Nashville Predators training camp preview: Defensive Depth

Today, we continue to examine the battles to watch for spots on the 2010-11 opening night roster at the Nashville Predators' training camp next month.  After the jump, we take our first of three looks at the competition to form this season's defense corps, focusing on four players who find themselves on the bubble, but must clear waivers to be sent to Milwaukee (AHL).

This is the second in our training camp depth chart previews. Part 1 examined the backup goaltending position.

The Battle on the Blue Line: Part I - The Waiver Eligible

The Competitors: Ryan Parent, Alexander Sulzer, Teemu Laakso, Brett Palin
The Reward: Potentially two of the four could start the season in Nashville.

There are currently 13 defensemen competing for 7 roster spots heading into camp next month.  Of those 13, five return as established members of last season's roster (Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Francis Bouillon, Kevin Klein, and Cody Franson), while the remaining eight will likely see their waiver status play a key role, along with performance, in determining where they start this season.

Ryan Parent

A former first-round draft pick of the Predators (2005 - 1st round, 18th overall), Ryan Parent was once a key part of the future of the Predators blue line until being traded to the Philadelphia Flyers on February 15th, 2007 in the deal that brought Peter Forsberg to Nashville.  Known for his abilities as a defensive-defenseman, Parent made his NHL debut with the Flyers on April 5th, 2007 and spent the next two seasons bouncing between the Flyers and their AHL affiliate located right across the parking lot from the building now known as the Wells Fargo Center. 

Unfortunately, since his final season of juniors, Parent has struggled with injuries and the 2009-10 season was no different.  After making the team out of training camp, Parent missed a total of seven games early in the season due to a groin injury, then less than a month after the Flyers replaced head coach John Stevens with Peter Laviolette, Parent underwent surgery in January to remove disc fragments from his back leading to another 24 games on injured reserve as he recovered. Upon returning, Parent struggled to adjust to Laviolette's new systems and saw his role diminish as the season wore on, finishing the year with 1 goal, 2 assists, and a minus-14 rating in 48 regular season games while averaging 14:46 of ice time.  He did see action in the postseason as the Flyers advanced to the finals, but again Parent struggled to fit into the new Flyers system and saw his ice time cut in half, finishing with 1 goal and a minus-2 rating while averaging just 7:28 in 17 appearances.

Entering the summer, Parent's future with the Flyers was tenuous at best due to his status as a restricted free agent needing to be qualified and Philadelphia needing to make a decision on where he fit into their future.  On June 19th, that question was answered as Parent was traded back to Nashville for the rights to Dan Hamhuis and a conditional 7th round pick giving him the opportunity to return to the organization that drafted him to attempt to resurrect his once-promising career.

This season the 23-year-old Parent comes into training camp as the most experienced player among the group battling for the final roster two spots with 102 regular season and 27 playoff games under his belt in four NHL seasons.  However, due to his injury history and struggles with inconsistency last season, Parent is not guaranteed a job in Nashville and must prove himself with a solid training camp performance to win a spot in the opening night lineup.  When healthy, Parent has shown the ability to be a smooth-skating, smart and steady defenseman who excels on the penalty kill and isn't afraid to use his body, but his greatest challenge this year will be to shed the injury-prone label and to continue to add size to his frame (6'3", 198 lbs) in order to better compete with larger NHL forwards at the net and in the corners.  If successful, Parent could make a nice addition to the defense this season, using his shutdown style to potentially balance out a pairing with burgeoning offensive blueliner Cody Franson or team with another Nashville defender to make up the team's shutdown unit.

Alexander Sulzer

Drafted as a member of the Predators vaunted 2003 NHL Draft class (3rd round, 92nd overall), 26 year-old Alexander Sulzer enters training camp as the oldest member of this "bubble" group.  After completing his fifth season developing in Germany's top professional league (DEL), Sulzer made the jump to North America for the 2007-08 season to begin his pro career in Milwaukee where he scored an impressive 7 goals and 25 assists for 32 points in 61 games during his rookie season.  At the end of training camp the following season, Sulzer was again sent to Milwaukee where he registered 8 goals and 26 assists for 34 points in 41 games to earn a recall on January 15th, 2009 making his NHL debut at Montreal.  Sulzer was sent back to Milwaukee after the game, but was recalled again on January 26th, 2009 to fill in for an injured teammate. During the opening minutes of that game Sulzer suffered a separated shoulder falling awkwardly into the boards after a check from ex-Predator Darcy Hordichuk that required surgery to repair, forcing him to miss the remainder of the season.

