The Nashville Predators bread and butter since the earliest days of the franchise has been player development, and that continues as the Milwaukee Admirals – Nashville’s primary developmental affiliate at the American Hockey League level – opened training camp on Monday. As they do many years, the Ads will see an influx of young talent as they look to make their 11th consecutive playoff appearance in 2012-13, a streak matched only by the Connecticut Whale.
Predators General Manager David Poile and Assistant GM Paul Fenton have been on record saying this year’s group has them excited as any that has come through the system so let’s take a look at some of the players expected to make the biggest impact when the regular season starts on Oct. 12 at Grand Rapids.
Nashville fans are probably tired of the phrase “the road to Nashville leads through Milwaukee,” but it certainly reigns true for this group. Though only one of the next 10 players are over 24 years of age, they are all in the process of paying their dues in attempt to gain full-time jobs at the NHL level.
Defense. Shoots left. 6-0, 212 lbs.Born, Maple Ridge, B.C., February 17, 1988.
(Signed as a free agent on May 24, 2011).
An undrafted late bloomer, the Predators signed Bartley out of Sweden’s second division in the summer of 2011, and he didn’t disappoint in his rookie AHL season in 2011-12, tying for 10th among league blueliners, and second among AHL rookie defensemen, in points (39) in addition to ranking among the leaders at his position in assists (30). Bartley loves to create offense – and sees plenty of time on the power play – but uses his speed effectively at both ends of the ice, and can also throw his solid frame around when necessary.
Right wing. Shoots right. 6-2, 208 lbs.Born, St. Catharines, Ont., May 13, 1991.
(Nashville's fourth choice, 70th overall (third round), in the 2009 Entry Draft).
Another member of the 2009 draft class – potentially the most productive in franchise history – Beck first rose eyebrows at 2010 training camp, earning a preseason game while all his peers were sent back to their junior clubs. Despite finishing third on the Admirals in points (16g-24a-40pts) as a rookie in 2011-12, Beck experienced a few struggles in his transition to the professional game. However, the potential is there for him to be a power forward at the NHL level given his great offensive instincts and soft hands to complement his size. The Guelph Storm alum has put up outstanding offensive numbers before too – Beck finished the 2010-11 regular season ranked seventh in the Ontario Hockey League in points (95) and assists (53), and eighth in goals (42) and won the 2010 Jim Mahon Memorial Trophy as the OHL’s top scoring right wing after tying for fourth in the Ontario Hockey League in points (39g-54a-93pts) with the Storm in 2009-10.
Defense. Shoots right. 6-1, 191 lbs.Born, Rancho Santa Margarita, California, January 30, 1989.
(Nashville's first choice, 23rd overall (first round), in 2007 Entry Draft).
The Predators want to see more of the Blum from the 2010-11 season and 2011 playoffs, and less of the player who struggled through the first part of the 2011-12 season before spending the remainder of the season in Milwaukee. A rule that allows players not on entry-level contracts who were on an AHL Clear Day list (when playoff rosters are set) or ended the regular season at the AHL level to sign contracts minor league contracts during the work stoppage has enabled Blum and Chris Mueller to join the Ads in training camp and make them better equipped to make the big club when the time arrives. Blum has a high hockey IQ and makes smart decisions with and without the puck and if he shows flashes of the player who ranked fourth among team blueliners in average ice time (18:51) during the 2011 postseason and third among AHL rookie defensemen in points (11g-30a-41pts) and goals in 2010-11, the first California-born and raised player to be selected in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft will get every opportunity to succeed when the NHL seasons begins.
Left Wing. Shoots left. 5-10, 192 lbs.Born, Rimouski, Quebec, September 23, 1990.
(Nashville's ninth choice, 132nd overall (fifth round), in the 2009 Entry Draft).
Bourque was one of the Predators most pleasant surprises during the second half of the 2011-12 season, providing energy, speed and a splash of offense – he ranked ninth in points per game among rookies who appeared in at least half their team’s games (.44) – to the team’s lineup. He was even more impactful when the stakes were high, tying for the team lead in goals (3), and ranking third in points (5) during the 2012 playoffs. This included two goals, including the game winner, in his NHL playoff debut – Game One of the WCQ vs. Detroit – becoming just the third player in the last 14 playoff years to attain the feat. Bourque’s future is bright given he builds on last season’s big league successes, and continues to play with the relentless pursuit that makes him a perfect “Predators-type” player.
Defense. Shoots right. 5-10, 179 lbs.Born, Hamilton, Ontario, January 3, 1991.
(Nashville's first choice, 11th overall (first round), in the 2009 Entry Draft).
Ryan Ellis’ potential may be best summed up by Detroit Red Wings Head Coach Mike Babcock following his NHL debut on Dec. 26, 2011: “The kid they brought up is as good as there is in hockey on the power play, so he’s no slouch. He doesn’t have the bomb that Weber has but he has all those other things. He’s very deceptive, he can really see, he has ice water in his veins, and he is a great player. He’s going to be a dominant power play guy in the National Hockey League. For a skinny little kid, he can sure shoot the puck. He had a bomb off of the crossbar and he is a good player.” Ellis turned pro a season ago after one of the most decorated junior careers in hockey history, and proceeded to be named to the AHL All-Star Classic after tying for ninth among AHL defensemen, and for first among rookie blueliners, in points (4g-13a-17pts, 26gp) before being recalled. Over the course of second half of 2011-12, the Predators posted a 22-8-2 record with him in the lineup.
