Over the past few years, the Nashville Predators have continued to stock up on forwards rather than defensemen. With the blue line, especially the top four, set for years to come, it was apparent that General Manager David Poile saw the importance of beefing up the organization’s depth at forward. Recently, Nashville has drafted Justin Kirkland, Kevin Fiala, Pontus Åberg, Vladislav Kamenev, Yakov Trenin and yes, Jimmy Vesey. The Predators have taken defensemen as well, but the forwards drafted can all be envisioned as solid middle-six players.
With this depth, it’s a perfect time for Justin Kirkland to finally enter into the equation. Kirkland, a 2014 3rd-Round Pick (62nd overall), just completed his third full season for the Kelowna Rockets in the Western Hockey League (WHL) where his offensive production improved each year. While the season ended too soon for the Rockets, a loss in the Western Conference Finals to Seattle, it was still a successful season considering the adversity the team faced.
“We fell short here in the end,” said Kirkland. “We all go there with one goal, that’s to win the championship. Looking back on the season, there’s not a whole lot to hang our heads on. We faced a lot of adversity with injuries, two of our key guys getting hurt for the year, that’s never easy, but I was really proud of the guys and how we came together. We battled every night for each other.”
Kelowna has continued to find a way to be successful through adversity in the years that Kirkland has been there. They’ve had three coaches in three years. Last season, the Rockets made a deep run and took home a WHL championship and made it to the Memorial Cup final before losing to the Oshawa Generals. This year, the team once again had a new coach and suffered injuries to top players Nick Merkley and Jackson Whistle. With that, they still pushed through to a great finish and a deep run.
Personally for Kirkland, he set his own goals for the season and what he wanted to accomplish. Each year, he’s continued to improve upon his production. In his time in Kelowna, the Rockets have been deep at forward, sometimes pushing Kirkland to the third line. Even while in the middle-six, he’s produced. In 2013-14, he tallied 48 points (17G-31A) in 68 games, 2014-15 (a season in which he missed time due to injury) saw 51 points (20G-31A) in 50 games and this season, he put up his best numbers with 67 points (31G-36A) in 69 games. In the playoffs, Kirkland exploded for 15 points (11G-4) in 18 games.
“Anytime you get to play more of a role, obviously getting older you get more responsibilities,” said Kirkland. “I think that’s a privilege. It was a good year overall. Offensively, it was pretty good. I set my goal at the start of the year to hit 30 goals and I was able to hit it, so that was good. But in the end, it comes down to winning and we didn’t do that, so it’s kind of disappointing.”
With the season now over, the offseason begins. Kirkland is focussed on getting rest and then ramping up his training to continue to bulk up for what he hopes to be his first year as a pro. Currently, he’s listed at 6’3″ and 185lbs. He has the frame to continue to build muscle and become a solid power forward.
“First off, I have to get some rest,” said Kirkland on what’s first of his offseason priorities. “It was a pretty grueling playoffs, a couple game 7s. It’s been a long season, so some rest. Then, I’ll get right back to work. I’ve got to get stronger, especially if I’m going to be playing in the pros next year, everyone is a little faster and a little bit stronger. I think that will carry some confidence going into camp. Being bigger, you have that confidence and that’s going to be big for me.”
Speaking of his future, the attention now turns to getting a contract signed with the Nashville Predators. Kirkland can still return for another year in junior, but his hopes are that the Predators and his agent are able to work out a deal so that he can begin his professional career.
“Next year, I want to be able to make that jump to the American [Hockey] League,” Kirkland said. “Everyone wants to prove that they’re ready to play with the pros, so that’s my goal. We just finished up, so whatever was going on in the background, my agent and parents are handling that right now. Hopefully, they can get something done and I can land in Nashville, because who doesn’t want to be a part of that organization? It’s just kind of waiting around right now, but like I said, there are people behind the scenes that are handling that.”
Along with being a prospect of the Predators, a team currently in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Kirkland has another Nashville connection with a teammate. Lucas Johansen, brother Nashville center Ryan Johansen, is a defenseman for the Rockets (and is draft-eligible in 2016). And if you’re looking for another good Nashville connection to Kelowna, both Shea Weber and Colton Sissons played their junior hockey for the Rockets. They have both been following the team closely, and it’s even more exciting for Kirkland because he’s a part of the Nashville system.
“Lucas and I are always back and forth about what the score is,” said Kirkland. “We’ve been following along pretty closely, especially during playoffs. It’s always fun when you have an extra little connection to watch and cheer on. It’s exciting for us to watch.”
As it’s gone with other junior players whose seasons have ended, it shouldn’t take long for a contract to be in the works for Justin Kirkland and the Predators. His continued improvement and ability to score show that he’s ready for the next step.
Photo courtesy: Kelowna Rockets