Next wave of Nashville Predators forward prospects move up mid-season Top 20 ranking

By Shaun Bisson
Ryan Ellis - Nashville Predators

Photo: Defenseman Ryan Ellis is part of a young group of Nashville blueliners trying to help the team recover from the loss of Ryan Suter. (courtesy of Danny Murphy/Icon SMI)

The Nashville Predators have been one of the most consistent teams over the last five years in terms of style of play. Barry Trotz and David Poile always put a team on the ice that has a defense-first mentality, and the system that the Milwaukee Admirals employ develops players that fit this mold perfectly. Homegrown players like Jonathon Blum, Roman Josi, and Gabriel Bourque have successfully made the transition from prospect to full time NHL player, and there are other players, such as Ryan Ellis, that are looking to make that jump soon as well.

While the Predators organization has successfully developed grinding, two-way forwards and defensemen, they are now looking at having some players deeper in the prospect pool that will bring offensive flair to the big club when their time comes. Jimmy Vesey, Zach Stepan, and Colton Sissons are all players that can produce points and will be looked upon to add firepower to the Predators line-up down the road.

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

Ryan Ellis has come a long way from the 2009 World Junior Championships in Ottawa, Canada. That tournament was his coming out party, and the undersized defenseman showed unbelievable puck-poise, confidence, physicality, and a win-at-all-costs attitude that would be necessary to succeed at the next level. Ellis’ turn at the next level has finally come after a long four years since his draft date, and so far this season, Ellis has cemented himself as a regular on the Predators blue line. The Preds have played 23 games so far this year, and Ellis has participated in all 23 of them, primarily seeing time paired either with Shea Weber or Scott Hannan at even strength and as the point man on the power-play unit. While still undersized – his 5’10 listing on the Predators website is generous – Ellis does not shy away from the physicality of the NHL game and is helping contribute in a big way on a Predators team that is reeling since the loss of Ryan Suter. Ellis is a long ways away from filling the void that the all-star defenseman left but is being a productive member of the team in all facets of the game so far in what appears to be his first full NHL season. With 55 career NHL games played, Ellis is on pace to graduate from prospect status later this season.

2. (5) Austin Watson, RW, 7.0B
Drafted 1st round, 18th overall, 2010

Austin Watson is the first significant change on the mid-season rankings list, jumping up three spots due largely to the graduation of Jonathon Blum and Roman Josi from prospect status. However, while the jump in position on the list was preempted by the graduation of those players, Watson’s play for the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals at this point this season is undeniable. Watson is playing first line minutes and thus far has 28 points in 56 games.  Watson is a prototypical power forward and has been that way since his days in the OHL. Benefiting from the lockout, Watson was able to play with players that are currently NHL ready, and his development was taken to the next level because of that. While not expected to be a top six forward in the NHL, Watson could be a staple on the third and fourth lines for the Predators as soon as next year. Austin Watson is the typical Nashville Predators forward, gritty, with an affinity for the corners and dirty areas.

3. (4) Michael Latta, C, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 72nd overall, 2009

Michael Latta is much the same as Austin Watson, a power forward even though he hovers right around the 6’0 mark. The 22-year-old does not shy away from the rough stuff by any means, and over the course of the last two seasons, he has compiled a total of 265 penalty minutes in just 107 games played. Watson has played 56 games this year with the Admirals and has equaled his point totals from last season (27) with a good amount of games left to play. Like Watson, Latta is a player that benefited from a bolstered roster in Milwaukee for the first half of the season, and until the Brian McGrattan trade to Calgary, had an opportunity to learn from one of the best designated tough guys in the NHL. Latta may still be a few years away from being a consistent player in the NHL, and may never actually get there. However, when he does make the jump to the NHL it will be because of what he does best – throwing right hooks and scoring greasy goals around the net; something that will make him a valuable fourth line asset for the Nashville Predators who are now missing both Jordin Tootoo and Brian McGrattan.

