With the 2023-24 season inching closer, several Preds prospects are staring down critical questions about their development. While Nashville’s pipeline may be as strong as it’s ever been, unknowns remain about whether some of these players can take those important next steps to make it to the NHL. Below, I look at ten things I’ll be focusing on this season:
Can Egor Afanasyev establish himself as a dominant AHL player?
Last summer, during Nashville’s training camp, the coaching staff stressed to Egor Afanasyev how close he was to earning NHL ice time. While I may dispute that in my assessment, he ultimately earned a 17-game call-up due to injuries, etc. Afanasyev scored his first NHL goal, but he barely improved on his production in the AHL. The Russian forward’s 33 points in 74 games in 2021-22 were good for 0.445 points per game; his 26 points in 57 games last year come in at 0.456 points per game. Despite his tantalizing skill and size, Afanasyev has yet to demonstrate a dominant scoring touch at the AHL level. His 11 points in 16 playoff games last season are encouraging, but there is more beneath the surface.
In his freshman year in the AHL, Afanasyev struggled to maintain puck possession and get to high-danger scoring areas, per my hand-tracked data. In 10 games, he successfully exited his own zone with control just 54.76% of the time, and his entry success rate was down to 47.83%. He relied more on dumping in the puck than skating it in and retrieved just 16.67% of his dump-ins. Despite recording a respectable 11.60 individual shot attempts per 60 minutes of even-strength ice time, just 2.11 of those attempts were from high-danger areas.
Last year, those metrics didn’t improve significantly. 15 of his 27 points were primary ones scored at even strength, which is positive, but the tracked data was less so. His zone exit success rate dropped to 48.39% and entries dropped to 31.25%. He dumped the puck in on three-fourths of attempts and still just retrieved 16.67% of those chances. Additionally, only 4.94 of his 13.41 shot attempts per 60 minutes came from high-danger areas.
For what it’s worth, I think there is a really talented player with significant NHL potential here. But I also think this offseason and the 2023-24 campaign are critical moments for his career. Improved skating speed and better puck handling under pressure will help him maintain possession and cut to important areas in the offensive end better. The Admirals will be counting on him to unlock a bigger scoring touch in his third year.
Which Fyodor Svechkov will show up in Milwaukee?
Nashville’s brass checked a big off-season to-do list item in getting Fyodor Svechkov signed to his entry-level deal earlier this year. The 2021 first-round pick, who is expected to join the Admirals this coming season, had a bumpy campaign in 2022-23. He bounced around the Russian MHL, VHL, and KHL, struggling to stand out in the latter two leagues at times. His four points in 27 KHL games were fine given his bottom-six usage, but his one goal and seven points in 14 VHL games must have been disappointing. The positive news is Svechkov really turned things up a notch in the playoffs, scoring five goals and seven points in nine games as his team, Khimik Voskresensk, won the VHL title.
Similar to Tommy Novak earlier in his career, Svechkov’s pace of play isn’t always conducive to faster hockey. But he’s a stellar puck distributor with good playmaking instincts and great defensive prowess. I expect some growing pains, but I’m curious to see how he handles the AHL game this season and how much special teams ice time he earns, particularly on the penalty kill.
Will Ethan Haider’s transfer help him earn an NHL deal?
After a couple of years on the rise, Clarkson University’s hockey program hit a wall last year, going 16-17-4. What ensued was a pretty big exodus of players to the NCAA transfer portal, including starting goalie Ethan Haider.
Haider, who was the ECAC’s rookie of the year in 2020-21, faltered in his junior season, posting a 0.906 save percentage and allowing 1.021 goals above average while playing a career-high 35 games. After entering the portal, Haider took a while before making a decision, and his ultimate landing spot is a bit perplexing.
The netminder, who was the second to last goalie that played starting minutes in 2022-23 to exit the portal, will join fellow Preds prospect Matthew Wood at the University of Connecticut (UConn). UConn is a respectable program in maybe the best conference in college hockey, but Haider isn’t guaranteed to be the starter; sophomore goalie and Calgary Flames prospect Arseni Sergeyev will challenge for the crease too.
Haider is playing to earn an NHL contract next summer from an organization that still has a thin goalie pipeline. But, this season will be a major test for the 2019 fifth-round pick to earn Nashville’s commitment.
Is Alex Campbell up for the Hockey East challenge?
Much like Ethan Haider, forward Alex Campbell jettisoned himself from Clarkson this summer, joining Northeastern University via the transfer portal. And also like Haider, Campbell is playing for an entry-level deal next offseason.
The 2019 third-round pick really impressed me his freshman season, jumping out of the gate with four goals and 17 points in 22 games. In 2021-22, he followed that up with a stellar 16 goals and 33 points in 37 games. It looked like he was on track for NCAA dominance. But last year, Campbell stumbled, scoring 14 goals and 26 points in 34 games, including just nine primary points scored at even strength.
Campbell’s underly metrics still look good. He posted a 53.33% Corsi last season, exited the zone at a 76.47% success rate, and entered the zone at an 80.77% success rate—almost always electing to carry the puck in. He recorded an impressive 15.02 shot attempts per 60 minutes and over half of those came from high-danger areas.
