What does the loss of Jimmy Vesey mean for the Predators?
On Monday, March 28, the Nashville Predators lost out on one of the most highly touted forward prospects they have ever drafted when 2012 3rd round pick Jimmy Vesey elected to hit free agency. A former Harvard Crimson forward, Vesey is a two-time top three Hobey Baker candidate (the hockey equivalent of the Heisman Trophy in football) and is widely considered the most potent scorer in all of college hockey. What damage is he expected to do at the NHL level? Look no further than comments from Craig Button in Adam Vingan's recent article for the Tennessean and a Tweet from Corey Pronman:
"Jimmy Vesey is the player that can make that transition and make it as seamlessly as possible. There are going to be some growing pains for sure, just like there would be for any player in that situation. But Jimmy Vesey is the real deal."- Craig Button
Weird situation and he said issues aside Vesey becomes best NCAA free agent in a number of years (better than Hayes/DeKeyser/Reilly).— Corey Pronman (@coreypronman) March 29, 2016
Button's and Pronman's opinion are pretty much standard among NHL brass and many expect Vesey to come into the NHL next season and score 20 goals. Long term, he is expected to be anywhere from a 20-30 goal scorer on a consistent basis. Along with his goal-scoring ability, Vesey possesses a great 200-foot game, is a good skater, is great along the boards, and does not cheat the details of the game. Now, that is all potential but the likelihood of him panning out is better than most.
The Predators struck gold with Vesey and it could be a while before they develop another top six wing like him if none of their current offensive wingers (Kevin Fiala, Viktor Arvidsson, or Anthony Richard) pan out; which is quite possible. To illustrate that, here are the top six forwards drafted from 2003-2009:
|2009||2008||2007||2006||2005||2004||2003||Total Top Six Players|
|1st (15-30)||Chris Kreider||Jordan Eberle, Tyler Ennis||Max Pacioretty, David Perron||Claude Giroux, Nic Foligno||T.J. Oshie||Alexander Radulov, Travis Zajac||Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Brent Burns, Ryan Kesler, Mike Richards, Corey Perry||16|
|2nd||Ryan O'Reilly, Tomas Tatar||Derek Stepan||Wayne Simmonds||Milan Lucic, Artem Anisimov||James Neal, Paul Stastny||Brandon Dubinsky, David Krejci||Loui Eriksson, Patrice Bergeron, David Backes||13|
|3rd||Reilly Smith, Adam Henrique||Brad Marchand||Johan Franzen||Clarke MacArthur||6
|4th||Craig Smith||Gustav Nyquist||Ryan Callahan||3|
|5th||Mike Hoffman||Jamie Benn||Kris Versteeg, Mikhail Grabovski||2|
|6th||Cam Atkinson||Joe Pavelski
|7th||Patric Hornqvist||Troy Brouwer||Dustin Byfuglien*||1|
|Total Number of Forwards Drafted
A top six player was defined very loosely as someone who had multiple 20 goal seasons and/or multiple 50 point seasons to take out discrepancies. Only players drafted 15-30 overall were included from the first round to show how likely it is for a playoff team like Nashville to draft a top six player. Even though the 2003 and 2004 drafts included 8th and 9th rounds that could throw off that data, the anomalous 2003 draft should make up for that. Yes, Brent Burns and Dustin Byfuglien were included...
So, how does this loss hurt the Predators?
As far as the remaining portion of the season and the playoffs are concerned, I don't think things will be too different from the version in the alternate universe where Vesey signs in Nashville. Vesey would have to adjust to the NHL speed, learn a new system and develop chemistry with his new linemates. Quite frankly, we don't know how that would play out but I think the Predators will be just as well off going with a player who has been with the team all season.
However, this season, for example, if the Predators were to add a 20 goal scorer and take out one of their single digit goal scoring forwards they would jump from a middle of the pack team to a top three team in goals-for per game. While it might not be that simple (adjusted time on ice, etc.,) it's pretty black and white what kind of an impact Vesey could have on the team production-wise in the grand scheme of things. It goes without saying that the Predators would have loved to have one more piece at the forward position like Vesey (once again, if he pans out) to increase scoring and make their team that much more of a threat in the playoffs.
Not only that, but Vesey was tailor-made for the system that Laviolette has put in place and the team Poile has developed. He skates, win battles, and puts the puck on net. There you go Lavy. He gets to the scoring areas, is a consistent scoring threat, and is a left-handed shot. There you go Joey.
