With training camp finally upon us, there could be some serious position battles in the Nashville Predators organization for the first time in a few seasons. With 33 forwards, 18 defenders, and five goalies rolling into Middle Tennessee this week, there are certain to be some dynamic performers that are relegated to Milwaukee before the start of the season.
Regardless of how the depth chart trickles down into the AHL and beyond, there are a handful of prospects whose potential to impress this season is being overlooked, in my opinion. Consideration was not extended to players like Rem Pitlick or Eeli Tolvanen who are expected to produce at high-rates in 2019-20.
Below I’ll highlight six players (three forwards, two defenders, and one goalie) who I’ve identified as “breakout” candidates for the 2019-20 season, statistics behind why, and some mild projections.
G - University of Connecticut [NCAA]
Vomacka has not exactly flown under the radar since being drafted in the summer of 2017; he’s been referenced frequently as a likely part of Nashville’s future in goal. In his freshman season at the University of Connecticut, Vomacka played in 15 games (starting 14 of them) finishing with a 0.922 save percentage and saving 1.95 goals above average.
The term ‘breakout’ is relative, and in this case it’s more about sample size. Whether Adam Huska signed with the New York Rangers this off-season or not, Vomacka was expected to be the starter in Hartford in 2019-20. With Huska gone, Vomacka has the opportunity and talent to star as one of the nation’s best goalies this coming season.
Vomacka struggled at times in the first half of the season as the Huskies tried to find their scoring footing; from mid-November to early February, the Czech goalie dropped four consecutive starts and finished a fifth loss coming in in relief in a 5-3 loss to Boston College. For the final two months of the season, however, Vomacka won five of seven starts, allowing just 12 goals, posting his only shutout of the season, and scoring two victories over top-15 ranked opponents: Northeastern (#13) and UMass Amherst (#2).
Here’s a rough outline of what I project from Vomacka this season:
|2018-19||University of Connecticut||NCAA||14||7||1||0.922||1.95|
|2019-20 Proj.||University of Connecticut||NCAA||28||16||4||0.920||6.48|
D - Milwaukee Admirals [AHL]
Savage is another interesting prospect when it comes to the term ‘breakout’; we have to understand that it’s dependent on each player's position and deployment. Signed to a PTO on New Year’s Eve, Savage scored an AHL contract for this season in early April after a 19-game audition.
During that span, Savage was excellent defensively, recording a team-low 1.60 goals against per 60 minutes, and added two primary assists and 22 shots on net. I don’t anticipate 2019-20 will allow Savage’s offensive totals to skyrocket (he is already 24), but I think with call-ups and injuries he should establish himself clearly as the best depth defender in Milwaukee.
Depending on how training camp goes, the top six for the Admirals seems pretty clear: Donovan, Allard, Carrier, Tinordi, Fortunato, and Davies. There will be a four-way battle for that seventh spot between Savage, Arvin Atwal, Josh Healey, and Adam Smith. Regardless of when Savage is able to slot into the lineup, he should be lucky enough to play with a good possession-driving partner and that may boost his offensive numbers a tad:
|2019-20 Proj.||Milwaukee Admirals||AHL||28||2||9||31||1.84|
D - Milwaukee Admirals [AHL]
Fortunato comes to the organization after a five-year (including a transfer year) collegiate career at Boston University and Quinnipiac University. Before breaking his fibula in January, Fortunato had scored 28 points in 26 games for the Bobcats (20 of which were primary points), committed just one penalty, and only allowed a staggering 0.85 goals against per 60 minutes.
He's now recovered and participating in the recent prospects showcase, and I’m fascinated to see how Fortunato adjusts to the AHL this season. He struggled in his 2017-18 season at Quinnipiac, recording just eight points in 37 games before bouncing back to the talent he showed at BU (40 points in 79 games as a freshman and sophomore).
The leap to Milwaukee won’t be easy, and, on the surface, his counting stats will likely suffer. But, at his age, I expect him to develop a quick command of the level of play. A pairing of him and Jeremy Davies would be exhilarating—two excellent possession players, one who is a better skater and one a better defender—and it would phase out any ‘traditional’ third-pairing option for the Admirals.
|2019-20 Proj.||Milwaukee Admirals||AHL||62||7||17||104||2.06|
W - Sodertalje SK J20 [SuperElit]
Walther will start and likely finish the 2019-20 season with the Swedish club Sodertalje’s top junior team in the SuperElit - Sweden’s highest level of junior hockey. After a hiccup while developing to reach the J18 level in Sodertalje, Walther played in 33 games for the J18 team in 2017-18, but with bottom-six minutes. Last season, in 21 games at the J18 Elit level, Walther led the club in scoring with a staggering 17 goals and 34 points. His line, completed by Leon Wallner and Johannes Jamsen (both eligible for the 2020 NHL Entry Draft), was dominant at times.
