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Season Preview: Which Predators Forwards Are On Roster Bubble?

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Nashville Predators forward Luke Evangelista
Photo of Luke Evangelista, left, by John Russell/Nashville Predators

Last week, Nashville Hockey Now dove into some of the Nashville Predators top storylines heading into training camp. Today, we’re looking at some of the players on the roster bubble and examining where exactly they stand as the team preps for rookie camp on Thursday.

Nashville’s biggest question is presumably how will the roster be constructed in the Barry TrotzAndrew Brunette era? Perhaps the biggest complaint from the fan base under former GM David Poile and ex-head coach John Hynes centered around the players who often found themselves out of the lineup compared to other less high-profile skaters.

Should the Predators bevy of young, skilled players be given significant ice time in meaningful games, or should the team reward hard-working, more physical veterans for their tenacity and presence in the locker room? This is what Trotz and Brunette will be evaluating head on when training camp begins on Sept. 21.

Every team has a core group of players who are virtual locks to make the opening-night roster. But when it comes to the final few open roster spots, the Predators need to make those key decisions sooner rather than later. With approximately eight or nine forwards, four defenseman and two goalies penciled in for the Oct. 10 opener against Tampa Bay, Nashville has roughly six roster spots up for grabs.

Here are some of the forwards expected to battle for a spot on the Predators opening-night roster:

Luke Evangelista

The 21-year-old Evangelista is the most likely of the team’s young players to earn his spot in the NHL next season. With the numerous injuries Nashville suffered down the stretch last year, Evangelista amassed solid performances on the wing, mostly playing alongside Keifer Sherwood and Tommy Novak. Through 24 games, he scored seven goals and 15 points.

Heading into camp, Evangelista is likely in competition with fellow young gun Juuso Parssinen for first-line minutes alongside Ryan O’Reilly and Filip Forsberg. Evangelista’s willingness to shoot from anywhere will be a central focus, but his ability to distribute the puck is undeniable as his playmaking skills were on full display in both Nashville and Milwaukee. His offensive prowess, coupled with his upside as a top-six forward, make him a prime candidate to be playing on the Predators top two lines come October.

Tomasino is presumably the biggest question mark and most difficult player to project heading to camp. After playing 72 games and tallying 32 points in 2021, Tomasino was limited to just 31 games at the end of last season, and that was only because of the number of injuries sustained by the other forwards.

The 2023 season is a huge opportunity for Tomasino to prove what kind of forward he can truly be under an offensive-minded head coach like Brunette in a new system that is heavily focused on offense and speed. Tomasino should be given every chance to prove his worth and demonstrate why he was a former first-round pick. With a new contract looming next summer, the 22-year-old should be highly motivated to entrench himself in the top six.

Kemell has the potential to have a Parssinen-like rise through the ranks with a strong performance in camp. He could arguably be the best pure scorer the Predators have ever drafted.

The 19-year old Finn returned to the top Finnish league last season, where he tallied 12 goals and 15 points through 43 games before joining the Milwaukee Admirals at the end of the year for their playoff run. Once there, Kemell turned it on, totaling a combined 14 goals and 23 points in 28 games.

Sharp defensive awareness and a good plus/minus rating are not Kemell’s strong suits. But he does offer elite talent and plenty of points on the scoresheet every night. He deserves strong consideration for the NHL roster, if not out of camp then at some point during the 2023 season. It’s only a matter of time before Kemell’s elite skillset becomes too good for the AHL.

Trotz has made it known that he likes to keep players in the AHL longer than needed as opposed to rushing them to the NHL before they’re ready, but Kemell just may force his hand.

Egor Afanasyev

Afanasyev has really found his game over the last two seasons with the stereotypical heavy, Russian style of skating and an incredibly impressive shot. His size (6-foot-4, 212 pounds) and skill should make him a desired player on any roster, but the fact that he hasn’t quite put everything together may keep him from challenging for a nightly role.

Camp is a key opportunity for Afanasyev to show his growth and demonstrate his readiness for the NHL after he skated in 17 games last season for the Predators, finding the back of the net once on 21 shots. At 22, he’s still young with a lot of upside and has demonstrated his ability to be a solid pro in Milwaukee. If a spot in the lineup becomes available, Afanasyev could find himself occupying a bottom-six role, for now, while potentially working his way up the lineup. Training camp is a prime opportunity for him to show just how far he’s come in his development.

A bit of a wild card, Svechkov has not had a ton of professional experience and none in North America. But his potential as a strong, two-way center who can distribute the puck and skate fluidly is certainly a solid attribute that sets him apart and could have him on the cusp of pushing for a spot in the bottom six.

Ideally, Svechkov will become a true center that Nashville’s farm system has always envied but never acquired. However, he may have to spend a year in Milwaukee before earning his shot. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have an outside shot at the NHL this year. The benefit of Svechkov, and all the players mentioned above, is that they are all waiver exempt, meaning there’s more leeway in calling them up when needed/wanted without having to risk exposing them to waivers to send them back to the AHL.

Kiefer Sherwood

Sherwood had a great run with Evangelista and Novak at the end of last season, but at 28, he’s kind of in limbo between some of the Predators younger players and many of their gritty veterans. As a depth guy, Sherwood represents more of what winning teams possess in today’s NHL as opposed to the physical, drop-the-gloves players: a speedy skater who can chip in offensively when needed.

He began last season in the top six, scoring the first goal of the Predators season, before splitting the rest of his time in Nashville and Milwaukee. Sherwood skated in 32 NHL games, scoring seven goals and 13 points, and he had an impressive 49 points in 56 total games in the AHL. Nashville could keep Sherwood around to mentor the group of young forwards pushing to make the roster. There’s plenty to Sherwood’s game to entice Trotz to keep him around.

Smith might just be the most controversial player on Nashville’s roster. He’ll never be considered a scorer, but he was never brought in to be that type of player. Smith checks a lot of the intangible boxes, and he’s good at playing to fit a certain role within a system, but it’s unlikely this is where current management is directing the team.

Smith’s bread and butter is his ability to get the puck out of the zone and kill penalties while filling a spot on the wing in the bottom six. It will be interesting to see where he slots in at training camp and if he truly fits into the new offensive system that Trotz and Brunette plan to run.

Jankowski is another player who will be interesting to watch. He played 50 games with the Predators last year and will likely want to remain on the NHL roster, but one has to wonder if he has a spot in the revamped lineup being more of a depth player that fills the gaps from time to time. In the event the Predators have a fully healthy roster, Jankowski is likely to spend the majority of his time in Milwaukee unless something unforeseen happens between now and the start of the season.

McCarron is a big-bodied, imposing forward with a strong locker room presence. Everyone in the organization seems to love him despite never living up to his first-round draft status. McCarron is in a similar boat as Smith in that if a physical presence coupled with a strong attitude is needed, then he’s your guy.

The 6-foot-6 center isn’t going to make a major impact on the score sheet, but he can lay big hits and drop the gloves. Of the four players listed currently on Nashville’s roster (Jankowski, McCarron, Sherwood, Smith), Sherwood is likely the only one that could fend off a wave of young up-and-comers.

Follow Clay Brewer on Twitter/X: @ClayBrewer10