We're taking a look at the burgeoning prospects in the Nashville Predators farm system, and how they have developed this year. First up, the Milwaukee Admirals players.
The goal-scorer, came over to North America this season in order to continue to develop his game and adjust to the smaller ice surface. His season has been filled with ups and downs and he has been a streaky producer for the Admirals—he finished fifth on the team in points with 16 goals and 18 assists in 69 games. As he told Admirals Roundtable, he did sustain a concussion early that never really allowed him to get in a groove so that can also be attributed to his streaky play. Despite his middle of the road point totals, Aberg's play has been improving as the season has gone on, says Daniel Lavender.
"Aberg started the season off with a highlight reel goal in the season opener. His 2015 hasn't been as good as his 2014 so far, but I've felt he's been playing really solid lately. His learning process has probably been the roughest of the European players. He was benched a few times in the season for making individualistic plays and trying to beat defenses one-on-one with skill. That's been toned down and he's been responding better. Stats won't show that sadly." He's definitely still learning, though, and was a healthy scratch for the Admirals game Friday April 11 in a very key game that could have guaranteed the Admirals a playoff spot.
Aberg will likely have at least one more year of development in the AHL but hopefully he comes in next season, hits the ground running, and produces while maintaining his defensive game. The Predators could use point production from their third line and hopefully, as long as he stays in Nashville's already offensively-laden prospect pool, he is able to fill that role.
Arvidsson had a strong season for the Admirals, finishing first on the team in points (55) and assists (33) and leading the entire league with a whopping 272 shots. It kind of goes under the radar, but last season in the SHL Viktor Arvidsson recorded 2.72 shots per game (fourth on the team) which really pales in comparison to his AHL-leading 3.77 shots per game this season in Milwaukee. He's always been a shoot-first kind of player but when he got over to North America he really tried to ramp that up to start producing more which really fits well into Laviolette's system.
In an interview with Milwaukee play-by-play voice, Aaron Sims, he said he also wanted to work extremely hard and, according to Milwaukee Admirals' Head Coach Dean Evason, he is doing just that. Evason says he's an animal in the gym and that he's also one of the hardest workers on the ice. As we saw in Nashville, he finishes all of his checks and is not shy about going into the dirty areas. Furthermore, along with his rocket of a slap-shot and incredible amount of shots on goal, he leads Milwaukee in assists which really speaks to the chances he is able to create for his teammates. This guy really wants to play in the NHL and he's doing all he can to get there.
Lavender referred to him as the "biggest spark plug this season for sure" and I think that, with what he has shown this season for the Predators, that he is capable of bringing that role on up to the NHL next season. He might not have played a whole lot in the defensive zone or in key situations in his time in Nashville but, given the opportunity to grow with the team early in the season, he should have a lot easier time making the transition and being a player Head Coach Laviolette can rely on as soon as next season.
Kevin Fiala started his season off by signing an entry level contract with the Predators and playing a few preseason games for the team, in which he heavily impressed. After that, he went overseas to play for HV71 in the SHL, where he spent last season. Fiala's season with HV71 did not go quite as well as he planned, as he didn't produce as many points as he expected (5 goals and 9 assists in 20 games). He also had some on and off the ice issues which led to him being benched for a few games and seeing less ice time in others.
After he was brought over to Milwaukee, he created a lot of offense (11 G, 9 A, 20 P, in 33 GP) and had several highlight-reel goals, but it still took him a little bit of time to get used to the smaller ice surface. "When Fiala made his debut it seemed like the game leapt on him way faster than he ever expected." Lavender said. "He was getting his pocket picked or delivering soft passes because he was under constant pressure. The reason why he is with the Admirals and not the Predators is just like Filip Forsberg last season... It seems to have worked well with Forsberg. And I think it is paying off huge for Fiala. He has looked as advertised the last few weeks."
While he does have a lot of skill and he has adjusted to the smaller ice, he still has some flaws to his game that he needs to work out.
"He's come leaps and bounds from just a couple of months here with us," said teammate Colton Sissons after an Admirals game on The Chatterbox, Volume 78. "He's such a talented hockey player and his puck skills is just through the roof; some of the best in the NHL, if not this league as well. It's fun to watch him play when he has that confidence now. I enjoy playing with him...We'll take some turnovers and what not with his style of play but that's what you sign up for with his style."
