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Preds prospects perform well at U.S. evaluation camp

by Kevin Wilson / Nashville Predators
Five of the Predators’ top American-born prospects participated in the week-long 2007 USA Hockey National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., Aug. 3-11. Nashville’s 2007 draft picks Jonathon Blum (first round, 23rd overall), Jeremy Smith (second round, 54th overall), and Ben Ryan (fourth round, 114th overall) as well as 2006 draftees Blake Geoffrion (second round, 56th overall) and Ryan Flynn (sixth round, 176th overall) were Nashville’s representatives at the 45-player event – which features participants under 20 years of age who are auditioning for a spot on the 2008 U.S. National Junior Team. That team will compete at the 2008 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship, Dec. 26, 2007 to Jan. 5, 2008 in Pardubice and Liberec, Czech Republic.

“We were really happy with how all our guys performed,” Predators chief amateur scout Jeff Kealty said. “We had a good sense of what Geoffrion and Flynn could bring because of their experience with USA Hockey, but the other guys did well for themselves too – and I think people recognized that they could be valuable pieces, even though they didn’t come up through the national developmental system.”

Both Geoffrion and Flynn took place in the camp last year, while Geoffrion was on the U.S. team that captured a bronze medal in Sweden at the 2007 World Junior tournament.

The attendees were broken up into two teams, “Team Blue” and “Team White,” with several players, including Flynn and Ryan, competing for both teams. The week’s activities commenced with a pair of intra-squad scrimmages Sunday and Monday before the teams hosted junior national teams from Finland, featuring Predators 2006 fourth-round pick Niko Snellman, and Sweden, which included Nashville’s seventh-round selection from 2006 Viktor Sjodin.

The two U.S. squads finished solid, amassing a combined 7-0-0-1 record. The only flaw came by way of a shootout, when Sweden edged Team White 4-3.

Though he provided little offense for Team Blue, Geoffrion was a physical force for them throughout the week, landing thunderous hits, forechecking hard, and throwing his body into harm’s way to block shots. The Brentwood, Tenn., native even dropped to his knees at one point in Wednesday’s 5-3 win over Sweden, taking a close-range slap shot off his chest. Flynn played a similar, gritty role for both teams throughout the week, using his size, strength and defensive ability to get noticed.

Ryan managed two goals and an assist while playing a responsible, two-way game at the same time. For much of the camp, Flynn and Ryan formed a top penalty-killing pair.

“I know they are looking for a fourth-line center for the team, and I think [Ben] Ryan brings a lot of the qualities to the table that they are looking for in the spot, like solid two-way play and penalty killing,” Kealty said.

Blum, on the other hand, was an offensive standout, manning the power-play point for Team White and tallying three goals and two assists in six games.

“I didn’t think there was another defenseman at the camp that was better than Blum,” Kealty said. “All the things we saw and identified about him going into the draft he has already addressed and improved on – his hockey sense, his vision and his intangibles. You can literally see him growing on the ice before your eyes. He continues to add strength and size.”

Smith was one of five goaltenders at the camp, splitting equal time with the other four playing for both teams. The Brownstown, Mich., native played in a game everyday but Friday, stopping 79 of a possible 89 shots over a five-game span. He played the entire contest for Team Blue in Wednesday’s 5-3 rout of Sweden, stopping 24 of 27 shots.

“Based on the other goalie competition he’s facing, I see him as the frontrunner and he has a good chance of making the team and being the go-to guy in December,” Kealty said. “A lot will still be determined by how he starts the year with Plymouth in the OHL.”

The prospects will now head their separate ways to start the 2007-08 season for their respective teams. The final squad that will make the trip to the Czech Republic will be announced in early December, with team management taking into account past performances and how players did at the evaluation camp, in addition to play to start the 2007-08 year.
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