In five appearances at the SuperElit level last season, Walther tallied two goals and two assists, adding to his impressive season totals where over 70% of his points were primary ones.
As a quasi-overage player* (for higher-end Swedish prospects) in the SuperElit this year, I can see Walther having another dominant season. His line from last year won’t be joining him in similar fashion (Wallner may get significant time in the SuperElit), but I can see him hitting the 30-point threshold once more:
|2018-19||Sodertalje SK J18||J18 Elit||35||23||31||136||8|
|2019-20 Proj.||Sodertalje SK J20||SuperElit||39||16||30||123||2|
*By this I don’t mean that Walther will be a literal overage player as they exist in the CHL. What I mean is he’s a season behind other NHL prospects (drafted higher than him) in playing full-time in the SuperElit. For example, Walther’s teammate, Lucas Feuk—a fourth-round Calgary selection this summer—played 43 games in the SuperElit in his draft year.
C - Milwaukee Admirals [AHL]
Hunter Garlent steps on ice one final time with @SMUMensHockey before leaving for @PredsNHL rookie camp. 24 yr old finished 2nd in @AUS_SUA scoring to help earn contract with @mikeadmirals. pic.twitter.com/U2h1wTJmLg— John Moore (@rinkrant) September 1, 2019
Garlent earned an invite to development camp earlier this summer and turned that into an AHL deal for the 2019-20 season. But he didn’t just graduate from Major Junior; he’s been playing Canadian collegiate hockey for the past three seasons. He’s part of a growing list of former CHL players who went on to get an education and still graduate to the AHL/ECHL (currently just Joel Ward and Darryl Boyce come to mind as USports alumni that made the NHL), and he’s got a partner in Hugo Roy doing the same for Nashville this season.
In three seasons with Saint Mary’s University, Garlent recorded 40 goals and 131 points in 90 regular-season games, leading the Huskies in scoring each season. Before that, Garlent spent five seasons in the OHL with the Guelph Storm and Peterborough Petes. It was his second season there that likely sealed his undrafted fate; he scored 42 points as a rookie and was one of the best players at the 2011-12 U17 World Hockey Challenge, but he dipped to just 31 points in 50 games in 2012-13.
From 2013 to 2016, Garlent scored 69, 40 and 87 points in the OHL in 62, 52 and 68 games, respectively. It’s hard to compare USports production (you can explore an outdated comparison here) to the pro level and scoring 87 points as a 21-year-old in the OHL is nothing overly spectacular, but my model liked Garlent’s production last season and even more so when dating back to 2015-16.
At 24, he’s likely peaked in his development; this season or next will best clarify his ceiling. But it’s possible he can develop into a more effective bottom-six player in Milwaukee or, at least, a top scorer in the ECHL:
|2018-19||Saint Mary's University||USports||30||12||27||90||4.00|
|2019-20 Proj.||Florida Everblades||ECHL||34||11||20||74||3|
|2019-20 Proj.||Milwaukee Admirals||AHL||17||3||9||33||0|
W - Milwaukee Admirals [AHL]
I will keep this one brief as I am slightly breaking my aforementioned rule of high expectations. Richard should lead Milwaukee in scoring if he’s not relegated to just the top-three by the likes of Pitlick or Tolvanen. But I do think this is a very consequential season for him. The writing is on the wall for Frederick Gaudreau and Miikka Salomaki with forthcoming camp battles; Richard turns 23 in December and should push for a regular role next season if not sooner.
His 47 points last year are among the lowest for a player leading their team, but he still was in the top-10 among drafted U23 forwards in AHL scoring last season (seventh, to be exact).
Above is the primary points per 60 at 5-on-5 play for that group of ten mapped out over their AHL careers. Richard is one of the lowest-drafted players in this group* (aside from Timashov and Spacek). His seven special-teams goals aren’t accounted for this, so all things considered he isn’t in a bad spot. But he’s shown he can produce at a top-line level in the AHL. I expect he hits a second gear this season, provided he doesn’t spend too much time in Nashville:
|2019-20 Proj.||Milwaukee Admirals||AHL||68||27||49||151||7|
*Troy Terry and Cooper Marody were selected later, too; however that was likely caused by known collegiate commitments at the time.