As a guy who has spent 17 games in the NHL, Sissons knows what it takes to be at the top of the league and for him to say Fiala is at the top of the NHL in puck skills is an extremely qualified stamp of approval for the offensive-dynamo's game. On the negative side, as Sissons alluded to, he not always recognizing and making the smart around play and that is something he is going to have to fix in order to be fully successful in the NHL.
Another thing Fiala will have to work out is his maturity as a person. As mentioned before, he was sat a few games in HV71 because of off-ice issues. He can also get caught up in the moment at times and take stupid penalties. He is the kind of player that can get under a lot of people's skins and that can be used to his advantage... but he has to know when to draw the line. Case and point:
Even though Fiala has some flaws to work out in his game, the bad is outweighed by the high amount of skill. Poile said in an end of the season press conference that "Fiala looks like the real deal and might be ready as soon as the next season." Lavender echoed that sentient when he said, "I'm going out on a limb and saying that like Forsberg, we won't be seeing him after his brief time in Milwaukee. He's going to benefit a lot from his AHL time this season. And I'd be pretty surprised if he'll need it ever again when the 2014-15 season ends."
Laviolette has shown great faith in his younger players and he is great at giving them favorable zone time so I think that coaching style could really allow for Fiala to make the jump earlier than in years past. It wouldn't be a bad thing, however, for him to see a little more time in the slower-paced and less pressure-filled AHL to sort out those problems, especially because they are of the decision-making and maturity variety.
This season, Felix Girard spent time as a bottom six center and as one of the main penalty killers. He is great in the faceoff dot and is an extremely physical presence who can run people over with the best of them. He is also is one of the Predators' better defensively-oriented players, having won the Guy Carbonneau award for the defensive forward of the year in the QMJHL two seasons in a row.
He's not really a guy that's going to wow you with skill, but he is always going to bring it all on the ice and throw his body around. This presence wasn't fully felt by the Admirals until he was injured on that fateful February 15 day when he sustained an season-ending injury.
One thing he really needs to work on is his offensive game as he has yet to really transition it from the Q to the A, only registering 9 points in 61 games. Producing more offensively is something that he should look to improve on in order to make it at the NHL level. On the upside, he could be an absolutely fantastic replacement for Paul Gaustad in a couple of seasons if he makes it to the NHL.
Before an injury on the apocalyptic February 15, Miikka Salomaki was having a very good season. Despite seeing a drop-off in point totals from last season he was heavily relied on in every role that could be provided for him; he played as a top six forward and was a fixture on the power play and penalty kill. This is likely because he was one of the more consistent players in the Admirals lineup, always being one of the hardest workers on the team. He was also voted the fourth-best two-way NHL prospect by Hockey's Future this past spring.
Lavender believes that he could be ready for an NHL role next season. "Salomaki's season may have ended with injury, but make no mistake about him still being on the NHL radar. The coaches love him and, even for the small sample size Nashville saw of his debut, you can see exactly why. He is relentless. Perhaps this season may teach him he'll need to dial back some of his more physical play but he has everything that can make him succeed on the wing for Nashville in a bottom six capacity."
He could fit in great next season for the Predators on the third or fourth line because he would provide a truly physical presence and some depth scoring, two things greatly needed on the big club's roster. We had a really nice preview of what that could look like (shown below) in Salomaki's debut where he scored his first NHL goal.
Colton Sissons is a player with a complete 200-foot game who has played in all situations. He is someone that has the potential play to up and down the lineup once he makes it to the NHL, kind of like a Mike Fisher. Already having a pretty sound defensive game, how far he goes at the NHL level will really depend on his offensive production. In the AHL, though, Sissons has shown offensive promise, finishing second on the Admirals with 25 goals.
Sissons has come into this season a leader and a consistent player and, despite a rough start, he has really improved and diversified towards the latter half. "...[It] was the team that voted on captains ahead of the season and Sissons was given the "A" at the age of 20-years old," Lavender says.
"I think that says a lot and his on-ice play is smooth and steady. I certainly feel he's a lead by example sort of player. While I think he'd have wanted more out of his offensive numbers this season he's still done quite well after a slow start and has evolved his game to be a bit more physical. I've seen a lot more fight out of him this year in the post-whistle scrums that I did last season."