Center. Shoots left. 6-2, 205 lbs.Born, Helsinki, Finland, June 16, 1990.
(Nashville's sixth choice, 201st overall (seventh round), in 2008 Entry Draft).
Lajunen doesn’t receive many headlines, but he probably likes it that way. Known for his defensive prowess and excellent faceoff skills, Lajunen was a workhorse for the Admirals during his rookie season in 2011-12, suiting up for 75 of the team’s 76 games, while logging plenty of tough minutes and taking a slew of key draws. Players like Lajunen get their greatest joy out of team success and he’s seen plenty of that. In his final season in his homeland of Finland, he helped the Espoo Blues advance to the Finnish Elite League finals and earn a silver medal, then was part of the 2011 World Championship-winning Finnish squad the following month. He played in back-to-back World Junior Championships in 2009 and 2010, and helped Espoo’s junior club win the 2009 Finnish Junior League playoff and regular season titles.
Center. Shoots right. 6-0, 215 lbs.Born, Kitchener, Ont., May 25, 1991.
(Nashville's fifth choice, 72nd overall (third round), in the 2009 Entry Draft).
Of the players on this list who have yet to receive a call-up, Latta might be the closest to donning the Predator Gold this season. This summer, General Manager David Poile said one of the reasons the team could afford to let Jordin Tootoo go was because of Latta’s potential as a pest – he is the type of player opponents hate to play against. Latta scores in the hard areas and gets under the opponent's skin through his physical play and energy, as evidenced by his numbers with Milwaukee in 2011-12 – he was one of just three American Hockey League rookies to post at least 25 points and 100 penalty minutes. Those numbers were just a carryover from his junior career with the Guelph Storm, which saw him rank ninth in the Ontario Hockey League in points (89), tied for fifth in assists (55) and fourth in the OHL in penalty minutes (158) during the 2010-11 campaign.
Right wing. Shoots right. 5-11, 203 lbs.Born, West Seneca, N.Y., March 6, 1986.
(Signed as a free agent on December 27, 2010).
Mueller has made his mark by playing a highly competitive, blue-collar style while also pitching in points on a routine basis. He has been recalled by Nashville six times over the past two seasons – showing how close he is to being an NHL player – and has positioned himself among the AHL elite with Milwaukee. The Michigan State University alum and 2007 NCAA National Champion tied for fifth in the AHL in goals (32), tied for first in overtime goals (3) and tied for second in game-winning goals (8) in 2011-12, and was selected to his first AHL All-Star Classic in 2012, where he helped the Western Conference win the 2012 AHL All-Star Classic highlighted by knocking out all four of the targets in the
Caesars Atlantic City Accuracy Shooting.
Right wing. Shoots right. 6-2, 198 lbs.Born, Kuopio, Finland, April 5, 1988.
(Signed as a free agent on June 16, 2011).
Similar to Victor Bartley, Puustinen was an under-the-radar signing during the summer of 2011 after a standout season overseas. Despite missing the final six weeks of his rookie AHL season, Puustinen tied for fourth on the 2011-12 Admirals in goals (16) and ranked second on the team in power-play markers (9). A sniper in every sense of the term and deadly on the power play, Puustinen caught the Predators attention after ranking fourth in the Finnish Elite League in goals (26), tying for second in shorthanded goals (3), and for seventh in power-play goals (9) with HPK in 2010-11. Selected by Calgary in the fifth round (149th overall) of the 2006 Entry Draft, Puustinen was also a finalist for the 2009 Jarmo Wasama Award as SM-Liiga rookie of the year after leading first-year players in points (13g-20a-33pts) and assists, and ranking second among rookies in goals in 2008-09.
Goaltender. Catches left. 6-0, 177 lbs.Born, Dearborn, Mich., April 13, 1989.
(Nashville's second choice, 54th overall (second round), in 2007 Entry Draft).
Smith enters his fourth professional season in 2012-13, but didn’t really see the fruits of his labor until filling in for Mark Dekanich during the 2011 playoffs when he started all 13 of Milwaukee’s contests, tying for fourth in the playoffs in save percentage (.931). He carried that momentum into last season, leading the American Hockey League in minutes played (3283:59), ranking second in wins (31) and shutouts (5), and fourth in goals-against average (2.17) in 2011-12. He isn’t as big as the other goaltenders in the organization, but plays with great quickness, and will be expected to carry the load again.
Defense. Shoots left. 6-1, 213 lbs.Born, Ottawa, Ont., May 2, 1991.
(Signed as a free agent on September 30, 2011).
The signing of Valentine just after his assignment to Milwaukee during last year’s training camp was just seen as another depth move by many, but Nashville’s coaching staff loves his style of play and thinks he could have a future with the big club if he keeps developing. Valentine rarely shows up on the score sheet, as he makes his living with solid defensive play. He has excellent lateral movement and physically wears down the opposition. Drafted by the Anaheim Ducks in the sixth round of the (166th overall) in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Valentine can also get the crowd going – he explodes through his checks and can drop the gloves if need be.