Newcomers Jones and Forsberg lead the Nashville Predators Top 20

By Seth Lake

Taylor Beck - Nashville Predators

Photo: After leading the Admirals in points and skating in 16 games with the Predators in 2012-13, Taylor Beck will return to Milwaukee as a featured skater for Milwaukee (courtesy of Danny Murphy/Icon SMI)

Since their inception the Nashville Predators have been built primarily through the draft. A year removed from a season mired by free agency and injury struggles, general manager David Poile had to question the depth of NHL-ready talent in his prospect pool as the season wore down.

After making the final deal of the day at the NHL trade deadline and watching as the projected top pick in the 2013 NHL Draft fell to his selection this summer in New Jersey, there is little doubt where the focus remains as the team looks to rebuild and return to the playoffs in the upcoming season.

With the graduation of defenseman Ryan Ellis, trade of center Michael Latta to Washington, and loss of goaltender Jeremy Smith and defenseman Jonathon Blum in free agency, the Predators cannot be disappointed with the additions of defenseman Seth Jones and right wing Filip Forsberg to the top of their depth chart this season.

Making 19 selections over the course of the past two drafts the team has been able to restock and reload to be in a good position to develop their own prospects to step into the NHL the next few years.

1. (NR) Seth Jones, D, 9.0C
Drafted 1st Round, 4th overall, 2013

After sitting through three picks prior to hearing his name called at the 2013 NHL Draft in June, Seth Jones did not have to wait nearly as long to make his NHL debut, and when he did, he found a familiar face behind the bench in Predators assistant coach Phil Housley.

In an unforgettable run last season, Jones played a key role under Coach Housley and served as an alternate captain for the United States in their gold medal run at the 2013 World Junior Championships, leading all defensemen in the tournament with six assists. Following his return from the tournament Jones continued his memorable season helping lead the Portland Winterhawks to the WHL title and earning the right to represent the league in the prestigious Memorial Cup Championship, where they would finish as the runner up. For his efforts, Jones was awarded the Jim Piggott Memorial Trophy as WHL Rookie of the Year for leading all rookies in the league with 42 assists and was named to the WHL Western Conference All-Star Team. In addition, Jones played in the CHL Top Prospects Game and was awarded the CHL Top Draft Prospect Award.

Prior to joining the Winterhawks organization, the 6’4, 205 pound right-handed defenseman spent the previous two seasons playing for the United States National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The son of former NBA player Popeye Jones, Seth is a naturally gifted athlete with a smooth skating stride for his size, has the ability to make a good first pass out of the zone, and carries a big shot from the point. Jones is expected to play this season in Nashville where he will receive top minutes and power play time as a rookie.

2. (NR) Filip Forsberg, LW, 8.0C
Acquired via trade with Washington on April 3rd, 2013

Unable to secure a top offensive player through the draft to lead their offense, Poile took the opportunity to pick up a piece the organization lacked acquiring Filip Forsberg from the Washington Capitals organization for Martin Erat, who requested a trade, and prospect Michael Latta. Upon completing his season in Sweden’s Allsvenskan, Forsberg made his NHL debut late last season appearing in five games and picking up his first NHL point on an assist.

A season removed from being the 11th overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, Forsberg helped Leksand earn promotion from the Allsvenskan up to the Elitserien, scoring a league high 15 goals for a junior player along with 18 assists in 38 games during the regular season before adding five goals and four assists in nine Kvalserien playoff games. Forsberg also had a strong season on the international stage where he served as the team captain for Sweden at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championships scoring five points (three goals, two assists) in six games to help lead Sweden to a silver medal and earning top-three player recognition and Tournament All-Star Awards.

With a taste of NHL action under his belt, Forsberg is expected to help lead the Predators in the upcoming season bringing his offensive skills to a team that was among the worst offensively in the league last season. Forsberg (6’1, 186) is not shy to contact and excels in traffic with his puck handling ability and rink vision allowing him to find teammates out of the corners and on the rush. He is not afraid to shoot the puck himself and carries a heavy shot giving him the potential to be a high scoring player.

Forsberg will get a chance early in his career to play a top offensive role for the Predators.

3. (16) Taylor Beck, LW, 7.5C
Drafted 3rd Round, 70th overall, 2009

A member of Nashville’s prized 2009 NHL Draft class, Beck made a strong debut in the NHL last season scoring seven points (three goals, four assists) in 16 NHL contests earning his way up the lineup into the Predators top-six as the season wound down.

