These past two days have been really joyous ones for the Nashville Predators organization. On Monday, Frédérick Gaudreau signed a three-year contract. And, yesterday, Pontus Åberg signed a two-year contract. Similar to the likes of Austin Watson & Colton Sissons before them it displays a great strength in the developmental process with reward for all the hard work spent with the Milwaukee Admirals in the AHL before being counted upon for an NHL role.
It didn’t exactly dawn on me until late yesterday evening though just what the ramifications of both signings signals as far as Vladislav Kamenev is concerned. For a nice change, the Predators forward depth up top is becoming solidified with quality options and with a bit of years attached to their contracts. As much as any player would like to break into the NHL as fast as humanly possible the importance of being a polished and prepared product when you arrive is something the Predators have been specializing in these last many seasons. The proof of it’s effectiveness can be displayed through the run to the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Finals and it isn’t something that needs to be adjusted.
It’s that sort of thinking that means a soon to be 21-year old Kamenev, about to embark on his third professional playing season in North America, is in a good place right where he is for the moment.
For myself, there were two previous examples in which I could tell fans based in Nashville were desperate to see a player get elevated from Milwaukee and into the NHL spotlight: Filip Forsberg (2013-14 season) and Kevin Fiala (2015-16 season). I believe the go-to word was: patience. Forsberg produced 34 points (15 goals, 19 assists) in 47 games that lone AHL season. Fiala has produced 89 points (36 goals, 53 assists) in 121 games across the parts of three AHL seasons. Forsberg’s NHL track record these days speaks for itself. Fiala was just starting to show flashes of how high of a quality player he can be during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs prior to suffering a season ending injury in Round 2 against the St. Louis Blues when he fractured his femur. It would have been assumed that severe of an injury would sideline him for quite a length of time but he was already back on the ice during the 2017 Nashville Predators Rookie Development Camp and looks like he should be on schedule for the start of the 2017-18 season. The wait for Forsberg was worth it. The wait for Fiala will be worth it. And the latest name that fans in Nashville seem so very excited to see, Kamenev, is officially in his “wait” season.
It wouldn’t be right to discuss Kamenev’s progress during his first two professional playing seasons in North America without first acknowledging the most important ingredient: it happen in North America.
Kamenev arrived to Milwaukee as a 19-year old with an incredibly limited ability to speak the English language. His first season’s true test was never going to be what he faced on the ice but how he handled day-to-day life away from it. He wasn’t just living in a brand new city but a brand new country. Even so much as having a basic understanding of a different for of currency to go out and get a bite to eat was an obstacle. He would need to rely upon the relationships he would be making within the locker room to really help him fit in, become comfortable, adjust to daily life activities, as well as coming up to speed with the North American pro game and what it means to play center at a high level. You can give a primary assist to defenseman Trevor Murphy for that 2015-16 season as he was Kamenev’s roommate in his first year living in the United States. You can then pass off the secondary assist to the 2016-17 season to the group known as the French Fries for adopting Kamenev as one of their own. For as tricky as understanding the language barrier was for Kamenev. For as challenging as adjusting to life so far away from home could have been. There was a nice constant for the Orsk, Russia native. When he was on the ice he understood hockey as well and perhaps even better than those around him.
It was my understanding when Kamenev was debuting in 2015-16 that he would be placed on the wing to make his transition into North America that little bit easier before being placed in his more natural position at center. The very first day of practice at the MSOE Kern Center for 2015 Milwaukee Admirals Training Camp – I was proved wrong. Kamenev was playing at center from Day 1 and has never moved outside to the wing. With how well he reads the game and for as creative as he can be with the puck on his tape center really is his best position. So, I have to imagine the thought process was a very quick: why not keep him right where he belongs down the middle?
Kamenev would spend good amounts of time with Félix Girard after practice sessions educating himself on the art of the face-off. That friendship and mentoring lasted until Girard was traded by the Predators to acquire Cody McLeod from the Colorado Avalanche. It’s clear that their time together helped Kamenev and pushed him at battling on the dot. And, once you claim a victory at the face-off, you’re that little bit more free to strut your stuff on offense.
