While the Preds were making their playoff run, a trio of the club’s top prospects were preparing for this year’s World Championships.
Preds Assistant General Manager Paul Fenton served as Team USA’s Associate General Manager for this year’s World Championships and traveled with the team to Slovakia for the duration of the World Championships. Fenton was joined on Team USA by prospect Craig Smith
“We brought Craig over (to the World Championships) on kind of a tryout basis, and as soon as he got over there, he just took off,” Fenton said. “The coaches put him on a line with Derek Stepan, a guy he knew from University of Wisconsin, and that familiarity helped both of them on the ice. It has to be a great stepping stone for Craig, from a confidence standpoint and a development standpoint.”
Smith finished the tournament with six points in seven games played, leading the American team in both goals (three) and plus/minus rating (+2). He was also third among team forwards in ice time during the Championships. A fourth-round pick in the 2009 draft, Smith had never participated in a major international tournament and the World Championships is annually an elite display of talent – Jaromir Jagr, Ilya Kovalchuk, and John Tavares were among the other forwards who starred at this year’s tournament – making Smith’s performance all the more impressive; somewhat of a “coming-out party” on a big stage.
“He was one of the three best players on the team – and that was the consensus not just among the Team USA staff, but among the NHL scouts over there as well. He’s matured beyond his years. I don’t think the offense from Craig was a fluke. I think Craig has the ability to score in the NHL; he’s scored wherever he’s played. Down the line, his potential is as a top-six forward in the NHL.”
That potential may take a little while before its debut in Nashville; Smith has committed to returning to the University of Wisconsin for his junior season. Remember, however, Blake Geoffrion came through the Wisconsin program – spending all four seasons with the Badgers – and made an impressive transition to the pro game.
While at the World Championships, Fenton also had an opportunity to check-in on the progress of a pair highly regarded European prospects – Sweden’s Mattias Ekholm
and Finland’s Jani Lajunen
. Lajunen joined Team Finland during the middle of the World Championships tournament, while Ekholm was one of Team Sweden’s final cuts after their pre-tournament training camp.
“I thought Mattias was going to make their team,” Fenton said. “I was very surprised when he didn’t. At the end of the day, Sweden decided to go with some older, more experienced guys. They only took one guy around Ekholm’s age group. When I watched them play, I didn’t think they had the variety of defensemen or the caliber of mobile offensive defenseman like Ekholm. They decided to go in a more structured way, which was too bad for Mattias. I talked to him about his experiences and he loved it. As a young guy I think it opened his eyes to some things. It sounds like it was a really good learning experience for him.”
Ekholm, who recently visited Nashville to sign his first NHL contract, is one of the fastest rising prospects in the organization. With all the other bluechip defenseman prospects in the organization (Jon Blum, Roman Josi
, Ryan Ellis
, etc.), Ekholm, another 2009 fourth-round pick, flew under the radar while playing in Europe. But Fenton and the Preds European scouts feel Ekholm can not only be an impact NHLer, but can potentially make his presence felt next season when he makes his North American pro debut.
“He’s a 6-foot-4 good skating, puck-handling defenseman that has excellent offensive ability; he has a great shot, excellent vision – he can look past a charging guy who is trying to forecheck or block shots. He can escape pressure because he has such great mobility. As he gets bigger and stronger he’s just going to be able to blow by people as he carries the puck up the ice. Mattias is a heck of a skating defenseman – especially for someone that size.”
As excited as Fenton was for Smith and Ekholm, the play of Lajunen in the World Championships was equally eye-opening.
“Lajunen played very well and was an important part of Finland’s gold medal winning team,” Fenton said. “He keeps getting better and better; he’s growing as a player. His hockey sense and offensive ability is growing. He’s put on size, weight and strength. He’s been able to play in the Elite League in Finland, taking up substantial tough minutes. Our European scouts see him all the time and just rave about his progress and his upside. He showed a lot of that to me in this tournament. Lajunen was added mid-Tournament probably more as an extra forward, but then as the games went on he became more and more relied upon to the point where he contributed offensively to their later games; games that had more importance in the run to the gold medal.”
Lajunen played in the final game of the Qualifying Round and all three of Finland’s elimination round games, scoring two goals and three points in those four games, including the game’s second goal in Finland’s semifinal win over Russia and an assist during Finland’s third period barrage against Sweden in the Gold Medal game.
“He always had a two-way game to him. Around his draft year we talked about him more around his defensive sense because he was so reliable, but he’s always had the offensive ability,” Fenton said. “He’s like a Nick Spaling
type of player; where you’re so happy with the way he competes defensively that you almost forget that he has the ability to produce offensively as well – and that offense is what we saw during the World Championships.”
Like Ekholm, Lajunen, a seventh-round pick in the 2008 draft, is projected to make his North American debut next season. With the Preds depth up front, he’ll likely open the season in Milwaukee, but Fenton is confident he’ll make the adjustment quickly.
“I think with Jani Lajunen
’s experience at the World Championships that he’ll certainly get consideration to play (NHL) games in 2011-12,” Fenton said.
While the reports on the three Preds prospects were all positive, Fenton was able to use the time in Europe to expand his scouting opportunities.
“There were a couple of other guys who have played over here and since gone back to Europe who were interesting. And there were a couple guys who have never been over who piqued my interest to see if they would ever come over here. I’ll be touching base with their agents to see what their plans are.”