30 in 30: Jones leads pool of Predators' prospects
There's plenty to get excited about when the topic turns to the young talent close to making an impact in the NHL for the Nashville Predators.
"Yes, definitely," Predators chief amateur scout Jeff Kealty told NHL.com. "Looking at it, there's some good depth and high-end talent in the system."
Even before the Predators hit the jackpot by selecting defenseman Seth Jones of the Portland Winterhawks with the No. 4 pick at the 2013 NHL Draft, their system seemed to be filled with talented prospects at every position.The selection of Jones immediately gave the Predators depth along the blue line for the 2013-14 season. Kealty said the hope is for Jones to step right into training camp, make an impression and earn a spot in the NHL lineup.
"He's pretty well-polished and proven that in his career up to this point," Kealty said. "Obviously you're talking about the best League in the world now, and that'll be played out, but we're hopeful."
Kealty acknowledged that his entire staff was surprised that the most coveted defensive prospect was still on the board when it came time for their pick. They had been following Jones the past three years and Kealty said he was the top player on their board.
"All those players at the top were excellent prospects, but if you were to tell us a month before the draft that Seth would fall to us, I don't think we could have predicted that," he said.
So have the Predators found their ultimate replacement for Ryan Suter, who was lost via free agency last year to the Minnesota Wild? The organization certainly hopes so. Nashville made 10 selections at the 2013 draft: five forwards, three defensemen and two goalies.
"We were able to add a lot of different types of players … we have skill guys, character guys, Predator-type guys," Kealty said.
Here's a look at Nashville's top 10 prospects, according to NHL.com:
1. Seth Jones, D: Jones was ranked the No. 1 North American skater by NHL Central Scouting after finishing 2012-13 with 14 goals, 56 points and a plus-46 rating in 61 games to help the Winterhawks to their best regular-season record. He led Western Hockey League defensemen in scoring and earned the Jim Piggott Trophy as its rookie of the year. The 6-foot-4, 205-pound 18-year-old had five goals and 15 points in 21 WHL playoff games en route to the 2013 championship.
"Seth is a special prospect and we were fortunate to be in position to select him," Predators general manager David Poile said. "As a player, he brings so much to our organization, from size you can't teach to a skill set that every team hopes to add and a personality and maturity that will allow him to grow and develop with our veteran core and other young players."
2. Filip Forsberg, C/LW: A 2012 first-round pick (No. 11) of the Washington Capitals, Forsberg, 18, had 33 points in 38 games with Leksands in 2012-13 to help promote the team to the Elitserien from the second division in Sweden for the upcoming season. He gained valuable experience late in the NHL season when he played five games for the Predators and had one assist and 14 shots on goal. Forsberg (6-foot-1, 186) was acquired from the Capitals in exchange for Martin Erat and Michael Latta in April.
"I think it was great experience for him," Kealty said of Forsberg's time in Nashville. "He's a higher prospect with a lot of talent and upside, so to expose him to a handful of games and having him work with us will really help him entering this season."
3. Austin Watson, RW: A prototypical power-forward at 6-foot-4, 202 pounds, Watson is regarded as a solid two-way player who can do a little bit of everything. The 2010 first-round pick (No. 18) had 20 goals and 37 points in 72 games with the Milwaukee Admirals of the American Hockey League in 2012-13. The 21-year-old played six games with the Predators last season, scoring one goal and averaging 12:42 of ice time.
"He can handle the puck and has a good reach, is very responsible," Kealty said. "He can take faceoffs, kill penalties, block shots, and his offensive game is growing. He's grown and gotten better every year since we've drafted him ... he's stronger and more mature in all facets."
4. Mattias Ekholm, D: Before the selection of Jones at the 2013 draft, the 6-foot-4, 176-pound Swede might have been regarded as the organization's top defensive prospect. He had a solid rookie season with Nashville's American Hockey League affiliate in Milwaukee, with 10 goals, 32 points and a plus-15 rating in 59 games. He probably would have played more than one game for the Predators if not for an injury that sidetracked the 23-year-old's development.
