By: Adam Gretz
By now you probably already know the story of the Nashville Predators and the way they have to construct their roster.
They don't have the funds at their disposal to acquire many big-name players in free agency or the trade market, and they may even struggle to keep the star players they draft and develop themselves (like defenseman Shea Weber, for example). The key to maintaining a competitive team on the ice is to have a steady pipeline of young, low-cost, homegrown talent flowing through the farm system.
In recent years they've done an admirable job putting together a playoff caliber team while playing in what is one of the toughest divisions in the NHL -- the Central Division -- going up against two Original Six power houses in Chicago and Detroit. They've qualified for the playoffs in six of the past seven seasons, and this past season advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
One of the prospects that has been gaining plenty of attention over the past year is their fourth-round pick from 2009, forward Craig Smith, who has spent the past two seasons playing at the University of Wisconsin. During the Predators prospects game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday night, Smith managed to score four goals (highlight video shown above; Smith is wearing No. 15) in a 7-3 win, before adding two more goals against the Florida Panthers prospects on Tuesday.
That's six goals in two games, and perhaps the most impressive performance of any player in any of the ongoing prospect tournaments.
Earlier this summer Smith represented the United States at the World Hockey Championships in Slovakia, and despite being the only collegiate player on the roster, finished as one of the leading scorers on the team, scoring three goals to go with three assists in seven games. Prior to that, he was the second-leading scorer for Wisconsin with 19 goals and 24 assists in 41 games.
The step from rookie tournaments in early September to the NHL during the regular season is, obviously, a massive one, but Smith's performance at all levels over the past year is an encouraging sign for the Predators organization. He's taken advantage of every chance he's been given and established himself as a player that may have some sort of NHL future.
Here are a few other notable performances from the many tournaments that are currently taking place.
Brandon Saad, Chicago Blackhawks: A year ago Brandon Saad was projected to be one of the first North American players off the board during the 2011 draft. His stock dropped a little during the season and he was eventually selected by the Chicago Blackhawks in the middle of the second round. Saad was also left off the 2011 World Junior roster earlier this year, and is using that as a motivational tool as he described in an interview with Erin Nicks of NHL.com. The Blackhawks rookies are taking part in the Oshawa Rookie Tournament, and Saad, a power forward from the Pittsburgh area, has five points in his first two games. He has great size (already listed at 6-foot-2 and over 200 pounds) and plenty of upside, and looked to be a nice find in the second-round right from the start. His early performance here has only reinforced that.
Here's what Ted Dent, the head coach of the Rockford Ice Dogs who is also coaching the Blackhawks rookies at the tournament, had to say about Saad's early performance, via NHL.com:
"I didn't know much about Brandon coming into the tournament this weekend, but I've been very impressed. He puts the puck hard to the net; he has good hockey sense, as well. He's been very good the past few games. I know a situation like missing out on the World Junior Championship would be a huge disappointment, but this is another chance for him to make an impression on those who see him. I think he'll continue to take advantage of that fact."Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers: For the second year in a row the Edmonton Oilers had the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, and used it on playmaking center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. He's making his Oilers debut at the Young Stars Tournament, and while his first appearance on Sunday against the Vancouver Canucks didn't result in the type of goal-scoring clinic that we saw from Smith or Saad, observers, including Ian Walker of the Vancouver Sun, came away extremely impressed with his playmaking ability, on-ice vision and awareness. He's still a little on the small side (not as big of an issue as it used to be in the NHL), and the debate as to whether or not he should open the season in the NHL continues to rage on in Edmonton and across the league. But the early returns, for what they are based on one game against other rookies, are promising.
The Winnipeg Jets: Finally, fans of the Winnipeg Jets have been able to get their first look at players wearing the new uniforms, the surest sign of all that hockey is officially back in Winnipeg. It may not be the NHL roster playing a real game, but it's a start. Their rookies made their debut on Monday night against the San Jose Sharks prospects and picked up a 4-0 win, with the first goal going to Levko Koper. Mark Scheifele, the Jets first-round pick this past season (No. 7 overall) added a shorthanded goal in the win. You can check out the highlights in this video from the Jets website.