Jonathon Blum remains top prospect for Nashville Predators

By HF Staff
Photo: Miikka Salomaki brings a blend of size and skill to the Predators organization. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

The Nashville Predators prospect pool continues to be dominated by defensemen with strong upside. Goaltending also, as always, remains a strength, particularly with the additions of Magnus Hellberg and Atte Engren to this list. The forwards, while not exhibiting any elite talent, do showcase a few promising risers, especially Michael Latta, and Craig Smith.

1. (1) Jonathon Blum, D, 8B
Drafted 1st round, 23rd overall, 2007

Despite being benched a few times and then sent to the AHL for a one week stint, Jonathon Blum remains the top prospect for the Predators. He may be experiencing a bit of a sophomore slump and needs to refocus now that he is back in the NHL. Currently, his plus/minus (minus-11) is tied for the worst on the Predators.

Blessed with raw offensive talent, Blum loves to join the rush and often penetrates deep into the offensive zone. However, it is Blum's calm demeanor that has helped him make a quick transition to the NHL game. During last season's playoffs, Blum was able to handle playing against the top lines of the Vancouver Canucks and the Anaheim Ducks.

2. (3) Ryan Ellis, D, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 11th overall, 2009

Ryan Ellis moves up one spot partially due to his strong performance at the OHL and AHL level. Last season he was the only OHL defenseman to finish in the top 10 in scoring (with 101 points). This season he is the only rookie defenseman to place in the top 20 in points in the AHL. Ellis also had a superb 2011 U20 World Junior Championship, where he posted 10 points in just seven games.

Ryan Ellis plays a similar style to Cam Fowler. While only 5'10, his ability to easily maneuver through the neutral zone and make plays should allow him to contribute at the NHL level. Whether he can handle playing against power forwards in the NHL is still a question mark. This season he will continue to progress at the AHL level.

3. (5) Roman Josi, D, 7B
Drafted 2nd round, 38th overall, 2008

The Swiss are making a name for themselves as a nation that can produce NHL caliber defensemen. The likes of Mark Streit and Yannick Weber might just be the tip of the
iceberg. Roman Josi has a chance to become one of the best defensemen to come out of Switzerland.

With good size, a powerful shot, and great hockey sense, Roman Josi has all the tools to become a solid top four defenseman in the NHL. After spending the off-season training with NHL Swiss players like Jonas Hiller and Streit, Josi suffered a concussion during the Predators training camp. Finally healthy, he has performed well in his first NHL call-up.

On December 10th, Josi scored his first NHL goal with a laser point shot. He has made some rookie mistakes defensively but that is to be expected.

4. (9) Michael Latta, C, 7C
Drafted 3rd round, 72nd overall, 2009

After a very successful OHL career, Latta currently ranks in the top 10 among AHL rookies in points. It helps that he is making the transition to the AHL with Guelph Storm teammate and friend Taylor Beck.

Aside from all the statistics, Latta is a player who brings a number of key intangibles to the table. He is an ideal centerman in that he does everything a coach would want from a center. He can contribute offensively but he is also strong on the defensive end, will forecheck hard and play physical. A player who seems to relish pressure situations, he has the potential to become a leader at the NHL level. This season he will continue to adjust to the speed of the AHL game.

5. (13) Craig Smith, C, 7C
Drafted 4th round, 98th overall, 2009

Craig Smith experiences the most significant jump of any player on this list due to his production at the NHL level. Smith started his NHL career at a point-per-game pace but recently his production has slowed down. That was expected as he is still a rookie who is learning how to play the NHL style of game. He still ranks third to only Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (EDM) and Adam Henrique (NJ) in rookie production and first on the Predators in points.

In some ways similar to Taylor Beck, Smith is a sniper who knows where to go on the ice to get open. He does possess more speed than Beck. Being more of a scorer than a playmaker, he does have the upside to become a top six forward in the NHL.

6. (2) Taylor Beck, LW, 7.5D
Drafted 3rd round, 70th overall, 2009

Taylor Beck moves down a few spots as his choppy skating style remains a concern. The question is whether it is adequate enough for the NHL or not. Beck has worked on his power skating considerably. According to Predators Assistant GM Paul Fenton "We believe in time, with practice and development, Taylor will smooth out."