The free agent crop at wing is solid this summer and that could provide a nice quick-replacement for the loss of Vesey but it has been proven time and time again how important it is for a team to build from within. Furthermore, the Predators will be working with a limited budget between Poile having to resign Forsberg and Johansen to (likely) pricey contracts and him having to continue to pay off Weber's mammoth contract. With that limited budget, it would have been big for them to bring a player from within who will be relatively cheep over his ELC and bridge-contract years. Now, with Vesey not on this team the Predators brass will probably not have that luxury.
You also have to wonder how long James Neal will remain the high-end scoring threat he is right now because you never know. Losing a player of that talent would tremendously hurt the Predators and Vesey could have helped ease that blow.
So, will the loss of Vesey kill this team? No. This team is going to be solid no matter what and the Predators staff has built a team with a young core that will allow it to remain successful for years to come. But, to say that they won't feel the sting if they lost a player who becomes a top six talent would have added 20+ goals, fit perfectly with the system and his potential linemates, and provided a cheaper option to an organization with a limited budget is simply unrealistic.
Saros Named AHL Goalie of the Month for March
There hasn't been a better rookie netminder in the AHL this season than the Predators' top goalie prospect, Juuse Saros, who leads all players falling under that category in goals against average (2.18,) save percentage (0.922,) wins (26,) shootout wins (4,) and shootout save percentage (1.000.) Yes, he has not let a goal in on a single one of his 13 shootout attempts against. Named the AHL Goaltender of the Month, Saros was at his season best with a 7-1-0 record, 2 shutouts, a 1.61 goals against average, and a 0.936 save percentage.
That award really is just a validation of how well Little Bear has played all season; a season that initially had a lot of question marks surrounding it. Can Saros make a relatively quick transition to the North American game? Can he overcome his small stature (at least in the AHL?) Can he successfully compete with Marek Mazanec and get meaningful time in net in Milwaukee? The answer to all of those has been a resounding yes and one reason for that has been his elite-level consistency in execution, according to Nashville Predators Goalie Coach Ben Vanderklok in an interview with Milwaukee Admirals Play-By-Play Broadcaster Aaron Sims.
"Juuse's been really good," said Vanderklok. "For a first year guy he's really done a strong job all the way around. He's played some good games and he's really been consistent. The thing I really like about Juuse is every time you watch him play he gives the same performance. He's very technically sound and very precise in his execution, and before plays happen I really feel that [Dave Rook] and myself know exactly how he's going to execute because he is that precise and he's very polished in his execution. So, he's really done a good job this year getting his feet wet in North America. He hasn't played over here other than in some international stuff and he's had a really strong first campaign here."
One very important thing for goalies to be able to do is to read plays and move accordingly. This is especially true for a smaller goalie like Saros in North America because plays can happen so fast and the puck can move so quickly and he has to virtually always be in the right spot in order to be able to make the save. According to Vanderklok, this is an area in which Saros also thrives and is the biggest component for his success in North America.
"He's very cerebral and we get to see that first hand behind closed doors doing video with him. You look at stuff and you go over stuff and there's a lot of dialogue between a coach and a player. He's a very smart player. He thinks the game, he sees the game, and he processes the game at a very elite level and he knows he has to. It's a part of the game that allows him to have the success he has and the part of the game that he takes a lot of pride in and it goes with a lot of work."
This season Saros got his "feet wet" and he now knows what it takes to be successful in North America. Next season it will be all about him using that knowledge to be even more consistent and effective in the AHL. With 2015-2016 as a spring board, the young Finnish netminder has put himself in a position to be able to do so.
Saros and Mazanec Providing Consistency for the Admirals
As stated, Saros has been really good for the Admirals and he gives them a chance to win on most outings. Part of the reason for that is the healthy competition that he and fellow Admirals goaltender Marek Mazanec go through on a daily basis. They are constantly trying to out-perform one another in practices and in games and that is bringing the best out of both goaltenders.
With an 18-14-2 record, a 2.34 goals against average, 4 shutouts and a 0.916 save percentage, the Czech goalie is playing some of the best hockey in his three-year AHL career. For Mazanec, that success stems from his ability to read the play and handle the puck.
"His reads are really good and he's processing the game at a really high level right now so we're really happy with where he's at and he's got to continue to stay the coarse and gain some momentum down the stretch," said Vanderklok. "With Maz one of his best attributes is puckhandling...we feel that his decisions are smart and, like I said, sometimes less is more and simple plays are the better plays."
