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The Nashville Predators are in a strange place right now.

After shedding some significant salary space this summer, moving on from Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen, among others, the team will look slightly different for 2023-24. But they’ve also been a playoff tweener for a few years now – they’re not usually a lock to make it, but they’ll keep things interesting. Their last playoff round victory came in 2018, a year after making the Cup final for the first time in franchise history.

But with new GM Barry Trotz, and armed with 11 picks from the 2023 NHL Draft, this team is keeping its mind focused on the future. And it’s a bright one, with the Predators sitting around the top 10 in the league in terms of prospect pool quality. With a top-flight goalie prospect in Yaroslav Askarov, an impact winger in Joakim Kemell and top 2023 picks Matthew Wood and Tanner Molendyk, the Predators are flying high right now.

And that’s while excluding Philip Tomasino, solely for the fact that he has already played 107 NHL games. I know he spent half the year in the AHL last year, but he spent all of 2021-22 in the NHL. In my opinion, he’s not a prospect anymore. He’s 22, has significant experience and is ready for the next step in his career.

Biggest Strength

Historically, the team has been deep defensively and in the crease. But this might be one of the stronger forward groups the team has had in years with players of various skillsets across the board. You have Kemell, who looks like a future top-six winger. There’s Wood, who brings size and smarts. Luke Evangelista already showed some promise during his stint with the club last year, and Zachary L’Hereux and Reid Schaefer bring physicality and puck skills to the equation. There isn’t a 40-goal, 80-point future star here, but it’s the type of guys the fans can get excited about.

Biggest Weakness

I like Molendyk and think he’ll give the team a nice offensive presence on the blueline. After that, the pipeline starts to fall short. Ryan Ufko is a solid passer, but he’s projected more as a third-pairing defender. At some point, someone is going to have to replace Roman Josi as the play-driving, two-way force, and they don’t have that in the system. That’s not a huge priority, but a defenseman with the ability to take control with the puck would be nice to have.

TOP 10 PROSPECTS

Luke Evangelista (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

Grade: A-

1. Yaroslav Askarov, G, 21 (Milwaukee, AHL)

Drafted: No 11, first round in 2020

Askarov has a bit of competition on the main club he has to overcome before getting his big break. Drafted 11th overall in 2020, the 6-foot-4 goaltender made a big impact in his first year in North America, putting up some of the best numbers in the AHL. He also made his NHL debut in January, losing 4-3 to Montreal. Still, it was a good showing for someone who just needed playing time after losing some key action due to COVID-19 and strong competition in the SKA St. Petersburg system the past few years. He got that in Milwaukee, and it won’t be long until he’s gunning for the No. 1 job in Nashville – assuming he isn’t trade bait.

2. Matthew Wood, C/LW, 18 (UConn, NCAA)

Drafted: No. 15, first round in 2023

I really like Wood’s potential to become a big-time player for the Predators. Wood is a big man at 6-foot-4, which NHL teams like. But he doesn’t play like a typical “big” prospect. His game is all about skill, and he has the hands to follow. He led Connecticut in shots, averaging around three a game. And it’s an excellent shot, too, putting significant power and accuracy behind it, and with the confidence to unleash it from most areas of the offensive zone. Think: Drake Batherson.

Perry Nelson (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)

3. Joakim Kemell, RW, 19 (Milwaukee, AHL)

Drafted: No. 17, first round in 2022

What an interesting year for the forward. Kemell had a respectable 12 goals and 15 points in 43 games with JYP in Liiga and was one of Finland’s few productive forwards at the world juniors. But it wasn’t until his trip to North America with the Admirals that he really started to hit things off. When he arrived, the Admirals had a few key players in the NHL and immediately stepped into a big scoring role, registering 13 points in 14 regular season games. He keep that energy rolling in the postseason with eight goals and 10 points in 14 games, showing it wasn’t just a fluke. He’ll likely start with Milwaukee next year, but I fully expect him to see some NHL action along the way.

