The Nashville Predators prospect pool is slowly shaping up to be among the NHL’s best. They have a healthy amount of talent expected to play in the NHL soon, with a sprinkling of elite-level potential. Following the conclusion of the 2023 NHL Entry Draft, 11 new players found themselves draped in Nashville colors, three of which find themselves on this list. While projecting a surefire superstar from the Predators’ prospect crop is somewhat challenging, albeit three have the capabilities to become elite top-of-the-lineup players, it would be shocking if none of these ten players reached the NHL.
The criteria for the Predators’ prospect list are as follows:
- 23 years old or younger
- Played less than 25 NHL games in a single season
With this criteria, defenseman Jake Livingston, 24 years old, and forwards Juuso Pärssinen and Philip Tomasino, over 25 games played, will not appear on the list.
10. Ryan Ufko
Drafted in the fourth round of the 2021 NHL Draft, undersized defenseman Ryan Ufko has impressed during his time at the University of Massachusetts (UMass-Amherst) in the NCAA. In 32 games last season, Ufko scored eight goals and tallied 16 assists for 24 points. During the 2021-22 season, he had 31 points (five goals and 26 assists) in 37 games. He’s a puck-moving defenseman with promising offensive capabilities, evident by his statistics, but his 5-foot-10 frame and questionable decision-making knocks him down the list.
9. Felix Nilsson
Felix Nilsson is the first player from the Predators’ 2023 NHL Draft class to make the list. The 6-foot 18-year-old is a second-round pick of the Predators. The Swedish center scored 41 points in 36 games for Rögle BK’s J20 Nationell team. His dominance led to him playing in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) with Rögle BK. While Nilsson didn’t register a point in his 18 SHL games, earning the opportunity to play amongst men in Sweden’s top league is impressive for his age.
Nilsson is playing on Rögle BK’s J20 Nationell team to start the 2023-24 season. In his first game with Rögle BK Jr., he notched a goal and an assist. His ability to dominate his peers in Sweden, high hockey IQ, and excellent passing make him one of the Predators’ top prospects entering this season.
8. Zachary L’Heureux
Zachary L’Heureux being eighth on the list speaks more to the Predators’ infusion of young talent and the strides some players ahead of him have taken than him falling behind in his development. The 27th overall pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft is a hard-nosed left-winger willing to get in the dirty areas and has a good scoring touch. His 5-foot-11, 197-pound frame makes him capable of being a pest in the offensive zone. He likely needs at least one year in the American Hockey League (AHL) before he can crack the NHL.
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L’Heureux had an impressive run with the Halifax Mooseheads in last season’s Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) playoffs. He scored 11 goals and 15 assists for 26 points in 20 games, leading the Mooseheads to the QMJHL Final. He plays big, scores big goals, and projects to be a big piece of the Predators’ future.
7. Reid Schaefer
Reid Schaefer is a power forward through and through. Acquired at the 2023 NHL Trade Deadline as part of the return for Mattias Ekholm, he is shaping up to be a useful player sooner rather than later for the Predators. His 6-foot-5, 227-pound frame makes him nearly impossible to play against. He plays heavy, but he can also flash his offensive talent when he wants to.
Last season with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League (WHL), Schaefer scored 61 points (28 goals and 33 assists) in 55 games. In the playoffs, he was a significant contributor to the Thunderbirds’ dominant postseason campaign. He scored 19 points in 19 games en route to winning the WHL Championship and a berth in the 2023 Memorial Cup. His team lost to the Quebec Remparts in the Memorial Cup Final, but his consistent offensive output and heavy play style are extremely promising.
6. Fyodor Svechkov
Fyodor Svechkov is an interesting prospect in the Predators system. The Preds signed their 19th overall pick from the 2021 NHL Draft to an entry-level deal in May, meaning he will play in North America for the 2023-24 season. In the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) last season, he had two goals and two assists for four points in 27 games playing for Spartak Moskva. A 20-year-old like Svechkov getting into 27 KHL games is impressive.
Svechkov is an intelligent player. He likely won’t provide top-tier offense for the Predators but offers an all-around skillset capable of playing in any situation. In my opinion, players below him on this list, like L’Heureux or Ufko, have higher overall potential, but Svechkov is a safe bet to play middle-six minutes once he hits his stride in the NHL.
5. Tanner Molendyk
Tanner Molendyk is the first defenseman drafted by the Predators in the first round since Dante Fabbro in 2016. The defender is one of the best skaters from the 2023 NHL Draft class. His 5-foot-11 frame doesn’t stop him from laying big hits, and his stick-handling is one of his best assets.
