Hockey season is finally here, Milwaukee. (Photo Credit: Scott Paulus)
Friday night is the start of what should be a fascinating season for the Milwaukee Admirals. Per Elite Prospects, the team will be the youngest in the entire AHL with an average age of 22.75 years old. Thirteen players will be enduring their first full-season of professional hockey in North America. Yet, the story of the season will be whether or not that maturity factor will even matter. This could well be one of the most talented Admirals teams we’ve seen in Milwaukee in a long time.
~The Forgotten Man~
If there was any beneficiary to the Nashville Predators off-season acquisitions it was the Milwaukee Admirals. When the Predators landed James Neal in a trade that sent Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling to the Pittsburgh Penguins. When the Predators signed free agents Olli Jokinen, Mike Ribeiro, and Derek Roy. It meant a a log jam effect was in place for centers and wingers on the cusp of cracking the NHL roster.
Colton Sissons had an outstanding rookie campaign for the Admirals in 2013-14. He played in 62 games and recorded 44 points (25 goals, 19 assists). Not only that, but he also played 17 games in the NHL where he scored 4 points (1 goal, 3 assists). If there were any one player that lost out the most to the off-season moves the Predators made it was Sissons. The centers mentioned above are ahead of him. As is Calle Jarnkrok. In addition, Mike Fisher and Matt Cullen are each still with the team – both are out with injury – and both will return this season.
So where does this leave the soon to be 21-year old Sissons? Exactly where the Admirals would love to have him. Front and center. It might be a disappointment for him to not have NHL hockey right out of the gate this season but he has the chance to do anything and everything at the AHL level. Something that, as a fourth-line center, he just wouldn’t be afforded to do in Nashville. This could be a season that Sissons looks back on as the one where he learned the most in his career before solidifying himself as an NHL regular. So much of what the Admirals will be in the AHL this season is going to be dependent on having Sissons be a focal point of the team. If he avoids a dreaded sophomore slump it will mean great things, not just for Sissons, but the Milwaukee Admirals 2014-15 season.
~The Other Guys~
Fun Fact. Who lead the Milwaukee Admirals in scoring last season? Miikka Salomaki, 50 points (20 goals, 30 assists) in 75 games. Additional Fun Fact. Salomaki is among eight other returning faces to the forward group. There will be another year in Milwaukee for Mark Van Guilder, Austin Watson, Mike Liambas, Patrick Cehlin, Zach Budish, Josh Shalla, and even Joe Pendenza gets a chance for a full campaign this season. We know plenty of what these guys can do. It’s the other guys that have entered the team this year that gets me all the more excited. Forwards suiting up for their North American professional debuts this season include: Brendan Leipsic, Pontus Åberg, Viktor Arvidsson, Frédérick Gaudreau, and Félix Girard.
Of those names, I feel the one that can have the biggest impact for the Admirals this season is Åberg. He has already played in 100 games as a professional in the Swedish Hockey League. This will be his transition year to North American ice. It appears as though he will be slotted on the team’s top line as a left winger to Sissons at center and Watson on the right wing. He very much reminds me of a Filip Forsberg-Lite. He’s not quite as tall, he’s not quite as flashy, and he’s not quite as talented on offense. What he is, similar to his fellow countryman, is fast. He sees the ice very well and processes things extremely quick. I wouldn’t be surprise me to see Åberg be the top scoring rookie of the Admirals come season’s end. It also wouldn’t surprise me if he led the Admirals in scoring either.
~The Post-Scott Ford Era~
One of the larger talking points heading into this 2014-15 Admirals season is the absence of longtime leader and team captain Scott Ford. When the team was swept by the Toronto Marlies in last season’s playoffs it left plenty of doubt as to his return to the Admirals in 2014-15. He, for the first time in a long time, really looked like a 34-year old defenseman. Add that to a think tank that already includes six new defensemen stepping in for their AHL debuts this season and you are exactly where we are today. A Milwaukee Admirals team without Scott Ford.
Who will be the new leaders of this team? Believe it or not, for the youngest team in the AHL, there are many of names on the roster who have strong leadership qualities.