Sissons should definitely have a good shot at making the Predators team next season. "[He] had his name in the hat ahead of this season for Nashville up until all those veteran signings made it a competition between himself and Calle Jarnkrok. Sissons season didn't start all that hot but he's become one of the most reliable forwards in Milwaukee and is being tasked with just about everything you can throw at a center." He might have to play wing at first to be able to make the Predators squad but as time goes on he should be a great reliable third, or maybe even second, line center for the Predators.
Austin Watson led the Admirals with 26 goals, has been a fantastic player for them this season, especially on the penalty kill, and has been played on both the wing and at center and in all situations. We've been saying this for a while now, but, at 23 it's about time that he makes it up to the NHL and he might have to change teams to do so.
"Austin Watson is in that kind of 'now or never' scenario as far as the Nashville system is concerned, and I feel he has done everything he can at the AHL level to prove he can be a bottom six forward that can instantly make an NHL penalty kill better. He might just be in the wrong organization is all - but that hasn't prevented him from putting up career best numbers with the Admirals this season."
Johan Alm came into the season with a lot of promise: he played a big part on Skellefteå's 2013-2014 team that won the SHL championship, logging an average of 19:21 minutes of ice time which was third on the team among defensemen. Unfortunately, he was not able to get settled into his role in Milwaukee before he was hit with an injury early in the season.
He might still have a little ways to go but since returning from the injury he has shown why he was such a key player on the SHL's best team last season. "Johan Alm's season took a major dent when he went out with an injury that sidelined him for thirty-two games. We're really only just seeing him getting comfortable right now I think. He's a no-nonsense defenseman who makes the simple plays and helps get pucks out of his zone fast. Really liked what I've seen from him recently. Still a bit of a bummer that he lost such a big chunk of the season."
As a big, puck-moving, defensively-oriented left defenseman he could really be a nice compliment to Ryan Ellis. Next season seems to be of now or never for Alm as he's in the last year of his contract with Nashville. If he doesn't get a decent amount of playing time with Nashville I would think he heads back to Sweden after the completion of that season.
The puck-moving defenseman, Taylor Aronson, has really had a breakout year for the Admirals. Last year he spent his entire season in with Cincinnati in the ECHL where he put up a very solid 38 points in 65 games and a +28. This season he has earned a spot on Milwaukee's team, spending a ton of time on the power-play and finishing second on the Admirals in assists with 29.
This successful transition into a high point-producing AHLer could very well be attributed to his hard work in the ECHL and during the offseason. "How much of last season, spending an entire season at one-level, with the same team, same coaches, and one focus the true factor in Aronson's turn-around? It may have gone under my radar last season but this year I think it has proved to be the best thing to have happened for him....Aronson showed up to Admirals camp this season in his best shape and with his mind firmly focused on maintaining an AHL role....He has played like he has belonged from game one."
Right now Aronson should probably just be considered a journeyman defenseman but with what he has shown he should have a decent shot at one day making it to the Show.
With all of the injuries in Nashville and Milwaukee at one time, a lot of younger players were forced into bigger roles for the Admirals. Big man Jonathan Diaby was one such player. While he might not have been ready at the time, the hard-hitting defensive-defenseman has done well for himself. "It really felt at that time that Jonathan Diaby was thrust into the top defensive role for the Admirals. Considering how he started the season that says a lot of how rough that patch was in February and also a bit of how far along Diaby has come."
One thing of note is that while Diaby has improved, like Girard, he still hasn't been able to transition his offense from the QMJHL to the pro level—putting up zero goals and only 2 assists in the 52 games he played. Right now he projects as a third or fourth pairing defenseman because of that lack of offense so he's going to need to improve on that part of his game for him to move up past that. That progress he has shown, though, is definitely a positive and hopefully he continues that on into next season.
Marek Mazanec and Magnus Hellberg
While both goalies have had their fair share of good games this season, Marek Mazanec and Magnus Hellberg haven't really provided much more than what the team let them provide this season. They have had their ups and their downs and those really went along with the season Milwaukee had. Before they make it to the NHL they might need to see some real success in the AHL and, if that's the case, patience is going to be key.
The only problem is, patience is not something that might not be afforded to one of them with Juuse Saros possibly coming over next season. If he does make the jump, that could lead to one of Mazanec or Hellberg being traded unless one of them is able to play in the NHL which, according to Daniel Lavender, is definitely not guaranteed.