Preds prospects talk future, NHL

The Nashville Predators are set to begin training camp on Sept. 21, pending a new collective bargaining agreement is agreed to between the NHL and NHLPA. The current one expires on Sept. 15.

Presently, players are starting to gather in Nashville for informal workouts. Back in June, the Predators held their annual prospect development camp. At the time, spoke to several prospects about what their expectations were for the coming season – whether they anticipate playing with the team’s top minor league affiliate in Milwaukee, back with their junior team or with the Predators themselves.

Here are their answers in Q&A form:

Zachary Stepan
Height: 6-0
Weight: 165
Age: 18
Acquired: Drafted in the fourth round (112th overall) in 2012.

FST: Where do you plan on playing next season?

ZS: I’m going to be playing in the USHL and then off to Ohio State. It’s different from the CHL junior hockey in that you’re not allowed to play (in the NCAA) after you sign with them. I plan to go for there one year.

FST: What aspects of your game do you have to work on to make it to the NHL?

ZS: Just get bigger. (Ohio State) gave me the option to go in (as a freshman). I would be playing third or fourth line. I’ll take a year and just play hockey and just work on my body. It gives me an extra year to be bigger and more physically ready for the older guys of college hockey.

FST: Where will you play junior hockey?

ZS: With the Waterloo Blackhawks in Iowa. It’s about two, two and a half hours (from home in Minnesota). It’s fairly close compared to other places I could’ve gone. I just have a really good relationship with the coach (P.K. O’Handley) down there…. He’s going to get me ready for college.

FST: Since you’re a year away, are you sure you’ll go to Ohio State? Do you think you might be lured by somewhere else like Minnesota?

ZS: No, I’m going to Ohio State. There’s no other college that I want to go to.

FST: What is your relationship like with your cousin Derek (a center for the New York Rangers who had 17 goals and 34 assists last season as a 22-year-old)?

ZS: We’re very close. We actually grew up kind of like brothers. We live a block away from each other. He brought me out and let me play hockey with his buddies and stuff. He just treated me better than your older brothers or younger guys. He kind of embraced the fact instead of shunning me. I think that actually played a big part in everything.

FST: Did you watch his playoff games?

ZS: Yep. I watched every one. During the regular season I’d talk to him maybe once a week or once every two weeks, depending on his schedule. In the playoffs, I let him go because it was such a time of focus. We still talked during playoffs but not as many times. It was more spread out.

FST: Did you talk to him after you got drafted?

ZS: Yep. He called me.

FST: What do you know about the Predators?

ZS: The biggest thing about the organization that stuck out to me was I liked watching the Predadors. You look at how much adversity they’ve gone through to be where they are. If you look at the 30 teams in the NHL, you don’t look at the Nashville Predators as one of the top organizations, but they are. They’ve turned their program around. With Coach (Barry) Trotz and the guys in Milwaukee, they’re producing players that move up. They’re becoming one of the most feared teams in the NHL. They came up short last season but all they can do is to keep building.

FST: What are your strengths as a player?

ZS: I have good scoring ability. I have way better vision. If I’m going to rate the two, I have way better vision.

Austin Watson
Left wing
Height: 6-4
Weight: 193
Age: 20
Acquired: Drafted in the first round (18th overall) in 2010.

FST: This is your third prospect camp. Does that experience give you more of a comfort level?

AW: I think so. Any time you know a little bit of what to expect it makes it a little easier, your preparations for it and all that there is. There are new challenges every year and there’s a lot of stuff still to be learned. That’s the great thing about this camp. There’s so much information. There are so many things you can take from this and make part of your game and your life.

FST: You got traded this year in the Ontario Hockey League from Peterborough to London. What was that experience like, getting traded?

AW: You know, I’ve been through it before. It wasn’t as different as it was the first time. Obviously, it’s not something you want to see happen or anything you expect when you’re playing somewhere. I think it worked out very well for me. I got to go to a great city and a great organization and a chance to win.

FST: It’s a little closer to your home in Michigan than Peterborough?

AW: It’s still good ways, two to and a half hours. I’m moving on and getting older and more mature. It’s not as a big of deal as a few years.

FST: Your first two years in the OHL you played with Windsor. Was Preds defenseman Ryan Ellis (a former OHL player of the year) your teammate?

AW: I did. I played with Ryan for a year and a half. Actually, we lived together for the last part of that year or so. It was great. He was a great player there and I learned a lot from him, as far as hockey goes and as far as off the ice stuff goes.

