big Ten)
Drafted 2nd round, 51st overall, 2014
After losing 11 players to either graduation or early departure, Wisconsin managed just four wins: the worst season in Madison since the Badgers’ program returned to the varsity level in 1963.
While things bottomed out for the Badgers in 2014-15, Dougherty was one of several freshmen thrown into key roles earlier than expected. Overmatched and prone to trying to do too much when the season started, Dougherty steadily adapted to the pace and skill of the college game.
Long-term, his skating ability and technical skills suggest he can be an effective two-way defenseman at the pro level one day.
Teemu Kivihalme, D, Colorado College Tigers (NCHC)
Drafted 5th round, 140th overall, 2013
The Tigers endured a difficult season under first-year coach Mike Haviland, finishing last in the NCHC before being swept by North Dakota in the NCHC Tournament.
Kivihalme, like Dougherty, endured a baptism by fire — seeing more ice time than he might have on a stronger team. Skating on the Tigers’ top pairing with senior captain and Jets prospect Peter Stoykewych much of the year, Kivihalme steadily adjusted to the pace of the college game.
He lacks the stature and physical aggression of Dougherty but Kivihalme is among the faster defensemen in college hockey and uses his skating ability to his advantage. He will need to add some bulk during his college career but his progress as a freshman was encouraging.
Zachary Stepan, C, Minnesota State-Mankato Mavericks (WCHA)
Drafted 6th round, 176th overall, 2011
Featuring a trio of undersized, high scoring upperclassmen along with promising freshman C.J. Franklin (WPG), Minnesota State finished first in the WCHA in the regular season and averaged 3.6 goals scored per game (most in the league) in their first 37 games.
As a result of the Mavericks’ balanced scoring attack, Stepan, who was also slowed by an upper-body injury in mid-season, filled more of a two-way, checking role in his sophomore season. Stepan’s willingness to do what is best for the team is encouraging but more will be expected in 2015-16.
Minnesota State is headed to the 2015 NCAA tournament so Stepan will have the opportunity to finish what has been a challenging sophomore season on a high note.
Wade Murphy, RW, North Dakota (NCHC)
Drafted 7th round, 185th overall, 2013
North Dakota is again one of the top teams in the country and despite the tournament loss to St. Cloud State received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. The team has one of the deepest groups of forwards in college hockey and Murphy had trouble getting consistent ice time in his sophomore season. He appeared in 11 regular season games for the Fighting Sioux this season, playing primarily a fourth line, defensive role.
The fact that Murphy is willing to do the dirty jobs like blocking shots and playing a checking game is a plus. Murphy arrived in Grand Forks after topping 70 points in each of his final two seasons in the BCHL but his inability to secure a full-time role with the Fighting Sioux in his second season of college hockey is cause for concern.
Nick Oliver, C, St. Cloud State Huskies (NCHC)
Drafted 4th round, 110th overall, 2009
Oliver has been a fixture for St. Cloud State, skating in over 140 games during his four-year college career. Oliver continues to play a steady, effective lower line role for the Huskies as a senior.
The Roseau, Minnesota native uses his size to battle along the boards and in the hard areas of the ice, often skating against the opposition’s top scorers. He projects strictly as a defensive forward at the pro level, having scored a career-high three goals as a senior, heading into the NCAA Tournament.
There are a lot of talented forwards in the Nashville system so Oliver faces significant odds in receiving an entry-level contract. His game doesn’t seem to fit the new direction of the organization, though his willingness to play a specific role could secure a minor league deal, with the potential to work his way up through an NHL system.
Vladislav Kamenev, C, Magnitogorsk Metallurg (KHL)
Drafted 2nd Round, 42nd Overall, 2014
The Nashville system contains several small but speedy players with outstanding skills and hockey instincts. Kamenev compares favorably with those players in terms of his technical skills and skating ability while possessing the size that they do not. One area that has been a challenge for the 18-year-old thus far in his flourishing career has been consistency.
