The impact of rookies today in the NHL seems greater than in recent memory. There are several teams around the NHL who have first year players making huge impacts and carrying team play. The Toronto Maple Leafs have a slew of young stars in Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and company. Patrik Laine is making waves in Winnipeg, scoring at will. The Calgary Flames are getting incredible play from Matthew Tkachuk. Young players are vital to a team in the salary cap-era.
One team not relying on its rookies is the Nashville Predators. Yes, Viktor Arvidsson is playing out of his mind, but this is his second NHL season. They have plenty of young talent, but just two rookies on the current roster. The Predators have the team depth not to have to rush anyone’s development. Recent success has also kept the Predators from drafting early in the first-round, meaning they do not get players who are NHL ready at 19 years old. Below is a look at the rookies on the Predator’s current roster, their contributions thus far, and their potential outlook.
Evaluating the Nashville Predators Rookies
The NHL defines a rookie as a player who “must not have played in more than 25 NHL games in any preceding seasons, nor in six or more NHL games in each of any two preceding seasons.” Also, “Any player at least 26 years of age (by September 15th of that season) is not considered a rookie.” This rules out the likes of Anthony Bitetto, Colton Sissons, and Austin Watson. All of these players appeared in over 25 games last season. Also, although Harry Zolnierczyk may be a new face for Predators fans, he is 29 years old. His rookie year actually came in 2011-2012 with the Philadelphia Flyers.
A brief nod should be given to Pontus Aberg, who played 15 games for the Predators this season. Aberg has since returned to Milwaukee of the AHL, but he should have a shot at a roster spot in the near future. Through his 15 games played, Aberg contributed one goal and one assist.
Left winger Kevin Fiala has found a more permanent spot on the Predators roster after appearing only briefly the past two seasons. He played in two games, one regular season and one playoff, in 2014-2015. He had another cup of coffee last year, playing in five regular season games. This season, Fiala has played 44 games, scoring eight goals and 12 assists. He has served multiple stints in the AHL, but seems to finally be finding traction in the Predators roster. He is currently playing alongside Calle Jarnkrok and James Neal. This combination gives the Predators plenty of speed and scoring.
Fiala is an undersized forward, listed at 5’10” and 193 pounds. Each of these figures are probably generous. Despite this, the Predators drafted Fiala 11th overall in 2014 for his ability to put the puck in the net. Fiala needs work on the defensive side of the game, which accounts for his frequent trips back down to the AHL. He seems to be developing his 200-foot game, but still excels offensively. He has eight goals in just over half a season this year. Once he has a consistent spot and linemates, Fiala can easily be a 20-25 goalscorer. If Fiala can take off next year similarly to Arvidsson, he could exceed even those numbers. For evidence of what he can do with the puck, see below.
Juuse Saros looks like the future of goaltending in Nashville. The Finnish net-minder was taken in the fourth round by the Predators in 2013. At only 21 years old, Saros has progressed quickly for his position. In the AHL last year, he posted solid numbers. Appearing in 38 games in his first North American professional season, Saros finished with a 2.24 goals allowed average, and a .920 save percentage. In 15 AHL games this season, Saros looked even better. His goals-allowed average was 1.86 and his save percentage was .934. This gave the Predators enough confidence to call him up to back up Pekka Rinne.
In 18 NHL games played this season, Saros maintains a 2.29 goals-allowed average and a .927 save percentage. He has eight wins and seven losses. Size is the biggest question mark for Saros. He checks in at 5’11” and 180 pounds. Compare that to Rinne’s 6’5”, 217 pounds. In a league where goalies under six-foot often do not stand a chance, Saros seems to be flourishing. He makes up for his size with position and lightning fast movement. See his stop on Cam Atkinson below for a demonstration. Goaltenders usually mature more slowly than skaters, but Saros is breaking that mold as well. As Rinne continues to age and slow down, the club may turn to Saros as their starter sooner rather than later.
With these rookies complementing the Predators current stars and veterans, the future of the club looks to be as bright as its present. Fiala and Saros will be mainstays of the team for years to come.