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Future Offense Well Represented at Preds Rookie Development Camp

by Jay Levin / Nashville Predators
The Preds organizational depth on defense has been well documented through the organization’s history – five of the team’s top-six defensemen during the playoffs came through the system; both of the team’s goaltenders are products of the team’s draft and development process. Further, key future NHL stars abound in the system with the likes of Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, Teemu Laakso, while goaltenders Magnus Hellberg, Chet Pickard, Jeremy Smith appear to have promising futures, too.

But quietly, the organization has an impressive group of scorers working their way through the ranks. Four of Nashville’s prospects ranked among the Ontario Hockey League’s top-25 goal scores, while two other forward prospects were impact scorers at this year’s World Championships, and another newly signed prospect was a European star.

Craig Smith, one of Team USA’s top-three stars --- as determined by the team’s coaching staff --- appears to be a Hobey Baker Award frontrunner for University of Wisconsin this season and may well be able to follow a similar fast-track to the NHL as fellow Badger product Blake Geoffrion.

Jani Lajunen, a key contributor during Team Finland’s Gold Medal run at the Worlds, will be making his North American debut this season. The big center has shown well this week during Preds Rookie Development Camp and has both the size and style of play that should translate well as a strong defensively responsible forward who can provide timely secondary scoring --- similar to the role Joel Ward played from a wing position the past few years.

Jusso Puustinen, a Finnish standout signed to a two-way contract by the Preds earlier this spring, placed fourth in the Finnish Elite League with 26 goals last year. The 23-year old has significant offensive skill and is quickly developing a knack for netting key goals, much the same way Patric Hornqvist developed in Sweden before making the transition to North America. Of course it took Hornqvist a split season between the Preds and Ads before he blossomed into a scoring line winger.

But the OHL quartet have shown an even more special ability to put the puck in the back of the net --- and all are big pro power-forwards in the making (Michael Latta is the smallest of the bunch at 6-foot, 210-plus pounds). Latta and teammate Taylor Beck were dynamic for Guelph. Beck – who opened eyes with a very strong showing during Preds Training Camp last fall – followed that strong play through the OHL season ranking eighth with 42 goals and seventh with 95 points. Latta, meanwhile, placed tied for 23rd with 34 goals and an impressive ninth with 89 points, all the while playing the role of team enforcer with 158 penalty minutes (fourth most in the OHL) – the only skater in the league to record over 125 penalty minutes and net more than 30 goals or 60 points. Josh Shalla, a fourth round pick by the Preds in spring’s draft, was fifth in the league with 47 goals – and has scored 79 goals over the past two seasons. Shalla, who will turn 20 during Training Camp, already possesses NHL size at 6-foot-2 and over 200 pounds, making him a candidate to fast-track his development to through the pro ranks. And 2010 first rounder Austin Watson continued his on-ice growth by shaking off a slow start to finish the year with 34 goals and 68 points. Watson, by his own admission, struggled with the change in roles --- he was a two-way forward and secondary scoring option for a loaded Windsor squad in 2009-10 before being asked to be a lead scorer for Peterborough in ’10-11, but closed the campaign with 15 goals and 25 points over his final 20 games.

Beck, Latta, and Shalla are all expected to play a major role in Milwaukee this season as they open their rookie pro seasons. Beck and Latta --- who have looked dynamic with Gabriel Bourque during Development Camp --- could each elbow their way onto the Preds roster at some point this season. Bourque, too, is a player to keep a close eye on during Training Camp. His two-way agitating style of play opened eyes during his Junior career in the QMJHL, but last year he showed significant offensive abilities, especially during the second half of the season with Milwaukee and through the Ads AHL playoff run, closing the year with 18 goals and 36 points in the regular season before adding seven goals and 13 points in 13 playoff games.

And that says nothing of Blake Geoffrion and Matt Halischuk, both of whom played the majority of the season in the AHL, but were regulars in the Preds line up during the playoffs. Nor does it take into account Hornqvist (24), Sergei Kostitsyn (24) and Colin Wilson (21), already established NHL scorers, or PK specialist Nick Spaling (22), who provided key secondary offense during both of Nashville’s playoff series this year.

With all those quality young scorers in the system, the future of the Preds offense looks very promising --- young All-Star caliber defensemen and goaltenders plus a deep and talented corps of scorers all in the system bodes very well for the continued growth of the Preds as perennial Conference front runners.

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