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Nashville's goaltending future looks bright

Thursday, 07.10.2008 / 10:00 AM / Prospects

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

While relaxing at home in Dearborn, Mich., in late June, Jeremy Smith watched as his road to the NHL got a heck of a lot bumpier.

With the No.18 selection in the 2008 Entry Draft, the Nashville Predators selected goalie Chet Pickard of the Tri-City Americans. Smith, watching the draft live, remembers just one penetrating thought when he saw Pickard greet the Predators executives on the stage in Ottawa the same way he did a year ago in Columbus.

"Now it's about competition," Smith told NHL.com.

Smith is the goalie Nashville selected in the second round last year, the one on which Predators executives are so high. Pickard is the goalie the Predators selected in the first round this year, and he's another one they feel has a high ceiling.

While it's still way too early to tell if either Smith or Pickard -- or both -- will one day challenge to be the starter in Nashville, a job that currently belongs to Dan Ellis, the common goal between the newly acquainted netminders is no secret.

"We're in this business to make it to the NHL and earn the big bucks," Pickard told NHL.com. "We're supposed to be working together, but there is a lot of competition. Having some competition makes you push yourself that much harder. It's going to bring out the best in us."

The competition between Smith and Pickard could pick up some steam this coming winter at the World Junior Championships, where Smith hopes to return as Team USA's starting goalie and Pickard is a hopeful starter for Team Canada.

The notion of his two young pupils playing against one another in such a prestigious event prompted Nashville goalie coach Mitch Korn to jokingly tell NHL.com, "Boy, if that happens am I going to look like a good goalie coach, aren't I?"

There's a chance, Mitch, a good chance.

The Predators aren't going to rush either goalie. Ellis is signed on to be the Predators No. 1 goalie for at least the next two seasons, and Pekka Rinne has put in enough time and energy in Milwaukee of the AHL during the past three seasons that he will likely be Ellis' backup this coming season.

"What I'm looking for is they have to be the best at their level. They have to excel, lead and work. They have to forget that they were drafted highly and remember that it's a long-distance race."

-- Predators goalie coach Mitch Korn


Mark Dekanich, a 22-year-old prospect out of Colgate, is also turning pro this season and could wind up either in Milwaukee or with the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL. Nashville also drafted Swedish goalie Anders Lindback in the seventh round.

"It's similar to pitching in baseball, you can't have enough depth at the goaltending position," Jeff Kealty, the Predators' chief amateur scout, told NHL.com. "(Smith and Pickard) create depth and competition for us at that position."

Smith is likely to enter his third season with the Ontario Hockey League's Plymouth Whalers, and he's buoyed by the fact that it's the first time he's entering the season as a No. 1 goalie.

He and Washington Capitals prospect Michal Neuvirth shared the Whalers net in 2006-07, leading Plymouth to the OHL title while allowing the fewest goals (173) of any tandem in the league. The Whalers, though, chose Smith as their No. 1 this past season when they traded Neuvirth to the Windsor Spitfires on Nov. 17.

After going 23-6-1 with a 2.59 goals-against average in 34 appearances in 2006-07, Smith went 23-13-4 with a 2.86 GAA this past season. He was derailed by a late-season concussion and his goals-against ballooned to a robust 7.76 in four playoff games, all losses, against the Kitchener Rangers.

"The timing of that concussion and running up against Kitchener wasn't easy for him," Kealty said. "He got steamrolled there a bit, but that's all part of the process. We told him that's going to happen to everybody, it's how you react."

The plan for Pickard is to have him return to Tri-City for his fourth season, and second as the No. 1. Pickard won the Del Wilson Trophy as the WHL's Goaltender of the Year after posting a 46-12-4 record with a .918 save percentage and 2.32 GAA.

"That would be most likely reality," Pickard said of returning to Tri-City.

Pickard isn't about to concede anything.

While Smith acknowledged that returning to junior is likely best for his development, Pickard spoke confidently about his chances to make the Predators roster coming out of training camp.

Both Kealty and Korn said they wouldn't bet on it, but Pickard is driven to beat the odds.

"When I was drafted, it was a goal of mine to make the team, so I am going to work my butt off and I'm going to try to beat out the best goalie in the organization, which is Dan Ellis," Pickard said. "I really do think I can (make the team). I don't say that in a cocky way. I want to push myself and work hard so I can make it."

Before either goalie convinces management they are ready for a promotion, they'll have to convince Korn, who could be a tough nut to crack.

Korn developed a kinship working with Smith during the past year, and already had a previous relationship with Pickard dating back four years. However, he's not ready to call either Smith or Pickard anything more than an intriguing project at this point.

"I think everybody is a project because you have to become a pro," Korn said. "I have a philosophy and it's very simple: If you get to the NHL before you are ready it's almost like being a child actor, there is going to be dysfunction. They're too young."

Korn, though, said sees enough qualities in each goalie to believe one day the Predators could have the kind of goalie controversy on their hands that any team would want.   

"What I'm looking for is they have to be the best at their level," Korn said. "They have to excel, lead and work. They have to forget that they were drafted highly and remember that it's a long-distance race."

Only in this case, there's another guy running right next to you, stride for stride.




 

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