Officials have said it over and over and over and over throughout the history of the franchise: The road to Nashville goes through Milwaukee.
Increasingly, though, in recent seasons that road has turned into a highway or even a beltway. Top prospects have spent less or even no time with the Predators’ American Hockey League affiliate before they arrived in the National Hockey League.
Recent decisions and performance, though, involving three members of the 2009 draft class suggest the shift in philosophy might not have been the best thing.
Taylor Beck, a recent recall from Milwaukee, made his NHL debut Tuesday and was one of the Predators’ better forwards in the last two games, particularly Saturday’s 5-2 triumph over Columbus. In each of those games — both victories — a young player who was fast-tracked to the NHL was a healthy scratch for the first time this season.
Forward Craig Smith was benched Thursday against Calgary and defenseman Ryan Ellis was out of the lineup against the Blue Jackets.
Smith now is in Milwaukee for the first time in his career.
He accepted a conditioning assignment Friday after he was a healthy scratch the previous night. He had an assist in his AHL debut Friday, two more the following night and a goal and an assist Sunday as the Admirals went 2-0-1 in a stretch of three games in three days.
The fourth-round draft choice in 2009 made the jump from the University of Wisconsin directly to the NHL last season and had 36 points (14 goals, 22 assists) in 72 games. He appeared in each of the first 30 games this season before he was scratched Thursday.
“We have to do what it takes to make a good young player like Craig be really consistent for his career, not for three or four or five games and then be all over the place,” Trotz said. “I think we can get him on the right path for a career and that’s what we want to do. We’ve tried a number of different things and I think he recognizes that we’re all about our players and trying to get them better.”
Ellis, a first-round draft choice in 2009, spent a little more than the first two months of last season with Milwaukee before he was recalled and made his NHL debut. With the exception of three games with Milwaukee in late February 2012 he spent the remainder of the season there.
He was one of six players who had appeared in Nashville’s first 31 games this season but was scratched Saturday when veteran Hal Gill came off injured reserve.
“He’s a poised, puck moving defenseman who makes good plays,” Trotz said. “I don’t think he’s been poised and making good plays the last little while. … I felt that right now he’s the seventh defenseman. I know he can play better. He’s a young guy. When we were down to six there, I don’t think he played as well as he needed to play. You get people back, especially a veteran like [Gill] who can kill penalties, that was an easy switch for me.”
On the other hand, Beck, a third-round choice in 2009 spent all of his first full professional season (2011-12) at Milwaukee, opened this season there and had a team-high 41 points (11 goals, 30 assists) in 50 game before he earned his recall.
In all, he has 128 games of AHL experience, which is four times as many as Ellis and Smith had combined four days ago. In the last week he has played more than 12 minutes in each of his first three NHL games, had a team-high four shots Thursday against Calgary and had a goal and an assist Saturday.
“He’s been pretty detailed on the boards and stuff like that,” Trotz said. “That’s what you want.
He’s spent some time in Milwaukee. We haven’t been hurrying him up and you see that he’s maturing as a player and he’s not getting intimidated when he comes up here and he’s earning his ice time. I’ve got a lot of trust in him right now.”
The same is not true of those who spent a lot less time in the AHL.