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Looking Ahead: Forwards

by Jay Levin / Nashville Predators
As the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs reach the end, it’s time to take a peek ahead to 2008-09 season. After an off-season of change last summer, this summer looks to be significantly more quiet for the Predators as 17 players are already signed to NHL contracts with an additional six players eligible for restricted free agency status, several young prospects pushing for full-time NHL status and just four players looking at unrestricted free agency.

Over the next few days will take a position-by-position look at the Predators depth chart, starting first with the forward position.

Signed (12) : Jason Arnott, Radek Bonk, J.P. Dumont, Martin Erat, Vernon Fiddler, David Legwand, Scott Nichol, Jed Ortmeyer (inj), Alexander Radulov, Jerred Smithson, Steve Sullivan (inj), Jordin Tootoo
RFA (2) : Brandon Bochenski, Rich Peverley
UFA (3) : Martin Gelinas (inj), Jan Hlavac, Darcy Hordichuk

With 12 forwards already under contract, the bulk of the unit appears set for next season. If Peverley is retained, the total increases to 13 forwards. Due to a numbers crunch, the decisions on Bochenski and the three unrestricted free agents become more complicated. Gelinas provided leadership in the locker room during the season and proved he’s still a quality checking line option. Hlavac was a versatile deadline addition and seemed to be productive in a variety of roles during his late-season run with the team. Hordichuk provided a physical element, along with improved discipline (he had no minor penalties the entire season) and Bochenski could be a useful player for organizational depth.

Prospects on the horizon:
Peverley appears to have earned the inside track at a full-time promotion to the NHL for next season. He slid into the Preds line-up at the end of the season and looked very comfortable taking regular shifts during the playoff run. The fourth-year pro seemed to have settled in as a creative third/fourth line option at the NHL level. However, with the roster numbers as competitive as they are, if he's resigned this summer, Peverley will need to have a strong training camp to hold off challengers for final roster slots.

Patric Hornqvist and Antti Pihlstrom are appealing options as well. Both had very successful showings at this year’s World Championships – and just the fact that they were selected by their respective national teams to participate in the tournament gives a strong indication as to how others outside of the organization view their progress. Hornqvist, 21, was the Rookie of the Year in the Swedish Elite League in 2006-07 and is expected to make his North American debut during the ’08-09 campaign. A scoring line forward, he may need time in the AHL to adjust to the smaller North American ice surface, however his performances at the World Championships (tied for second in the tournament with six goals) may be a precursor to good things ahead. Pihlstrom, 23, made his North American debut this season in the AHL and led Milwaukee with 27 goals and then followed that up with a team-high five goals for Finland at the World Championships. His stature and style of play have drawn some comparisons to current Preds Scott Nichol and Jordin Tootoo.

Among North American forwards, Cal O’Reilly led Milwaukee – and placed fifth in the entire AHL – in points this season. A puck distributing center, the 21-year old made tangible strides over his first professional season in ’06-07, but likely still needs some work before drawing regular NHL opportunities, namely with his defensive recognition and his skating strength (particularly as it relates to his ability to maintain puck possession through contact). Matt Ellison finished second on Milwaukee in points to O’Reilly and in goals to Pihlstrom, while taking a more pronounced leadership role with the team. A veteran of 43 NHL games, the 24-year old Ellison nearly doubled his previous AHL career high in goals this past season. Josh Langfeld, a pending free agent, provided valuable organizational depth as an injury emergency option for the Preds.

Further down the line, the Santorelli brothers will both likely need at least one more full season in the AHL. Mike made his pro debut this season with the Milwaukee Admirals, while Mark, a 2007 draftee, led the Western Hockey League in points before appearing in two playoff games with Milwaukee after his WHL season wrapped up. A fellow ’07 draftee, Nick Spaling, looks like a quality scoring line forward, too. He ranked among the Ontario Hockey League’s top goal scorers in both the regular season and playoffs, but probably needs a few more seasons of development before he’s able to challenge for NHL ice time.
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