Drafted out of the Ontario Hockey League, where he lead the Guelph Storm in scoring his final two seasons, Beck had a strong rookie campaign upon joining Nashville’s AHL affiliate in Milwaukee, scoring 40 points (16 goals, 24 assists) in 74 games his first season and following that up with a team high 41 points (11 goals, 30 assists) in 50 games last season for the Admirals.

Playing a gritty, physical style of game, Beck has worked hard to improve his skating stride since his draft season and likes to use his 6’2, 206 pounds to shield the puck from defenders along the wall and drive to the net where he displays a good shot. For no other reason than waiver eligibility, Beck will likely start the 2013-14 season back with Milwaukee, but it should not be long before Beck earns his way into a permanent spot in the Nashville lineup.

4. (4) Pontus Åberg, LW, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd Round, 37th overall, 2012

The Predators top pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, Pontus Åberg fell to Nashville in the second round after struggling to find consistency during the 2011-12 season with Djugarden in the Elitserien earning the first of four league nominations for Rookie of the Year, then scoring just one goal in the Kvalserien as his team was relegated to the Allsvenskan for the 2012-13 season.

Despite not being able to help Djurgarden back to the Elitserien, Åberg rebounded from a slow start and to finish with a strong season last year leading both his team with 28 assists and 40 points in 52 regular season games and also capturing the league lead for assists and points by a junior player.

The 5’11, 187 pound winger plays a skilled offensive game using his speed to create offensive opportunities and accurate shooting and passing skills to put the puck in the net. Åberg is playing the 2013-14 season with Farjestad in the newly-branded Swedish Hockey League, but remains unsigned and will be a priority for David Poile and the Predators to lock up in the upcoming year as the team looks to continue to add offensive talent to the organization.

5. (6) Mattias Ekholm, D, 7.5C
Drafted 4th Round, 102nd overall, 2009

Another member of the Predators 2009 NHL Draft class, Mattias Ekholm appears poised to finally crack the Nashville roster for good during the upcoming 2013-14 NHL season.

After winning the Elitserien Rookie of the Year award in 2011-12, Ekholm was signed to his entry-level contract and appeared in two early season games for the Predators before being loaned back to Brynas for the balance of the 2012-13 season where he went on to win the Borje Salming Trophy as Elitserien Defenseman of the Year. Last season Ekholm returned to North America where he spent the majority of the season at the AHL level in Milwaukee, leading all defensemen in scoring for the Admirals with 32 points (10 goals, 22 assists) in 59 games prior to being recalled to the NHL level for one game late in the season.

The 6’4, 204 pound left-handed defenseman brings a two-way offensive game to the Predators with good skating and puck moving skill and a strong shot from the point. In order to earn more ice time as the season progresses, Ekholm will need to continue to add weight to his frame to win battles in the corners and at the net and show consistency in his defensive play.

6. (2) Austin Watson, C/RW, 7.5C
Drafted 1st Round, 18th overall, 2010

Drafted with the Predators top pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, Austin Watson was originally described as a strong two-way player with developing offensive talent. In the years since, Watson has blossomed into an offensive role being among the leading scorers of his teams the final two seasons of play in junior hockey, helping lead the London Knights to the Memorial Cup in the 2011-12 season as well as being named OHL Playoff MVP and to the CHL Memorial Cup All-Star Team along the way.

Watson earned the right to make his NHL debut late in the 2012-13 season leading Milwaukee in goal scoring (20) before appearing in six games and notching his first goal in the Predators final home game of the season upon his recall. After a slow start to the season as the young Admirals roster struggled in the lockout-strengthened league, Watson helped lead a late season charge into the playoffs for Milwaukee playing a key role as injuries and recalls decimated the Milwaukee lineup.

A tall and lanky player, Watson has worked hard to fill out his 6’4, 193-pound frame but must continue to prove that he can compete at the NHL level. Using his long reach and frame, Watson is adept at shielding the puck with his body away from defenders in the corners and driving to the net to create scoring opportunities and plays a strong defensive game at the other end of the rink. With the additions of Matt Hendricks and Eric Nystrom to the Nashville roster in free agency this summer, it is likely Watson will begin the season in Milwaukee once again, but the stage is set for him to prove he belongs in the NHL by the end of the season.  

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

Following a season in which he led the EJHL in scoring with a league leading 48 goals and 91 points in 45 regular season games en route to winning League MVP and Offensive Player of the Year awards, Massachusetts native Jimmy Vesey was drafted in the third round of the 2012 NHL Draft and was scheduled to play his freshman season at Harvard University (NCAA) under coach Ted Donato.

