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Valuable experience gained by Preds rookies

With every NHL rookie comes growing pains – it doesn’t matter if you’re a first overall pick or a seventh-round selection.

The 2011-12 version of the Nashville Predators had a handful of rookies play key roles at key times of the season. Gone were the likes of Steve Sullivan, J.P. Dumont and Joel Ward; in came fresh blood including Craig Smith, Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi and Gabriel Bourque.

Some of those rookies had growing pains, but they all gained experiences that will benefit them next season and beyond.

The Predators started the season as the NHL’s youngest team. Five rookies were on the opening night roster. Four rookies, all mentioned above, participated in the playoffs. In total, nine rookies took the ice for the Predators in the regular season, a clear signal that the team continues the fluid changing of the guard from the wily veterans to these baby-faced youngsters.

The rookie that made the quickest impact was Smith, who started the season on a hot streak and raised a lot of eyebrows both in house (head coach Barry Trotz compared Smith’s skating ability to that of Teemu Selanne’s) and around the league (Smith was among 12 rookies selected for the All-Star Game in Ottawa).

In his first 15 games in the league, Smith tallied seven goals and 14 points. However, he hit the proverbial wall for rookies and struggled to produce in the final two-thirds of the season (22 points in final 57 games). It’s something he can learn from going into next season.

“He knows what to expect now,” Trotz said earlier this month.

Ellis was a well-decorated prospect coming out of the OHL; he did everything a defenseman could do individually in that league, not to mention the back-to-back Memorial Cups he won with Windsor.

The 5-foot-10 defenseman was called up to Nashville in December due to Shea Weber’s concussion and never looked back. He had a few bumps in the road and didn’t see as much playing time down the stretch due to the addition of Hal Gill, but he finished the season with 11 points and a plus-5 rating in 32 games.

Ellis also played in three first-round games against Detroit, averaging 6:53 of ice time per game; it’s an experience he wants to take advantage of in what he hopes is his first full NHL season in 2012-13.

“I’ve played in a lot of playoffs, so I kind of know what it takes – but the NHL, it’s a whole different animal. It’s a tough league,” Ellis said. “I think the experience I gained will be very valuable in the future. … I would have loved to be (play more) this season, but it’s all a learning process.”

Two other rookies, Bourque and Josi, made big strides this season.

With his speed and tenacity, Bourque immediately meshed into Trotz’s ‘Predator Hockey’ system upon his arrival in December. Bourque even played a big role in eliminating Detroit, scoring three big goals in the five games. As a result, he skated in the lineup’s top six for most of the postseason.

Josi also came through in the clutch for the Predators. Like Ellis, Josi had some growing pains on the blue-line. But he also showed a lot of promise.

“The more he plays the better he’s going to get,” said veteran defenseman Hal Gill, who was mostly paired with Josi after being acquired in February. “He obviously has huge upside. He’s got skill and size, he can skate.”

In 52 regular season games, Josi saw 18-plus minutes of ice time per game. A month into his NHL career he was forced to fill the top pairing void when Weber went down; Josi filled that void admirably.

He had an up-and-down playoffs where he tallied zero points and a minus-4 rating in 10 games. Still, Josi was pleased with his first season in the NHL.

“I’m happy with how it went overall,” he said. “After the call-up and I got a chance to play here, I had to learn a lot of stuff and get used to the faster game. I learned a lot this year with guys like Suter and Weber, watching them in practice and games, that’s definitely stuff (I can) take into next season.”

On top of the experience they gained of playing in pressure-packed moments in the regular season and playoffs, Smith (USA) and Josi (Switzerland) participated in the IIHF World Championships after the Predators were knocked out in the second round. They chipped in three points in a combined seven games.

Before the season started, Predators GM David Poile said they would be a better team in the second half compared to the first. Poile was correct in his prediction, and the team’s second-half success may not have happened without the quick maturation of this crop of rookies.

At this time last year there seemed to be a lot of promise for rookies like Jonathon Blum and Blake Geoffrion. Blum was demoted to Milwaukee before the season’s midway point, while Geoffrion was dealt to Montreal for Gill.

Could these rookies have Blum- and Geoffrion-like growing pains next season? Absolutely. But the aforementioned youngsters provided a bigger sample size than either Blum or Geoffrion, and are also more complete players.

There are an abundance of question marks this off-season for the Predators. One guarantee going into next season, however, is that the Predators have a solid stable of youngsters ready to shine at the NHL level – and they all showed glimpses of that in 2011-12.

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