He played for the silver medal-winning Team Russia at the 2015 World Juniors, scoring one goal with three assists in seven games. In KHL play he has had to fight for ice time in his first full season with Metallurg. Under the watchful eye of head coach Mike Keenan Kamenev averaged less than 10 minutes of ice time per game, scoring six goals with four assists in 41 regular season games for the defending champs.
Long-term Kamenev’s combination of technical skills and size suggests a fairly high ceiling in terms of potential. The prospect of him skating along with Filip Forsberg and Kevin Fiala among others should excite Nashville fans.
Juuse Saros, G, HPK Hameenlinna (Liiga)
Drafted 4th round, 99th overall, 2013
His efforts to lead HPK to a second straight playoff berth came up short — and Saros appeared to wear down late in the season — but it is doubtful HPK would have been even close to making the playoffs had it not been for his efforts in goal. Only three goalies appeared in more Liiga games than the 47 games 19-year-old Saros played in his second pro season. Saros finished 13-18-16 with six shutouts and posted a 2.14 goals against and .929 save percentage.
At the 2015 World Juniors, he was on the short end of a 2-1 loss in which Finland outshot Slovakia 38-12. He stopped 32 of 36 shots in a 4-1 loss to Canada but was bypassed in favor of Ville Husso (STL) in the team’s quarterfinal loss to Sweden.
Saros played some of his best hockey with HPK immediately following the WJC — standing on his head at times to keep his team in the game. According to published reports in Finland, he will be in North America this coming fall, though he had yet to sign an entry-level contract with Nashville as of this story.
Joonas Lyytinen, D, KalPa Kuopio (Liiga)
Drafted 5th round, 132nd overall, 2014
Selected in his second year of draft eligibility in 2014, Lyytinen has flown under the radar. While he has a long way to go to one day play in Nashville, the 19-year-old may deserve more acclaim than he’s received thus far.
Lyytinen was drafted after playing well at the end of last season for last-place KalPa and Lyytinen has built off that finish with a solid season. KalPa improved to sixth in 2014-15 and Lyytinen was among the team’s top defensemen in plus/minus. Skating for Finland at the 2015 World Juniors he was one of the few players to acquit himself well.
Lyytinen is neither a punishing player nor a true puck-moving defender but he plays with a great deal of composure. Long-term he could be a nice complement to the free-wheeling puck-movers and stay-at-home big bodies in the Nashville system.
Janne Juvonen, G, Pelicans Lahti (Liiga)
Drafted 7th round, 203rd overall, 2013
Juvonen is among those less certain to be signed to an NHL entry-level deal, but may have put himself back on the radar with his strong play for Pelicans in 2014-15. Like HPK with Saros, the Lahti club missed the playoffs with Juvonen often forced to be his team’s best player.
Playing in a career-high 46 games in his first season as a starting goalie in Liiga, the 20-year-old finished with a record of 12-23-11 with three shutouts while posting a 2.51 goals against and .918 save percentage. Juvonen, though not as impressive in terms of playing style as Saros, is taller than his HPK counterpart and has made steady progress since first being drafted.
The Nashville goaltending picture is crowded so Juvonen could be the victim of the numbers game. At the same time, his play has merited attention and should the Predators choose not to sign him there could be interest elsewhere.
Max Gortz, RW, Frolunda (SHL)
Drafted 6th Round, 172nd Overall, 2012
The Predators have been on a signing spree in recent years when it comes to players from Sweden and signed Gortz to an entry-level three-year contract in June 2014. Gortz returned to the SHL in 2014-15 to skate for second-place Frolunda.
A big winger who does not play a true power game, Gortz is a sniper with top-notch shooting and stick handling skills. Third on Frolunda with 14 goals in 53 regular season games, he had 14 assists and was +8 despite averaging 14 minutes of ice time in a third line role.
Long-term Gortz’s skill set and size suggest he could fit with the rest of the young players coming up through the Predators’ pipeline.
