The 2016 NHL Draft in Buffalo, NY is about a month away, and the Nashville Predators are gearing up. General manager David Poile is excited to have a first round pick again after trading away his 2015 first round selection in the Cody Franson/Mike Santorelli deal. This year, Poile may have a different approach to the draft than in previous years. The last couple of drafts have been very forward-heavy for the Predators as they looked to stack up on offensive talent to complement head coach Peter Laviolette’s system and keep pace in a powerful Central Division.
Prior to the last couple years, Poile had been quite defenseman-heavy with his draft picks. That’s how he’s built one of the best, if not the best unit of six defensemen in the NHL. Five of the Predators’ current six starting defensemen were drafted by the team. Here are the top three needs for the Predators at the 2016 Draft:
The Predators have only drafted two defensemen in the first four rounds of the draft over the past two years: Jack Dougherty and Alexandre Carrier. Dougherty was brought up to the Milwaukee Admirals in the AHL for a brief time after his Western Hockey League junior season ended, so he may be ready to play in the NHL within 2-4 years. Carrier is still in the QMJHL and likely won’t even make the jump to the pros this offseason.
While Nashville has a couple of talented defensemen on their way, beyond Carrier and Dougherty, the defensive pipeline significantly thins out, especially now that Anthony Bitetto appears to be a mainstay in Nashville. Jonathan Ismael-Diaby, a third round pick in 2013, appears to be a budding disappointment given his potential, European prospect Kristian Nakyva is headed back to Sweden after just one season in North America and Taylor Aronson, who actually played quite well this season, is on thin ice with the organization after walking out on the Admirals because he was upset that he wasn’t called up prior to the playoffs. Perhaps with an attitude adjustment, Aronson could be a future NHLer, but that situation is very much up in the air. (Editor’s note: Taylor Aronson signed with HC Lada of the KHL on Monday)
Drafting two defensemen in the first four rounds this year would bolster the pipeline again and allow for more security down the line once captain Shea Weber gets too old to be a reliable top defenseman. It’s a long way off, but it’s going to happen and the Predators need to be prepared.
They also have the bonus of not needing a star forward in the first round this year. Their forward pipeline is as strong as its ever been, with prospect upon prospect waiting for their turn in the NHL. It’s time to re-stock on defensemen, and perhaps draft the next Weber or Roman Josi.
2. Right Wing
With forwards, the Predators can be a little more flexible, as players can slide and adjust to playing on either wing or at center. However, the Predators would benefit from adding another right wing to their pipeline. According to HockeysFuture, the Predators only have four prospects at right wing, compared to eight at left wing and ten at center. Nashville is strong at right wing at the top level with guys like James Neal, Craig Smith and Miikka Salomaki, but could use a few more to complement them. Right winger Max Gortz is waiting in the wings in Milwaukee and could get a shot, and beyond that, the number of true right wingers dwindles dangerously thin. If there’s a solid right winger in rounds two, three or four, Nashville should take a shot on him.
Nashville already solved their goaltending logjam last offseason by trading away Magnus Hellberg and sending the signal that Juuse Saros will be the heir apparent to Pekka Rinne’s net once he retires. This offseason, it appears that Marek Mazanec might be on his way out as well, depending on what happens with Carter Hutton’s contract situation. If the Predators are clearing the path for Saros to take over for Rinne in a few years, it may be good idea to draft another goaltender in the mid-to-late rounds to restock the pipeline and maybe find Saros’ eventual replacement, or at the very least find some insurance in case Saros doesn’t live up to his potential.
If the Predators address these three areas, they’ll be able to bulk up their prospect pipeline and keep their Stanley Cup window open for as long as possible.