Could the sight of Mark Van Guilder as a member of the Milwaukee Admirals be a thing of the past? We’re closing in on the time when we’ll all be finding out. (Photo Credit: Scott Paulus)
The 2015 NHL Draft is now in the pocket. What’s next on the off-season calendar? Two big dates back-to-back. Tuesday is the deadline for teams to tender qualifying offers to current restricted-free agents (RFA’s). Wednesday is the day that free agency begins. From there all bets are pretty much off until the regular season begins.
There are quite a few Milwaukee Admirals that are still RFA’s to the Nashville Predators right now that haven’t been tendered a new deal (that I’m aware of anyways). The current RFA’s include: Taylor Aronson, Anthony Bitetto, Zach Budish, Magnus Hellberg, Josh Shalla, and Austin Watson.
There’s a few names there that I can see getting tendered. Bitetto made his NHL debut last season with the Predators and continues to make strides season after season here in Milwaukee. Watson could well be knocking on a full-time NHL role depending on the Predators off-season moves and by having a strong pre-season camp. Aronson managed an emergency call-up to the Predators last season and was a real pleasant surprise for the Admirals in 2014-15.
Then come some of the question marks. Hellberg tops that list because, if a trio of Carter Hutton/Marek Mazanec/Juuse Saros, are all here right now. Does Hellberg get tendered, brought back to Milwaukee, and in the process send Saros to the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL? That was the option I was pulling for because Saros is still very young, could learn the North American game in a competitive league like, and still push for AHL playing time should an injury occur. Problem? The Admirals signed Brandon Whitney with ECHL hockey in mind. So that role is already filled. The only alternative is to let him walk… or is it?
I’ve heard the rumblings that Hellberg could be tendered and then loaned out to Europe for the 2015-16 season. Should that happen it gives the Predators the option to move him throughout or at the end of the season – or even maintain him over say Hutton or Mazanec at the end of the playing season should he impress. It’s an interesting scenario but one that is puzzling considering any move to larger ice blows up Hellberg’s North American learning process – one that he admitted took time to adjust to. Why keep him just to loan him to Europe? If that goes down I feel as if someone should play “Rains Of Castamere” in the background when they break that news to Hellberg.
Others such as Budish and Shalla? It’s sad, but they’ve clearly never become what Nashville hoped for when drafting them. Budish was a second round pick in the 2009 NHL Draft and only just started getting some good work put together in the AHL this last season. But even he was scrapping for playing time against the likes of Joe Pendenza and Frédérick Gaudreau. Both of those names signed with the Admirals to AHL deals already. So you can see why Budish probably won’t be tendered a new deal. Shalla? Well, his ECHL numbers are pretty good. And that’s unfortunately all of the explanation you really need as to why he probably won’t be tendered either.
~Free Agent Frenzy~
When looking to the current free agents of the Admirals that is another interesting list: Triston Grant, Mike Liambas, Joe Piskula, and Mark Van Guilder. You could perhaps also throw in PTO contracted members of the Admirals this past season such as Scott Ford, Jared Nightingale, and Gary Steffes – and ATO contractee (I think I invented a word) Eric Robinson.
The first and only name of the ones above that should be a no brainer to return is Piskula. He has been the Admirals best defenseman for arguably the last two seasons. Plus, he provides Nashville that veteran AHL safety net in the event anything drastic happened up top. It would be a mistake for the Predators to not offer up yet another two-way contract to Good Guy Joe from Antigo.
I felt at the start of last year that the Admirals had too many of a specific type of player. Well, now they can solve that problem by selecting one or two out of the three. Three? Well yeah, because it looks like Rich Clune will become a free agent soon enough. Put yourself in those GM shoes. Who do you take: Clune, Grant, or Liambas? It’s not as easy a question as you might think.
Van Guilder has been a staple in Milwaukee for six full seasons now. He is the best faceoff man the Admirals have which makes him great on the penalty kill. Plus, his ability to make composed and intelligent plays on the ice is still there. Problem? Age and regression. At 31-years old he isn’t getting any younger and his numbers are starting to reflect that. There is a part of me that feels like his return to the Admirals hinges on Watson’s return to the Nashville system. If Watson is brought back, and doesn’t quite make the NHL roster, he basically plays the same role as Van Guilder. It would be great having both back, especially because they are the best penalty killing duo the Admirals have at the forward spot, but I’m not so sure that will happen.
Two moves I would love to see made were the two blokes that turned up late in the season and made a quick impression: Steffes and Robinson. Steffes exploded in the 2014-15 season for 61 goals between the ECHL (regular season and playoffs) and AHL. He even managed to win the Kelly Cup with the Allen Americans. He is due for a full time AHL season and showed in Milwaukee that he can produce. Then there was the youngster out of Dartmouth, Robinson. He skated incredibly well, found soft spots on the ice, looked comfortable at the AHL level right out of college, and might have been unlucky to not bury a few more feeds from Van Guilder to boot. Both would add to an already skilled Admirals forward group. And both are already familiar with the team. Good fit.
Lastly, what about the Sheriff? This time last year I felt like Ford was ready to hang up the skates and call it a career. What I didn’t realize was that during that time he was getting in incredible shape. I think that showed in the brief time when he returned to the Admirals late in the season as well. He looked better than he did in 2013-14. His ECHL season with the South Carolina Stingrays ended on the losing end of the Kelly Cup finals but his whole season at that level was classic ol’ Ford-o. Right handed veteran defenseman that the coaching staff and locker room are all fans of? I wouldn’t be too surprised to see it happen.
How about the timing, eh? The Predators signed Watson to a brand new contract this afternoon. In addition, they have made qualifying offers to all RFA’s not named Budish or Shalla:
As you can see then – even Hellberg was tendered. And now we play the waiting game.
Any further reaction from the Nashville Predators 2015 NHL Draft? How do you anticipate the RFA scenarios to play out and what names won’t be coming back next season?
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