The Predators established themselves as one of the NHL’s best teams last season, but a lack of offense kept Nashville from advancing to the Western Conference Finals. At this weekend’s NHL Draft, the Predators did all they could to prevent that from happening again down the line, selecting six offensive players among their nine picks before touching the defense.
But it wasn’t just meeting a need that had the Predators’ front office excited. It was mostly the fact that the organization landed several players it didn’t feel would fall to them at various points in the draft. That was huge for an organization that needed to re-stock with prospects after trading many of them away in a “win-now” approach over the last two seasons.
Here’s a quick recap of what the Preds did this weekend.
Nashville goes forward-heavy with first six picks
The surprises started early when Swedish forward Pontus Aberg was still on the board at pick 37. Aberg brings the Predators what they need most: a fast skater with an accurate shot. Injuries this past season limited his productivity (15 points in 47 games) and likely cost the 5-foot-11, 189-pounder a few spots in the draft.
Aberg’s selection there was no “gimme” for the Preds, because center Colton Sissons was also on the board at that point. The team was ecstatic when the former Kelowna Rocket (the same club where Shea Weber played when the Predators took him in 2003) was still around at No. 50. They get a guy who scored 26 goals and handed out 15 assists in 58 games last season.
Nashville then landed its second left wing in three picks by taking Boston native Jimmy Vesey No. 66 overall. Vesey soared up draft boards after an Eastern Junior Hockey League record 91-point season this winter.
General manager David Poile had tried to trade up earlier in the draft for fear of not getting someone he wanted. The first three times that worked out perfectly, but he took no chances with the third because the Predators traded their third-round pick next year to grab Portland Winterhawk star Brendan Leipsic, who was even more productive than Sisson (58 points in 65 games last year). Leipsic projects as a left wing, though he played center in Portland.
Nashville added a fifth-straight forward with Zach Stepan in the fourth round. A native of Hastings, Minn., Stepan is a blue-collar player whom the Preds were also a bit surprised was available at that point. Rounding out the offense, Nashville took another player who fits that mold in Swede Max Gortz, taken in Round 6.
Predators hope projects with potential can help defense
The Predators finally addressed defense in rounds four and six with the picks of Mikko Vainonen and Simon Frenholm, who stand 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-4, respectively. Nashville admits that both will need a few years to develop.
Eight years ago, the Predators took an unheralded 6-foot-5, 205-pound goalie after 257 guys had already been drafted. By now, you know Pekka Rinne as one of the NHL’s best goaltenders, and Nashville hopes lightning will strike twice with Czech Marek Mazanec, whom it took with its 179th (and final) pick this year. The 20-year-old had a .900 save percentage playing for Czech Elite last season, and is a player the Predators have watched for three seasons.