Nashville Predators prospect Justin Kirkland was most recently in Nashville for development camp at the beginning of July. At the time, it was the first opportunity he had to speak with the media following his signing of an entry level contract with the Nashville Predators. After three full, successful seasons with the Kelowna Rockets, Kirkland is set to begin his pro career with the Milwaukee Admirals, and eventually the Nashville Predators. Needless to say, the excitement continues to build with him, his family and his hometown of Camrose, Alberta.
“It’s exciting,” said Kirkland with a big smile. “My parents are through the roof excited and proud of me. I wouldn’t be where I am without them. It’s pretty special with them to be able to share this experience with me. And the whole city of Camrose, because it’s a small town, and all my friends are all cheering for me to do my best. Hopefully I’ll make them proud as well.”
As most know, the Kelowna Rockets are a very successful organization out of the Western Hockey League. They produced former Predators captain Shea Weber and current center Colton Sissons. Kelowna is also an extremely popular vacation spot for professional hockey players during the summer thanks to its beautiful views, comfortable temperatures and the refreshing Lake Okanagan. With it being such a popular destination, Kirkland had the opportunity to participate in offseason training with many well-known names from the NHL.
“I spent the summer training there with a really good trainer by the name of Shane Pizzey,” said Kirkland. “He works with guys like [Shea] Weber, [Josh] Gorges and some of those guys. Then I was skating alongside all the pro guys that were in Kelowna like Weber, Gorges, Carey Price, the Schenn brothers, so quite an elite group. I was lucky to get with them to prepare myself for the fall.”
There’s no doubt that training with those players will be a tremendous help. If you have yet to see Kirkland in person, you’ll see why many consider him on the right path to the NHL. He’s a true power forward. He may be only 20 years old, but he has a wide frame and is continuing to fill out. Kirkland is listed at 6’3″ and 185lbs, but there’s no doubt that he’s surpassed that weight by adding on muscle in the past season.
Last season, due to an injury for the Rockets, Kirkland made the switch from wing to center, a position he actually prefers to play. Because of his size and ability to play both positions, that versatility will bring tremendous value to the depth of the organization.
“I’m more comfortable playing center now, but to me, I’m happy playing wherever,” said Kirkland. “If Dean [Evason] wants to put me on the wing, I’ll play on the wing. My goal is to go there and take a spot at center. If that’s not the case, I’m more than happy to play on the wing.”
With his switch to center, face-offs are obviously an important skill to master. Kirkland’s large frame will already give him an advantage on the dot as he can use his size to overpower his opponent. During the first day of rookie camp, Scott Nichol, Director of Player Development, spent a good amount of time working with centers on face-offs. Kirkland will take all the tips he can get to improve.
“The biggest thing from Scott was probably to use your momentum,” said Kirkland. “Going in on the draw, try to hover over the circle a little bit. That’s something I’ve tried to take around as much as I can and work on.”
It’s apparent that Kirkland has the right attitude as he heads into camp. His skillset is going to provide more depth to an organization that is truly chock-full of offensive talent. Kirkland’s ability to play two different positions is going to get him some very good looks continuing through the rookie tournament as well as Predators and Admirals training camp.
“We want to see him a little bit in both positions,” said Milwaukee Admirals head coach Dean Evason. “We want to play him in this tournament at center. We’re not 100% where he’s going to fit in Milwaukee as far as positioning. We’re really excited about the opportunity, the versatility of a big guy who has the skill that he does to flip back and forth. We’ll get him playing at center and I’m sure he’ll get a bunch of looks at main camp as well.”
Nashville has had a focus on players that can skate at the center position in the past few drafts. Kirkland will be competing against the likes of Vladislav Kamenev, Yakov Trenin, Anthony Richard, Felix Girard, along with Frédérick Gaudreau, who Daviel Lavender of Admirals Roundtable says is at his “strongest position” when at center. Having that amount of depth at center bodes well for the future as two centers will be leaving the organization over the next few years in Mike Fisher and Mike Ribeiro, and having the ability to play two positions will give Kirkland a great opportunity to gain ice time in the upcoming season for the Admirals.