The Nashville Predators have a wealth of forward prospects, both in the AHL and around the world. One of those prospects is 18-year-old Justin Kirkland, who plays for the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League. He was the only Predators prospect to participate in the 2015 Mastercard Memorial Cup tournament.
Kirkland spoke exclusively with Predlines.com, and talked about the Rockets’ Memorial Cup Final loss to the Oshawa Generals, as well as his future with the Predators. He is a big fan of the new-look Predators, and has followed them throughout Peter Laviolette’s first season at the helm. He wants to make an impact on the team, and in a big way.
“My ultimate goal is to be a top-six forward with the Predators,” he said. “I’m a bigger body, and I want to develop into a full-time power forward in the NHL. If I could do that, I would be more than happy.”
On the Memorial Cup Final loss, he said it was one of the toughest he experienced.
“Obviously, it was a huge disappointment,” he said. “All year, we worked for that trophy, and we were right there and so close. That’s the part that hurts the most.”
Kirkland also said that despite not reaching the ultimate goal, his team accomplished a lot.
“There’s not a whole lot to dwell on when you look at what we accomplished as a team,” he said. “We were WHL champions and made the Final. For me, I look back on it as a very successful year and a learning experience for all of it.”
In his second full season in the WHL, the 2014 third-round pick in the had a career year, despite missing extended time due to injuries, He put up 51 points in 50 games during the regular season, more than he put up last season in 68 games. His playoff performance was phenomenal as well. Kirkland had five points in the WHL playoffs, and five points in the Memorial Cup tournament. He said that dealing with the injury was the biggest lesson for him in his second major junior season.
“My ultimate goal is to be a top-six forward with the Predators.” –Justin Kirkland
“Those were the first injuries that really took me aside from the game in my career,” he said, “I think I learned a lot about how to manage that and how to stay in shape while I was injured.”
Kirkland also figured out how to step up and be a leader on the ice.
“I learned how to be a game-changer every night,” he said. “You’re a second-year guy now, so you’re going to be relied on more. I thought I did a good job of it.”
With the offseason beginning, Kirkland is turning his focus to Nashville. Last summer, he attended Development Camp, the Rookie Tournament, and Training Camp. This year, Kirkland will be back in Music City for Development Camp and Training Camp. He hopes to make an impression this time around.
“I’m looking forward to getting back and seeing some of the guys,” he said. “We battle in Development Camp, but it’s a lot of fun. After that, we’ll be back in camp in September. Hopefully, this year, I’ll be able to stick around a lot longer than last year. My goal is to improve every year and leave my mark there.”
Kirkland has been mentored by Rockets alum and Predators captain Shea Weber since he was drafted. He said it’s been very helpful to have a guy like Weber around.
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“Shea’s been so good to me,” he said. “He’s reached out and sent good luck texts during the Memorial Cup process. I think it’s given me even more motivation to be the best I can be. I can’t thank him enough. He’s been a guy to look up to.”
As for his future with the Predators, Kirkland has high hopes. He has two years of junior eligibility left, and will at least use one of them. But, he wants to play in the NHL, whether or not that happens this year, the next year, or three years from now.
“I want to play in the NHL as soon as I can,” he said. “Obviously, I need one more year in the WHL. After that, I’m hoping to make the jump at 19 either to Nashville or Milwaukee.”
He’ll be back in Kelowna for the 2015-2016 WHL season. Kirkland said he has some aspects of his game to work on.
“I mostly want to work on my strength and speed,” he said. “This is a big offseason for me, especially with one more year to earn myself a contract with Nashville. I’m looking to go back and leave a good impression on them at Camp.”