For all the outside anxiety Kamenev produced 37 points (15 goals, 22 assists) in 57 games that debut season in 2015-16. He was actually selected to represent the Admirals at the 2016 AHL All-Star Classic but was unable to do so after having captained Team Russia in the 2016 IIHF U-20 World Juniors Tournament to a Silver Medal where he scored 6 points (5 goals, 1 assist) in 7 games. That was yet another swerve for him as the Gold Medal Game proved to be rather dramatic for the then Russian captain. It was a gut punch. It was sad. But he came back to the Admirals and proceeded to get back with the program rather swiftly: scoring a goal and an assist in back-to-back games upon arrival to the Admirals on a road trip against the San Antonio Rampage. He had his lull stretches along the way to finishing his first season but showed an incredible ability to stand up under all the outside pressures he faced as an 18-year old Russian living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His true test was a pass and he adapted on and off the ice.
The freshman season for Kamenev was a good one. What faced him last season as a sophomore is what really can distinguish a player from the pack. He wasn’t a mystery kid anymore. There was a season worth of film on him and teams, especially within the AHL’s Central Division, would have gone up against him numerous times. It is that kind of adversity that can really push a player back or forward to an entirely new level. Kamenev managed to elevate himself from Year 1 to Year 2.
If there was one red flag when I watched Kamenev’s first season with the Admirals it was that he looked like he was playing too cautious and reserved when he could well have more explosive moments throughout the course of a game. Was he simply a reflection that season on the ice of the 19-year old off the ice? Maybe. But he certainly didn’t have that red flag during the 2016-17 season. Kamenev was a lot more aggressive in his skating, checking, defensive work, and execution on offense. Where it felt like he needed a push the season before – he was his own man. He ended up a single point shy of topping Åberg for the team lead in scoring but he made his own impact: 51 points (21 goals, 30 assists) in 70 games while also having the best plus/minus rating (+11) of the entire team. He worked well across the board on the power-play and penalty kill. His line alongside Adam Payerl and Justin Kirkland was arguably the team’s best line throughout the season. The three could play any style of hockey required of them during a game: checking, grinders, skill, or pace. Where they best generated attack was defense to offense and, make no mistake about it, the music made offensively from that line was conducted by the Russian.
It has all built and built for what will be Year 3 for Kamenev. He made his NHL debut with the Predators last season logging 2 games which were both contested on the road. You would assume his debut to the Bridgestone Arena would be very -very- soon. But, now, it doesn’t have to be.
The new contracts for both Gaudreau and Åberg were nothing short of brilliant for the Predators. The pair combined for 100 points (56 goals, 44 assists) in the AHL last season and weren’t just quality on the offensive side of the puck but were also relentless on defense. It’s that well-rounded ability that made the introduction of both in the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs so seamless. And their continued evolution as players deserves to be tested in the NHL this coming season.
That means a thickening of the glass ceiling from Milwaukee to Nashville for the 2017-18 season as far as the forward group is concerned. The top of that list is certainly Kamenev but even he could fall back a spot should Gaudreau be placed in the AHL for any extent seeing as the first two-seasons of his three-year contract are made to be flexible for the organization with a two-way contract. It’s good for the Predators. It’s good for the Admirals. And, make no mistake about it, it is also good for Kamenev.
What Kamenev gets to do this season is precisely what he did last season: go out there and top it. Year 1 saw Kamenev adapt to a world of different things on and off the ice. Year 2 saw him get comfortable. Year 3 should see him breakout and establish himself as the Admirals first choice center with the increased responsibilities that comes with that job. If he was a single point shy of sharing the team lead in scoring for the Admirals last season it would be safe to assume he should take that throne this coming season. Year 1: Timid. Year 2: Aggressive. Year 3: Explosive. That is the learning process in play when it comes to Kamenev and to rush him to the NHL stage before he gets an opportunity such as this to really erupt on the AHL’s stage simply would be against what’s already happened in the recent history of the Predators organization. Kamenev will only be 21-years old at the start and completion of the 2017-18 season. All he has is time to become the best center he can be. And all the Predators gave him this week was more time to allow for that continued growth and confidence.
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