With the hockey season coming to a close, Hockey’s Future has begun awarding our “Prospect Awards” for each franchise. Each team has had its share of standouts, surprises – both good and bad, as well as players who find themselves excelling in a particular facet of the game. While the Nashville Predators do not find themselves in the playoffs this year, they have a crop of prospects that combine skill, speed, and physicality that promises to provide an exciting future for the club.
At last season’s NHL Draft, people questioned Leipsic’s work ethic and heart. It was said that he was lazy and thought he could skate by on his skill alone, and people were skeptical of drafting him. Leipsic’s response was to lead the Western Hockey League in points in the 2012-2013 season and play an integral role on a Portland Winterhawks team that captured the Ed Chynoweth Cup as WHL champions as well as a berth in the prestigious Memorial Cup. Leipsic is an undoubtedly skilled forward and proved his ability by posting 120 points during the regular season, which lead the WHL. Leipsic’s elevated play was one of the biggest reasons that the Winterhawks finally laid claim to the WHL championship in their third consecutive finals appearance.
Despite being a smaller forward, Zach Stepan has a sneakily hard shot that you would expect out of a player who can get a lot more leverage behind his shot. Stepan contributed 78 points to the Blackhawks this season and did so with 32 goals in 56 games. While Stepan’s shot is a great asset, his overall game is lacking what you would expect from someone with an elite shot. This, however, does not take away from a shot that is just as good as that of some players in the organization that already have NHL experience.
Mattias Ekholm takes home the award for Best Defensive Prospect this year, and he has done so as a very traditional Predators player. Ekholm is big, extremely mobile, and plays a defense-first game that fits right into the system that Barry Trotz and the Predators employ. Ekholm appeared in 59 regular season games for the Admirals this year, and despite being a predominately defensive defenseman, he contributed 32 points thanks to 10 goals and 22 assists. Ekholm has a fantastic ability to make smart decisions with the puck that will make him a reliable and potentially stalwart NHL blueliner, which ultimately led to his winning of this award.
Fastest Skater: Patrick Cehlin, RW, Milwaukee Admirals (AHL)
For the second year in a row, the speedy Swede has won the Fastest Skater award for the Nashville Predators prospects. Cehlin has one of the best first steps in all of hockey and has breakneck speed that makes him almost impossible to catch, and even harder to stop once he gets going. A traditional European player, Cehlin shies away from the physical side of the game; but he has the ability to do that when most players are left watching him blow by them on a consistent basis. Not only is he explosively fast, Cehlin is also extremely light on his feet, giving him an agility that allows him to move wherever he wants on the ice with ease.
Prospect of the Year: Filip Forsberg, LW, Nashville Predators (NHL)
The 6'1, 186-pound left winger made waves when he came over to North America from the Swedish Elite League and joined the Washington Capitals organization. Forsberg had as much media hype surrounding him at times throughout the year as Edmonton Oilers’ rookie Nail Yakupov, and for good reason. Nashville acquired the highly touted prospect by dealing Martin Erat and Michael Latta on trade deadline day. Forsberg scored 33 points in 38 games with Leksands and helped get them promoted to the Swedish Elite League for the upcoming season. This impact professionally came while he captained the Swedish World Junior team to a silver medal in Ufa, Russia after winning a gold last year in Calgary. Forsberg was the 11th overall pick in last year’s draft and is the strongest Predators prospect moving forward.
2013-2014 Breakout Player: Austin Watson, C, Milwaukee Admirals (AHL)
Austin Watson stands poised to prove his worth in the upcoming hockey season, as the Nashville Predators are looking to rebound from a down year. Watson is a prototypical power forward, and saw action in six games with the Preds in this past lockout-shortened season, contributing one goal in his stint with the big club. Watson has adapted to the professional game well and was a strong asset for the Milwaukee Admirals this year. His love for the grinding aspect of the game, and strong play in the corners and in front of the net will be a big part of his success going forward, and suggests that his toughness is already at an NHL level.
Most Improved Player: Jimmy Vesey, LW, Harvard Crimson (ECAC)
Jimmy Vesey did not exactly struggle last year with the South Shore Kings of the EJHL, but no one predicted what Vesey would do both in the NCAA and on the international stage. Vesey was voted the Ivy League Rookie of the Year, selected to the ECAC All-Rookie Team, and had 11 goals and seven assists in 27 games played for the Crimson this year. Vesey also starred on a Team USA that found themselves wearing the gold at the conclusion of this year’s World Junior Championships. Vesey contributed one goal and five assists in seven games on the international stage, and watched himself move up the depth chart over the course of the game. Jimmy Vesey was not a household name at the beginning of the year, but now, if anyone does not know his name, they will very soon.
Overachiever: Anthony Bitetto, D, Milwaukee Admirals (AHL)
Anthony Bitetto came into the year labeled as a player with an attitude problem, and expectations were that he could play his career in the ECHL. Bitetto, however, apparently had different ideas and proved that attitude is something you can coach. Bitetto’s offseason training and hard work every day with the Cincinnati Cyclones paid off and he eventually earned a call-up to the Milwaukee Admirals halfway through the season. Bitetto had one goal and five assists in 34 games for the Admirals, as well as one goal and two assists in 23 games with the Cyclones on the year. Bitetto will be expected to keep this play going forward and a lot will be asked of him next season, but if this year is any indicator, he will be looking to meet those expectations.
Underachiever: Chet Pickard, G, Djurgarden (Allsvenskan)
Despite having a good season with the Swedish club Djurgarden, Chet Pickard still came nowhere near the expectations he has bared since being drafted 18th overall in 2008. Pickard played in 45 of Djurgarden’s 52 games the season, and earned a 2.15 goals against average and .918 save percentage. Pickard played well, but began the season by not even attempting to crack a squad in North America. While Pickard is not expected to be a true prospect much longer, the move to Europe means that he is likely outside of Nashville's plan going forward.
Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Colton Sissons, C/RW, Kelowna Rockets (WHL)
Colton Sissons is the definition of risk/reward. With the emphasis being placed on protecting head injury in today’s game, and the knowledge that we have about the effect of concussions, it is hard to deny that Sissons is behind the eight ball. He is offensively gifted and has genuine natural leadership qualities, but has already been victim of two major concussions before playing a single professional game. He was more than a point-per-game player for the Rockets this year despite missing significant time due to injury, and was even a favorite for the Canadian WJC team before his injury as well. Sissons fits well into the Predators plans and could have an extremely bright future as long as his health holds up.
Notes and Signings:
Nashville recently signed two of their highly-touted prospects to entry level deals. Brendan Leipsic, who is fresh off of playing fellow Predators prospect Brent Andrews (Halifax, QMJHL) in the Memorial Cup final, inked a three year deal with the Preds on May 22, 2013. Nashville was not done there, as they also signed defensive prospect Mikko Vainonen (Kingston, OHL) to a three year deal as well on Friday, May 24, 2013.
In goal, the Predators signed Czech netminder Marek Mazanec (HC Plzen, ELH) to an entry-level contract on May 3, 2013. Chet Pickard’s one year contract with Djurgardens has expired, but both goalies could potentially be on the Predators training camp roster for this fall.
Follow Shaun Bisson on Twitter: @sdbisson