For Maz, this season was all about putting pressure on management. With backup goaltender Carter Hutton yet to be signed for 2016-2017, the Predators brass will have to decide between a young 25 year old goalie prospect who could be ready to take on an NHL backup role and a 30 year old goalie coming off a great season in the NHL who has shown what he can do at that level. An outside factor at play: it would be important to start throwing more AHL ice time at Saros, who looks like the best candidate the Predators have for their future number one goalie.
At the very least Mazanec has done enough to at least force Poile to think about it and it's hard to deny how much he and Saros have helped out the Admirals team this season. They clinched a playoff spot on Sunday on the shoulders of a 25 save and 1 goal against performance by Juuse Saros and currently sit second in the conference with a 0.659 point percentage (the way the AHL ranks teams) and a 43-21-3 record. They look like they're in a prime position to do some real damage in the playoffs and that stems from the play of their two goaltenders.
"You never want to have a situation where someone's not playing well so the fact that both guys are going here if they can keep that going down the stretch the team will benefit from it."
Sissons Solidifies Role as Fourth Line Center for 2016-2017
If it wasn't obvious before, it is now. The 22 year old Milwaukee Admirals captain Colton Sissons will be the Predators fourth line center in 2016-2017 and that is shown in no better way than him temporarily pushing veteran center Paul Gaustad to the wing in late March. Sissons brings a lot to the table and it likely was just too hard for management to deny him a role that he, quite frankly, has proven he deserves over Goose (at least, at the time.)
Like Gaustad, Sissons is a great leader, is strong in the faceoff dot (his faceoff percentage is 56.9%,) is smart defensively, and does the little things a team needs to win. Gaustad, however, is outmatched by Sissons skating ability and ability to drive play up the ice. While Sissons is not and will not ever be an offensive juggernaut, he has a net positive effect in the possession game (52.6 CF%) despite taking most of his draws in the defensive zone. Gaustad, on the other hand, is notoriously bad possession-wise.
Sissons has been pushed to right wing but it could be very advantageous to have him in the lineup over guys like Nystrom and Watson. For example, Sissons is great in the dot and he's opposite-handed to Gaustad. If Goose gets thrown out of the dot or if he's in a situation where he's handicapped by his handiness Sissons can jump in and take the faceoff.
Colton Sissons is a player the Predators would like to have around for a long time. He's a future assistant captain, he provides a defensively-reliable presence on the ice, he's great in the faceoff dot, and he will be a fixture on the penalty kill. Realistically, his production will keep him out of the top six but he might be able to jump into a third line role in his prime. I think we all look forward to seeing him in gold full time next season.
Story Lines to Watch
As seasons wind down, watch for players announcing they will be joining the Milwaukee Admirals or Cincinnati Cyclones this spring or fall. Jack Dougherty and Anthony Richard have finished their seasons for their respective clubs in Canadien Major Junior and have the option to join the Predators system this spring as they will be 20 by December of this year. That also holds true for fellow Major Junior player Alexander Carrier if the Gatineau Olympiques get eliminated in the playoffs before the Admirals or Cyclones do. Modo of the SHL was just relegated to the Swedish B league which makes Emil Pettersson a free agent. He could either switch to another SHL team or make the jump to North America after putting up a great season with the second highest point total (26 points in 52 games) on a struggling team.
While I think we are all ready to get past the Jimmy Vesey situation, there is no denying that his loss impacted the team potentially in a big way. This loss, though, has opened up a void for the more offensively gifted Predator wingers like Kevin Fiala, Viktor Arvidsson, and Anthony Richard. Fiala represents the greatest chance the Predators have at a top six forward but he also just got suspended for breaking a team rule...again...and isn't developing quite at the rate the scouts hoped. Arvidsson is very skilled but he can get pushed around a lot because of his size and unless he can overcome that he will likely remain a third line scoring forward. Richard had a great season in the QMJHL and the next step for him will be to translate his great scoring ability there to the AHL against men.
Marek Mazanec and Juuse Saros have been rotated throughout the season based on how well they play. Look to see if one beats out the other for the job during the playoffs or if Dean Evason sticks with that strategy. Also, the Admirals look like a team that could take the Calder Cup this season. Keep an eye on them as they move through the playoffs.