Following the Nashville Predators’ Game 7 win over the Anaheim Ducks in the opening round of the NHL playoffs, Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne talked about how the team won with a mix of experienced “old guys” and some exciting and talented younger players. The Predators have some fairly prominent prospects on the way as well. But it is looking more and more likely that their Prospect of the Year in 2015-16 may never wear a gold and navy uniform.
There were some who felt Harvard left wing Jimmy Vesey was ready to play in the NHL following his junior season last spring but the Massachusetts native decided to return to Cambridge for his senior season. Vesey won the Hobey Baker award as the top player in college hockey this year but decided not to sign with the Predators and apparently will instead pursue unrestricted free agency when he is eligible to do so this summer.
Once again one of the league’s top teams playing in the highly-competitive Central Division, Nashville struggled some in mid-season before righting the ship to finish fourth behind Dallas, St. Louis, and Chicago. The Predators exorcised some playoff demons in the first round, overcoming a three games to two deficit to defeat Pacific Division regular season champion Anaheim and advance to the second round against the San Jose Sharks.
After missing the AHL playoffs with one of the league’s youngest rosters in 2014-15, Nashville affiliate Milwaukee was one of the league’s top teams during the regular season, finishing first in the Central Division ahead of Columbus affiliate Lake Erie. The Admirals season came to a disappointing end when they were swept by Grand Rapids and goalie Tom McCollum; scoring three goals in the three-game first-round series.
Teenagers Kevin Fiala and Vladislav Kamenev were two of the Admirals’ top scorers and could be in Nashville as soon as next season while rookie Juuse Saros and 24-year-old Marek Mazanec were among the league’s top goalie tandems.
The Predators also had several prospects playing well in the Canadian Hockey League — particularly in the WHL and the QMJHL. Defenseman Jack Dougherty had a bounceback year with the Portland Winterhawks after leaving the University of Wisconsin following his freshman season and center Anthony Richard was one of the top scorers in the QMJHL with Val-d’Or before suffering a lower-body injury late in the season.
Hardest Worker: Miikka Salomaki, LW, Nashville Predators (NHL)
Salomaki earned the trust of Predators’ head coach Peter Laviolette in his rookie season — providing solid two-way play with high intensity forechecking in a lower-line role. The 23-year-old from Finland skated in 61 games for Nashville after spending his first two seasons in North America with the Admirals.
A 50-point scorer in his first season with Milwaukee in 2013-14, Salomaki scored five goals with five assists and was -1 with 28 penalty minutes with the Predators this year. Salomaki’s combination of skating speed and determination make him the type of player that frequently gets opponents off their game and he has the ability to draw penalties. His offensive production should increase as he gains experience.
Selected in the second round in 2011, Salomaki skated in all seven games in the series against Anaheim, scoring a goal in Game 5 and averaging 11:38 minutes of ice time.
Hardest Shot: Aaron Irving, D, Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL)
Irving is a sum-of-all-parts defenseman who provided a veteran presence on the backend for a young Edmonton team in his third WHL season. One standout tool the Edmonton native brings to the table, however, is a booming shot from the point.
With several young defensemen in the Predators’ system he has yet to receive an entry-level contract and would re-enter the 2016 NHL Draft if not signed before then. Irving made his pro debut on an amateur tryout contract with the Admirals following the Oil Kings’ season and is eligible to return to the WHL for an overage season.
Irving has scored 24 goals for the Oil Kings over his three-year carer, including nine this past season.
Fastest Skater: Viktor Arvidsson, RW, Nashville Predators (NHL)/ Milwaukee Admirals (AHL)
To play effectively in the NHL at 5’9″ and 172 lbs. a player generally requires exceptional skills in one or more areas. In Arvidsson’s case those skills include lighting quick skating ability, a high effort game and some offensive creativity.
A dominant scorer during his time with the Admirals at the beginning of the year, Arvidsson like Salomaki skated in all seven playoff games in the series against the Ducks. Held scoreless in six regular season games with the Predators during the 2014-15 season, he scored eight goals with eight assists in 56 games this past year and has an assist so far in the playoffs.
Best Defensive Prospect: Juuse Saros, G, Milwaukee Admirals (AHL)
Saros made his NHL debut in a brief call-up with the Predators in November but it was the 21-year-old’s outstanding play with the Admirals that has fans and the organizational brain trust in Nashville excited. The Finnish goalie has the ability to remain in the play regardless of the situation, plays his angles extremely well, and has a sense of which technique to use in a given situation.
Selected in the fourth round in 2013 due largely to his lack of prototypical NHL goalie size, Saros was one of the top goalies in Finland’s Liiga the past two seasons before coming to the Admirals this year. A workhorse for HPK Hameenlinna, one of the league’s weaker teams, he played in 97 games over two seasons while also playing for the Finland U20 and men’s national teams.
Saros proved that he could compete at the AHL level this season. He was 29-8-0 with four shutouts and had a 2.24 goals against and .920 save percentage in 38 regular season games. Saros started the first two games in the playoffs, finishing with a 2.57 goals against and .891 save percentage before yielding to Mazanec for the final game.
Forward Steve Moses signed a one-year free agent contract with the Predators last summer after leading the KHL in goals but was released by Nashville in December 2015 after skating in 16 games with the Admirals. Among the players still in the Nashville system the biggest underachiever to this point is defenseman Jonathan-Ismael Diaby.
Diaby was Nashville’s second pick in the 2013 draft, made after the team selected Seth Jones with the fourth overall pick. It was envisioned that the two would one day be a formidable tandem on the blueline. Jones was traded to Columbus in the deal that brought Ryan Johansen to Nashville and Diaby’s progress to this point suggests he is not likely to play for the Predators any time soon.
