It’s time for our annual countdown of the best 25 Nashville Predators players under 25 years old.
This is not only a tradition here at OTF, but is also something that you might see at many other SBNation NHL blogs. The premise is simple: rank the 25 best players who have not yet reached their 25th birthday (as of August 1st, 2017).
At #17, Justin Kirkland.
Drafted in the third round of the 2014 draft, Kirkland was immediately subjected to the the always dangerous “NHL comparison”. I can’t remember how many times we heard his game being compared to Mike Fisher’s almost immediately after he was picked.
Although it’s always nice to know what you’re getting, these comparisons are dangerous for a couple reasons. First, it can set unrealistic expectations that a player may never meet. Second, it essentially pigeon-holes a player into a specific role before he even plays one professional game. With Kirkland, I think it’s more the latter. His production in Milwaukee may not warrant high praise yet, but I think he has ample room to establish the game the way he wants and step out of the shadows.
Kirkland spent most of his junior career scoring at a slightly above-average clip. After a couple cups of coffee in the Western Hockey League (WHL) in 2011-12 and 2012-13, Kirkland played his first full season for the Kelowna Rockets in 2013-14 and scored 48 points in 68 games. His next two seasons he improved to 51 points in 50 games and 67 points in 69 games, respectively.
It was the Rockets’ 2014-15 Memorial Cup run, where Kirkland scored 2 goals and an assist in Kelowna’s semifinal win over the Quebec Remparts, where he put himself on the map. The next season, he hit the 30-goal plateau for the first time.
Kirkland’s junior career, however, was often plagued with a playing time issue. In his first full season with the Rockets, he was stuck behind players like Myles Bell, Ryan Olsen, Nick Merkley, and Rourke Chartier on the depth chart. That story was much the same the next season with phenom Leon Draisaitl coming into the fold.
In his final season with Kelowna, mounting injuries boosted Kirkland’s playing time and forced him to play more center than usual. Unfortunately, his transition to the AHL wasn’t as smooth. Much like Anthony Richard, Kirkland struggled to find a spot in the lineup and was eventually sent down to Cincinnati for a brief stint. Towards the end of the year, he started to find his game better as he played more and more center. At 20 years old, Kirkland has time to adjust and find the game he wants to play in Milwaukee.
Above are highlights from Kirkland’s breakout game in the 2015 Memorial Cup. As you can see with his two goals, he provides a great net-front presence and plays well on the half-wall and in the corners. He isn’t going to light up the arena with his skill or his hands, but his game would compliment speedier, more skilled players well. The American Hockey League will allow Kirkland to diversify his game more by learning to drive the play on the rush, shoot better from the slot or the circles, and command an offensive zone set-up better.
As stated above, Kirkland has and needs time to grow. I’m really high on his upside, so it will be interesting to see how he adjusts to more playing time and better line mates in Milwaukee this coming season.
Kirkland is currently signed to his entry-level contract that expires in the summer of 2019. His two-way deal pays him $70 K in the American Hockey League and has a $717.5 K cap hit for the Predators per season. Upon expiry, he will be a restricted free agent.