VOL. 132 | NO. 120 | Friday, June 16, 2017
Finals Run Gives Predators Look at Young Talent
John Glennon, Nashville Correspondent
As if the Nashville Predators’ march to the Stanley Cup Final wasn’t riveting enough on its own, the journey has also provided fans with some unexpected glimpses into the team’s future.
Frederick Gaudreau became an instant hit with Predators fans with this wrap-around goal in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals. The second-period goal gave the Preds a 2-1 lead that they would not relinquish. (NHLI via Getty Images/Joe Sargent)
Injuries have sidelined prominent Predators like Ryan Johansen, Mike Fisher and Colin Wilson for various lengths ever since the playoffs began way back on April 13, forcing less experienced Preds into more significant roles and prompting the promotion of minor-league prospects behind them.
In almost every instance, those called upon have delivered, often in far more impressive ways than expected.
Who, after all, would have believed the Preds would be touting the likes of Pontus Aberg, Frederick Gaudreau, Colton Sissons and others as they battled Pittsburgh in the Cup Final, ultimately losing at home.
“I think just the way the guys have stood up when pushed into those positions, they’ve responded,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette says. “Some of the roles have dramatically increased from what they might have been two months ago.
“But (we’ve been) in a sink-or-swim situation. As much as we’d liked to have (some of the injured Predators) in there, that’s not going to happen. There are only two choices: that’s to step up or probably exit.”
Here’s a closer look at three of the lesser Predators names who’ve made key contributions in the team’s history-making playoff run, and what those contributions might mean for their future in the organization:
Frederick Gaudreau, center
A 23-year-old who wasn’t drafted, Gaudreau is likely the biggest surprise contributor of the bunch.
Heading into these playoffs, Gaudreau had played in nine NHL games and hadn’t recorded a goal.
But when injuries to Johansen and Fisher created gaping holes for the Predators at center in the Western Conference Final, Gaudreau – who scored 25 goals in Milwaukee this season – was called upon to help fill the leak at that position.
He made his NHL debut in a poised, polished manner, winning 10-of-14 faceoffs in a Game 5 victory over Anaheim that swung the series in the Predators’ favor.
Gaudreau was even more impressive in the Stanley Cup Final, scoring three goals in the series’ first four games – including the game-winning goals in Games 3 and 4.
“He’s come a long way in his career,” Laviolette explains. “To be here in this kind of situation, you’d think that it might overwhelm him. But it hasn’t.
“He’s a good kid. He can skate. He’s skilled. He can make plays. He thinks the game well. He’s good defensively.”
Gaudreau will be a restricted free agent during the coming offseason, so he’ll need to sign another contract to remain in the Predators organization. Assuming that happens, his playoff prowess and his versatility – he can play both center and wing – should mean Predators fans will see him on a more regular basis next season.
“I don’t know exactly what the future holds, but no matter what, for me, this is such (great experience),” Gaudreau says.
“I’ve tried to take advantage of my opportunity. All these pressure situations and all these big games – everything that’s going on is really good for me looking ahead.”
Colton Sissons, center
Sissons played in 58 of the Preds’ regular-season games, but as recently as February, he was scratched from the lineup for seven straight games.
The playoffs, however, presented a new opportunity for the former second-round draft pick.
In the Preds’ first 20 postseason games, for instance, Sissons totaled 12 points (six goals, six assists), two points more than he produced in 58 regular-season games.
The contributions of the 23-year-old Sissons were even more pronounced since the Predators lost Johansen (thigh surgery) for the remainder of the playoffs during the Western Conference Final.
In the first five playoff games following Johansen’s injury, Sissons – now often going head-to-head with some of the NHL’s best centers – notched four goals and two assists.
“That’s the kind of thing I was hoping to do when I was challenged to step up in (Johansen’s) absence,” Sissons points out. “I know I’m kind of filling (Johansen’s) shoes, so I know I need to produce offense. Fortunately, the goals have been coming a little bit.”
Sissons has served in mostly a third- or fourth-line role for the Predators during his first couple of seasons, but his playoff performance might earn him a longer look in a second-line role moving forward.
“Again, it goes back to the opportunity for him,” Laviolette says. “He’s been given an opportunity, and he’s really showed what type of player he is.”
Pontus Aberg, left wing
The Predators knew Aberg, the 37th overall pick in the 2012 draft, had offensive skills. During the past three seasons in Milwaukee, Aberg piled up 72 goals and 54 assists for Nashville’s American Hockey League affiliate.
But Aberg never really caught fire during his stints with the Predators this year, as he totaled just one goal and one assist in 15 games.
Again, however, the playoffs gave another opportunity to Aberg, due to injuries to Wilson and Craig Smith.
The swift Swede scored a huge goal in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final, sweeping the game-winning score into the net while falling to the ice.
Aberg added two assists in the next game and then scored one of the most memorable goals of the postseason – evading Penguins defenseman Olli Maata and goalie Matt Murray before flipping the puck high into the net.
“It had been a while before I scored those last two goals,” Aberg says. “But it’s good for me to know I can do it up here (on the NHL level), and it’s obviously a boost to my confidence also.”
Aberg’s success in the most critical postseason games bodes well for his chances at becoming a regular in the line-up next season, especially considering the Preds may well lose one of their forwards to the expansion draft.
His combination of speed, hunger and skills fits right into Laviolette’s system.
“There’s been a lot of growth watching Pontus from when he first got here – the North American game, his development physically, his maturity as a player,” Laviolette notes.
“I think he, like a lot of our young players, has gone through the process of going to Milwaukee, figuring it out in the (AHL) … As the playoffs were approaching, we were able to utilize more players. He was a guy that was always in our mind.”
Reach John Glennon at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.