They started with eight forwards and 10 defensemen. There were barely enough players to dress an opening night roster. Only nine of them were returning from the previous season. It was a team put together literally at the last minute. After two incredibly successful seasons, it looked to be a down year. With that in mind, it seems inconceivable that the Nashville Jr. Predators North American Tier III Hockey League (NA3HL) team, 11 games later, stands second in the Midwest Division, with an impressive 8-1-2 record.
The Jr. Preds have set a high standard of success in only a few short years. Their inaugural season in 2014-15 resulted in the best regular season record in the league and a third place finish in the Silver Cup Finals. They followed up the following year with a Midwest Division Finals appearance against the St. Louis Jr. Blues. With a new-look coaching staff of former NHLers JP Dumont and Chris Mason, along with longtime Nashville youth coach Tim McAllister, the Jr. Preds are looking to claim their stake at the top of the Midwest.
The season began with low expectations, but they quickly put those to bed with a stunning 7-4 win over St. Louis. The team did this dawning their home gold sweaters on the road in St. Louis. This was due to the fallout from the closure of A-Game Sportsplex. With the team moving to Ford Ice Center, there is limited ice availability, meaning the Jr. Predators have to play 31 of 44 regular season games on the road (9 of which that were supposed to be at home). With the lopsided schedule and the team gradually building after starting with a short bench, it’s incredible to see the team start this well. The coaching staff agreed the small roster in the beginning was due to the team losing A-Game and the challenge it created in recruiting. But now, assistant coach Tim McAllister believes the team is right where they need to be.
“We’re gradually getting more and more kids on the roster and we’re starting to create some depth that is dangerous as we move along,” said McAllister.
Out of the first 11 games so far, Nashville has scored five goals or more in six of them. Four of their eight victories have come with the team winning by three goals or more. So where is the offense coming from? The top five scorers are a mix of new names and returning players. Second year player, Logan Orem, and new guy Weiland Parrish both lead the team with 17 points. Latvian Niks Kalnberzins is third with 13 points, and second year players Dylan Schmidt and Michael Redmon are tied with 11 points. Orem and Redmon lead the team with seven goals each. Captain Conor Cunningham leads the defense with 11 points, averaging a point per game, and rapidly approaching his mark of only 14 points last season. He, along with Brandon Orth, are both having to step up as the top defense pair. After going scoreless last year, Orth has added a goal along with six helpers, already eclipsing his record of 5 points last season.
With goalie coach Chris Mason’s help, the goaltending has become much more consistent with Ricky Gonzalez making his mark as the team’s bona fide number one starting goaltender in his second season. His save percentage has steadily improved from .895 last season to .911 so far this year. Unfortunately, Gonzalez season has taken a hit as he suffered a lower-body injury in the October 22 game vs Cincinnati. Nashville had to call in backup goalie Mason Koster. At the time, they were leading 3-1. They went on to blow a 4-goal lead and lose 6-5 in overtime. Koster came back the following day with 26 saves on 27 Cincinnati shots and led the team to a 6-1 win. The team will have to depend on Koster for at least the two weeks while Gonzalez recovers from his injury.
“That’s hockey,” said Chris Mason on the goalie shakeup. “You never like to see that happen, but you have to be prepared. We’ll have to see exactly what’s wrong with Ricky. We don’t know the extent of his injury, but we’ll make the necessary adjustments.”
“Losing Ricky was huge,” said Koster. “He’s a big part of this team. I just know that I have to bring it each and every day with no excuses.” Joshua Friedenberger has been recalled on an emergency basis.
JP Dumont has also figured in an alternative measure. “If we need to, we’ll have Chris Mason shave and step in.”
Looking forward, the Jr. Predators have a challenging schedule in the NA3HL’s Midwest Division, facing powerhouses St. Louis Jr. Blues and Peoria Mustangs often as well as the top two South Division teams, the Point Mallard Ducks and Atlanta Capitals. The remaining games will be matched against the Cincinnati Thunder and Evansville Thunderbolts, two teams Nashville matches up against well. There are 33 games remaining, with only eight left at Ford Ice Center. The Jr. Predators face a gauntlet of road games. One would think it’s a challenge, but the guys on the team disagree.
“I don’t think it will be a big challenge at all the guys love playing on the road, in front of their fans,” said leading scorer Logan Orem. “It’s fun. We usually sweep on the road. We’re ready to go.”
Mason Koster added to that sentiment. “Playing on the road is a lot of fun. All the boys are together. It’s a good atmosphere and we can all get a little better prepared mentally. It will be a test for us.”
Head coach JP Dumont also offered his take on the challenge. “It’s junior, right? The more time we spend together on the bus, more stories, I think we’re building character on the road and start to know each other better as well.”
Dumont also noted the team’s proximity to the other opponents. “We’re lucky enough this year our road trips aren’t to Texas anymore. They’re not that far. We have to make sure we don’t take that as an excuse and we just play some good hockey and get more prepared for the playoffs.”
“We have a really great lineup and we can create a lot of speed,” said a very complimentary Coach Dumont on his team’s performance thus far.
That speed has led to a lot of offense in a new era of hockey that necessitates that kind of skill. Dumont also issued a challenge to his team on how to conduct themselves moving forward.
“We have to make sure we never adjust ourselves to the other team, but make sure they have to adjust themselves to us.”
Find the full schedule and more information on the Nashville Junior Predators here.