Luckily, in my eyes, Northeastern is an ideal challenge for Campbell. Hockey East will be a different test for the quick but lanky forward and one that may prepare him better for pro-level hockey. He looks poised to rebound on the scoresheet in 2023-24, but can he make an even bigger impression on Nashville’s development staff?
Can Jack Matier and Luke Prokop work their way into the Admirals’ lineup?
Nashville’s defensive depth looks very strong next year. Assuming the Preds keep seven or eight defenders in the NHL, that leaves some combination of Marc Del Gaizo, Kevin Gravel, Jordan Gross, Roland McKeown, Spencer Stastney, Adam Wilsby, and Jake Livingstone as your starters in Milwaukee.
Beyond them, the organization has Griffin Luce, Keaton Thompson, Jack Matier, and Luke Prokop under contract too. Pending any surprises, it looks like Matier and Prokop will start the year with the ECHL’s Atlanta Gladiators to, at the very least, get some tough minutes under their belts.
Injuries and trade deadline moves will undoubtedly elevate them at some point this season, and I’m curious to see what both bring to the table. Prokop has a few games of ECHL experience to his name, and he needs to prove that he can contribute at both ends of the ice in the pros; Matier should be ready to prove that he’s too good for junior hockey.
Will David Poile’s Reid Schaefer bet pay off?
In speaking about Reid Schaefer last year, David Poile and Barry Trotz essentially confirmed he was or near a first-round pick on their 2022 NHL Entry Draft Board. Schaefer was, and remains, a day-two pick from that class for me.
In his two full seasons with the Seattle Thunderbirds, he’s looked excellent at times, lighting the lamp on their top line. Other times, he’s been perplexing, committing turnovers, struggling in transition, and taking frustrating penalties. In 2022-23, the Thunderbirds were a hard team to scout given their dominance, so I’m looking forward to getting a clearer picture of Schaefer’s game in the AHL.
His 19 points in 19 playoff games provide some great momentum to build off of, but I’m nervous that success in Milwaukee will be too reliant on his role. That’s not always a bad thing, and it’s far too early to make a definitive statement about his future, but as a first-round pick, he’ll have a lot of eyes on him this coming season.
How quickly does Matthew Wood want to get to the NHL?
Nashville’s newest top prospect, Matthew Wood, made a name for himself as one of the top-scoring freshmen in college hockey last year. The UConn forward posted 11 goals and 34 points in 35 games with the Huskies, leading to him being picked 15th overall at the 2023 NHL Entry Draft.
I don’t think Wood is that far from making an NHL roster; he needs one, maybe two more years of NCAA play on his resume. And what helps is that we know what his biggest impediment is right now: skating. Now that he’s equipped with an NHL coaching and development staff, I’m curious to see how much of an improvement he can make in that department during the 2023-24 campaign. Depending on his growth, an entry-level contract isn’t out of the question next summer.
Will Kasper Kulonummi make the most of the pro minutes he’s earned?
I’ve been banging the Kasper Kulonummi drum for the past year and for good reason. The 6’0″ defender was Tappara U20’s best blueliner last season, scoring 43 points in 36 games in what was a dominant year for his squad. He then added 12 more points in 12 playoff games on the way to a championship.
Despite playing in ten Liiga games last year, Kulonummi didn’t particularly stand out (either good or bad). But, I expect he’ll be a full-time Liiga player in 2023-24. With that said, competition for a starting job on Tappara’s blueline will be tough as he’ll be going up against a handful of veterans. Regardless, he should have a decent chance to shine at the World Junior Championship in December.
Kulonummi truly took over games at the U20 SM-sarja level last year. Will that happen in his first full Liiga campaign? No. But I’m really looking forward to him, hopefully, beginning to dominate shifts and prove his offensive skills against the pros.
Is Marc Del Gaizo ready to challenge for a regular NHL roster spot?
There’s a world where Marc Del Gaizo ends up being just a really good AHL defender for the rest of his career. But I think there is more to the 23-year-old blueliner. Del Gaizo’s production in Milwaukee jumped from 19 points in 2021-22 to 31 points last year. He took on a leadership role in the locker room and helped guide a constantly shuffling defensive corps to a long playoff run.
The hand-tracked metrics were decent too: 55.50% Corsi, 69.05% zone exit success rate, kept 65.38% of entries against to the perimeter of the zone, and contributed 4.28 primary shot assists per 60 minutes.
Unfortunately, Spencer Stastney and Jake Livingstone have presumably surpassed him on the depth chart, and the likes of Ryan Ufko and Tanner Molendyk are chomping at the bit behind him. I would be surprised if Del Gaizo doesn’t get a couple of NHL games this year, but can he take the step to dominate at both ends of the AHL ice and force a conversation amongst Nashville’s staff?
Can Adam Ingram be an impact offensive player at even strength?
Adam Ingram finished his freshman season at St. Cloud State University with eight goals and 23 points in 41 games. Any glance at that stat line, and you’d be pretty impressed. But, just six of those points were primary ones scored at even strength as Ingram’s bottom-of-the-lineup ice time potentially stifled his production.
The 2022 third-round pick was a major weapon on the Huskies’ power play last year, but his skating remains an issue. I’ll be watching to see if his offseason training prepared him to keep a better pace with even-strength play.
All statistics are courtesy of eliteprospects.com or manually tracked. All contract information is courtesy of capfriendly.com.