FST: You had a great postseason with 10 goals and seven assists in 19 OHL playoff games and then two goals and three assists in four Memorial Cup games. What was that like?

AW: For us, it’s an exciting time. I think as a player you want to show your stuff on that type of stage. It’s a win or go home type of thing. I was fortunate to play with some great players. I was on the line with the two Rupert twins (Ryan and Matt). They were really quick and had some good chemistry. That made it easy to be successful, having that chemistry with those guys.

FST: Where do you think you’re going to be this year, Milwaukee?

AW: I’m going to do my best to have a good camp and try to make the Predators. Obviously, if Milwaukee is where it’s at for me next year, that’s great. I get to work on my game and play in a great city. I had a chance to play there a year and a half ago. It was awesome. Either way, however it works out it is what it is. I’m just going to come in here to camp and put my best foot forward.

FST: What do coaches tell you that you have to work on most?

AW: I think, obviously, as still being fairly young, I just have to keep getting bigger and stronger to be able to compete in a man’s league for a lot of games. That and to make sure I can skate with the guys and that just every aspect keeps getting better so that I have a chance to be a player.

FST: What’s your strong suit?

AW: I think I have a good understanding of how to play the game both ways, both ends of the ice, which I think can benefit me. Being able to know the little parts of the game and the positioning and where to be on the ice and goes a long way and compete level, too, things like blocking shots is a big attribute for me.

Jack Maclellan
Height: 5-11
Weight: 175
Age: 24
Acquired: Signed as a free agent on March 10, 2012.

FST: You were with the Predators for the end of the regular season and the entire playoff run (but did not play in any games). What was that experience like for you?

JM: It was a pretty unreal experience, pretty invaluable to get a chance to be up with the NHL team and just see how things work day to day and see how those guys carry themselves and how our whole organization is run. It was a really cool experience and something I took a lot of out of.

FST: Did it feel like you were part of the team but weren’t part of the team?

JM: Yeah, for sure. I don’t look at it like I had it made it or had already been in the NHL. It was a real good experience that I was really lucky to get. It was an experience. If anything, it’s just given me more hunger to get there.

FST: What was it like hanging out with veteran defenseman Hal Gill, who was traded during the season from Montreal?

JM: It was a lot of fun. He and I lived in the hotel together, I mean in separate rooms, but in the same hotel for about seven weeks. It was pretty cool. His family was still back in Montreal so he was kind of  on his own down here. He wanted to hang out all the time so we went for dinner and hung out at the pool, which is a lot of fun. It was pretty cool to have someone like that who was NHL veteran that really took me under his wing and was just the nicest guy. I was really lucky for sure.

FST: I saw a photo of Roman Josi that Gill posted on Twitter where he was making fun of how pale Josi was.

JM: Jose was over there quite a bit, too. We had an inside joke calling (Gill) Dad. Jose, me and Chet Pickard hung out. (Gill)’s definitely a big kid stuck in a 37-year-old’s body, I think.

FST: Now about hockey. How do you describe your game?

JM: I think I’m an offensive forward whether I’m playing center or wing. I think I can play both and wherever I’m just going to be able to have the most success and most opportunity is where I’ll be. I’m just an offensive forward. I like to think of myself  as responsible both ways, but I just try to bring energy and I think I’m a pretty good passer, I guess, and open things up for my linemates.

FST: Last year’s rookie forward Craig Smith (who earned a trip to the All-Star Weekend’s SuperSkills competition) came right out of an NCAA program and could play center or wing. And brought the team energy. Do you see yourself in that mold?

JM: Yeah, I think Smitty’s a really good player and he’s done really well since he’s been up there. I don’t know if we’re identical players. I mean, that’s maybe a close comparison you could draw with someone. Hopefully, I do as well as he’s done.

FST: What do you think you have to do to make the jump?

JM: I think you can always get stronger, especially when you’re considered an under-sized player, but that’s just something I’m working on all the time. Every area of your game can improve. I work on my shot, my skills, my skating. I just try and get better all around as much as I can this summer. I just think it’s about getting an opportunity and making the most of it. I think that’s how everyone gets into the league. If I’m going to do it, it’s going to be no different for me. It’s just going to be about getting a chance and doing something with it.

FST: What did you study at Brown (an Ivy League school)?

JM: I was an economics major. I’m hoping not to use it for a while but it’s nice to have in my back pocket.