Coming off a season in which the Nashville Predators exceeded expectations — challenging for the top spot in the Central Division for much of the season and then giving eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago all it could handle in the first round — Nashville entered the 2015 NHL Draft looking to add depth to its core group.
With one of the youngest teams in the AHL last year in Milwaukee, Nashville has several talented forward prospects arriving as players. Led by 19-year-old Kevin Fiala, who could crack the NHL lineup this fall, the group is largely comprised of forwards whose natural position is on the wing. Sweden natives Viktor Arvidsson and Pontus Aberg, Finnish 2011 second round pick Miikka Salomaki, and Harvard’s Jimmy Vesey, the ECAC Player of the Year for 2014-15, are among the club’s top prospects.
Whether by design or through the way their draft list fell, General Manager David Poile and Chief Amateur Scout Jeff Kealty appeared to address the needs at center in the 2015 NHL Draft. With seven picks, the Predators used four of those selections to draft forwards who are primarily centers.
Nashville did not have a first-round pick due to the February trade with Toronto that landed defenseman Cody Franson and forward Mike Santorelli but Poile and Kealty seemingly landed two players whose skill sets suggest they might have gone higher in the draft.
Russian forward Yakov Trenin‘s foot speed and an awkward skating style likely led him to slide into the second round. However, he played in all situations for the Olympiques in his first season in Quebec after being moved from wing to center by Gatineau head coach Benoit Groulx and was the team’s second-leading scorer.
Tom Novak, the Predators’ third-round pick, is said to have the creativity and playmaking skills to rival any of the forwards in the 2015 NHL Draft though there are questions about his strength, consistency and willingness to compete in smaller spaces. Headed to the University of Minnesota after playing in the USHL last season, Novak should have the time to address all three of those issues.
Using a pick that was obtained from San Jose through Detroit in a draft day deal in 2014, the Predators selected Val d’Or center Anthony Richard with the 100th pick overall. Richard played in the 2014 Memorial Cup with the Foreurs and this past season was the team’s leading scorer. With their own fourth-round pick they took Trenin’s Gatineau teammate, defenseman Alexandre Carrier. Carrier impressed with his fluid skating and playmaking skills at the Predators’ prospect camp.
The Predators selected two goalies in the later rounds this year in Czech native Karel Vejmelka and American 18-year-old Evan Smith. Vejmelka, who saw time in the Czech Extraliga last season, was selected in the fifth round. Smith, taken in the seventh round with the team’s final pick, started the year in the WHL with the Victoria Royals and finished the season with the NAHL’s Austin Bruins.
Another draft trend throughout the years for Nashville has been taking players from programs that have produced prospects for the Predators in the past. That was the case with Tyler Moy, their sixth-round pick from Harvard. Crimson senior Jimmy Vesey was a third-round pick by Nashville in 2012.
One trend that did not continue in the 2015 NHL Draft was the Predators’ preference to select players from either Sweden or Finland. Though Nashville signed American Steve Moses, who skated for Jokerit last season, and defenseman Kristian Nakyva, a Finnish player who played in Sweden’s SHL with Lulea last year, as free agents, the Predators did not draft a player from either nation for just the second time in club history. The 2002 draft was the only other time that happened.
Yakov Trenin, C, Gatineau Olympiques (QMJHL)
2nd round, 55th overall
Height: 6-2 Weight: 194 lbs
Any concerns about the so-called “Russian Factor” were dispelled in July during prospect camp as Trenin signed a three-year entry-level contract with Nashville. More of a playmaker than a true scorer at this time, Trenin has the instincts and technical skills to fit in with the likes of Forsberg, Fiala and 2014 second round pick Vladislav Kamenev (Kamenev also signed with the Predators during prospect camp but is recovering from injury and will likely begin the season in Milwaukee when he is healthy).
One thing Trenin has that some of the others in the system lack (other than Kamenev) is size. While he is still developing and will need to add bulk and strength, he has the ideal frame both to protect the puck and win battles in tight spaces.
With the top two groups of forwards seemingly set in Nashville — and players like free agent signees Moses and Cody Hodgson along with the aforementioned AHL forwards and Milwaukee 2014-15 leading scorer Austin Watson looking to compete for spots — there is no need to force Trenin into the lineup this year.
His game and skill set should eventually fit in well with the style that second-year head coach Peter Laviolette has implemented.
Tom Novak, C, Waterloo Black Hawks (USHL)
3rd round, 85th overall
Height: 6-1 Weight: 180 lbs.
In terms of productivity, stick-handling, and passing skills – as well as hockey IQ – there are few young forwards who can match Novak.
Novak won three straight state titles while playing high school hockey in Minnesota at St. Thomas Academy, had 11 points in five games for the USA U18 team the 2014 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament and was the second-leading scorer at the 2014 World Junior A Challenge, scoring the game-winning goal for the USA in overtime against Denmark in the gold medal game.
In his first season of junior hockey with Waterloo in 2014-15, he was the Black Hawks second-leading scorer despite missing 14 games after suffering a “lower-body injury” late in the season. Playing along with fellow Minnesota high school products Brock Boeser (VAN) and Tyler Sheehy, he scored 14 goals with 34 assists in 46 games.
“Tommy can set up unbelievable plays,” Sheehy told Hockey’s Future’s Tom Schreier in January.
Both Sheehy and Novak will begin their college careers at the University of Minnesota in the fall (Novak missed all but the first day of Nashville’s prospect camp to get a head start on classes).
A long-term project who took some time to adjust from high school hockey to the USHL, Novak will likely require a similar adaptation period to the college game. With added strength and physical maturation he could mesh well with the other young forwards in the system.