However, after a strong performance in the camps leading up to the World Junior Championships, Vesey’s holiday break from school got a little more interesting when he was selected as the final forward for Team USA at the 2013 World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia. Playing for the first time at the international level for the United States, Vesey started the tournament as an extra forward, but quickly earned his way up the roster to the top offensive line scoring a goal and adding four assists for five points in seven games helping lead the team to a gold medal.

Back at Harvard after his strong international performance, Vesey finished the season as the third leading scorer for Harvard with a team-high 11 goals and 18 points in 27 games and was named to the ECAC All-Rookie Team.  Maintaining his NCAA eligibility, Vesey participated in the Predators Summer Development Camp for the second straight season this past summer and will play the upcoming season at Harvard where he will look to build on his strong freshman season.

8. (8) Brendan Leipsic, LW, 7.5D
Drafted 3rd Round, 89th overall, 2012

The Predators fourth selection in the 2012 NHL Draft, Brendan Leipsic exploded offensively in the 2012-13 season for the Portland Winterhawks playing alongside top fellow top prospects Nicolas Petan (WPG) and Ty Rattie (STL) to lead the WHL and CHL in scoring with 49 goals and 71 assists for 120 points in 68 regular season games last season. Along with fellow Predators prospect Seth Jones, Leipsic helped lead the Winterhawks to the WHL title and Memorial Cup championship game by scoring twenty-four points (10 goals, 14 assists) in 21 WHL playoff games and another two goals, one assist in five Memorial Cup games for the runner-up.

Standing at just 5’9 and 175 pounds, size will always be an issue for Leipsic, but as evidenced by him being the last junior eligible player cut from the Predators roster in training camp this season, there is a strong belief that he can translate his offensive skills and gritty game to the pro ranks as he continues to develop.

Under the terms of the NHL-CHL transfer agreement, Leipsic will not be 20 years old by the end of the 2013 and is therefore not eligible to play in the AHL this season. In 203 career WHL games over the past four seasons, Leipsic has scored 212 points (94 goals, 118 assists).

9. (17) Magnus Hellberg, G, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd Round, 38th overall, 2011

Playing in the same system as NHL star goaltender Pekka Rinne is no easy task, but that has not stopped Magnus Hellberg in his development since becoming the first goaltender selected in the 2011 NHL Draft. In similar fashion to Rinne, the 6’5 Swedish netminder spent the season following his draft year in Frolunda playing behind Anaheim prospect Frederik Andersen in the Elitserien before coming over to North America.

Hellberg struggled early on in his rookie campaign for Milwaukee adjusting to the smaller rinks, different angles, and increased speed of the game. In addition, Hellberg worked hard with goaltending coaches Mitch Korn and Ben Vanderklok to develop his glove hand. Playing behind veteran prospect Jeremy Smith for the first half of the season allowed Hellberg to take his time adjusting to the differences in the game and prepared him to overtake Smith in the second half of the season and lead the Admirals into the Calder Cup Playoffs finishing the season with a 22-13-0 record, 2.14 goals against average, and .924 save percentage in 39 games.

Despite having an open spot behind Rinne this season in Nashville, the plan for Hellberg is to begin the 2013-14 season as the starting goaltender in Milwaukee to continue his development prior to making the jump to the NHL. Veteran minor league goaltender Carter Hutton was signed in the offseason to a one year contract to backup Rinne and keeps the door open for Hellberg to prove he belongs at the NHL level very soon.

10. (15) Miikka Salomaki, LW/C, 7.0D
Drafted 2nd Round, 52nd overall, 2011

A prototypical Predator forward, Miikka Salomaki brings a rough and physical two-way game to the rink every night playing the game a lot bigger than his size might suggest.

Since winning Rookie of the Year honors at the Junior A SM-Liiga level during the 2009-10 season by scoring 43 points in 37 games, 20-year-old Miikka Salomaki has played the past three seasons for Karpat in the Liiga, developing his game at the highest level in his native Finland in addition to representing his homeland at the World Junior Championships the past three seasons as well finishing fourth in team scoring at the tournament last season with eight points in six games. Salomaki will make the jump to North America this season starting the season in Milwaukee where he will look to continue developing his offensive game after scoring nine goals and 10 assists for 19 points in 42 games last season with Karpat.

Entering his first NHL training camp this season, Salomaki was slotted at center in camp scrimmages and preseason exhibitions after playing exclusively on the wing the past few seasons. Salomaki’s game should earn him a quick following in North America if he is able to stay healthy.

11. (5) Zach Budish, RW, 7.0D
Drafted 2nd Round 41st overall, 2009

A victim of a torn ACL in both his senior year of high school and sophomore year of college due to non-hockey related incidents, Zach Budish will finally make the leap full-time to professional hockey after completing a four-year career at the University of Minnesota last season where he served as a team captain.