4. (6) Pontus Åberg, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 37th overall, 2012

Pontus Åberg is the Predators second round pick from this past draft and is currently playing with Djurgarden, which was relegated at the end of last season to Sweden’s second tier professional league, the Hockey Allsvenskan. Åberg is a quick skater with a lightning fast release and an affinity for shooting the puck from anywhere on the ice. The fact that he is playing professionally in Sweden after being drafted this summer only benefits his development. Åberg has 12 goals and 28 assists so far in 52 games this year for Djurgarden, displaying a good amount of offensive upside and a potential scoring threat to the Predators line-up. A smaller stature forward, he will need to add some weight to his 5’11 frame in order to be stronger on the puck before successfully making the transition to the North American Game. Åberg is under contract with Djurgarden through 2013-2014 so it may be another year or so before the Predators see him play in North America, either in Milwaukee or Nashville.

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

Zach Budish is in his redshirt junior season with the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the NCAA’s Western Collegiate Hockey Association. Budish wears the ‘C’ for the Gophers this year and in 34 games played, he has 12 goals and 20 assists. A consistent point producer, Budish will be yet another big power forward for the Predators system once he finishes his collegiate career. Standing 6’3 and weighing 220 pounds, Budish is a big boy, but has soft hands that make him a valuable asset. While his skating development has been hampered because of two knee injuries over the last four years, it seems to be finally coming around this year and has not been detrimental to his effectiveness in the dirty areas of the ice. Held back because of the zero tolerance fighting policy in the NCAA, Budish will have an entirely new aspect of his game to explore once he makes the transition to the professional ranks, especially because he does not shy away from physicality now.

6. (12) Mattias Ekholm, D, 7.0C
Drafted 4th round, 102nd overall, 2009

The 6’3, 200-pound defender from Sweden is making his first full season debut in North America with the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals. A very capable two way defenseman who moves around the ice with ease, Ekholm has not had any adjustment problems to the North American game and as such as seen himself move up from the 12th slot in the preseason rankings. Adding strength to his 6’3 frame appears to be the only setback in his game right now. Ekholm seems to understand the game very well and is prone to making smart, simple plays and not over-complicating things in his own end. Ekholm seems to be the next in a series of very reliable defenseman that the Predators have developed and could see time in the NHL as early as next season.

7. (17) Jimmy Vesey, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 66th overall, 2012

Much like the number one ranked player on this list, Jimmy Vesey announced himself to the hockey world at a WJC tournament. Vesey played an important role in the United States’ gold medal performance at the 2013 IIHF U20 World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia, and while sometimes the importance of the WJC is overrated in determining a player’s value, Vesey’s play in the tournament was too good to ignore. A big-bodied player in his first year in the NCAA, Vesey has led Harvard in points all year long, despite missing quite a bit of time with the USA Juniors team. Vesey’s size, skill, and speed have made him quite attractive to the Predators. His ability to open up space for himself on the ice will be his greatest advantage moving down the road, and as such, his skill with the puck will become more and more noticeable.

8. (19) Brendan Leipsic, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 89th overall, 2012

The first Canadian Hockey League entry on this list sees a product of the high-powered Portland Winterhawks’ system. Brendan Leipsic has 111 points in 63 games played for the Winterhawks this year, and while another undersized player at 5’9 and 170 pounds, the skill he brings when he has the puck on his stick is second to none in the WHL this year. A comparison between Leipsic and Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher can be drawn as the two players are at their most effective when they are crashing the net, playing in the corners, and getting under the skin of their opponents. Some would argue that Leipsic is benefiting from playing with the likes of Ty Rattie (STL) and top 2013 draft-eligible prospects like Nicolas Petan and Seth Jones, but he has seemingly been on a mission for Portland this year in an attempt to disprove the words of people who questioned his consistency and ability at last year’s draft.

9. (20) Zach Stepan, C, 7.0C
Drafted 4th round, 112th overall, 2012

Stepan, like Leipsic also sees a large jump in his ranking from pre-season to mid-season, due largely to his strong play on a Waterloo Blackhawks team that boasts three of the USHL’s top five scorers. Stepan has 60 points in 42 games this year, but it is his overall play and work ethic that make him a threat to succeed once he makes the jump to professional hockey. A tenacious player on the ice, his skill set may not be amazing, but his desire to succeed is enough to leave him in a position where he will be afforded the opportunity to make strides forward. Stepan is still extremely undersized when it comes to his weight. At 6’0 and 166 pounds, he might compete in the USHL, but it will need to be improved as he moves forward. However, because of his desire to succeed and tenacity, adding weight should not be a problem as Stepan transitions to Ohio State University next season.