On the basis of his development during his first two seasons and the potential he had shown, Sulzer was rewarded with a two-year, one-way contract in the summer of 2009 meaning that he would be paid the same salary regardless of whether he was playing at the NHL or AHL level.  Sulzer spent the majority of the summer in Nashville continuing to rehab from his shoulder surgery and due to his contract status it was widely believed that he was essentially a lock to make the team out of training camp, however after an underwhelming performance, Sulzer was put through waivers and assigned to Milwaukee to start the 2009-10 year, beginning a nomadic season.  In total, Sulzer made the trip between Milwaukee and Nashville on fifteen occasions during the regular season racking up 7 goals and 23 assists for 30 points in 36 games with the Admirals, and 2 assists in 20 games with the Predators.  Sulzer was re-assigned to Milwaukee for the final time on March 12th where he played key minutes for the Admirals on their top defensive and power play units during their playoff series, finishing the post-season with 1 goal and 5 assists in 7 games.  In addition to his time with the Nashville organization last season, Sulzer also played for Team Germany in the 2010 Olympic Winter Games where he went scoreless with a minus-6 rating in four games, and joined Predators teammate Marcel Goc and prospect Robert Dietrich in the 2010 IIHF World Championships in their homeland where Sulzer finished the event with 2 assists and a minus-4 rating while averaging 18:06 TOI in 9 games played. 

Sulzer enters training camp this season without any guarantee of a roster spot and must earn one with a solid performance at camp and during the preseason exhibitions in order to avoid being placed on waivers again and sent to Milwaukee.  During his time in the AHL, Sulzer has shown himself to be a capable two-way prospect with good offensive instincts and a big shot from the point.  To make the leap to the NHL on a full-time basis, Sulzer must improve his effectiveness and consistency in the defensive end of the rink and must improve his decision-making skills at the offensive end of the ice.  Should he do so, Sulzer could be a valuable member of the Predators blueline this season, as he can play in different roles and contribute offensively.  He's in the final season of his current contract, so in terms of his North American playing career, this could be a make-or-break year for Sulzer, who would draw significant interest from teams in the DEL next summer if he doesn't establish himself at the NHL level.

Teemu Laakso

Selected with the Predators second pick in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft (3rd round, 78th overall), Laakso came to North America for the 2008-09 season after spending four seasons developing with the HIFK Helsinki program in the Finnish Elite League.  Known as a steady defensive defenseman with modest offensive potential, Laakso quickly moved up the depth chart in Milwaukee during his rookie season before ending his year with a shoulder separation that required surgery to stabilize the joint.  In 42 games with the Admirals, Laakso finished with 2 goals, 7 assists, 50 PIM's, and a plus-7 rating and faced a summer of rehabilitation. 

Laakso came to training camp last season with a clean bill of health and quickly set out to prove himself once again to the organization with his steady and surprisingly physical play catching the attention of many observers early in camp.  As the training camp roster began to be pared down, Laakso emerged as a surprise candidate to crack the lineup and when the puck dropped on Opening Night, Laakso made his NHL debut on October 3rd, 2009 at Dallas.  Laakso played in the Predators' first seven games of the season going scoreless with a minus-2 rating and 2 PIM's while averaging 10:18 TOI per game, before being sent back to Milwaukee as part of a roster shakeup when the team suffered a five-game losing streak in which they were outscored 19-4.  Teemu again became a key contributor to the Admirals, logging big minutes at even-strength and on the penalty kill before being boarded violently from behind into the end boards during a road trip to San Antonio (AHL).  On the play, Laakso again suffered a shoulder injury (opposite shoulder from previous injury) and missed significant time recovering including at least one failed comeback attempt.  Laakso did return for the final month of the season and returned to form logging big minutes down the stretch for the Admirals, ending the regular season with 4 goals, 9 assists, 42 PIM's, and a plus-12 rating in 46 games and adding 1 goal, 2 assists, and a plus-1 rating in 7 playoff contests.  

