Tonight, the Nashville Predators rookies will be hitting the ice at Saveology.com Iceplex in Florida to take on the Panthers prospects. The game isn’t on tv or the radio, but when the puck drops at 6 p.m. CT, fans will be following as best as they can to have a first look at Nashville’s prospects in action–many for the first time in a Predators uniform while others are veterans to the rookie-camp scene.
The big battle at camp is who will be the backup to Nashville’s starting goalie, Pekka Rinne, when the puck drops on the Predators’ season October 9th at Bridgestone Arena. Goaltending battles aside, because the Predators have drafted many quality defensemen over the years, some returnees to the rookie training camp are highly drafted experts on the back end of the rink. Emphasis on defense seems unnecessary considering the Predators already have 7 defensemen signed to one way deals. Captain Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Francis Bouillon and Kevin Klein have guaranteed roster spots. Cody Franson just signed a new deal with Nashville last week, ending over 2 months of negotiations. Had he signed in the spring, his roster spot would also seem a virtual lock, but in recent interviews, GM David Poile has suggested that Franson will have to earn his spot like everyone else. Ryan Parent signed with the Preds after having his rights reacquired by Nashville in the Hamhuis to Philadelphia deal. Of course, Predators fans will remember that Alexander Sulzer is also on a one-way contract, despite the native of Germany having played the majority of the 2009-2010 season in Milwaukee. In addition to the one-way deals, the Predators also signed Aaron Johnson to a two-way contract. The 27 year old has 225 NHL games experience.
That’s 8 defensemen. As Predlines previously noted , the battle for the third and final defensive pairing will be fierce. One-way deals and Johnson’s contract aside, two of the top prospects in town vying for jobs, despite the lack of vacancies, are Jonathon Blum and Ryan Ellis. Both players are first round draft picks of Nashville. Both are defensemen.
This is Blum’s fourth training camp, though last year was his first pro-season of hockey. The Rancho Santa Margarita, California native was the only Milwaukee Admirals player to appear in all 80 games last year. Finishing with 11 goals and 30 assists for 41 points, Blum was fourth on the team in scoring.
Blum appreciates the experiences gained from three training camps already under his belt, but it was finally turning pro, after an illustrious junior career that included winning the Memorial Cup in his rookie season with the Vancouver Giants, that made the biggest difference on his development as a player. “Last year I learned a lot at the pro-level playing in Milwaukee about how to handle the big guys, the speed,” Blum told Predlines, “and it only gets fast in the NHL. Coming out here early, skating with the pro guys really helped.”
Blum isn’t kidding when he talks about learning to handle the big guys. The defenseman is 6’1 but has a small-frame. In fact, bulking up is one of the areas of his game where Blum has had to improve. Only Ryan Ellis and Linus Klasen weigh less out of all players invited to camp, and they are 5’9 and 5’8 respectfully. Frame aside, Blum is the highest ranked player among Nashville’s prospects. He is touted as a future top-four defensemen, someone who is ready to make the NHL, but stuck in a system that prides itself on defensive depth. What Blum lacks in size he makes up in speed. On the ice, Blum is faster than most at his level, is not afraid to carry the puck up out of the defensive end and always seems to be in position.
With his skill, Blum is hoping to prove he belongs in Nashville, but will in no way be discouraged if he finds himself in the American Hockey League for a second season. “They have 7 one-way contracts, but if I play hard and make a spot on the team for myself then [Nashville has]to make some tough decisions. That’s the best I can do. If not, and I am playing in Milwaukee, I’ll have a good attitude playing down there and hopefully I’ll get a call up during the season”.
Blum, drafted 23rd overall in the first round in 2007, isn’t the only defensemen selected in the first round of an entry draft trying to break his way onto an already overcrowded roster. Ryan Ellis was drafted 11th overall in 2009 by Nashville. Ellis looks at the depth on defense as indicative to overall roster strength, a roster that he too sees himself a part of, but has scaled down expectations. “I think it’s about just making a good impression. I’d love to be here but they have a pretty set defense and a pretty darn good team. We’ll see what happens, but its just about making a good impression.”
If Blum sees the Predators defensive depth as only a matter of time until he is part of it, Ellis admits to being mildly discouraged by the large number of defensemen in line ahead of him, Blum included. “A little bit, Ellis nodded when asked the question, but added “If it’s not this year then maybe its next year.”
Of course, Ellis, like all players, would prefer sooner rather than later. Ellis turned down an invitation to Canada’s Junior Development Camp held every summer for prospects being considered for the World Junior team. Saying no to that camp was one way of better preparing for this one. Ellis spoke to Predlines about why he declined Team Canada’s offer. “It was more time off the ice,” Ellis explained, “my season was pretty long last year since we won it all. It didn’t give me a lot of time to work on my off-ice stuff and training. It was just an extra week to stay off the ice and get in the gym a little more. I feel a lot better. Last year was the same sort of deal. I didn’t have a lot of time for training. The extra week won’t make miracles happen but it helped me for sure.”
This year is Ellis’ second training camp and if he doesn’t crack the roster he will be sent back to junior, being ineligible for the AHL because he doesn’t turn 20 until January. Asked if he thought he had played his last game for Windsor–an exhibition game on September 10th, where Ellis scored 2 goals and posted 2 assists– Ellis wasn’t sure. “You never know. It’s totally up to Nashville and the organization. I’m just here to work my hardest and hopefully earn a spot,” he said.
Ellis’ junior team, the Windsor Spitfires, have won back to back Memorial Cups and Ellis has several international medals already, including gold and silver medals at the World Junior Championships representing Canada. He has averaged well over a point per game in junior and was the quarterback of a very successful Team Canada powerplay. He offers an exciting brand of defense, which is dependent upon his ability to play offense. At 5’9, Ellis is small for National Hockey League standards, but his frame is big and only getting bigger.
It is too early to tell if either Blum or Ellis have a shot at making the team, and forcing, as they each explain it, the organization to make some tough calls. These questions will be better debated and answered once we see how Blum and Ellis hold up against seasoned NHL veterans. The first on-ice session of the full training camp is on September 18th starting at 9:30 a.m. at Centennial Sportsplex and is open to the public.
After tonight’s game, the Predators rookies will stay in Florida for a rematch Thursday morning before flying back to Nashville in the evening.