The 2017 Nashville Predators Rookie Development Camp concluded this past weekend. It provided a really good look at the Predators most recent draft class and several prospects within the system as well as thirteen invitees from abroad. The aim of the week long camp is very much like an orientation process into seeing what it is to be a professional hockey player at an elite level with elite coaches. That is why players such as Vladislav Kamenev or Trevor Murphy were not in attendance. They have experienced it in the past. Yet, for those still on the rise (e.g. Alex Carrier), it is good for some to return once again to build upon leadership skills and be there for those who have yet to take in the week long experience.
Let’s begin first by acknowledging that 2017 Draft Class by the Predators who showed up in Nashville for the camp: Eeli Tolvanen, Grant Mismash, David Farrance, Tomáš Vomáčka, and Jacob Paquette. The lone player missing last week from the draft was Pavel Koltygin.
Tolvanen being the first round draft selection meant having a good focus in on him this week for Nashville. His future as far as the 2017-18 season was much the question mark throughout last week as speculation of him playing with Finnish side Jokerit in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) came upwhile the possibility of him signing an entry-level contract and playing with the Milwaukee Admirals in the AHL this season is also possible. As it so happens, he signed a one-year contract with Jokerit this morning in Finland. The speculation ends there. What was never in question though was this: this kid can shoot. I will put myself out there by saying Tolvanen’s shot is one of those darn near uncoachable skills. He is able to flick a shot with no real wind up and snap it on net with accuracy. That shot reminds me eerily of someone by the name of Filip Forsberg who also possesses the same kind of quick release and accuracy. Yet, similarly to Forsberg, Tolvanen at that age has a long way ahead of him. Learning when best to shoot and utilizing his offensive instincts and skating ability to be equally effective on defense as on offense are what can elevate him to another level.
What you perhaps love the most though is that Tolvanen is an 18-year old from Finland who already made the leap to North America and played two-seasons with the Sioux City Musketeers of the United States Hockey League (USHL). There is no worry about having a player being lost in translation to a smaller rink and being bombarded by the closing rate of a defense when he is on the puck. He put himself on the map with that skill, with that shot, and did it in a North American structured game.
It’s here where I feel I should bring up Victor Ejdsell alongside Tolvanen. While Tolvanen had the Jokerit link throughout last week Ejdsell joined HV71 of the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) five-days prior to signing an entry-level contract with the Predators. His decision isn’t certain as of yet. Last season Ejdsell really burst on the scene with BIK Karlskoga in the second tier in Sweden known as the Allsvenskan. He produced 57 points (25 goals, 32 assists) in 50 games en route to being named Allsvenskan MVP and as the league leading scorer. The problem is that he has never played at the top flight of the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) and showed during the Rookie Development Camp signs that he is far more of a project than an instant splash.
I will likely be calling Ejdsell by the name “The Swedish Skyscraper” for the extent of his time in the organization for how tall and thin he is. And, while size can be a good thing, he almost looks uncomfortable on the ice whilst skating. In Europe, with the larger ice surface, it can mask skating issues because there is more room to build a head of steam up or to make swooping cuts. His skating was awkward and seeing him get his pocket picked a few times during the Future Stars Game came more as a result of his lack of coordination than understanding of who is where on the ice.
It is then that I say, if neither were to play with the Admirals in the AHL this coming season – it isn’t a negative. Tolvanen understands the North American game and a season playing in a league as competitive and skilled as the KHL will be great for him before coming back to North America. Ejdsell can greatly benefit from testing himself in the top flight of Sweden and continue to round out his game while building on a fantastic 2016-17 campaign. There isn’t a pressure for these two to be a factor right now. So, if both played in Europe next season, it wouldn’t be much of a problem. However, let’s say Ejdsell decided that it is time to embark on the great journey right now and get started in the AHL or Tolvanen managed to jump from the KHL early to squeeze into the Admirals late in the season, both would be serviceable and both would likely learn a tremendous amount because of it. That said: no rush.
The United States National Development Team duo of Mismash and Farrance were quite possibly the two recent draftees that I enjoyed watching the most at Rookie Development Camp. Both look extremely polished already and they are both 18-years of age due to join the collegiate ranks in the Fall. Mismash has an NHL ready name and appeared to me to have size, strength, skating ability, and a nasty shot. I’m really looking forward to seeing how Mismash will perform at the University of North Dakota. As for his pal Farrance, what stood out the most for me was an excellent skating ability. Farrance then displayed a knack for being in the right place at the right time during the Future Stars Game with an ability to bury shots on net. Farrance will be joining fellow prospects from the camp, Dante Fabbro and Patrick Harper, at Boston University. Given Fabbro’s all-around ability on defense. Given Harper’s speed and skill – and now a year to settle down into a wing role. BU is rather stacked with high level Predators talent.