4. Luke Evangelista, LW, 21 (Nashville Predators)

Drafted: No. 42, second round in 2020

It’s only a matter of time until Evangelista – a dominant scorer at the U-16 and junior levels – made his mark in the NHL. After posting some of the best numbers of any U-22 player in the AHL, Evangelista was called up in late February and now has 15 points in 24 games. He was an excellent addition to the team’s top six, one that needed some extra scoring in the wake of injuries to Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene. And while scoring at lower levels is one thing, it’s notable when it happens at various levels and then carries over to the next step. Evangelista should go full-time in 2023-24.

5. Zachary L’Heureux, LW, 20 (Milwaukee, AHL)

Drafted: No. 27, first round in 2021

On one hand, don’t get in L’Heureux’s way. He’s a wrecking ball with a laundry list of suspensions during his QMJHL career. But like any good power forward, L’Heureux will do whatever it takes to get you off his game and often punish you greatly on the scoreboard. That’s why he always had great numbers during his four-year junior run and why many scouts can’t wait to see what he can do against pro hockey talent. He’s a human-wrecking ball with a goal-scorer’s touch in the same vein as Brad Marchand. We’ll see where his offense takes him and whether he can stay out of trouble on the ice.

Tanner Molendyk (WHL)

6. Tanner Molendyk, D, 18 (Saskatoon, WHL)

Drafted: No. 24, first round in 2023

Molendyk sometimes feels like a fourth forward out there with how he moves the puck and generates chances. But the offense didn’t seem to follow like most expected, bumping him down a few pegs. It feels like he’ll have a breakout with Saskatoon, and he should factor into Canada’s world junior team.

7. Fedor Svechkov, C, 20 (Milwaukee, AHL)

Drafted: No. 19, first round in 2021

I wouldn’t be too worried about Svechkov’s lack of KHL production because it’s so difficult to earn ice time as a U-21 player. That being said, Svechkov looked solid against men in the second-tier Russian series and was explosive against his own age group. Svechkov signed a three-year entry-level contract so the Predators will finally get to see him in person for the first time after missing the past two development camps. Hopefully, the skilled forward will adjust to life with the Admirals while showing some confidence in a proper development system.

8. Reid Schaefer, LW, 19 (Milwaukee, AHL)

Drafted: No. 32, first round in 2022 by Edmonton/traded to Nashville in 2023

One of the more exciting pieces of the Mattias Ekholm deal ahead of the 2023 NHL Trade Deadline, Schaefer had an interesting start to the season. He scored at a goal-per-game rate in the first month and would help Canada win gold at the world juniors. He had a few quiet stretches throughout the season but made up for it statistically with many multi-point efforts. As a 6-foot-4, 218-pound power forward, there’s value for Schaefer in a bottom-six capacity, but he still needs to improve his skating and passing to thrive in a pro setting.

Ryan Ufko (Steven Ellis/Daily Faceoff)

9. Ryan Ufko, D, 20 (University of Massachusetts, NCAA)

Drafted: No. 115, fourth round in 2021

Ufko stood out at the world juniors with USA, helping the team win bronze. No defenseman had more primary assists than Ufko – all nine of his helpers were, actually. Ufko has been a solid point producer during his tenure at UMass, registering 55 points in 69 games. He stands at just 5-foot-10, but he’s physically strong and won’t shy away from bumping and grinding around the ice. There’s nothing spectacular about the way he moves the puck, but he’s more than capable at the college level.

10. Felix Nilsson, C, 18 (Rogle, SHL)

Drafted: No. 43, first round in 2023

Could Nilsson be a diamond in the rough? Quite possibly. He was excellent with Rogle’s U-20 team but had nothing to show for in the SHL. That’ll change next year, and I think his hockey sense will be able to bring him places. His commitment to his defensive game is a nice touch. I’d like to see him add a bit more volume to his shots, but he makes the most of his chances.

Other notables: Jack Matier, D (20), Juha Jatkola, G (20), Semyon Chistyakov, D (22), Anton Olsson, D (20), Jesse Kiiskinen, RW (17), Adam Ingram, C (19), Jake Livingstone, D (24), Spencer Stastney, D (23), Egor Afanasyev, C (22), Kalan Lind, LW (18), Jachyn Kondelik, C (23), Nolan Burke, C (20), Luke Prokop, D (21), Luke Reid, D (21), Dylan MacKinnon, D (18), Aiden Fink, RW (18), Simon Knak, RW (21)

Previous 2023-24 NHL Prospect Pool instalments


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