After playing 52 games for the Admirals in 2014-15 the second-year pro played just five games for Milwaukee this past season, spending most of the season in the ECHL, mostly as a punishing physical defenseman and enforcer.
In fairness to Diaby, his mobility was expected to be an area that needed refining and the organizational shift from physical play to a five-man attacking system since he was drafted limits the effectiveness of his style of defenseman.
Overachiever: Frederick Gaudreau, C, Milwaukee Admirals (AHL)
While Moses’ tenure with the Admirals was a disappointment, the opposite was true for Gaudreau.
The former QMJHL star was Invited to Predators’ training camp as a free agent after playing 43 games with the Admirals on an AHL contract in his first pro season in 2014-15. He was released by the Predators following camp and returned to the Admirals. After a strong first half in 2015-16 that included representing Milwaukee in the AHL’s all-star festivities, he was signed to a two-year entry-level contract by Nashville in January 2016.
The Admirals’ third-leading scorer behind Fiala and Max Gortz, Gaudreau scored 15 goals with 27 assists and was -5 with 31 penalty minutes in 75 regular season games. He had one assist and an even plus/minus in three playoff games.
Capable of playing either center or wing, he entered pro hockey with a reputation of working hard and playing a responsible positional game as well as being strong on the penalty kill. As he gained confidence and experience the offensive elements of his game have flourished.
The Predators have a fairly deep group in terms of forwards but it would not be surprising to see Gaudreau make his NHL debut next season.
Highest Risk/Reward: Vladislav Kamenev, C, Milwaukee Admirals (AHL)
Making the shift from his natural left wing position to center, the 19-year-old Kamenev had the ups-and-downs not uncommon for a teenager playing in the AHL. Selected in the second round in the 2014 NHL Draft, Kamenev got out of the gate quickly for Milwaukee, leading the team in scoring in the first month before Viktor Arvidsson was temporarily returned to the Admirals.
Kamenev skated for Russia at the 2016 World Juniors and was the team’s best forward at times but also had stretches where he was less noticeable. Some nagging injuries and the grind of a full season seemed to take its toll late in the season but by and large the 2015-16 season was a successful growing experience.
With three of Nashville’s current centers now in their thirties Kamenev could fit into the Predators’ plan as soon as next season. His ability to make the jump to the NHL and be a consistent force on both ends of the ice could go a long way in determining the team’s future success.
Breakout for 2015-16: Kevin Fiala, LW, Milwaukee Admirals (AHL)
The top two picks by Nashville in the 2014 NHL Draft, both Fiala and Kamenev have been viewed as key figures in the future for the Predators. Like Kamenev, the Swiss-born Fiala experienced highs and lows in 2015-16 but his play in the second half suggests he is close to NHL-ready.
Taken 11th overall in that draft, Fiala struggled at the beginning of the year after not making the Predators out of training camp but steadily turned things around.
Staying with Milwaukee rather than joining the Switzerland U20 team for the 2016 World Juniors, he eventually skated in five games during a call-up to Nashville and was Milwaukee’s leading scorer.
He finished the season with 18 goals and 32 assists and was -19 with 78 penalty minutes in 66 regular season games. An undersized, gifted offensive player who is gradually refining the supplementary areas of his game, Fiala was scoreless in three playoff games with a -3 plus/minus.
Most Improved Prospect: Max Gortz, RW, Milwaukee Admirals (AHL)
Gorz scored 14 goals in 53 regular season games for second-place Frolunda in 2014-15 so there was some optimism that he would contribute to the Admirals attack in his first season in North America. Few expected him to as integral a player for the team as he was. The former sixth-round pick’s all-around game was a pleasant surprise to Milwaukee head coach Dean Evason.
One of the bigger (6’2, 195 lbs.) forward prospects in the Predators pipeline, Gortz killed penalties, played on the power play and was often on the ice for key face-offs in his own end.
In 72 regular season games he scored 18 goals and was second to Fiala with 29 assists, with a +14 plus/minus and 18 penalty minutes. He had one assist and was -1 in three playoff games.
Prospect of the Year: Jimmy Vesey, LW, Harvard University (NCAA)
The top prospect in the Nashville system for the second year in a row, Vesey’s decision to not join the Predators stung the organization — after both sides had said all the right things prior to that point.
Coming off of his dominant junior season, Vesey’s offensive numbers dipped in his final season of college hockey but that did not diminish his impact for the Crimson nor dissuade the Hobey Baker voters from naming him the top player in college hockey. In 33 games he scored 24 goals with 22 assists and was +11 with six penalty minutes.
What makes Vesey such an interesting prospect is his combination of size and passing ability with the hockey IQ to make the players around him better.
The Predators retain the rights to sign him until August but at this point it looks like Vesey is intent on seeking a free agent deal elsewhere.
Prospect of the Month
Slowed by an injury and then limited to a lower-line role when the Kelowna Rockets acquired players like Leon Draisaitl for the run to the Memorial Cup last spring, Justin Kirkland made up for lost time this spring. Yet to sign an entry-level contract with the Predators, Kirkland could be the biggest beneficiary of Vesey’s decision not to sign but he would re-enter the 2016 NHL Draft if not signed before then.
Kirkland was viewed as more of a two-way power forward when he was selected in the third round by the Predators in 2014. Nashville GM David Poile said at the time that the team’s scouts felt there was an offensive upside to Kirkland’s game and that has proven to be the case.
The Rockets’ second-leading scorer to 20-year-old Tyson Baillie during the regular season with 31 goals and 36 assists, Kirkland continued to be a scoring force in the WHL playoffs. The 19-year-old scored 11 goals with four assists in the Rockets’ first 18 playoff games.
Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @Piscottas_Way