"He's really mobile and good on the transition with the way he can turn the puck up ice," Kealty said. "He can get involved in the offense; he had a very good first full year in North America and adjusted to the way the game is here with his defensive play and work in his own end. He gained experience in Nashville and hopefully can come into camp and be ready to go."
5. Colton Sissons, C/RW: The 19-year-old versatile forward sustained a pair of untimely injuries last season, the first coming at Christmas to knock him from contention for a roster spot with the Canadian entry in the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship. The second occurred late in the season and during the WHL playoffs.
The 6-foot-1, 194-pound right-handed shot finished with 28 goals, 67 points and a plus-43 rating in 61 regular-season games for the Kelowna Rockets. Predators general manager David Poile said Sissons reminds him of Nashville forward Mike Fisher and the organization is very high on his ability.
"Overall, we're happy with his development," Kealty said of Sissons. "He's another guy with a solid two-way game. He has good leadership qualities and that speaks volumes to his character. He's a real well-rounded player."
Sissons told The Tennessean, "I just want to play professional hockey this year, and I'm going to do everything in my power to do so."
6. Brendan Leipsic, LW: The feisty forward led the WHL with 120 points (49 goals) in 68 games last season and had 103 penalty minutes. He had 10 goals and 24 points in 21 playoff games to help the Portland Winterhawks win the Ed Chynoweth Cup as league champion. Leipsic, 19, has averaged a little more than a point-per-game in 201 career games in the WHL with 93 goals and 211 points.
"I'd compare Brendan to a Brad Marchand type of player," Kealty said. "He's a smaller guy (5-foot-9, 165) but doesn't play small. He's fearless, he'll hit you, and he wants to be involved in the game. His 120 points last year speaks to the type of offensive capability he has."
7. Magnus Hellberg, G: The 6-foot-5, 196-pound goaltender enjoyed a solid North American debut last season with Milwaukee, finishing 22-13-0 with six shutouts, a 2.14 goals-against average and .924 save percentage. Whenever Hellberg's NHL career takes flight, there's no doubt comparisons between him and Anaheim Ducks prospect John Gibson, who was drafted one spot behind the Swede, are inevitable. Hellberg was selected in the second round (No. 38), and Gibson, who many felt was the top goalie on the board at the 2011 draft, was No. 39.
Predators goalie coach Mitch Korn said there was a huge learning curve for Hellberg, 22, last season.
"It's not the fact that [the ice in North America] is narrower, it's the fact what the narrower ice does," Korn told The Tennessean. "It makes pucks come to the net quicker. It creates more traffic. It makes rebounds way more dangerous. It makes every shot that’s propelled at the net more dangerous. It just changes the way the game is played."
8. Miikka Salomaki, LW: The 20-year-old Finn (5-foot-11, 198) will spend the 2013-14 season with the Admirals, marking his first season in North America. The 2011 second-round pick (No. 52) played for Karpat in SM-liiga the past three seasons, where he totaled 25 goals, 50 points and 153 penalty minutes in 122 games.
9. Jimmy Vesey, LW: He certainly impressed as a rookie at Harvard University in 2012-13. After getting 11 goals and 18 points in 27 games, Vesey (6-foot-1, 194) was voted Ivy League Rookie of the Year and was selected to the ECAC All-Rookie Team. The 20-year-old won a gold medal with the United States at the WJC, chipping in with one goal and six points in seven games.
10. Pontus Aberg, LW: The 5-foot-11, 192-pound right-handed shot finished his second season with Sweden's Djurgarden, leading the team with 40 points (12 goals) in 52 regular-season games. Djurgarden holds Aberg's contract rights to the end of the 2013-14 year, so the 19-year-old likely will spend one more season in Sweden before coming to North America.