10. (9) Colton Sissons, RW, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 50th overall, 2012

The first player to see a drop in his ranking from the pre-season is the Kelowna Rockets’ Colton Sissons. While playing at greater than a point-per-game clip so far this year, Sissons has already suffered two concussions at a young age and has been held back because of it. If it was not for a head injury in early December, Sissons may have earned a spot on Team Canada’s World Junior roster. Sissons is a well-rounded player as a whole and is the type of prospect any team would love to have. His size coupled with skill is beneficial, especially when his above average skating is taken into consideration. Most importantly, Sissons is the quintessential leader who lives and dies with every shift and is willing to do anything to win.

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

The oldest player on this list, Jeremy Smith is the undisputed starter for the Milwaukee Admirals, even though his goals against average and save percentage are down from what they were last year (2.83 from 2.17 and .905 down from .922, respectively). The Predators are set in goal right now, especially with perennial Vezina Trophy candidate Pekka Rinne locked into a long term contract and up-and-coming Magnus Hellberg (#18 on this list) getting some solid action for the Admirals as well. Smith is not the typical Predators goalie, as he comes in at only 6’0, which is significantly shorter than Rinne (6’5), Hellberg (6’5), and former Predators back-up and current Tampa Bay goaltender Anders Lindback (6’6). However, while undersized by current Predators and NHL standards for goalies, Smith is very agile in net and produces lightning fast reflexes that will see him be a valued member of the Milwaukee Admirals for some time. Barring an injury to Chris Mason or Pekka Rinne, it is unlikely that Smith sees time in the NHL anytime soon.

12. (11) Chase Balisy, C, 6.5C
Drafted 6th round, 170th overall, 2011

Balisy is a solid two-way forward for the Western Michigan University Broncos of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. At 6’0, 171 pounds, Balisy is not the biggest player on the ice, but it has not seemed to hinder him as he led the Bronco in points last year and is again on top of the list this year with 24 points through 36 games. Not an exceptional skater, Balisy’s biggest asset is his ability to pass the puck. He is also a steady defensive player and is an effective back checker that fits in well with the Predators overall scheme. Another player that will benefit from putting on weight, Balisy will be a contributor at the AHL level and could see him rise to the Predators line up down the road.

13. (NR) Patrick Cehlin, RW, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 127th overall 2010

Previously unranked, the right winger began his first North American season with the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL but only played in one game before being called up to the AHL and the Milwaukee Admirals. Like many of his countrymen, Cehlin has a flair for the offensive and possesses good puck skills. Cehlin is a fantastic skater with great top end speed, but will need to work to adjust to the physicality of the North American game if he wants to use that speed to his advantage and move up the ranks in the Predators system. However, eight goals and 14 assists in 50 games in his first season in North America is a good start and Cehlin has a promising upside.

14. (13) Garrett Noonan, D, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 112th overall, 2011

Noonan is a good sized defenseman in his third year with the Boston University Terriers and has become one of the dominant back-enders in Hockey East this year. Had it not been for the success of players like Vesey, Leipsic, and Stepan, Noonan would almost have certainly moved up the mid-season ranking list. Another player that fits the typical mold of a Predators’ blueliner, Noonan is extremely physical but plays with a poise that will make his transition to professional hockey that much easier. While he does not possess the offensive flair that former Wisconsin Badger, Justin Schultz (EDM) had, Noonan plays with the same calm demeanor and will be an asset for the Predators in two or three years.

