The Nashville Predators’ prospect pipeline is comprised of some big names - Eeli Tolvanen and Dante Fabbro to name a couple - but there is always intrigue about the lesser-known prospects found in the later rounds of the draft.
Two players that haven’t seen their fair share of coverage are Hardy Haman Aktell, a defenseman for Skelleftea AIK J20, and Adam Smith, a defenseman for Bowling Green State University.
Both defensemen were taken by the Predators in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft; Aktell was picked in the 4th round and Smith was picked in the 7th round. Neither player has signed an entry-level contract with Nashville, but the organization controls their rights for a few years - Smith until August of 2019 and Aktell until June of 2020.
In the meantime, what is the organization seeing out of these two? Let’s take a look.
Hardy Haman Aktell
Aktell is a really curious case. If you’re a frequent visitor to Preds’ Twitter, you’ll know that he is often the subject of many “Where in the world is Hardy Haman Aktell?” jokes and for good reason. Since the Preds drafted Aktell in 2016, he has played a total of 7 games for Skelleftea. In fact, he hasn't played more than 28 games in a competitive season in the past five years - his draft year 2015-16 saw him play 28 games for Skelleftea at three different levels. That season, Aktell scored 30 points in those 28 games to earn a selection at the NHL Entry Draft.
The 2016-17 season began as normal for Aktell. He was a top defenseman for Skelleftea AIK’s J20 team after playing a small 2-game stint with them the season before. After three games, however, Aktell suffered an injury. It’s not exactly clear what the initial diagnosis was, but there was a setback, if not multiple, and surgery wasn’t decided upon until halfway through the season. In March of 2017, Aktell gave a 4-6 month timetable to begin training again. Roger Lindstrom, of Norran.se, quoted Aktell on the issue (via Google Translate):
Amazingly, I was told what was the fault. I have operated my hips and stay away for four to six months.
Aktell said back then that he hoped to commence full training again in August of last year. It’s unclear what his rehabilitation process has been since then, but - as seen above - he was using crutches during his time off. In March, Aktell said:
I currently have crutches but have started to go freely indoors already. So this will be fine.
Aktell stepped back into the lineup for the first time in over a year on January 6th. He immediately slotted onto the top defensive pairing for Skelleftea with Felix Dahlroth and has played there since.
Big day for @PredsNHL prospect Hardy Häman-Aktell.— Janne Kekäläinen (@gamentalist) January 6, 2018
First game after a long wait. pic.twitter.com/XtNl05WcKr
Since his return, Aktell has suited up in four games for Skelleftea. He has yet to record a point but does have 27 penalty minutes due to a game misconduct in his second game back.
Aktell’s return coincided with a fresh start for Skelleftea. The J20 SuperElit season splits into two sections after the turn of the new year. The top five teams in each division play a winter series called the Top 10 after the 27-game mark. The winter series consists of 18 games for each team. Afterwards, those ten teams and the top 6 teams from the continuation series (those who did not make the Top 10) qualify for the playoffs.
Skelleftea squeaked into the Top 10 on their last weekend knocking AIK out via a tiebreaker. With 14 games to go before the playoffs, this will be a solid stretch to get Aktell heavy minutes and back into top form.
It’s encouraging that he has reclaimed his position on the top pairing. Hopefully, the offensive production will follow suit.
[Fun fact about Skelleftea: Petter Granberg’s younger brother, Frederik, plays with Aktell. He’s draft eligible this year, and he looks exactly like a young Petter.]
Smith, a 21-year-old defenseman for the Bowling Green State Falcons, has less mystery to his game, but he has still been a quiet prospect. Taken at the end of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, Smith was fresh off his final season with the Newmarket Hurricanes of the OJHL and a one-semester stint with Bowling Green. In the OJHL, a Junior “A” league in Canada (one step below Major Junior), Smith scored 38 points in 112 career games. In his first semester at Bowling Green, he scored three points in 22 games. Picked by the Preds after that semester, it would seem the organization didn’t anticipate much more offensive production.
Since then, Smith has played in 54 more games for the Falcons and scored one goal and five points - all coming in the 2016-17 season. That begs the question, if Smith isn’t putting up offense like other defensemen in the pipeline, what does he bring to the ice?
To answer that, here’s Chris Bergeron, Smith’s head coach at Bowling Green:
“He’s a top-four defenseman for us,” said Bergeron, “...and he’s a really strong skater; he’s a good defender; he’s somebody that’s really in elite shape...both strength and fitness, so he can play between 25 and 30 minutes a night for us.”
Bergeron expanded on what type of minutes Smith plays saying:
“He played a little bit on the power play over the course of his two years and one semester so far, but I don’t see him being a power play guy for us. I see him being a defender and a penalty killer and a guy that helps with the offense by supporting the rush...”
Smith is currently a junior at Bowling Green. As mentioned above, the Predators hold his rights until August of 2019. Bergeron said he doesn’t know the organization’s plans but he said, “I know they’ve been to watch him play over the last few years. Does that he mean he’ll be offered a contract after this season? I don’t know that. So as of now, we’re expecting him back next year.”
Bowling Green is having a good season so far sitting at third in their conference and 17 in the latest USCHO poll. I asked Bergeron how the locker room has been this season as they chase a tournament appearance. He mentioned that Smith, “is a part of our leadership council,” but more importantly said:
“He’s a kid that’s got time for people. He helps out; he talks. We’ve got two young freshmen defensemen...that I know he does what he can to help their transition from junior and to kinda show them...what it’s like to be a player at Bowling Green.”
I was eager to hear Bergeron’s assessment on what to look for from Smith as he moves forward since he doesn’t directly create offense frequently. Bergeron said, “His north-south skating is really good; his lateral movement is really good; he’s a guy that can take away time and space.” Bergeron added that Smith, “has a good active stick, and he can kill penalties.”
Bergeron went on to emphasize Smith’s defensive role: “If he is going to make an impact in the organization, he’s going to have to defend at an elite level and be a penalty killer.”
I noted that Smith has put more shots on net this season than his entire collegiate career combined. Bergeron said that coming out of junior, Smith was an offensive creator. He’s observed that his confidence this year is probably closest to what it was in junior, and that might be why his shot totals have improved. Bergeron added:
Specifically, we think he can do a better job of hitting the net more often. He has the puck on his stick because of the way he skates - his skating at the college level is well above-average and very good. He may have more shots than he’s ever had before...he’s had probably way more attempts than he’s ever had. With those attempts, I think he can put more pucks actually on the net.
Finally, on the topic of Bowling Green’s transition game and whether Smith drives or supports that play, Bergeron said, “He’s been getting better at that this year. It’s part of his game for sure.” He again attributed Smith’s active play to his superb skating ability and noted that he’s still working his way into that role in his second full season.
Some may be eager to write off Smith as someone who can’t produce, but I think Bergeron provides some really excellent insight here. I don’t think it’s out of the question that we see Smith in Milwaukee in a couple seasons. He may not be flashy, but he’s a player to watch as he aims to carve out a role in the organization.
All stats are courtesy of eliteprospects.com. Special thanks to Chris Bergeron for being gracious with his time.