Ryan Ellis takes over as the number one prospect of the Nashville Predators

By Evgeny Oliker
Photo: Slick defenseman Ryan Ellis has spent his rookie season between the AHL and NHL. In 32 NHL games Ellis managed three goals and eight assists. (Photo courtesy of Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

The Nashville Predators prospect pool has experienced a number of major changes in a short period of time. On February 17th, Blake Geoffrion (MON) and Robert Slaney (MON) were traded to the Montreal Canadiens in a deal that brought back Hal Gill. Craig Smith, who was previously ranked fifth on this list, graduated. Forwards Josh Shalla and Juuso Puustonen enter the top 20 as two dark horse weapons that could boost the Predators attack in the future. Finally, it is Ryan Ellis who takes the number one spot away from Jonathon Blum.

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

Ryan Ellis has been able to find great success at the OHL and AHL level. Thus far, he has had similar success in his rookie professional season.

In just 32 NHL games this season, Ellis already has 11 points and a plus-six rating. Ellis has shown a flare for the dramatic by posting two game-winning goals in that span. His lack of size has not been an issue thus far, though at times he has tried to be too fancy with the puck. The acquisition of Hal Gill on February 17th basically doomed Ellis to spending the rest of the season either on the bench in the NHL or playing in the AHL.

Ellis has shown flashes of his immense talent especially when on the power-play, where he has been able to command the point with strong passing and a hard slap shot.

2. (1) Jonathon Blum, D, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 23rd overall, 2007

After an impressive rookie season, Jonathon Blum is going through a sophomore slump this season. This slump has followed him from the NHL to the AHL. A minus-14 at the NHL level prompted the Predators to send Blum to the AHL on January 6th. He has played in the AHL ever since and though his offensive production has picked up, his defensive play is still a concern.

While many players go through sophomore slumps, Blum is going to have to compete with Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis for ice time.

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

Roman Josi is proving that his strong production at the AHL level was not a fluke. While Ellis and Blum have both been sent back to the AHL at different times this season, Josi has stuck with the Predators from his first NHL game (on November 26th).

Roman Josi has fit in well with the Predators. His defensive game is slowly improving while his offensive game is already very strong for such a young player. He has missed time recently to an upper-body injury, which is rumored to be a concussion. Regardless, when he puts all the parts of his game together, and stays healthy, he should turn into an excellent two-way, top four defenseman.

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

Michael Latta has been one of the best rookies in the AHL this season. While his offensive production has not been on par with rookies like Gustav Nyquist (DET), his all-around game has been impressive.

Unfortunately, on January 19th he broke his wrist, which sidelined him for almost two months. He returned in mid-March though was not able to get his offensive game back on track.

Michael Latta's game is tailor-made for the hard-working Predators. With the Predators focused on the playoffs, Latta is unlikely to get a call-up this season. However, with continued AHL production, he could get a call-up next season.

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

While Team USA disappointed at this year's World Junior Championship, Austin Watson did not. He was one of the few bright spots for Team USA and finished with nine points in only six games. He was constantly buzzing around the net and creating plays.

This season, moving from the Petes to the London Knights seems to have sparked his offensive production as well. Watson expressed great excitement about playing for the Knights. He already knows fellow London players Jared Knight (BOS) from peewee hockey and Jarred Tinordi (MON) from Team USA.

Watson will wrap up his senior season in the OHL and then he will most likely join the Milwaukee Admirals. His diverse talents should translate well to the AHL and in time, to the NHL.

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

After being a rookie in the NHL last season, Anders Lindback continues to serve as Pekka Rinne's backup this season. The rangy Swede has the upside to become a number one goalie in the NHL. What has stopped him so far, aside from being stuck behind Pekka Rinne, is that his style is rather cumbersome. At times he reacts well to rebound attempts. At other times he seems to get stuck in his position. For such a large goalie, he is going to have to continue to work on his mobility.

After this season, Lindback is set to become a restricted free agent and the Predators will need to decide on whether or not to re-sign him.

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

Smith has continued to win games and put up a solid save percentage at the AHL level despite seeing key defensemen like Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis getting called up to the NHL at different times. He simply makes spectacular side-to-side saves, often at crucial moments of the game. On March 23rd he made an amazing, diving stick-save that prevented the Hamilton Bulldogs from tying the game.

