With the release of the schedule and roster for next month's Nashville Predators rookie camp, fans are already looking ahead to getting out of the heat and into a hockey rink to watch the Preds of tomorrow hit the ice. It's a time full of promise and speculation about the upside each of these young guns might fulfill over the next few years.
But for five players in particular, this camp will represent serious business, and they'd best show up ready to compete from Day One...
With Francis Bouillon's health still a concern, there are potentially 2 NHL jobs available on the Nashville blueline (well, besides a possible one in the press box), with four strong candidates available. While Ellis may have the highest upside as the team's 2009 1st-round draft pick, Roman Josi has a full, successful year of North American professional hockey under his belt, Teemu Laakso has a long history within the organization and seems capable as a 3rd-pair or 7th defenseman option, and Mattias Ekholm already has an NHL-size physique, coming in after a strong rookie season in the Swedish Elite League. Ellis will want to establish his dominance on the blueline early on, if he wants to build that confidence with the Predators coaching staff that he's ready to handle the bumping and grinding at the NHL level.
Engren came over late in the year from Finland and played for the Admirals in part due to injury issues higher up the depth chart. Atte did a fine job, and has the opportunity to back up Jeremy Smith (the presumed starter) in Milwaukee this fall. Can he earn that spot ahead of the next player on this list?
The 2008 1st-round pick had a disappointing 2010-2011 season, going 9 months between AHL victories, and was sent down to the ECHL's Cincinnati Cyclones to get things in order. By all accounts, he took this as a strong signal that he needed to reassess his approach to the sport, but the proof will be in his performance this fall. One has to think that the use of a 2nd-round pick to select Swedish goalie Magnus Hellberg shows that the Preds felt a strong need to address their goaltending pipeline. Rather than dispatching him to Cincinnati again, one has to wonder if the Preds might package Pickard in a trade if they feel Engren is further along the developmental path.
Having left college hockey after just two years with the University of Wisconsin, Smith is riding a wave of recognition after starring for the US at this spring's World Championships in Slovenia. Far more than a tournament wunderkind, however, Smith put together one of the top seasons among his age-group peers (he'll be 22 by the time camp opens), when viewed in terms of NHL Equivalency, a tool which translates offensive production in college, junior hockey, or European play into an NHL equivalent. The Preds' front office hasn't been shy about touting Smith's potential to earn a job with the big club sooner rather than later.
While not expected to play professionally this season, Watson has a major opportunity in front of him with Team USA's entry at the World Junior Championships, taking place this December in Buffalo. It was expected that a trade to Peterborough late in the 2009-2010 season would give him the chance to play a featured role and grow as a player, but the Petes struggled to a 9th-place finish (out of 10 teams) in the OHL's Eastern Conference as Watson racked up 34 goals and 34 assists in 68 games (43rd in league scoring). Having already survived the cut down to 29 at Team USA's Evaluation Camp this summer, the question now turns to how prominent a job he can earn - and a strong performance in rookie games against Florida and Tampa could help Watson build momentum there.