While the pieces are already in place for the Nashville Predators to compete for a playoff spot in 2014-15, there is undoubtedly no lack of optimism for the organization’s future on the ice.
ESPN Insider Corey Pronman has released his Top 100 Prospects ranking for the upcoming season, placing two Preds, left wing Kevin Fiala and right wing Filip Forsberg, within the top 11, with center Calle Jarnkrok and right wing Miikka Salomaki also making the list. Left winger Brendan Leipsic received an honorable mention in the rankings. In addition, goaltender Juuse Saros ranked third among the Top 10 goalie prospects. Pronman also ranked the team’s prospect pool fourth in the NHL.
Nashville is the only team to feature two players ranked in the top 11 and all of the Predators named to the list of skaters fall into the forward position.
“We just try to keep doing what we do,” Predators Chief Amateur Scout Jeff Kealty said. “It’s our job to try and develop the prospect pool, we feel like we’ve done a good job of that of late. We’ll always continue to do that and we’ll always continue to look forward and try to build up. Anytime you get any recognition like that it’s always a positive.”
The Predators first-round pick (No. 11 overall) in 2014, Fiala is ranked seventh on Pronman’s list. While skating for HV71 of the Swedish Hockey League in 2013-14, the Swiss-born winger tallied three goals and eight assists in 17 contests.
“We think he’s a high-end offensive player,” Kealty said. “He can score and the other aspect that we like is his competitive nature. He wants to have the puck and that’s going to make a difference all the time during the game.”
It’s no secret by now that Kealty and his staff were keen on Fiala’s talent. The 18-year-old winger got a chance to sport the Nashville logo during Predators Development Camp in July, and he didn’t disappoint.
“I thought you could certainly see some of the skill level that he has,” Kealty said. “You still got a pretty good sample size as to the talent he has and we’re looking forward to seeing what he can do come training camp at September.”
Forsberg is the No. 11-ranked prospect on the list. Acquired from Washington in April of 2013 via trade, the 6-foot-2 winger potted his first career NHL goal on Oct. 9 of last season in Nashville, adding four assists in 13 games with the Preds. When he wasn’t skating in the Music City, Forsberg found success on the farm, putting up 34 points in 47 games with Milwaukee.
Still just 20, Forsberg is expected to get plenty of chances in camp to show how he’s improved over the summer months.
“Sometimes you forget how young he is,” Kealty said. “If you think about it, he could’ve been playing junior hockey last year. When you go back and see what he did at the (World Junior Championship) when he was playing amongst his peers, he was a dominant player.
“We’re very confident he’s going to be a top-notch offensive player. He’s got a great shot, he’s got great offensive skills, he’s a big body and I think that he transitioned well last year. The experience that he had there in Milwaukee and in Nashville, I think will serve him well for his second season coming up here.”
Ranked No. 58 on the list, Jarnkrok also saw time with the Predators last season, jumping into the lineup after a quick stint with Milwaukee. Acquired at the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline from Detroit, the 22-year-old Swede put up nine points in 12 games, including his first two career goals.
Even dating back to Jarnkrok’s draft year in 2010, Kealty and his staff were very much interested in the forward’s ability.
“We had an opportunity to trade for him at the (trade deadline) last year and he was a guy that we were really happy to get,” Kealty said. “He’s a very slick, shifty, quick, offensive centerman, and he actually played with Forsberg a lot when they were in Milwaukee. They complimented each other so well because you’ve got the skilled centerman who can distribute the puck and then Forsberg is a good shooter. He showed very well when he played at the end in Nashville last year and we expect him to come in and hopefully pick up where he left off and continue to get better.”
A second-round selection in 2011, (No. 52 overall) Salomaki slots 90th in the rankings. Yet to skate in an NHL contest, the native of Raahe, Finland spent the entire 2013-14 campaign in Milwaukee, potting 20 goals and 30 assists for the Admirals, while adding 83 penalty minutes in 75 games.
Kealty likes the versatility from the Finn and believes that Salomaki may actually be better fit for the more physical North American style of game.
“He’s a guy that can do a lot,” Kealty said. “He can get into physical areas of the ice and more confrontations for pucks and those sorts of things. He’s really strong and sturdy and very competitive. He’s hard on the puck and I think sometimes his skills can be underrated. He had 50 points last year in his first year over in North America as a 20-year-old in the (American Hockey League), which is pretty impressive.”
Although he just missed cracking the Top 100, Leipsic isn’t a player to be overlooked. Providing an impressive mix of offense and grit, the 5-foot-10, 180-pound forward accumulated 39 goals and 52 assists to go along with 111 penalty minutes through 60 contests in 2013-14 with Portland of the Western Hockey League.
Leipsic’s style of game is one that the scouting staff believes will follow him up through the pro ranks and they’re more than pleased with that likelihood.
“In terms of offense, he’s got really good skills, is very creative and very shifty, which you need to be at his size,” Kealty said. “He’s an ultra-competitive guy. He gets those penalty minutes because he’s involved, he’s competitive, he’s got some edge to him and some agitation to him. Those are all the elements that we really like about him.”
Spending his career in Europe thus far, Saros put up stellar numbers last season with HPK in the SM-Liiga. Nashville’s fourth-round pick in 2013, (No. 99 overall) the 19-year-old recorded a 1.76 goals-against average to go along with a .923 save percentage in 47 games.
Standing only 5-foot-10, Saros has found ways to make sure he’s square to the shooter, making himself look big in the net. The goaltender’s numbers reflect his ability, physically and mentally, no matter the setting.
“It’s hard to match really how mentally strong and sharp he is,” Kealty said. “I just saw him up in Lake Placid for the Under-20 Camp… the game that I saw against the U.S., he was just outstanding. It was one of those games where you didn’t think they were going to be able to get one past him the whole game. He’s got that quality about him. He’s ultra-quick, ultra-competitive and yes he is of smaller stature, but I think he’s got the quality that’ll allow him succeed at any level.”
Not all of the top prospects are expected to be skating at Bridgestone Arena on a regular basis in the coming weeks and months, nor should they be, but Kealty and his staff are pleased what they hope will be the next generation of Smashville.
“We feel like we have a lot of guys who are knocking on the door,” Kealty said. “You need competiveness, you need depth and we’re confident that a lot of them are going to get there in their time. That’s what’s going to be great about training camp, to see how hard these guys can push.”