15. (14) Miikka Salomaki, LW, 7.0D
Drafted 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2011

Miikka Salomaki is another member of the Predators’ prospect pool that participated in the 2013 WJC, albeit on an under achieving Finland squad. While spending this season playing for Karpat Oulu, Salomaki’s biggest focus will be improving his already highly touted offensive ability as well as his strong two-way game. Salomaki is one of the premier penalty killers for Karpat and that will aid him in cracking a line-up with the Predators. Listed at 5’11, 205 pounds, Salomaki is by no means undersized and seems to be a great choice to be a third/fourth line player and penalty kill specialist when he comes over to either the AHL or NHL.

16. (15) Taylor Beck, LW, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 70th overall, 2009

Another large power forward in the Predators system, the 6’2, 209-pound Taylor Beck is currently leading the Milwaukee Admirals in points 38 points in 46 games. Beck still has the potential to make the Predators line-up, but seems to be a dime-a-dozen when it comes to power forwards in the organization. However, when paired with Watson and Latta, Beck seems to be at his most effective and it is easy to see the three of these players teaming up to make a formidable third line on the Predators. Beck is skilled with his hands and uses his physicality to his advantage, but like most big men, lacks the skating necessary to be an NHL call-up right now.

17. (16) Magnus Hellberg, G, 7.0D
Drafted 2nd round, 38th overall, 2011

While currently backing up Jeremy Smith in Milwaukee, Hellberg is seen as the future back-up to Pekka Rinne for the Nashville Predators. As mentioned previously, Hellberg is another large goaltender in a line of enormous goaltenders in the Predators system. While not extremely fast, Hellberg has sound positioning and is excellent at reading the play to make saves. While the butterfly goaltender uses his size to his advantage, the smaller ice surface that he faces in the AHL will create different angles than he is used to. Even at 6’5, Hellberg’s weakest point is high glove, which North American shooters have an affinity for aiming at, but this has already seen improvement in his first season in the AHL. Hellberg has seen action in 21 games this year for the Admirals and boasts more than respectable statistics of 2.55 goals against and a .913 save percentage.

18. (NR) Anthony Bitetto, D, 7.0D
Drafted 6th round, 168th overall, 2010

Another new addition to the mid-season rankings is 22-year-old defenseman Anthony Bitetto. The young defender began his season with the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones, but after 23 games, received a call up to the Milwaukee Admirals where he has played in 23 games. Bitetto has proven to be a good call-up, as he has contributed five assists, 27 penalty minutes and is a plus-two. Bitetto is primarily a defensive minded player who uses his size to his advantage. While questions about his consistency and ability to make it at higher levels were raised about him, his play thus far for the Admirals indicates he belongs at least at the AHL level.

19. (NR) Mikko Vainonen, D, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 118th overall, 2012

Mikko Vainonen is in his first season of North American hockey, playing with the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League. Vainonen is a large, defensive-minded defenseman who was considered a favorite to make the Finnish national team for this past WJC before he was injured in early December. Vainonen seems to have adjusted well to the North American game, as he uses his physicality to his advantage. Skating is a question for the big Finn, but he will have ample time to work on that as he is expected to spend next season in the OHL as well before making the transition to the professional ranks. There is offensive upside as well, as Vainonen has amassed three goals and 17 assists on one of the weaker offensive teams in the OHL.

20. (NR) Josh Shalla, LW, 7.0D
Drafted 4th Round, 94th overall, 2011

Another new entry on the mid-season rankings, Josh Shalla seems to be the preferred call-up for the Milwaukee Admirals this season. Shalla has been one of the best players on the Cincinnati Cyclone's roster this year and has 21 goals and seven assists for 28 points in 37 games with the ECHL club in 2012-13. He has bounced back and forth between the AHL and the ECHL recently and the big winger has appeared in 14 games with the Admirals on the year but only has three assists to his credit in his AHL action. Shalla is a talented scorer with good size, measuring in at 6'1 and 202 pounds, but he has questions surrounding his skating ability which led to his placement in the ECHL to start the season. His play with Cincinnati this year suggests he could be a fixture in the AHL next year for the Admirals, but he will need to earn his ice time, as the Admirals are fairly deep at the forward position.


Editor's Note: Left winger Gabriel Bourque, currently at 64 career NHL games, was considered graduated for the purposes of this ranking.