The Nashville Predators organization wrapped up its annual development camp Saturday afternoon. The camp is designed to assess and better prospects in the organization as well as a few invitees who are not in the system. The on-ice sessions mainly consisted of drills but was capped off with an exciting, intersquad scrimmage game on Saturday.
I was on-hand at Centennial Sportsplex for the majority of the on-ice sessions and compiled some thoughts on players at the camp. Not every player will be covered. The players not mentioned did not necessarily have a bad camp, they just did not stand out to me. Also, these opinions and observations are not an "end all, be all" on a player, just observations I made while watching this week.
When I walked into Rink B at Centennial Sportsplex for the first session, the very first thing I noticed was how big Seth Jones is. He is every bit of 6'4", 205 lbs. His size eclipsed every skater on the ice. He uses that size as well. He doesn't crush guys into the boards, but he does have a physical game. His skating is excellent as well. He's quick and makes sharp turns needed to play in the National Hockey League. He also loves joining in on the offensive rush. He generally makes smart decisions on passes and connects tape-to-tape in the offensive zone as well as zone entries. Jones did have trouble receiving passes at the blueline a few times, but this could be accredited to the less than favorable ice conditions. He also turned the puck over a few times in Saturday's scrimmage, which makes me question whether it would be wise to have him play in the NHL right away. At the same time, I don't think he can get much better playing in the Western Hockey League another season.
Hopefully, Jones can improve and make it an easy decision for the coaching staff to call him up to Nashville. It is clearly his goal to make the Predators roster this season. Jones, who played for Phil Housley at the World Junior's Championships, had high praise for Housley. The more time the rookie defenseman has with Housley would be very beneficial to him.
Jones said that the camp was "pretty fun" and helped him to learn "how to be professional." When asked about his progression this week, Jones said,"It's tough to… judge that in such a short period of time, but you… learn new things… and work on them more." Head Coach Barry Trotz said, "I was happy with him." Trotz mentioned an early shift where Jones was fooled, but said "Those are the things he'll learn as he makes his way up the ladder." It's clear Seth Jones has a lot of skill. The coaching staff and fans are excited about him. I think Jones will likely land a roster spot with Nashville at the beginning of the season, but still has some fine-tuning to do on his game.
The other headliner of this year's development camp was Filip Forsberg. The 18-year-old forward made his NHL debut last season with Nashville after coming to the Predators from the Washington Capitals in exchange for Martin Erat and Michael Latta. Forsberg, like Seth Jones, showed superior skating ability. He showed great stick-handling ability that can change the momentum of a game. He's great at finding the puck and depositing it in the back of the net.
Forsberg said his NHL experience was helpful to his game. "You get to play against a lot of great players and see how great they really are and you know that you gotta work hard to become as good as them," Forsberg said. I don't think it is a given that Forsberg starts the season with Nashville, but the coaching staff has indicated that they would like for him to earn a roster spot on the Predators at the start of the season. Forsberg certainly hopes he makes the roster. "My dream is to play in the NHL and for Nashville," Forsberg said, "When I'm ready, I hopefully can take a spot."
Next, we take a look at a veteran when it comes to development camps, Austin Watson. It could be said that a first round pick attending four development camps is a bad thing, but Watson has taken full advantage. Watson was another player whose size stood out. He's easily the biggest forward prospect Nashville has. In the drills, it seemed Watson had a leg up on the other skaters. In the scrimmage, he removed all doubt. The 21-year-old scored two goals right off the bat. It also seemed like Watson brought more pure skill to his game than ever before.
"I felt confident out there," Watson said, "I know myself, I put in some good work this summer. I felt good going out there… To score a goal or make a play, it feels good in the middle of the summer." Watson said he progressed from last camp in that he "understand[s] the pro game more and what it takes to be a player… To get that taste (of the NHL) was a big eye-opener for me."
Watson said that he's confident that he'll give himself a good opportunity to make the NHL roster this fall, but understands the final decision is out of his hands. Barry Trotz said Watson was "the best player out there." I agree with Trotz and would love to see Watson in Nashville at the beginning of this season. He looks ready to take that step Predators fans have been waiting on since Nashville drafted him in the first round of the 2010 NHL Draft.
The player who caught my eye the most this camp was Brendan Leipsic. Leipsic has been doing great things recently for the Portland Winterhawks, but he still surpassed my expectations. The 19-year-old left winger was drafted as an energy forward, likely destined for the fourth line, but I don't see how this young forward could ever be placed on the fourth line with all his skill. Though he has no professional experience yet, you couldn't tell. In addition to offensive flash, he was solid on defense.