Bringing a football background to the rink, Budish is no stranger to the power forward game and has the frame and build to handle the rigors of professional hockey, however skating remains the primary concern as he tries to adjust to the speed of the pro game. Following his second knee injury, Budish returned to the ice for 83 games for the Gophers in his junior and senior seasons scoring a total of 81 points on 26 goals and 55 assists. Despite immediately declaring that he would be returning for a fifth season at Minnesota upon seeing his team eliminated from the Frozen Four last season, Budish quickly relented and turned pro with Milwaukee, suiting up the final nine regular season games and three playoff contests for the Admirals.

Participating in his first NHL training camp and preseason games this season, Budish will start the season in Milwaukee where he will be looked upon to provide a scoring and physical presence to the lineup this season and could position himself for a potential late season call up.

12. (10) Colton Sissons, C, 7.0D
Drafted 2nd Round, 50th overall, 2012

A two-way center with developing offensive skills, Colton Sissons is poised to begin his professional hockey career this season in Milwaukee after spending the past three seasons with the Kelowna Rockets in the WHL, where he served as team captain.

Named to the CHL Top Prospects game in 2011-12, Sissons has battled injuries the past couple of seasons missing time for the Rockets.  Playing with a mix of skill and power forward tendencies, Sissons must show this season the ability to stay healthy and in the lineup for the Admirals. Sissons will have a good role model to follow in teammate Austin Watson during his time at the AHL level with both players looking to position themselves to earn a recall to the NHL.

Over the course of his three seasons in Kelowna, Sissons improved his offensive production each year finishing with a career high 28 goals and 67 points in 61 regular season games last season prior to missing the remainder of the season due to injury, finishing the season with a plus-43 plus/minus rating

13. (9) Zach Stepan, C, 7.0D
Drafted 4th Round, 112th overall, 2012

As the Predators fifth pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, center Zach Stepan made a name for himself with Waterloo in the United States Hockey League (USHL) last season, finishing third in the league in scoring with 78 points in 56 games and a league-leading nine game-winning goals. Able to play in all situations, the skilled center contributed 23 points on the powerplay and led the team in shorthanded goals with two while launching a team-high 221 shots at the net.

Drafted after two seasons at Shattuck-St. Mary’s Prep School in Minnesota where his offense was on display averaging more than a point per game, Stepan was originally committed to attending Ohio State to play NCAA hockey this season, but backed out of his commitment last season after the Buckeyes terminated the contract of head coach Mark Osiecki. Instead, Stepan will begin his NCAA career this season at Minnesota State University – Mankato.

There is no rush for Stepan to turn pro at this point in his career, but he will be one to keep an eye on as the season progresses to watch his development at the NCAA level.

14. (NR) Jonathan-Ismael Diaby, D, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd Round, 64th overall, 2013

The son of a former professional soccer player, Jonathan-Ismael Diaby brings natural athletic ability to the rink in the form of a 6’4, 223-pound defensive-defenseman. Continuing to build on his skill set in his third season with Victoriaville in the QMJHL, Diaby finished second among defenseman last season with 26 points in 67 games.

No stranger to the physical game, Diaby is known for taking care of his own end first and challenging his opponents physically wherever possible. Jonathan is no stranger to dropping the gloves and racked up 117 penalty minutes for the Tigres this past season, second to fellow Predator draftee Tommy Veilleux.

Shoulder surgery this summer after the draft kept Diaby from participating in the on-ice portions of development and training camp. He will return to Victoriaville for his fourth season of junior hockey, but the Predators remain excited about the possibilities of a large, athletic, physical, defensive-minded defenseman coming down the pipeline to help create space for the abundance of offensive skilled defenseman in the organization.

15. (NR) Joonas Jarvinen, D, 6.5C
Signed as a free agent on May 30th, 2012

Signed as a free agent in the summer last season, Joonas Jarvinen finds himself entering his second season in North America on the cusp of cracking the NHL roster. A veteran of 260 games at the Liiga level in Finland prior to coming overseas, Jarvinen did not take long to figure out the game at the AHL level playing in Milwaukee.

Solid in his own end and known for playing a physical game, the 6’3, 220-pound defenseman continues to improve his skating and is able to make a good pass out of the zone in transition. Playing in 75 regular season games for the Admirals last season, Jarvinen finished with 11 points, 124 penalty minutes, and a plus-3 rating.

After an impressive training camp and preseason, Jarvinen will start the season in Milwaukee looking to put himself at the top of the list for a recall later this season to make his NHL debut.