This off-season the Predators will need to make a decision on whether to keep Anders Lindback or not. If they decide not to keep Lindback, there is a chance that Jeremy Smith could become the Predators backup for the 2012-13 season.

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

Taylor Beck has had a slow start to this AHL season, but is turning the corner. After a very uneventful October and November, he started to show his offensive upside. His defensive play is also showing signs of maturity. The most noticeable improvement is his play with the puck though, where he has shown a greater willingness to rush it up the ice and create offense. He had a great December, putting up almost a point-per-game while playing mainly with fellow Guelph Storm teammate Michael Latta, though is offense has been sporadic since then, at least in part to an injury to Latta.

While Beck is making strides in the right direction, he still needs to become a more independent player offensively and a stronger player defensively.

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

After battling through two major knee injuries throughout his WCHA career, Zach Budish is finally staying healthy this season.

It has been an eventful season for Zach Budish. To start the season, he was voted by his teammates to be the assistant captain. Budish has been used mainly as the team's first line right wing, playing with Kyle Rau (FLA) and Nick Bjugstad (FLA). Getting his game back on track due to the two injuries has taken awhile for him but he seems to finally look like a solid player who can grind it out while chipping in timely offense.

Zach Budish's goal right now has to be to stay healthy. If he can do that and continue to have success, then his game should only continue to improve.

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

Gabriel Bourque started this season in the AHL, but has been with the Predators since late December. Thus far, he has done a solid job playing the role of a third line energy player.

All Bourque needed was an opportunity. On December 28th the Predators decided to send Blake Geoffrion to the AHL due to his poor play. That allowed for room for Bourque to join the NHL club. Ever since he has been using his speed, work ethic along the boards, and passing ability to create scoring chances. He has also been strong defensively, playing mainly on the Predators checking line with Nick Spaling.

It is a testament to Bourque's value to the team that even after the additions of Paul Gaustad, Andrei Kostitsyn, Brandon Yip and Alexander Radulov, the spark plug has kept his position in the lineup. As long as he continues to play his role well, he should remain a mainstay on the Predators.

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

Magnus Hellberg continues to elevate his game in his rookie season in the SEL. Despite being only 21 years of age, he has performed reasonably well in the SEL.

Magnus Hellberg began this season with Frolunda, having to compete with Frederik Andersen (CAR). While he lost the starting job to Andersen, Hellberg's .908 save percentage is still admirable for a rookie. When it came time for the SEL playoffs, Hellberg was loaned to team Orebro of the lower league, Allsvenskan, because Andersen was set to start all of Frolunda's playoff games. Hellberg played in two playoff games for Orebro, without much success. He plays a similar butterfly style to Predators goalie and fellow Swede Anders Lindback.

It will be a long time before Hellberg is ready for the NHL. He can use at least another season in the SEL where he needs to earn more playing time. After that, if he is playing well, a move to the AHL may be possible.

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

Miikka Salomaki really made a name for himself at the most recent World Junior Championship. While he only produced at a half-a-point-per-game pace, it was his power forward style of game that was the highlight. He has also improved his play in the SM-liiga.

Currently finishing his second season with Karpat of the SM-liiga, Salomaki has already doubled his regular season point totals from last season in as many games. During the World Junior Championship, he was one of the most physical forwards for Team Finland, finishing the tournament with four penalty minutes. Mostly playing a top-six role, he was very involved in the offensive zone and created many scoring chances for Team Finland.

The Predators have physical players down the middle, but not much of that on the wings. As a forward who can play left wing or right wing, Salomaki could fit in very well on the Predators in a few years.

13. (10) Charles-Olivier Roussel, D, 7D
Drafted 2nd round, 42nd overall, 2009

Despite currently playing as an over-ager in the QMJHL, Charles-Olivier Roussel has made the most of this season.

Roussel finished this season 13th among QMJHL defensemen in points. That is to be somewhat expected from an over-ager. However, his career high plus-48 does deserve recognition. Roussel has also played a physical style. As one of the leaders on defense, three of his 13 goals were game-winning goals.

It is becoming make or break time for Roussel. This season he has done enough to get the attention of the Predators. What he does with it if given a chance in the AHL will be critical to his future.

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

Mattias Ekholm is once again playing where he is most comfortable, in the SEL. After a very short stint with the Predators earlier this season, he is back with the team he played with last season, Brynas.