Moldenyk played for the Saskatoon Blades of the WHL last season. He appeared in 67 games, scoring nine goals and 28 assists for 37 points. His offensive ceiling is one of the few questionable areas of his game. Fortunately, he should have a bigger role on the Blades this season, giving him a chance to develop that side of his game further.
4. Luke Evangelista
Luke Evangelista is the Predators prospect to watch this season. He will likely be the only prospect to get consistent playing time on the Predators for the 2023-24 season, with many hoping and expecting him to be a staple in the top six. He’s a smart player, responsible defensively, great at passing, and has a deceptive shot. Aside from his immense skillset, much of the optimism surrounding Evangelista stems from his stellar 2022-23 campaign.
Evangelista was a late-season call-up for the Predators. He appeared in 24 games last season, scoring 15 points (seven goals and eight assists) and showing incredible poise and patience. Following the completion of the Predators season, he joined the Milwaukee Admirals’ Calder Cup Playoff run. He scored 15 points (four goals and 11 assists) in 16 playoff games, continuing his impressive season. Combining his totals from the 2022-23 AHL regular season and playoffs sees a scoring output of 56 points (13 goals and 43 assists) in 65 games. That output in the 21-year-old’s first full pro season is fantastic. He has all the tools to be a consistent top-six winger for a long time, and he will have every opportunity to play first-line minutes this season, so it’s his job to continue where he left off.
3. Joakim Kemell
Joakim Kemell had a down year in Finland last season. He only scored 15 points (12 goals and three assists) in 43 games with JyP HT Jyvaskyla in the Liiga. These point totals are a sizeable decrease from the year prior, where he had 23 points (15 goals and eight assists) in 39 games with the Finnish Club—his mediocre season raised some questions about his development. He is still a lethal offensive threat, but reasonable doubt filled some fans’ minds. That was until he came to North America.
Kemell didn’t play too many games in the AHL during the 2022-23 season, but when he did, he was a force of nature. In 14 regular season games with the Admirals, he scored 13 points in 14 games. Once the Calder Cup Playoffs began, he continued his successful stint, scoring ten points, eight of which were goals, in 14 games. Watching Kemell put up worrying numbers in Finland and then putting the AHL on notice with his high-octane scoring is a confusing spectacle. However, his performance with the Admirals should put any worry of his development idling to rest. He is still a premier prospect in the NHL and among the best the Predators have.
2. Matthew Wood
The Predators selected Matthew Wood with their first pick in the 2023 NHL Draft. The 6-foot-4 forward is crafty with great hands, a booming shot, and high hockey IQ. There are some concerns regarding his skating, but he can develop that area of his game over the next few seasons. He is a high-potential player with some risk; however, he is the exact bet general manager (GM) Barry Trotz had to make at the 2023 NHL Entry Draft.
Wood played at the University of Connecticut (UConn) last season. He scored 11 goals and 23 assists for 34 points in 35 games, flashing his elite potential. For his size, he lacks the tenacity and heaviness one might expect. This season at UConn is an opportunity for him to improve his skating and continue learning to use his size to his advantage. Expect a massive season from the massive forward.
1. Yaroslav Aksarov
Yaroslav Askarov has all the tools to become an elite NHL goaltender. His quick feet, smooth side-to-side movement, and athleticism are some of his standout skills. Like any goalie, he does have his faults, notably his glove hand, but he is in the upper echelon of goaltending prospects in the NHL, along with Devon Levi, Dustin Wolf, and Jesper Wallstedt.
To call Askarov confident would be an understatement. He isn’t afraid to be overly aggressive. He will skate for pucks well outside the crease and even race for loose pucks against oncoming attackers. Of course, these split-second decisions can lead to massive hiccups, causing a frenzy in the defensive zone, but his innovative, heart-attack-inducing style is undoubtedly entertaining. If he can continue to hone his glove hand and improve his decision-making, Askarov’s unorthodox style could lead to more goaltenders adopting it if he becomes a premier goalie in the sport.
At 21 years old, Askarov is in no rush to become the Predators’ starting goalie. Juuse Saros has two years remaining on his contract, and Kevin Lankinen is one of the better backups in the league. Getting him more seasoning in the AHL, where he spent all of last season aside from one NHL game, will help him continue to develop. Last season in the AHL, he had a 2.69 goals-against-average, a .911 save percentage, and 26 wins in 48 games.
Predators Have Talent
The Predators have tons of talent in their system, and they already have 11 draft picks for the 2024 NHL Entry Draft, including four in the first two rounds. The organization has done a fantastic job re-stocking the prospect cupboard over the last three years. With the Predators likely outside the playoff picture this season, adding another potential lottery pick to this list is an exciting thought.