And then there were the Czechs in net. Vomáčka, the most recent addition, and then Karel Vejmelka. Out of all five goaltenders in camp, of which there were three invitees (Étienne Marcoux, Andrew Shortridge, and Atte Tolvanen), it was the Czechs that stood out the most.
Similar to the Predators first round selection this year you have another European prospect in Vomáčka making the leap to North America -far- in advance of his pro years. The result? Impressive. I have now watched enough goaltenders make the leap from Europe to North America in Milwaukee where I can pick up certain tendencies that show how tricky that process can be. It is a much faster game this side of the pond and traffic, screens, and shooting for rebounds are all that much more heightened. Placement of rebounds and lateral speed need to be elevated to match the speed in which traffic can buzz around a net. And Vomáčka, after a single season with the Corpus Christi Ice Rays of the North American Hockey League (NAHL), looks to have really locked into the style of hockey played State-side. His quickness was really good and also how well he battled for pucks. While the Future Stars Game was a run-and-gun sort of scrimmage Vomáčka had the best moments in net of any goaltender there. It’s a credit on his reading of the game, speed, and compete level – the last of which is something I often heard associated with a bloke named Juuse Saros. Neither look in a panic mode or scrambling to recover lost positioning in net. Both look composed while fighting to get a puck and whistle.
Opposite to the new Czech, Vejmelka is someone I feel could make the leap into the AHL scene later this year if needed. In the 2015-16 season, after being drafted by the Predators in the fifth round (just like Vomáčka), he mainly spent his time in the second tier of the Czech hockey scene but advanced the following season to see 31 games at the top flight opposed to 10 games played in the second tier. Perhaps, at 21-years old, Vejmelka could use that one final stamp in the Czech Republic where he plays a full-season in the top league for HC Kometa Brno before making the complete jump for an AHL/ECHL start. I believe, if needed, he could get going this season -but- I do wonder if there is apprehension to do that after how Jonas Gunnarsson did after a European leap last season.
The last draftee, Paquette, didn’t really do anything that positive or negative to me during the camp when looking at the wide range of defensemen around him. When you’re around Carrier, Jack Dougherty, and Samuel Girard it is easy to get lost in the shuffle somewhat.
That is not to say other defensemen didn’t show flashes to make you notice though. Joonas Lyytinen, who did sign his entry-level contract with the Predators a month after signing as a free agent in Finland’s Liiga with Kärpät, looked really good. I feel I was most impressed by his performance at the Future Stars Game when he was displaying a really calm ability in his own zone and around the net. He also happens to be just another one of the Predators style defensemen that can skate really well – go figure. Additionally, I was able to see Frédéric Allard for the first time on-ice. He was supposed to participate in last year’s camp after being drafted in the third round of the 2016 NHL Draft by the Predators but didn’t participate in practices or the game at camp’s end due to injury. What I saw of him was a Frenchie version of Dougherty. I mean that as a complement – and I’m excited for his first pro season this year with the Admirals. Will Lyytinen be in on that mix as well? Time will tell but he is steadfast right now given his contract with Kärpät.
Yet, for all of the names thrown around as well as talk of the 2017 Draft Class, the single most impressive player at Rookie Development Camp last week was the shortest man listed on the roster, an invitee, an Admiral, Tyler Kelleher. I cannot say enough of how impressive he looked. He showed off so much ability, great stick skill, smooth shot, great elusiveness with his quick skating, and a quick read on the ice. Your go-to highlights for Kelleher were his first two shifts of the Future Stars Game that put an exclamation point down on the week he was already having. He skated hard down the right wing, feinted on net, wrapped around the cage, and teed up Farrance for a goal. He then picked the pocket of The Swedish Skyscraper, Ejdsell, and immediately fired a forehand shot high glove on Marcoux. If I could play armchair coach for the 2017-18 Admirals: I want Kelleher centered by Tyler Moy with Anthony Richard as the additional wing. Moy was the second most impressive player at this camp and I think the two playing on a line together throughout the week showcased instant chemistry. The two fed off each other and it is something the Admirals can really embrace for the season ahead.
It is also worth saying that Kelleher is on an AHL contract with the Admirals. That means, if any other NHL team right now wanted to poke their head in and offer up a contract, Kelleher could be gone as quickly as he arrived. After a week as good as Kelleher had: why not sign Kelleher to an entry-level contract, Predators? There could be a high reward out of potentially doing that. I don’t care if you are 5’6″ if you can deliver that hard of work. I believe Kelleher could be good for it once he settles into the pro hockey scene.
Who impressed you the most in last week’s 2017 Nashville Predators Rookie Development Camp? How do you feel in regards to the 2017 NHL Draft Class for the Predators? Would it be best for Tolvanen and/or Ejdsell to go to Europe or immediately join the AHL for next season?
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