Jonathan-Ismael Diaby was an alternate captain with the Victoriaville Tigres of the QMJHL. Garrett Noonan was an alternate and then team captain at Boston University. Jimmy Oligny was an alternate captain with two different teams in the QMJHL – most recently with Rimouski Océanic. Jaynen Rissling was an alternate and team captain of the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL. Frédérick Gaudreau was the alternate captain last season for the Drummondville Voltigeurs of the QMJHL. Félix Girard was a team captain the last two-seasons with Baie-Comeau Drakkar of the QMJHL. Joe Pendenza was an alternate captain at UMass-Lowell.
And that’s really just the new guys we’ll add to the deck this season. There are also leaders such as Joe Piskula, Mark Van Guilder, and Triston Grant who will be on the Admirals. Not to mention Sissons – who was a team captain in juniors as well as the Predators recent rookie tournament team. And Watson – who also was a captain at the junior level.
Leadership and the lack of it in the absence of Scott Ford really is a zero issue here. It might be a sentimental issue for some, but the inevitability of time has come for the two to end. Ford is no longer the captain, is no longer an Admiral, and is no longer under contract as a professional hockey player. What he still is though in so many ways is an influence to players within the Nashville and Milwaukee teams through players that have been around him. That influence is still in the Admirals locker room. And, in that sense, the torch has been passed for the next Sheriff to emerge.
~Between The Pipes~
One season ago I was really excited by the prospect of having Magnus Hellberg and Marek Mazanec push one-another to be “the guy” in net for the Admirals. As the story went instead: Pekka Rinne suffered a setback in his recovery process from hip surgery when he had an E. coli infection that made him miss four-months of hockey. Then the goaltending scramble started. Carter Hutton to starter, Hellberg as back-up, Hellberg down, Mazanec up, Scott Darling wins at life, Hellberg gets hurt, Darling gets hurt, trade for Devan Dubnyk, Mazanec down, ditch Devan Dubnyk, Hellberg to Cincinnati, and so ends 2013-14.
Wild, right? How about we try this again in 2014-15 but with a little less brain tearing agony?
What seems to be a boost so far to all involved in the goaltending battle this season is this: no injuries. Even this time last season Hellberg was fighting off an injury he sustained in Nashville camp. Now? Everyone is healthy. Even the man who could prove to be this year’s version of Darling, Rob Madore – who will start his season off in Cincinnati of the ECHL – like Darling did last season – hint, hint, wink.
Should all stay healthy it simply becomes a matter of who is best for the job and wins the majority of playing time in net. I want to say the Admirals are looking at a 1-A and 1-B rather than a 1-2 at the moment but it is still rather early. Should Madore start his season in the ECHL the way he finished it, where he took home the Kelly Cup Finals MVP honors despite being on the losing side of the ECHL Finals, I have to think a move could easily be made to stir the well. Hellberg was on the bench during those exact same Kelly Cup Finals as Madore worked his stuff. The battle for the Admirals net will be hotly contested. It should bring out the best of all three of these goaltenders. Who establishes their authority as the number one choice goaltender? I’m sure that will be a talking point we bash the daylights out of over the course of this season.
~The Green Defense~
In no easier way can you point out the youth of the 2014-15 Admirals than by looking at our defensive core. Regulars that are returning from last season. Anthony Bitetto and Joe Piskula. That’s it. The rest are all fairly fresh names. Some were able to catch the tail end of last season here in Milwaukee but the full slate starts now.
When I think back to last season’s playoff exit I think about a defense that looked stiff, slow, and old. That will be given a swift upgrade this year by the Predators prospects that have moved on from their junior playing career to the AHL: Diaby, Rissling, Vainonen, Noonan, and Oligny. Not to mention there will also be a 22-year old Swede entering the mix with a great weight of professional playing experience already under his belt in Johan Alm.
It could take a little bit of time before we start viewing distinct partnerships formed for defensive pairings. The reasoning for that all comes down to the group at hand. Should Taylor Aronson not make the roster – the Admirals will not have a single right-handed shooting defensemen on the team. Not one. So who slots on what side? Is having a balance or righties and lefties on defense all that important? The Admirals are going to find that question out for themselves by the looks of it. No matter what. This should be a quicker team defense. And that could play out well for the men in net.
The Milwaukee Admirals “Media Day” takes place tomorrow. I will be on hand to interview coaches and players. Expect a follow up on that tomorrow afternoon. The very first “Scouting the Enemy” of this season will appear on Friday morning – followed by opening night gameday coverage on our assorted social media.
Be sure to follow Admirals Roundtable on Twitter, like us on Facebook, and see our photos on Instagram.