Upon his return to Sweden, Ekholm was welcomed with open arms by Brynas management and players. Losing him in the off-season created a major hole on their defense and his return was a welcome addition. While his offensive production has not matched his numbers from last season, he has played a more physical game.

Signed to a three-year deal by the Predators this past summer, it remains to be seen what Ekholm decides to do for the next two seasons. The AHL would allow him to better adjust to the smaller ice surface.

15. (18) Chase Balisy, C, 6.5C
Drafted 6th round, 170th overall, 2011

As the 6th round pick of the Predators in 2011, Chase Balisy could turn out to be a steal. He continues to excel in the CCHA while becoming a leader on his team.

This has been by far Balisy's best season in the CCHA. His 37 points place him tied for third overall in the league. More importantly than his personal numbers is what he has done for his team. Western Michigan was able to win its first CCHA Championship title since 1986 on March 17th. It was partially due to Balisy scoring the game-winning goal against Michigan in the Finals. Balisy also helped his team earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

Balisy's playmaking prowess is only matched by his leadership and clutch goal-scoring. His five game-winning goals led his team. With continued success, he should make his way to the AHL sooner rather than later.

16. (15) Atte Engren, G, 7D
Drafted 7th round, 204th overall, 2007

Atte Engren still has a ways to go before having a shot at playing in the NHL. However, he is stepping up his play in the later parts of this season.

Engren is currently playing backup to Jeremy Smith. Early in the season he had some very poor starts. However, especially since February, he has given the Admirals a second goalie that the coach feels comfortable playing more whenever Jeremy Smith is out with an injury. He still has to work on some of the basics, like rebound control.

The Predators already have a number of excellent goalie prospects. Therefore, for Engren to stand out, he will have to better his current numbers in the AHL.

17. (NA) Josh Shalla, LW, 7D
Drafted 4th round, 94th overall, 2011

Josh Shalla makes his debut on this list due to his best season in the OHL. Being passed on in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Shalla is now showing why the Predators did take a chance on him in the fourth round in 2011.

This season has been a record breaking season for Shalla on many fronts. He set the Saginaw Spirits career goals record with 119 by scoring his 119th career goal (with the Spirits) in the second to last game of this season. He also set a season high for himself with 76 points. Skating remains the knock on Josh Shalla and was part of why he was sent back to the OHL to play as an overager this season. However, he can look to Predators forward Patric Hornqvist as a model for a player who is not fast, but still finds ways to score.

It will be very important for Shalla to make it to the AHL next season. If he can handle the speed of the game in the AHL, then the NHL becomes a possibility.

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

Patrick Cehlin is wrapping up his third season in the SEL. It is his best season in terms of goal-scoring.

Despite only putting up 14 points this season, his 10 goals are actually a career high. He continues to play an offensive-minded game, using his incredible speed to his advantage. However, he is also strong defensively. He is also great on the forecheck and closes quickly on defenders.

After playing three seasons in the SEL, he still does not have a contract with the Predators. The fact that his point totals have not increased from last season to this season is somewhat alarming. A move to the AHL so that the Predators can better track his progress might be helpful.

19. (NA) Juuso Puustinen, RW, 7D
Signed as a free agent June 2011

Juuso Puustinen makes his debut on this list because of a solid season in the AHL. Signed to a two-year deal by the Predators this past summer, he has been one of the main offensive contributors for the Admirals this season.

Puustinen managed 16 goals and 16 assists in 55 games while playing throughout the lineup. Regardless of where he has played, he has managed to continue to score goals, many from in close where he likes to play.

As one of the older players on the Admirals team, he does not have a lot to prove at that level. A call-up to the Predators next season to see what he can do in the NHL is likely.

20. (12) Chet Pickard, G, 6.5D
Drafted 1st round, 18th overall, 2008

The last three seasons have been ones to forget for Chet Pickard. Despite now playing in the ECHL, his numbers have stayed about the same.

With Jeremy Smith and Atte Engren entrenched at the AHL level, Pickard has only played in the ECHL this season. However, his 14-12-2 record and a .890 save percentage are very similar to his numbers from the previous two seasons. This past off-season he focused on yoga to improve his flexibility. Thus far, it has not paid off where it counts most, on the ice.