After signing a one-year contract extension during the summer, this season is likely a make-or-break year for Laakso's North American pro career due to the interest he would draw from teams in the SM-liiga next summer as a free agent and the quality of the defensive prospects moving up behind him on the Predators' depth chart.  Last season, Laakso won a spot out of camp playing a simple, physical defensive brand of hockey.  In order to win a spot at camp again this season and stick with the big club, he must show quicker decision-making abilities to adjust to the speed of the NHL game, and adding a little bit of offense at the other end of the rink certainly wouldn't hurt his chances.  A dark horse candidate again to make the team out of camp, don't count Laakso out just yet...

Brett Palin

Signed to a one year, two-way deal as an unrestricted free agent on July 9th, 2010, Palin joins Predators defenseman Francis Bouillon as the only other defensemen currently under contract not originally drafted by Nashville.  While he comes into the organization as a fresh face this summer, Palin is familiar with at least one key Predator, having played four seasons of junior hockey with the Kelowna Rockets alongside Shea Weber. Together they went to the Memorial Cup championship tournament in three consecutive seasons, winning the title in 2004.

Since turning pro at the start of the 2005-06 season with the Calgary Flames organization, Palin has built a reputation for himself as a steady, stay-at-home defensive defenseman tallying 6 goals, 37 assists, 244 PIM's, and a plus-3 rating in 295 career AHL games over five seasons.  Last season Brett was looking to build on a career year after setting new career highs in goals (5) and points (15) and being named to the AHL All-Star Game in 2008-09, with things starting on a bright note when Palin was named team captain at the end of training camp.  Unfortunately for him, though, that would be the highlight of his season as he suffered a concussion in the first period of a road game at Peoria on November 13th and wasn't cleared to play again until April 2nd, with just five games remaining in the regular season.  Palin also got into two playoff games for the Heat before ending his season with an undisclosed upper body injury after posting 3 assists, 19 PIM's, and an even rating in 23 games total. 

Palin is the least likely of the group to make the opening night roster, but crazier things have happened.  The Predators brought Palin into the organization this summer to replace the leadership and veteran presence lost in Milwaukee when Admirals captain Nolan Yonkman signed with Phoenix in July.  However, while his main role will be mentoring the young prospects playing with the Ads this season, just like Yonkman was recalled last season prior to the Olympic break, Palin could be a potential recall candidate if he reverts back to form and builds on his 2008-09 campaign. 

Conclusion

While there are certainly several candidates in the next group of defensemen to be examined (Blum, Josi, Ellis, Roussel), should performance be equal, I believe Parent and Sulzer have the best chance of making the team out of camp due to their NHL experience and waiver status.  Parent is expected to compete for a top-6 spot and as a former first round pick who David Poile traded for this summer, he will get the greatest opportunity to prove himself.  Sulzer will have to earn his way in, but due to his experience as the No. 7 defenseman last season, ability to fill multiple roles and diverse two-way skill set, he likely has the edge over Laakso, who is more of a straight-up defensive defenseman.  Laakso could certainly challenge again, but is likely a low risk to send through waivers due to his injury history.  If sent down, Laakso would provide a great resource to be called upon in the event of injury or poor performance later in the season.   Palin is the least likely to make the team out of camp as a player new to the organization and having no NHL experience and will spend his time in camp looking to learn the Predators' systems and become acquainted with his teammates and the coaching staff, in order to possibly set himself up for a future recall. 

Of Note

Something to really keep an eye on as training camp winds down is the possibility that six of the seven defensemen on the opening night roster could be from the Predators 2003 (Weber, Suter, Klein, Sulzer) and 2005 (Parent, Laakso, Franson) NHL draft classes.  With the strength and quality of our defensive prospects drafted since then (Blum, Josi, Ellis, Roussel, Foss, Ekholm, Aronson, etc), just as I said about the Predators goaltending prospects, David Poile has the team loaded with top defensive prospects and the competition that ensues can only be considered a good thing for Nashville moving forward.

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