Watson, who played on the same line as Leipsic in the scrimmage, said, "Leipsic's a quick guy with great hands, great vision." Leipsic said he was looking forward to learning from the older guys and being on a line with Watson certainly was what the doctor ordered. Leipsic also has it in the head. He talked about proving himself off the ice by dressing, eating and behaving well. Leipsic also talked about his development this past season. "I've developed into more of an offensive player… (I) focused more on creating plays… I feel confident that if I keep developing the way I am, I think I can be a top six (forward)… In the long term, that's where I would like to be." Next season, Leipsic will be back playing for the Portland Winterhawks, but I can see him contending for the NHL roster as soon as next season.
Also on the line with Watson and Leipsic, was last year's second round draft pick Pontus Aberg. Watson said, "Aberg's got tons of skill." His offensive upside was clear in drills and the scrimmage. He struggled somewhat at making passes while on the move and held onto the puck a few seconds too long in some instances. But his stick-handling is top notch. There is a lot of reasons to be excited about this skillful left-winger from Sweden.
Another guy with a ton of offensive skill is Jimmy Vesey. Vesey just completed his freshman year at Harvard (yes, that Harvard) and had this to say about his first year in the NCAA,"I had a good first year. Can't complain. It was a great group of guys, but we had some issues on the team with guys getting suspended from school, so we had kind of a tough year on the ice. But, it was a great experience. I got to play a lot, and I think I grew a lot as a hockey player and a person." On his greatest strength, the Boston native said,"I think offense is my strength. I love to carry the puck and shoot the puck, and I think that I can also make plays in the offensive zone. So, I have to say my hockey sense in the offensive zone is my best asset." Vesey said he would like to work on his "explosiveness as a skater." On whether he would stay all four years at Harvard he said that he would take it year by year and talk with his coaches at Harvard and in Nashville on when he should make the jump to professional hockey. Vesey is another forward Predators fans will want to keep an eye on.
Emil Pettersson, drafted in the sixth round of this year's NHL Draft by Nashville, didn't stand out to me in the first few on-ice sessions, but sometimes that's a good thing. Pettersson wasn't doing anything flashy, just doing the drills correctly and effectively. He did stand out to me in Saturday's scrimmage. He showed flashes of skill was very active on offense. The Swedish center said his strengths are "(his) vision, (his) puck handling, (his) skating." "I'm an offensive player," he said. Pettersson added, "I'm a fast player. I''m smooth on my skates. It's one of my strengths." Pettersson will be an interesting guy to watch the next few years to see if he puts himself in a position make it to Milwaukee and eventually Nashville.
The best goalie at the camp was clearly Magnus Hellberg. He excelled against one-time shots and shots through screens. He did struggle with shots from players who were on the move. In the scrimmage, Hellberg let in what he referred to as a "cheesy goal." He added, however, that he "made some good saves as well." As far as what he needs to do to advance in the organization, the Swedish goaltender said, "I know I have a lot of stuff to work on. I'm learning new stuff everyday, I'm going to prove to them that I will be a good goalie… It's a process… Whenever they think I'm ready, they'll (call) me up, so I'm just gonna try to focus on the things I can do." Hellberg has a few things to work on, but at this point, I believe he projects as a starting goaltender in the NHL.
The goaltender that surprised me was Janne Juvonen. The 6'1" Finnish goalie had quick lateral movement and flashed the glove well. Juvonen said that he needs to play more and get stronger. It will be interesting to watch how he progresses the next few years. Marek Mazanec, selected by Nashville in last year's draft, found the puck well in tight spaces. He struggled some with his glove and rebound control, but showed ability to recover well and make big saves. Juuse Saros was picked by the Predators 99th overall in this year's draft. He had good lateral movement. I can see some pro potential in him. The Predators will definitely be set at goaltender one way or another. They have a strong crop of goalies.
Garrett Noonan showed improvement. The Boston University defenseman has proved his ability to put up points in the NCAA. This week he showed ability to be a solid defenseman,ability to move the puck well and good hockey sense.
Anthony Bitetto also showed good hockey sense and puck movement. He is labeled as a defensive defenseman, but has a nice shot. He'll likely be playing in Milwaukee next season.
Simon Fernholm is another defensive defenseman. There's nothing flashy about his game, but his size and defensive ability give him a chance to advance in the organization.
Teemu Kivihalme and Mikko Vainonen also look solid defensively. Neither get beat very often.
Max Gortz shows great offensive ability in his stick-handling and has a laser of a shot.
Colton Sissons impressed on offense and didn't shy away from physical play. He did hold onto the puck too long once or twice.
Felix Girard also showed strong physical play. He has good speed and a nose for the puck.
Zach Stepan has a quick release on his shot. He has good vision and moves the puck well including the occasional highlight pass.
Joe Pendenza and Sebastian Geoffrion each impressed as camp invitees. Pendenza looked like he belonged, showing good skating ability. Geoffrion showed off his rocket slap shot in the scrimmage resulting in one goal and shot that hit both posts.
I would love to hear your opinion on these prospects or maybe someone I missed. Leave a comment or talk to me on Twitter @RyanTShannon.
Draft information from nashvillepredators.com