Balanced group of Nashville Predators prospects at the junior level

By David Thicke
Mikko Vainonen - Kingston Frontenacs

Photo: Finnish defenseman Mikko Vainonen, the Predators' fourth round pick in 2012, is in his first season of North American hockey with the OHL's Kingston Frontenacs. (courtesy of Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

The Nashville Predators have six prospects at the junior level this year; two in the OHL, one in the QMJHL, two in the WHL and one in the USHL. The four forwards are split into two big defensive shutdown checkers and two smaller, feisty offensively skilled playmakers that are led by Nashville's 2012 second round selection Colton Sissons and third round pick Brendan Leipsic.

Both of the defensemen are a blend of size, simple defensive games, and some offensive upside potential. The two European defensive prospects are very typical picks by the Predators, and they work well off each other in their contrasting games. Nashville has junior prospects that can easily grow in the team's organization system as their development continues over the next few years.


Brendan Leipsic, LW, Portland Winterhawks
Acquired: 3rd round (89th overall) in 2012

Leipsic is playing his third season in the WHL for Portland and will continue to develop his overall game. The small, energetic winger plays a physical, agitating game while making life miserable for his opponents. The speedy forward is offensively skilled, a gifted finisher, and can produce on the power play. The physical winger needs to add strength, more consistency throughout the season, and play on the edge without going over the line.

From the start of this season, Leipsic has found good chemistry with linemate Ty Rattie (STL), scoring 15 goals (six on the power play) along with 23 assists and a plus-10 rating in 22 games. The third round pick sits amongst the leaders of the WHL scoring race and could project into a top-six forward at the NHL level. He could get the opportunity to play for Team Canada at the 2013 World Junior Championships if the gritty winger can stay healthy.

Colton Sissons, RW, Kelowna Rockets
Acquired: 2nd round (50th overall) in 2012

Sissons returned for his third season at the junior level in the WHL with the Kelowna Rockets and needs to work on his offensive game in order to become a more complete two-way player. His defensive skills are excellent at this stage of his development. The physical forward is becoming a shutdown player that can, on occasions, offensively outperform the opposition's best forwards. His two-way game caught the attention of the WHL coaches and he was selected to play one of the 2012 Subway Super Series games against the Russians.

The Rockets' captain has jumped out to a good start this season, scoring 10 goals along with 16 assists and an excellent plus-24 rating in 26 games. The versatile winger plays on both the Rockets' specialty teams, scoring two power play goals and two shorthanded tallies so far this season. He could have the opportunity to play for Team Canada at the 2013 WJC tournament if he can continue his stellar play.


Mikko Vainonen, D, Kingston Frontenacs
Acquired: 4th round (118th overall) in 2012

Vainonen is playing his first year of junior hockey in North America for the Kingston Frontenacs of the OHL. He has played on the team's penalty-killing unit and shown some offensive upside to his game. The big defender is becoming more comfortable with the smaller ice surface and rougher style of play in the CHL. The defensive-defenseman plays hard and can make a good first pass to start the transition game while keeping things simple in his end of the rink. The 18-year-old needs to improve his skating speed, reverse pivots, and balance in order to play in the NHL.

Vainonen has played well offensively with one goal along with seven assists, but he has struggled defensively with a minus-five rating in 25 games. The young defender will have two years of development at the junior level to learn how to play with more physicality and use his big body to box-out the opposition around his net. The Finnish defenseman could represent his country at the 2013 WJC tournament in Ufa, Russia.

Simon Karlsson, D, Plymouth Whalers
Acquired: 5th round (142nd overall) in 2011

Karlsson decided to play in North America this year and is playing at the junior level for the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL. He has the potential to be a smooth-skating, puck-moving defenseman with good offensive upside to his game. The fifth round pick is still very raw but has the necessary skills to develop into a quality blueliner. The lanky 19-year-old will need to fill out his frame and learn the nuances of playing defense on the smaller ice surface in order to get to the NHL level. He is a longer term project for the Predators' organization but the potential is certainly there under the surface, it just needs to come out.

After a late arrival to Plymouth he has played solidly, scoring one goal (on the power play) along with seven assists and a good plus-four rating in 19 OHL games. The Swedish defenseman has really picked up his offensive game with five points in the last four games and is using his hard point shot far more often. Karlsson could have the opportunity to help his country defend their gold medal at the 2013 WJC tournament.


Brent Andrews, C/LW, Halifax Moosehead
Acquired: 7th round (202nd overall) in 2011

Andrews returned to play his third season in the QMJHL for the Halifax Moosehead and will be trying to improve his offensive game. The big forward has become the main defensive shutdown center and the team's best penalty killer. He is used for all the important faceoffs with an incredible 57-percent success rate so far this year. His excellent play caught the attention of the QMJHL coaches for the 2012 Subway Super Series against the Russians and he was selected to the Quebec team. It is still too early to tell but the good skating centerman could get the opportunity to play for Team Canada at the 2013 WJC tournament.

The checking forward is slowly becoming a playmaker by capitalizing on his opponents' mistakes and making smart plays to his linemates. He has scored five goals (one shorthanded goal) along with 11 assists and a plus-six rating in 25 games on the top team in the league. The defensive specialist will be a key player in helping Halifax to reach the 2013 Memorial Cup this coming May. Andrews is having his best season of his junior career and should receive an NHL entry-level contract from the Predators before the summer deadline.

Junior 'A'

Zach Stepan, C, Waterloo Black Hawks (USHL)
Acquired: 4th round (112th overall) in 2012

Stepan is playing at the US junior level for the Waterloo Black Hawks of the USHL this season and has committed to Ohio State University for the 2013-14 year. The quick skating centerman has the offensive skills, good vision and creativity to make plays in the open spaces of the ice which helps him to create offensive chances. The hardworking centerman looks like a player that could eventually spend time on the second or third line, depending on how his offensive game progresses over his four years of development at the NCAA level.

This year's fourth round selection has jumped out to a great start to his season, scoring 12 goals (two on the power play) along with 15 assists and a solid plus-nine rating in 15 USHL games. The two-way center has scored a team-leading five game winning goals and was selected the CCM Forward of the Week for the fifth week of the USHL season. Stepan should improve his overall game in the USHL this season thus making the adjustment to the NCAA level much easier next year.