Emil Pettersson, C, Timra (Allsvenskan)/MODO (SHL)
Drafted 6th Round, 155th Overall, 2013
One of two players selected in the sixth round of the 2013 NHL Draft, Pettersson has yet to sign an entry-level contract with Nashville and would become an unrestricted free agent if not signed by June 2015.
Unlike the other products from Sweden in the Predators’ system, who played for successful clubs like Frolunda and Skelleftea, Pettersson has been the top scorer on a struggling team. Timra was demoted from the SHL to Allsvenskan at the end of last year and missed the Allsvenskan playoffs this season after finishing 10th in the 14-team Swedish second league. Pettersson joined weak SHL club MODO at the end of the season and had one goal in two games.
Pettersson is a bit light for an NHL prospect but his skating and offensive skills are impressive. The lesser-known Pettersson played for the national junior team for the first time this past season and he has begun to catch the eyes of scouts.
Mikko Vainonen, D, SaiPa Lappeenranta
Drafted 4th Round, 118th Overall, 2012
Vainonen spent the past two seasons with the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs, signing a three-year entry-level contract with the Predators in May 2013. A huge, punishing defenseman, he started his first professional season with the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones in October 2014 before being loaned to SaiPa in January.
Vainonen appeared in 19 regular season games for SaiPa in a lower-pairing role, registering one assist with 14 penalty minutes and a -2 plus/minus. After seeing limited ice time with the Cyclones, he appears to be regaining his confidence.
The Nashville system is well-stocked with young defensemen so Vainonen faces an uphill climb to secure a spot with the Predators. His size and demeanor are two positives in his favor. Playing regularly once again after seeing limited ice time at the start of the year is also a plus.
Saku Maenalanen, RW, Karpat Oulu (Liiga)
Drafted 5th Round, 125th Overall, 2013
Maenalanen remains a wild card in the Nashville prospect group. In terms of his skill set, Maenalanen is more of a pure sniper than a playmaker. He has the size of a power forward but is not overly combative, playing more of a finesse game. Offensively he tends to be an opportunist — invisible at times before suddenly bursting into open spaces and creating chances. As with many young players his size, his mobility is an area in need of improvement.
Karpat was Liiga’s top team in 2014-15 season but with a veteran group of forwards Maenalanen had a tough time getting ice time and appeared in just 20 games. He played eight games on loan to Pelicans early in the year and spent the rest of the season in Mestis or with the Karpat U20 team.
With a deep group of forwards in the Predators’ pipeline, there is no guarantee that Maenalanen receives an entry-level contract by June 2015.
Patrick Cehlin, RW, Leksands (SHL)
Drafted 5th Round, 126th Overall, 2010
Cehlin played some of the best hockey of his career at the end of last season for the Admirals. But after off-season back surgery he was limited in Predators’ training camp and, after shuffling between Milwaukee and Cincinnati during the first half of the 2014-15 season, he signed with Leksands in January 2015 and returned to Sweden.
Skill-wise, Cehlin has some playmaking ability and works hard in all three zones. He was a welcome presence in Milwaukee and no doubt made things easier for some of the younger players coming over from Sweden.
Cehlin will turn 24 this summer and with a year left on his original entry-level contract he could return to North America next season to play for the Admirals, but playing with Nashville is doubtful. It is more likely Cehlin chooses to remain in Sweden or signs with a KHL club.
Prospect of the Month
Viktor Arvidsson was expected to spend another season in Sweden before heading to North America. But after an impressive development camp he was signed to an entry-level contract and invited to the Predators’ training camp. He has continued to open eyes in his first season with the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals.
The 21-year-old from Skelleftea, Sweden was recently rewarded for his play this season — receiving his first NHL call-up by the Predators on March 20th. The Admirals’ leading scorer with 20 goals and 31 assists in his first 63 AHL games, Arvidsson scored two goals with 11 assists and was +2 in 11 games during February.
While he lacks the ideal size and strength of an NHL forward, Arvidsson possesses a high level package of offensive skills and elite skating ability.
Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @HockeyNJ12