16. (19) Mikko Vainonen, D, 6.5D
Drafted 4th Round, 118th overall, 2012

The Predators sixth selection in the 2012 NHL Draft, defenseman Mikko Vainonen came to North America last season to play junior hockey in the OHL with the Kingston Fronteacs under former NHL defenseman Todd Gill, where he finished with 22 points in 55 games last season. 

Standing at 6’3 and 220 pounds, Vainonen is no stranger to physical play and uses his size and reach to his advantage at the defensive end. A good skater, Vainonen adjusted well to the North American game and will be expected to play a key role for both the Fronteacs and also his native Finland at the World Junior Championships this season.

As he continues to develop, the Predators hope that they another diamond in the rough on the back end who can add size and physical play to their defensive corps.

17. (NR) Juuse Saros, G, 6.5D
Drafted 4th Round, 99th overall, 2013

Breaking the mold of towering goaltenders in the Nashville Predators organization, 5’10 Juuse Saros comes with an impressive resume of success over the course of his junior career.

The top rated European goaltender in the 2013 NHL Draft, Saros had an outstanding season in his draft year helping lead HPK to the Junior A SM-liiga championship, posting the league’s top goals against average (1.86) and save percentage (.933) en route to claiming the Jorma Valtonen Award as the top goaltender in the league and top player honors at the end of the regular season in addition to being named to the All-Star team. No stranger to international competition, Saros lead Finland to a bronze medal at the 2013 U18 World Junior Championships, being named the top goaltender in the tournament and a top three player for his team by posting a 1.86 goals against average and .946 save percentage in seven games.

With Rinne and Hellberg established already in North America, the Predators will keep tabs on Saros development as he moves up to the top tier of Finnish hockey for HPK in the Liiga this season. Saros is also expected to represent his country at the 2014 World Junior Championships in Malmo, Sweden this winter.

18. (NR) Felix Girard, C, 6.5D
Drafted 4th Round, 95th overall, 2013

Character has long been a cherished value within the Predators organization and with their fourth round pick in the 2013 NHL Draft they found a great deal of it in Felix Girard.

Named the captain of the Baie-Comeau Drakkar for the 2012-13 season, Girard responded with a breakout season at both ends of the rink being named as the recipient of the Guy Carbonneau Trophy as the top defensive forward in the league while also racking up career highs in goals (23), assists (38), and points (61) in 58 regular season games and adding another 15 points in 19 playoff games.

Girard appeared for Team Canada at both the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament and the U18 WJC in 2012 and was invited to participate in the Canadian evaluation camp this summer in preparations for the 2014 World Junior Championships. Returned to the Drakkar for his fourth season of junior hockey, Girard will once again serve as team captain and be expected to continue to develop the offensive side of his two-way game.

19. (13) Patrick Cehlin, RW, 6.5D
Drafted 5th Round, 126th overall, 2010

Still working to prove that his offensive skills will translate to the pro game, Patrick Cehlin made his North American debut last season joining the Milwaukee Admirals where he scored 32 points (nine goals, 23 assists) in 70 games.

A speedy winger, Cehlin creates offense with his skating skills and creativity with the puck and will be looked upon to help lead Milwaukee in his second season. Prior to coming over, Cehlin played the previous three seasons in the Elitserien for Djurgarden, scoring 14 points in 48 games in his final season in Sweden.

Named a top player for Sweden at the 2011 World Junior Championships while scoring six points in six games, Cehlin must once again work hard to improve his consistency at both ends of the rink establishing himself as an offensive threat and continuing to work on his defensive game.

20. (NR) Marek Mazanec, G, 6.5D
Drafted 6th Round, 179th overall, 2012

The third goaltender in the Predators Top 20 prospects, Marek Mazanec was the team’s ninth selection in the 2012 NHL Draft as they looked to rebuild their goaltending depth charts after the recent dismissals of top picks Chet Pickard and Jeremy Smith.

After spending the first half of the season backing up Boston Bruins’ netminder Tuukka Rask during the NHL lockout, Mazanec helped lead HC Plzen to the Czech Extraliga Championship last season with a 2.13 goals against average and .932 save percentage in 20 playoff games in his fourth season at the Extraliga level.

Entering the season as the fourth goaltender on the NHL depth chart, Mazanec was the final goalie sent down in training camp and will look to push for ice time behind Hellberg in Milwaukee. The 6’3, 22-year-old goalie relies on his skating, athleticism, and a quick glove hand to make saves and will need to adjust to the smaller rinks and quicker pace of play this season.