The Nashville Predators only have six forwards with an average annual value (AAV) of over $1 million entering the 2023-24 NHL season, leaving the opportunity for a depth veteran or a rookie to force their way into the top six. This upcoming year is a reset for the organization as general manager Barry Trotz begins piecing together his vision for the Predators’ future. In doing so, young players will likely get priority. With a new head coach, Andrew Brunette, who leans more offensively in his coaching methods, their new style may lend itself better to the faster, younger, and more skilled players. With roster spots available for the taking, these are four prospects that could play for the Predators during the 2023-24 NHL season.
Before we begin, we should understand what is considered a prospect for this list. The criteria are as follows:
- 23 years old or younger
- Played less than 25 NHL games
Therefore, Juuso Pärssinen and Philip Tomasino will be absent from the list. Both forwards have the potential to make the Predators full-time this season but do not fall in line with the criteria.
Sometimes the obvious answer is the correct one. Barring an all-time awful training camp, Luke Evangelista should make the Predators’ opening night roster. The organization called him up near the end of the 2022-23 season, allowing him to show off his skills. He oozed confidence, immediately becoming a player other teams looked to shut down. He scored 15 points (7-8-15) in 24 games, scoring clutch goals while having a Corsi For of 55 percent.
Evangelista was one of the few bright spots from the Predators‘ season. He proved he could hang in the NHL, forcing his way into the top six. Projecting him to play in the NHL this upcoming season is low-hanging fruit. With an entire season ahead, he can force himself into the Calder Trophy conversation. Connor Bedard, Adam Fantilli, and Luke Hughes are some of the favorites for the award, but he could sneak into the discussion.
Egor Afanasyev, similar to Evangelista, was a late-season call-up for the Predators. He played 17 games, scoring only one goal in all contests. He has been a consistent producer in the American Hockey League (AHL), scoring 26 points (13-13-26) in 57 games. Despite his lack of production in the NHL and low usage rate, he is still capable of becoming a bottom-six player this season.
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Afanasyev had a 42 percent Corsi For, a plus/minus of minus-7, and 23 hits in his short stint in the NHL. The 6-foot-4 power forward has an edge to his game, looking to be physically imposing on the opposition. At 22 years old, this season is turning into a ‘prove-it’ year for the forward. He is a threat to make the Predators out of training camp, but further conditioning in the AHL may be best for his development. He is an intriguing forward. There is some upside, but whether he can emerge as something more than a bottom-six power forward is yet to be seen.
Arguably the best prospect in the organization, Yaroslav Askarov could sneak in some NHL games depending on how the Predators’ goaltending holds up. Juuse Saros is undoubtedly a top-five goalie in the league, but Kevin Lankinen is at threat of losing his backup job. It would be surprising if Askarov didn’t play at least a few games in the NHL during the 2023-24 season.
With Saros tending the net, the Predators can let Askarov develop at his own pace rather than rushing him into the NHL. While they can afford patience, if Askarov comes into training camp as the clear number-two in the organization, preventing him from furthering his development would be detrimental. In 48 AHL games, he had a 2.69 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage. He will likely begin the season in the AHL, but don’t be surprised if he forces his way into the NHL and steals Lankinen’s backup gig with the Predators midway through the season.
The only player on this list yet to see NHL ice time, Zachary L’Heureux is the least likely to play for the Predators this season. Drafted 27th overall in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, he has spent the last three seasons playing for the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). He scored 42 points (21-21-42) in 33 regular season games, but his most impressive feat came in the QMJHL Playoffs. In 20 games, he scored 11 goals and 15 assists for 26 points. The Mooseheads fell in six games in the championship round to the Quebec Remparts, but L’Heureux showed poise and leadership throughout their run.
What makes L’Heureux NHL-ready is his size. If a top-six injury occurs, Joakim Kemell will likely get the call; however, L’Heureux plays with the tenacity teams love to have in their bottom six. Despite his 5-foot-11 frame, his stocky 197-pound build means he can get rough in the corners or in front of the net. His dominance in the QMJHL Playoffs, sandpaper, finesse, and passion make him a real NHL threat this season. It is doubtful he will make the roster out of training camp, but if he plays well in the AHL, he could get NHL ice time near the end of the season, similar to Evangelista and Afanasyev in 2022-23.
Evangelista, Askarov, L’Heureux, and Afanasyev represent just some of the budding talent beginning to emerge in the Predators system. Many other prospects could have made this list, but these four will likely see NHL ice soon. With the hope the young players bring, the Predators could be in playoff contention late into the season. The 2023-24 season will be exciting for the organization as the new-look Preds begin to form.
Advanced stats were taken from Money Puck