Miikka Salomaki spent the 2015-16 season trying to earn himself a permanent spot on the Nashville Predators roster. The now 24-year-old, drafted in the second round of the 2011 entry draft by the Predators, played 61 games that year. Although he scored just 10 points, he seemed to earn the trust of the coaching staff and had a solid season. Going into 2016-17, the spot was his.
But then injuries struck, and hard. He missed nearly the entire season after a sequence of long-term injuries. Two games into 2016-17, he went out with a hand injury from blocking a shot. Almost immediately after his return from that injury, before even suiting back up in the NHL, he went down again with a lower body injury. Salomaki finally returned to play three games at the end of the regular season. He saw six games of action during the playoffs, but watched the majority of the Predators success from the press box. By that time, the Predators were firing on all cylinders, and other players had leaped over him in the depth-chart. Salomaki’s spot was gone.
Fast forward a summer, and Salomaki has returned to the Predator’s lineup in preseason action. The preseason is an important time for many players. Returning roster players get a chance to warm up their legs, coordinate their eyes and hands, and shake off the summer rust. Prospects and players on the bubble look to make an impression on teammates, coaches, and management in hopes of current or future consideration. Salomaki’s preseason, though is unique. He’s something of a tweener: a player with NHL experience looking to earn his spot back.
So far, everything has gone according to plan for Salomaki. In his first game of the preseason, the second of a doubleheader against the Florida Panthers, Salomaki scored two goals, including the overtime winner. He played the most minutes of any Predators forward in the next game against the Lightning. In the Predators most recent preseason game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Salomaki was again impressive.
For him, it’s about the little things. He won’t score the flashiest goals or stick handle his way through odd-man situations. Instead, he creates opportunities, and prevents them for opposition, with his feet and his thinking. Throughout the preseason, Salomaki has been quicker than his opponents, reading plays early and adjusting before his competition.
A perfect example of this came in a shift in the first period of Sunday’s preseason game against Columbus. Salomaki was involved in the play from start to finish. It began when he helped out his defenseman, who had retreated deep into the defensive zone after a failed breakout attempt. Salomaki took a hit in the corner in order to make a play and chip the puck to center ice.
From there, Colton Sissons was able to regroup with the defensemen following a failed zone entry, and get in on the forecheck. Salomaki followed the play as the second forward into the zone, and when Sissons forced a turnover, he jumped on a loose puck at the right face-off circle. From there Salomaki drove the net and chipped the puck past Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to score his third goal of the preseason.
This goal was all Salomaki hockey. It won’t make highlight reels, but it’s a perfect representation of what he can give to the Predators. For Salomaki, everything starts with defensively responsible play. His first priority was to clear the puck from his own zone. Then, he skated his way 150 feet back into the play. With a quick read, he beat Columbus’ defense to a loose puck, and actually showed a bit of hands moving the puck from backhand to forehand, finishing over Bobrovsky’s leg pad.
This type of play is not a one-off for Salomaki either. In the first period on Sunday, and throughout the preseason, he’s consistently made heady, responsible plays and taken care of defense before transitioning to offense. Unfortunately, Salomaki did not play beyond the first period, leaving the game with an apparent injury. The issue appears to have been minor, as Salomaki did hit the ice on Wednesday for practice. It would have been a shame for Salomaki to lose his momentum to injury yet again.
Given the preseason he has had, Salomaki deserves a roster spot on opening night if he is healthy. At the very least, he has earned a good hard look from Predators management and coaching staff. If he fails to crack the initial roster, he’ll be an early call up in the case of injuries or struggling players.