Welcome to today’s edition of “Top Shelf Prospects” – a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. Today, as I continue my alphabetical journey through the NHL I bring you a look at the Nashville Predators. As always you can find a complete listing of my previous articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in the 2012 draft, as there have been no games since then, and my reports on them will not have changed. What I will be doing is linking you to those articles, as well as taking a look at prospects that were acquired before this year’s draft; their progress, and their chances of making the 2012-13 roster of the NHL team in question. I will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later, or was an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as my darkhorse to make the NHL. For those wondering, the cut-off for what is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 45-50 NHL games played or being 25 years old. These are not hard or fast rules though, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
Roman Josi (majority of season in Nashville, 62 regular season and playoff games; played all 10 playoff games), Jonathan Blum (68 career games including playoffs), Gabriel Bourque (53 games including all playoff games this season) will not be considered prospects for the purposes of this report.
Top Prospect: Ryan Ellis, Defence,
Born Jan 3 1991 — Hamilton, ONT
Height 5.10 — Weight 179 — Shoots Right
Selected by the Nashville Predators in round 1 #11 overall at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft
Ryan Ellis won everything there was to win in the world of junior hockey. He was a two time OHL Champion, a two time Memorial Cup Champion, and a World Junior Champion. Individually he became the all time leading point scorer among Canadian World Junior Defencemen, and won the 2011 CHL Player of the Year, and Defenceman of the Year Awards. After graduating to the pro game this season, Ellis split time between the Milwaukee Admirals in the AHL, and various stints in the NHL with the Predators. He even played three playoff games for the Predators this season.
Ellis is mainly known for his offensive abilities. He is extremely intelligent and a slick powerplay quarterback. He has a very hard, very accurate shot from the point. He is also extremely poised with the puck and makes smart decisions. Ellis has the vision and elite passing ability to exploit the smallest of passing lanes. He’s also known for his ability to handle the puck, and his speed in leading the rush. Ellis is known as a threat to go coast to coast at any time. In doing so he can use his accurate wrist and snap shots to score goals, or if an opening is seen, make a pass and create for a teammate.
Ellis’ defensive game has greatly improved since being drafted. Improvements in his pivots, and lateral mobility have helped him to make him difficult to beat off the rush. He has also improved his defensive positioning and coverage. Ellis has also added a lot of strength to his frame and is better on the boards than you would expect given his size. That said, the size is still an issue, and better than you’d expect does not mean he has completely overcome his stature. Ellis is still overpowered and can have trouble containing bigger, stronger opponents. His puck skills do help out a lot defensively, as he’s often able to either skate the puck out of danger, or to start the transition game with a quick pass.
Ellis will be expected to help fill a big role in Nashville this season. He’s ready to move up to the NHL full time and is an early favorite to get much of Suter’s powerplay time. He should also get decent minutes at even strength and will be asked to add offence from the Predators back end.
Top Prospect #2: Austin Watson, Right Wing/Centre
Born Jan 13 1992 — Ann Arbor, MI
Height 6.03 — Weight 187 — Shoots R
Selected by the Nashville Predators in round 1 #18 overall at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft
Austin Watson also had a very distinguished junior career. He was a member of the 2009 OHL Champion and Memorial Cup Champion Windsor Spitfires with Ryan Ellis. After a brief detour to Peterborough, Watson was traded to the London Knights during this past season. He provided exactly what the Knights were looking for, giving what was already a strong defensive team an added boost of offence and a power forward’s game up front. Watson would help the Knights win the OHL Championship, and was even given the award as OHL Playoff MVP and was named to the Memorial Cup Tournament All-Star Team.
Watson is a big forward who is extremely versatile. Capable of playing both Centre and Wing, Watson has many of the skills of a prototypical power forward. He loves to use his size, balance, good speed, and powerful stride to take defenders wide and drive the puck hard to the net, where he uses his soft hands to get the puck by the goaltender. Watson also has an excellent wrist shot, and quick release which he can use to score from further out. Watson is also a decent playmaker with the vision to create opportunities for teammates. He does this most often out of the cycle game, where his strength and puck protection ability buys time for his linemates to get open. While Watson is good on the boards, and in front of the net, and battles hard on the ice, we would like to see him bring more physicality to his game. Watson has the ability to be a devastating forechecker, but he just doesn’t show it often enough.
London was a bit of a coming out party for the two way aspect of Watson’s game. At times (especially in Windsor) he was criticized for an inconsistent effort level, and a lack of attention to defensive details. In Peterborough his defensive game improved, but on what was a middle of the road club at best, Watson’s improved play didn’t get much attention. In London, Watson took the opportunity of playing for the Knights to quickly dismiss any of the remaining critiques. He was a tireless worker, and London’s best defensive forward throughout the second half and the OHL playoffs. He was also a key cog in London’s penalty killing units. Watson showed that he can be a relentless backchecker, and put a ton of pressure on whoever had the puck. He showed outstanding anticipation in cutting down passing lanes and creating turnovers and transition offence for the Knights. He also showed a willingness to make physical sacrifices as he blocked a lot of shots for the Knights.
Expect Austin Watson to start the season playing for the Milwaukee Admirals in the AHL. However once he adds some bulk to his frame and is ready for the pro game, he should be an impact forward for the Predators. With the Preds always looking for some extra goals, and with late season additions Alex Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn not returning to Nashville, Watson could be a darkhorse to steal a spot with a great camp.s
Sleeper Prospect Mattias Ekholm, Defence
Born May 24 1990 — Borlange, Sweden
Height 6.04 — Weight 194 – Shoots Left
Selected by the Nashville Predators in round 4 #102 overall, in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft
Mattias Ekholm made the Predators out of training camp last year, however he only played two of the Predators first 6 games before earning the wrath of Head Coach Barry Trotz. Ekholm was quickly cut, and was sent back to Sweden where he finished the year. Ekholm was clearly a lot more impressive in the Swedish League, than he was to Trotz as he won the Borje Salming Award for defenceman of the year. It is expected that Ekholm will try his luck in North America again this season.
Ekholm is a very good puck mover. He skates well and and protects the puck, which gives him the ability to skate the puck out of danger when facing a heavy forecheck. His strong passing skills are seen in his good first pass that starts the transition game, and in his composure with the puck in the offensive zone. Ekholm’s slapshot is decent but not great and hes more of a setup guy than a triggerman at the point.
Defensively Ekholm uses his size and physical attributes very well. He is good along the boards and plays a physical brand of hockey in the defensive zone. Trotz however criticized Ekholm for his decision making last season as he went for the big hit too often, and made some questionable plays in his own zone with the puck on his stick. He will need to curb those issues. The adjustment to North American ice size, and learning the proper angles and positioning needed on the smaller ice surface may curb many of these issues.
As stated Ekholm definitely needs time to adjust to North American sized ice. As such it is likely that he will start the season in Milwaukee. He has the skill though, and could be up with the Predators before the end of the season if he progresses quickly enough.
The Predators have had a great farm system and quality depth for a long time now. This has led to GM David Poile assembling a quality young team on the ice, one that beat the Detroit Red Wings last year for the 2nd playoff round victory in franchise history. While the current team has largely been built through quality scouting, drafting and devl0pment, the Predators have hit a bit of a lull. They have graduated many of their best prospects, while trading away a number of high draft picks over the last two years. While there are still studs like Ryan Ellis waiting to make the jump to the big leagues, the overall prospect depth has taken a hit. It will now be up to Poile to keep some picks and continue to draft well so that the Predators can add the missing pieces to their good young core going forward.
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