What Taylor Beck does bring to the table is a pure scoring touch, which is an asset that the Predators sorely need at the NHL level. Currently playing in his first season in the AHL, he is progressing at a half a point per game pace.

7. (7) Blake Geoffrion, LW, 7C
Drafted 2nd round, 56th overall, 2006

Blake Geoffrion maintains his spot on this list due to his relentless hard work. After having no goals in 19 NHL games this season, Geoffrion was scratched for a number of games and then demoted to the Admirals. Like Blum, Geoffrion may be going through a sophomore slump. Both players were recalled on December 19th, 2011.

Blake Geoffrion scores most of his goals by driving to the net and looking for loose pucks. He is close to establishing himself as a solid top nine forward at the NHL level. However, he must show more offensively in order to remain in the NHL. According to Coach Barry Trotz, he needs to do more to stand out among the many bottom six forwards currently in Nashville.

8. (10) Anders Lindback, G, 6.5B
Drafted 7th round, 207th overall, 2008

Another in a long line of promising Predators goalie prospects is Anders Lindback. For a goalie who is 6'6, he has very good lateral mobility. What also stands out is his ability to drop to his knees yet still recover in time to handle rebound attempts. Lindback reads the play well and reacts accordingly.

While Lindback does have the upside to become a number one goalie at the NHL level, he will have to continue to work on his consistency. This season, he will remain Pekka Rinne's backup and play about the same twenty games as last season.

9. (4) Austin Watson, RW, 7C
Drafted 1st round, 18th overall, 2010

Austin Watson has yet to live up to his draft position. A first round pick in 2010, Watson has struggled at times last season while playing on a very weak Petersborough Petes team. Individually as a player, Asst. GM Fenton believes, "Watson has been getting better and better, and contributes both offensively and defensively."

Watson plays a high energy, two-way game. His game is mainly based on his strong skating ability and an underrated scoring touch in the slot area. He will finish his fourth season in the OHL and then most likely start next season with the Admirals.

10. (8) Zach Budish, RW, 7.5D
Drafted 2nd round, 41st overall, 2009

One of the most fascinating Predators prospects is Zach Budish. What makes him so promising is the fact that when healthy, he has played very well. This season in the WCHA he is producing at a point-per-game pace, which is an improvement over his previous two seasons.

Budish is a budding power forward with a great combination of physical play and raw talent. He also possesses some intangibles. For instance, he often breaks up plays in his own zone and brings the puck up the ice like a defenseman would. This season, his goal will be to simply stay healthy and finally start to develop that raw talent into a professional style of play.

11. (15) Jeremy Smith, G, 6.5B
Drafted 2nd round, 54th overall, 2007

Jeremy Smith is no longer flying under the radar as a Predators prospect. Last season in the AHL he went 16-8 with a 2.26 goals against average and a .921 save percentage. This season his numbers are quite similar and he is currently second in the AHL in wins. He is also doing extremely well in shootouts this season.

Smith is a mobile, consistent goaltender. He is a very hard working goalie. A real student of the game, he loves to study video of his play. The only item he lacks is size. This season he will continue to be the number one goalie for the Admirals.

12. (6) Charles-Olivier Roussel, D, 7C
Drafted 2nd round, 42nd overall, 2009

Charles-Olivier Roussel is an enigmatic two-way defenseman. He is capable of playing different styles of game depending on what his team needs from him. This season he is playing as an overager in the QMJHL. Predators management just does not feel that his game is mature enough yet for professional hockey.

This season he is atoning for a subpar 2010-11 campaign with improved production. With a rather young defense in Saint John, Roussel is taking on more responsibility and is being counted on to be a veteran presence. What he needs to work on the most this season is finding an identity for the type of defenseman he plans to become at the NHL level.

13. (13) Gabriel Bourque, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 132nd overall, 2009

Despite not putting up a lot of points thus far in his AHL career, Gabriel Bourque has been able to contribute by helping the Admirals in other ways. The Admirals coaching staff trust him with killing penalties, even late in games. He has been providing a consistently high level of effort and energy.

Gabriel Bourque is a small player but he makes up for it by having a motor that never stops. He does have some offensive talent, but to fully showcase his game he needs to add more strength. With only two goals this season, he will continue to develop in the AHL.

