Less than a week after the end of the 2010-11 season, Roman Josi was back in his native Switzerland. Not long after that, he was engaged in offseason training activities with his former team in Bern.
In some ways, it was a welcome return to familiarity for the 21-year-old. In other ways, it was just a tease.
The truth is that — professionally speaking — there is no going back for Josi, a Nashville Predators prospect on defense who is near or at the front of the line of a group of young players at that position poised to make the jump to the National Hockey League.
“My goal is to make the NHL this year,” he said. “If it’s off training camp or later in the year, it doesn’t matter. My goal is to make the NHL and that’s why I work all summer long. I hope to reach my goal this year.” (See related story below.)
The likelihood that he will do so increased a little more than a week ago when Cody Franson was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Franson was an emerging offensive force along the blue line for Nashville. His 50 points (14 goals, 36 assists) over the last two seasons trailed only the numbers of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter among Predators’ defensemen, and his accurate wrist shot was the perfect alternative to Weber’s thunderous slap shot.
Josi, a second-round draft pick (38th overall) in 2008, came to North America last season after having played four years professionally back home. He spent the entire season with the Milwaukee Admirals, where he was their highest-scoring defenseman with six goals and 34 assists. He added another seven points in the postseason, also tops among Admirals’ blue liners.
“I’m more of an offensive D-man,” he said. “I try to join the rush and make some plays and make something happen. But I have to play good [defense] too. The first thing is to play good defense, but then I try to make something in the offense.”
The Franson trade leaves the Predators with five players returning on defense — Weber, Suter, Kevin Klein, Francis Bouillon and Jonathon Blum. That means two spots on the roster are available.
One likely will go — at least initially — to Teemu Laakso, a 23-year-old who has done some abbreviated stints with the Predators each of the last two seasons.
That leaves a trio of point-producing youngsters — Josi, 2009 first-round pick Ryan Ellis and 2009 fourth-round selection Mattias Ekholm, last season’s Swedish Elite League rookie of the year — to sort things out during training camp for the final spot. Josi is the only one of that group who has spent a season with Milwaukee, the preferred preceding step for the Predators.
“Seeing what I saw last year … and what [former Milwaukee coach] Lane [Lambert] has told me, what our scouts have told me, a guy like Roman is a guy who should be pushing for a position,” coach Barry Trotz said.
Of course, he’ll actually have to get through training camp this time in order to earn his spot.
Josi sustained a broken wrist during a camp scrimmage in September. That caused him to miss more than a month and delayed the start of his season by three weeks.
In his first nine games, Josi recorded his first assist in his third appearance and had six points (one goal, five assists). He really took off in February, when he had 11 points (one goal, 10 assists) in 12 games.
“When you’re as talented as he is and as driven as he is and have the hockey sense that he has, there’s going to be adjustments, and a player like him is going to be able to make adjustments that much quicker,” said Nashville’s chief amateur scout, Jeff Kealty. “He played great. He had a really good year. He was a real go-to guy there in Milwaukee.”
And his days with Bern, where he won a championship a year earlier, were long gone.
“Well, sure there was an adjustment,” Josi said. “I thought it went pretty well. It was pretty bad luck with the injury in training camp. After that, it took me some games to adjust to the [North American] game, but after that it went fine.
“You miss your family and all your friends. That’s probably the biggest thing. But I had a real good time in Milwaukee.”
Who knows? Some day he might even go back for some offseason training.
Next in line
Roman Josi looks at the Nashville Predators’ defense and sees guys just like himself — players who were drafted and developed by the team. Six of the seven defensemen on the Predators’ 2011 playoff roster were home-grown.
“You see [Shea] Weber and [Ryan] Suter. They all made their way through Milwaukee,” Josi said. “… So you know you’re in good hands here.”
A look at the next group of defensemen in line to make the jump to the NHL level:
Drafted: 2005, third round (78th overall).
Height, weight: 6-1, 209
Hometown: Tuusula, Finland
Of note: Laakso was the first of two defensemen Nashville drafted on consecutive picks in the round. Cody Franson was taken with the next pick. … Laakso was recalled during the Predators’ playoff run last season and was the team’s seventh defenseman. He saw no postseason play.
Drafted: 2008, second round (38th overall)
Height, weight: 6-1, 198
Hometown: Bern, Switzerland
Of note: Josi was named the top defenseman at the 2009 Division I World Junior Championships as Switzerland won and earned a promotion to the top division. He also hoisted a championship trophy with Bern in Switzerland’s top league in 2010. Josi was named to Switzerland’s 2010 Olympic team but missed it due to injury.
Drafted: 2009, first round (11th overall)
Height, weight: 5-10, 172
Hometown: Hamilton, Ontario
Of note: Ellis is one of the most decorated junior players in recent years. He served as captain for both Windsor and with the Canadian Junior National Team last season. He was the OHL’s highest scoring defenseman last season and is one of three players ever to win that league’s defenseman of the year award twice.
Drafted: 2009, fourth round (102nd overall)
Height, weight: 6-4, 196
Hometown: Borlange, Sweden
Of note: Ekholm is offensively consistent, with 10 goals and 23 assists in 55 games last season as a rookie in the Swedish Elite League. A year earlier, he was the top-scoring junior in Sweden’s second division. He tied for the tournament lead at the 2010 World Junior Championships with a plus-10 rating.
— David Boclair