Nashville Predators General Manager David Poile described the team’s 2021 season as a “competitive rebuild” over the summer, but what does that actually look like?
Sure, players like Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, Matt Duchene and Roman Josi represent the competitive part of that equation, but which of Nashville's talented young stable of prospects represent the rebuild side?
The Predators reaped the benefits of players like Eeli Tolvanen, Alex Carrier, Yakov Trenin, Tanner Jeannot and Mathieu Olivier cutting their teeth in the NHL last season, and now the question that needs to be answered this year is who’s next in line?
All eyes have been on Philip Tomasino during training camp, and rightfully so. The 20-year-old appears NHL ready after a breakout 2020 season in the American Hockey League. And then there’s 22-year-old Cody Glass, the former No. 6 overall pick who was acquired from Vegas in the offseason and is likely to play some sort of role in Nashville’s top six.
But apart from those two, no one else had really separated themselves from a handful of skilled up-and-comers; until Thursday night when Egor Afanasyev gave everyone a glimpse of what he can do with the puck on his stick.
The 20-year-old forward, who's long been a development and rookie camp standout, scored two goals and an assist in Nashville’s 6-2 preseason win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. He also had a +3 rating, three hits and 14:37 of ice time.
"Egor looks really good,” Predators coach John Hynes told the Predators' website. “And the way he can shoot the puck, he has a knack for scoring. He's a guy that even in practice catches your eye. He's really making a strong impression."
Thursday was the second straight preseason game Afanasyev scored a goal. He also contributed a goal on two shots in Nashville’s 3-1 loss to the Florida Panthers last weekend. Through those two games, Afanasyev has played 3:28 on the power play and averaged 14:18 of ice time.
Drafted in the second round in 2019, Afanasyev has been well-traveled since. He scored 31 goals and 67 points for the Windsor Spitfires in the OHL the season after he was drafted, and he spent some time with CSKA Moskva in the KHL during the pandemic last year, tallying two goals and six points in 16 games.
He also played for Zvezda Moskva in the VHL, Krasnaya Armiya Moskva in the MHL, and he helped the Russian U20 team win silver at the 2020 World Junior Championship, scoring two goals and five points in seven games.
Afanasyev will likely start the season with the Milwaukee Admirals simply because of the logjam at forward on Nashville’s NHL roster – there’s essentially 15 forwards competing for 12 spots.
However, the 6-foot-4 Russian’s performance so far is at least giving the Predators’ coaching staff something to think about as it fills out its opening-night roster.
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_