14. (11) Chet Pickard, G, 7.5D
Drafted 1st round, 18th overall, 2008

Chet Pickard continues to be on a downward spiral in his professional career. After a successful WHL career, Pickard has been unable to perform as well as a professional. From the latter part of the 2009-10 AHL season into the start of the 2010-11 season, Pickard managed to go 16 straight games without a win. Playing in the ECHL ever since, his numbers have not improved.

Once touted for being a goalie with a superior mental game, his greatest asset may no longer be that. His lack of confidence has led to a number of soft five-hole goals against in recent years. This season will be crucial in determining whether Pickard can ever regain the caliber of play he exhibited in the WHL.

15. (NR) Magnus Hellberg, G, 7.5D
Drafted 2nd round, 38th overall, 2011

The first goalie selected in the 2011 Entry draft, Magnus Hellberg has immense potential. After a hot start to his season with Frolunda, he has cooled off but still has a respectable .902 save percentage. It helps that his Almtuna goalie coach, Michael Andreasson, has decided to coach him at Frolunda as well.

Hellberg is a large goalie who plays the butterfly style very well. His positioning is sound and he uses minimum movement to stop the puck. This season he will compete against Frederik Andersen (CAR) for the number one job in Frolunda. This will not be an easy task as Andersen has superior numbers to Hellberg this season.

16. (14) Mattias Ekholm, D, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 102nd overall, 2009

After being named Rookie of the Year in the SEL last season, Mattias Ekholm struggled at times during his two game stint with the Predators this season. Predators coach Barry Trotz had some very harsh words for the rookie defenseman. The Predators wanted Ekholm to play the rest of the season in the AHL, but he decided to play with Brynas (SEL) instead.

A mobile defenseman, Ekholm can pass and shoot equally well. It remains to be seen if going back to the SEL is the wisest move for his development as it will not allow him to adjust to the North American style of play.

17. (NR) Atte Engren, G, 7D
Drafted 7th round, 204th overall, 2007

Finally making his debut in the top 20 is unheralded Finnish goalie Atte Engren. Finland has a rich tradition of developing fantastic NHL goalies like the Predators own Pekka Rinne. While Engren does not have Rinne's size, what Engren does have is some of that great athleticism that Rinne is known for.

Coming to the AHL late last season, Engren will need to adjust to the smaller North American ice surface. Thus far this season, Engren has already been pulled twice in his only six games of action. With the number one job in Milwaukee clearly cemented by Jeremy Smith, Engren will have plenty of time to learn.

18. (NR) Patrick Cehlin, RW, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 126th overall, 2010

Another player making his debut in the top 20 is right winger Patrik Cehlin. Cehlin really made a name for himself during the 2011 U20 World Junior Championship, where he finished with six points in just six games (along with 18 penalty minutes). That feat tied him for the Team Sweden scoring lead and he was named one of his team's top three players for the tournament.

Despite his small frame, Cehlin is a gutsy forward who will win some board battles and goes hard to the net with and without the puck. Combine that with some breakaway speed and a deadly shot and you have a player with NHL upside. After this season, his third in the SEL, there is a chance that he will come to North America.

19. (NR) Miikka Salomaki, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2011

A second round pick in 2011, Miikka Salomaki makes his debut on this list due to a rare combination of skill and physical play. Playing in the SM-liiga, he has already managed to exceed his point totals from last season, in half as many games.

A very savvy stick-handler, Salomaki has the ability to power to the net and finish off plays. He is also effective at scoring goals off of rebounds and deflections. Whether he becomes a top six forward or a top nine forward in the NHL remains to be seen. What is exciting is that he already plays an NHL style of game.

20. (NR) Chase Balisy, C, 6.5D
Drafted 6th round, 170th overall, 2011

Drafted in the sixth round in 2011, Chase Balisy is currently one of the key offensive players for Western Michigan. Improving on his pace from last season, he is producing at close to a point-per-game pace.

Balisy is a strong two-way player. His greatest asset is his above average hockey sense and vision. Balisy is another California born player drafted by the Predators (Blum and Taylor Aronson are as well). In fact, Balisy lived on the same street as Blum. In just his second season in the CCHA, Balisy still has a long way to go to make the NHL.

Article was written by Evgeny Oliker.