Sep 6, 2013
The mornings are crispening. The players are filing back into town. I feel the urge to blog and tweet about something other than obscure metal and indie rock bands.
All of these things portent of one simple, wonderful truth: hockey is just about back!
While informal skate-arounds have been going on for the past week or so at Centennial, the Predators’ rookie camp officially got underway this week, culminating in a set of games with youngsters from the Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Boston Bruins. Eventually, most of these prospects will return to their NCAA, junior, or European teams. A few will take part in the full camp, beginning next Wednesday. For those of you that don’t have the opportunity to follow or watch these leagues or the Milwaukee Admirals, this might be your best opportunity to get a glimpse of the future.
However, there are a few players in the group that I believe have an excellent chance of seeing significant time in Nashville this season. Every year, a player seizes an opportunity–it could be an injury, it could be poor performance from a “regular”–whatever the case may be, jobs become available and a young player gets a chance to climb up to the NHL. Gabriel Bourque, Nick Spaling, Victor Bartley are all recent examples of players that began the year in Milwaukee, earned a call-up…and never looked back.
So who has a chance to break through in 2013-2014 for the Nashville Predators?
First off, I’m omitting a few players that I believe will make the team outright, and stay there all year long: Seth Jones, Filip Forsberg, Taylor Beck. I think there’s either an element of pedigree or a proven body of work that will assure them a spot in the lineup, barring a major collapse. So, assuming that those three are in the lineup full-time, here are five players could be poised to take the next step (statistics courtesy of www.hockeydb.com)
1. F – Austin Watson
2010 first-rounder Austin Watson got his first taste of NHL action last season, after performing solidly for most of the year in Milwaukee. Watson’s first games with the Predators were on the “average” side. He didn’t play poorly, nor did he play overly impressively. I saw a player that could contribute defensively, play an edgy game, and grind out opponents. Those are all nice attributes, but for Watson to make a true, lasting impact, he needs to round out his offensive game.
He may not have a 30 goal upside, but if he can provide two-way grit while chipping in 15-20 goals in all situations, he’ll have made his mark. If he gets off to a hot start in an increased role with the Admirals and can carry that momentum at the NHL level, he may end up there for good. If not, he’s still a useful player that I believe will play in the NHL in some capacity, but the ascent may be slower and may see him as more of a defensive specialist in the Vernon Fiddler mold.
2. F-Miikka Salomaki
I’ve been eager to see what Salomaki could do in North America since before his draft, when there was some buzz that he might come over to play in the CHL. That never happened, but regardless the time is at hand for his debut in the AHL. After playing on Finland’s top line as one of their best players at the 2013 World Junior Championship, Salomaki’s profile was raised. He plays a punishing game with some decent offensive skill to compliment, akin to Carolina’s Tuomo Ruutu.
While he’s not the tallest player, he’s built like a tank, and can use his strength and tenacity to wear down opponents and create turnovers. I don’t expect huge numbers from him at any level, but he’s also pretty close to a finished product and could potentially step into the NHL pretty quickly in a bottom-six energy role.
3. C- Colton Sissons
It’s not often that a player is able to go directly from major-junior to the NHL with only a brief stopover in Milwaukee, especially in the Predators organization. The odds are probably against Sissons accomplishing that feat, but I’m giving him a chance based on his maturity and drive. From an “intangibles” perspective, this kid oozes “Predators.”
After an injury sidelined him from the Canadian World Junior team last season, he still managed to put up surprising offensive numbers for the Kelowna Rockets. I truly believe that he could contribute from a bottom six role, with spot special teams time as well. However, he and the organization may be best served if he builds himself up with the Admirals first.
4. D- Mattias Ekholm
After a disastrous and brief cup of coffee with the Predators two seasons ago, Ekholm returned to Sweden and took home hardware as the league’s top defenseman. He built on that by giving North America another shot, this time with the Admirals. Ekholm played well in a season shortened by injury. Paul Fenton recently said that Ekholm will “definitely see time in Nashville this year,” but what he does with that opportunity will decide how long he’ll be here and the quality of minutes he’ll play.
Ekholm plays a solid two-way game, but to date I haven’t seen him utilize his greatest asset– his hulking 6’4 frame. I was a big fan of Cody Franson in his time here, but I was frustrated that a guy that big didn’t play a more physical game. I see a lot of the same in Ekholm. If he can play to his size, as well as work out some positioning struggles, he may finally make the jump once and for all. I do need to ask him if his hometown of Borlange rhymes with “orange,” because it would be nice to realize that particular lifelong dream…
5. G- Magnus Hellberg
Speaking of big dudes, Hellberg is the latest in the Predators’ long line of giant Scandinavian goaltenders. After a slow start backing-up Jeremy Smith in his first year in the AHL, Hellberg eventually found his stride (he says that Mitch Korn made a “slight adjustment” in his game that made all the difference). In the second half of the season, Hellberg usurped the starting job from Smith once and for all and put up some of the best numbers in the league over the last few months. This season, there will be no doubt who the starter is, as he’ll be backed by newcomer Marek Mazanec.
While there was some speculation that Hellberg could back up Rinne this season–and I do believe he’s capable–I think the organization learned a lesson from the struggles that Anders Lindback has faced in playing the role of a full-time starter. It’s nice to play well in short bursts, but adjusting to the rigors of a full schedule is another story. If Hellberg is the heir to the starting job when one day Rinne moves on, it’s in the organization’s best interest to bring him along slowly. As such, while I can see Hellberg getting some spot fill-in duty in the event of an injury to Rinne or Hutton, I expect him to play a good bulk of the games on the Admirals’ schedule this year.
Photo Credit: Sarah Fuqua