Three teams have already had four members of its 2009 draft class reach the NHL. The Predators are one of the three, and they have more help on the way from their promising 2009 draft class.
Small-market NHL teams have to draft well to stay competitive, even in the salary cap era. Nashville has been an example of that since their inception, and the early signs suggest the front office staff may have hit a home run a short three years ago.
Gabriel Bourque, Ryan Ellis and Craig Smith will enter the 2012-13 season with their respective rookie statuses in the rear-view mirror and a lot of valuable experience under their belt. Also, Mattias Ekholm had a cup of coffee early last year before heading back to Sweden. All four 2009 draftees make up a portion of the Predators’ bright future.
But wait, there’s more.
Of the Predators’ first five picks in 2009, only one (Ellis) has made it to the NHL. The others feel they are on the cusp of getting to the big club, whether that happens next season or down the road.
One player that has been knocking on Nashville’s door for the better part of the last two seasons is Taylor Beck. The third-round pick, likened to Shane Doan by Predators head coach Barry Trotz, nearly made the team out of camp in 2010. Beck was almost an exception to the ‘Road to Nashville goes through Milwaukee’ standard. He also came close prior to last season.
“It was a little disappointing, but I was 19 and 20 [years old] at the time,” Beck said. “It’s a big learning curve. It’s the NHL. You grow up wanting to play in the league, so it’s not going to be an easy step.”
Beck said spending last season in the AHL in Milwaukee was a big help for him. In 74 games he recorded 16 goals and 40 points. In his last year with Guelph of the OHL, Beck had 95 points in 62 games.
“I need to be more consistent. That’s the bottom line for me,” said Beck. “When I play well I’m taking pucks to the net and playing good defensively. I need to do that more at a consistent rate. It’s something I’ve been working on with my training … Hopefully I can get up to Nashville as soon as that happens.”
Michael Latta, Beck’s longtime friend and teammate, is also hopeful that he can crack the NHL roster sooner rather than later. According to Latta himself, his skating will have to improve for that to happen.
“Everything could be better, but I’d say skating is my biggest weakness. If I can clean that up I could make a career in this league,” he said.
As Beck is more of a power forward, Latta is a scrappy two-way center that isn’t afraid to get under the opposition’s skin. In 51 AHL games last season, Latta racked up 27 points and 100 penalties in minutes.
“Last year I established myself as a rookie and a go-to-guy in the AHL. I think that was a big step for me. Now the next step is Nashville,” said Latta, who was taken two picks behind Beck in the third round.
“With the right help and the right role, I could make this team – but that’s up to the coaches. If they send me down to Milwaukee, of course I’ll be mad. At the same time it’s not going to deter me from working hard and playing the same game I always do.”
Zach Budish, taken 29 and 31 spots ahead of Beck and Latta, has had a bumpy road over the last four years. He has torn both ACLs in that span (one via high school football; the other from a moped accident) and is a bit behind when it comes to overall development.
As he returns to the University of Minnesota for his junior season, Budish is just looking to stay on the ice for a second consecutive season, something he hasn’t done since high school.
“My knees feel great. I’ve missed two years out of the last four, so it’s kind of been an up and down struggle,” said Budish, who chipped in 35 points in 43 games for the Golden Gophers last season. “Hard work pays off. I’ve spent a lot of time in the training room and doing rehab and all that not-so-fun stuff.”
Budish was a key member of Minnesota’s run to the Frozen Four this past spring and says the upcoming team has big potential. He wants to feed off that success as he has his sights set on pro hockey in the distance.
“It was a lot of fun to play last season and a lot of fun to win,” he said. “I’ve got a lot to prove. I had a pretty good year in college, but it’s time to take the next step.”
Bourque, Ellis and Smith were able to take that “next step” last season. When they arrived to the NHL, they stuck in the Predators’ lineup and made an impact at various parts of the season. Seeing those three succeed is motivation for the others in the draft class to get to the NHL as well.
“Four of the guys have made the team and I definitely want to be the next one,” said Beck. “It’s nice to see young guys like them stepping in and having a role right away and I’m looking to do that as soon as possible.”
Beck, Latta and Budish aren’t the only 2009 draftees waiting for their shot to get to Nashville; Charles-Olivier Roussel (2nd round), Nick Oliver (4th round) and Cameron Reid (7th round) are in that mix as well.
“We were watching last season’s highlights [at development camp] and you see guys like Bourque, Ellis and Smith, who are pretty much my age,” Budish said. “That’s the thing – a lot of guys that play for Nashville come through the development camp and Milwaukee. As a prospect it’s good to see that prospects come through the system and the team has their own way of doing things here, and it seems to work.”
The most players the Predators have ever had reach the NHL in Nashville from a specific draft class was the one in 2000, where five draft picks eventually donned the blue and gold. The 2009 class has a good chance of breaking that record in the not-too-distant future.