Anthony Richard, C, Val d’Or Foreurs (QMJHL)
4th round, 100th overall
Height: 5-9 Weight: 165 lbs
Similar in skill set, physique and demeanor to Portland Winterhawks product and former Predators prospect Brendan Leipsic (TOR), Richard combines athleticism, offensive creativity, and a combative nature to get the most out of his ability.
Skating for Milwaukee last season before being traded to Toronto as part of the Franson deal, Leipsic was among the leaders in assists for the Admirals. Richard, too, is more of a playmaker than a true scorer and has the ability to make the players around him better.
The Trois-Rivieres, Quebec native scored 43 goals with 48 assists while racking up 78 penalty minutes last season in his third year with the Foreurs. In 17 playoff games he scored 12 goals with 10 assists as Val d’Or advanced to the semifinals.
Like Arvidsson, Fiala and the rest of the other smaller players in the Nashville system, Richard will be challenged to prove he can be successful against the bigger, stronger players at the NHL level. The Predators organization is willing to give those players an opportunity.
Alexandre Carrier, D, Gatineau Olympiques (QMJHL)
4th round, 115th overall
Height: 5-11 Weight: 170 lbs
With mobile blue liners like Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Seth Jones already in Nashville, the Predators are able to generate pressure using their speed from the back end to play a quick transitional game. Carrier’s size and lack of bulk could be put him at a disadvantage in his own end but his skating ability allows him to excel in high-paced action and his escapability keeps him out of dangerous spots.
The younger brother of Washington Capitals’ 2010 draft pick Samuel Carrier, he was the third-leading scorer for Gatineau behind right wing Louick Marcotte and Trenin. Skating in all 68 regular season games for the Olympiques, he nearly doubled his scoring output from the previous season, scoring 12 goals with 43 assists while accumulating 64 penalty minutes.
With at least one year of junior hockey remaining, Carrier should continue to add the strength and positional awareness needed to compliment his offensive game. His approach to the game and skating ability fit in well with the Predators’ philosophy.
Karel Vejmelka, G, Pardubice (Czech Extraliga/Czech U20)
5th round, 145th overall
Height: 6-3 Weight: 200 lbs
Drafting goalies in general is an inexact science and the Predators have had mixed success.
Marek Mazanec (6th round, 2012), Anders Lindback (7th, 2008) and current starter Pekka Rinne (8th, 2004) were all late round picks who have played in the NHL. Conversely, the five goalies Nashville has taken in the first or second rounds have played a total of 11 NHL games, including one game to date for Magnus Hellberg (NYR).
With Rinne entrenched as the starter in Nashville and Carter Hutton in the second year of his two-year contract, the goaltending situation for the Predators is set for 2014-15. Juuse Saros, a promising 20-year-old, was signed to a three-year entry-level contract in June and will compete with Mazanec for the starter’s role in Milwaukee. Vejmelka, Smith and 2013 7th round pick Janne Juvonen are on the periphery of the goaltending depth chart at this point.
Drafted this year after passing through the 2014 NHL Draft without being selected, Vejmelka handled the majority of the goaltending for the HC Pardubice junior team in the Czech Republic the last two seasons.
Vejmelka is a large goaltender who uses his size to his advantage and relies on positioning and angle play rather than acrobatic movements.
Given an opportunity to play with the Pardubice men’s team late in the year, he showed promise. After going 4-3 with a 2.86 goals against average and .923 save percentage in seven regular season games for the ninth-placed club, he started six playoff games and was 3-3 with one shutout, a 3.02 goals against average and .916 save percentage.
Tyler Moy, C, Harvard University (ECAC)
6th round, 175th overall
Height: 6-0 Weight: 195 lbs
A native of San Diego, California, Moy had a breakout offensive season for the Crimson as a sophomore but his true value at the pro level will likely be his positional play and two-way game.
Selected by the Predators in his third year of draft eligibility, Moy scored four goals in each of the two previous seasons — his final season of junior hockey and as a freshman at Harvard — before scoring 12 goals with 15 assists in 37 games last season.
Moy has played both winger and center during his time at Harvard but flourished last year after New Jersey Devils prospect Alexander Kerfoot went down with an injury and Moy moved into his natural center spot on a full-time basis.
A bit undersized coming out of junior hockey, Moy has added some muscle to his frame while at Harvard and his skating and positional play made him an attractive late round option.
Evan Smith, G, Victoria Royals (WHL)/Austin Bruins (NAHL)
7th round, 205th overall
Height: 6-6 Weight: 175 lbs
Unlike Vejmelka, Smith is much more of a long-range prospect at this point. He has the size and prototypical frame of an NHL goaltender but is still fairly early in the development curve at this juncture of his career.
Smith was slated to backup veteran Coleman Vollrath in Victoria when the 2014-15 started but made just one start and appeared in four games before suffering a knee injury. The Royals subsequently acquired Jayden Sittler as a backup for Vollrath. Smith joined Austin in December – after returning from the knee injury and later a broken finger – when Bruins’ starter Zach Driscoll was acquired by the USHL’s Omaha Lancers.
The Bruins were one of the top teams in the North American League and both Smith and partner Jake Kielly flourished as result. The Parker, Colorado native was 12-1-2 with 1 shutout and had a 1.73 goals against and .923 save percentage in 15 regular season games. The Bruins reached the Robertson Cup finals, falling to the Minnesota Wilderness. Smith was 4-1 in six playoff games and had a 2.10 goals against average and .914 save percentage.
Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @HockeyNJ12