Mid-Season Review: Grades and Awards

MidSeason
(Photo credit to Scott Paulus)

Happy New Year, Roundtable! I hope your Holiday season has been going great. To kick off 2014 I figure it’s a good time to look at the season so far. It’s not officially the middle of the AHL season yet -but- I think it’s worth looking at the 2013 side of the calendar as we get ready for tomorrow night’s opening game of 2014.

2013-14 Milwaukee Admirals Mid-Season Review

Awards

Most Impressive Player: Miikka Salomaki

Least Impressive Player: Patrick Cehlin

Best Forward: Miikka Salomaki

Best Defensemen: Joe Piskula

Best Goaltender: Scott Darling

Most Likely To Be Called Up to Nashville: Taylor Beck

Actually Should Be Called Up to Nashville: Austin Watson

Most Improvement: Anthony Bitetto

Least Improvement: Magnus Hellberg

Player to Watch in the Second Half of the Season: Colton Sissons

Player Who Needs to Step Up in the Second Half: Magnus Hellberg

Player Who Will Step Up in the Second Half: Kevin Henderson

Grades
(A, B, C, D, F, and an Inclomplete for less than 10 Games Played)

#2, Anthony Bitetto: What a start to the season it has been for a man who was sent down to Cincinnati for 23 games last year. In the first half of the season Bitetto has 9 goals and 10 assists. His offensive game has been stunning to watch develop this season. He’s gone from a cautious defenseman to a quality puck mover that can skate with confidence and deliver big time results on the power-play – with 6 power-play goals scored. While Bryan Rodney was brought in for his offensive-defensemen capabilities – it’s been Bitetto who has looked just as sharp in that regard. There aren’t many I can name on this team that can single handedly establish a breakout play from behind the net, carrying the puck the length of the ice, and straight into the zone – but Bitetto does it probably three times or more a game. His confidence this season is through the roof when it comes to skating forward. The lone down spot in his game are defensive lapses that can take place trying to do too much offensively. His plus/minus of-9 is the lowest of any defenseman on the team. I only expect to see more great progress from him as the season continues. Hopefully that sees an improvement in his defense to go along with his numbers on offense. (A-)

#4, Scott Ford: The Captain has delivered the same type of toughness we’ve come to expect from ol’ Fordo. That could be perfectly summed up when he surprised us all by returning from a broken foot: two weeks after breaking it and a full three-to-six weeks before he was scheduled to return to the ice. The best qualities of Ford aren’t always what you see on the ice – certainly not on the scorer’s sheet. What Ford brings to the team is leadership off the ice and veteran composure on it. So far. So good. (B-)

#5, Theo Ruth: Starting the season with the Ads, Mr. Ruth never really showed enough quality to stick around. He was sent down to Cincinnati, called up briefly during Piskula’s NHL call up, and sent right back. Shortly after Christmas, he announced his retirement from the game of hockey at the age of 24-years old. Best of luck in your future endeavors, Teddy. (Incomplete)

#7, Joe Piskula: Of all the defensemen this season none have played more consistent than the Wisconsin native. Alongside Captain Ford, Piskula brings a great veteran calmness behind the forwards. His play in Milwaukee to start this season earned him his first NHL call-up since the 2011-12 season with the Calgary Flames. It might have been a brief stay in Nashville, only two-games, but it was a very well deserved call-up for a twenty-nine year old that plays a stable two-way game. (A-)

#8, Filip Forsberg: Alrighty. So, he played in 7 games. So, he was sent down in an effort to give him more minutes. So, he was sent back down to knock off the injury rust before heading to World Juniors. All he did in those seven games was score 3 goals and 5 assists and showcased some of what Nashville hopes only gets better and better and better. He is 19-years old. You nearly forget how young he actually is when watching him play. He will only get better with time and patience. (Incomplete)

#10, Patrick Cehlin: The reason why I listed this Swede as the Least Impressive Player through the first half of this season has nothing to do with his play on the ice and much more to do with his inability to stay on it. When I spoke with head coach Dean Evason in the pre-season he said that Cehlin was going to need to be a crucial figure on the team’s offense if they were going to succeed. He has suited up for 7 games. In those games he has scored 2 goals and 3 assists. You can see what Evason sees in him with numbers like that. Sadly, a nagging injury has kept him out since early-November. The team needs his skill and ability to bring an added offensive element to the lineup. When Cehlin returns to game action still seems to be a mystery. (Incomplete)

#15, Kevin Henderson: Last season was explosive for Henderson. He scored 17 goals and 12 assists en route to his first trip to the Nashville where he netted his first-career NHL goal. So, looking at this year’s Henderson, what’s happened? If you asked me… I feel the lower-body injury he sustained at the start of the season, which sidelined him for 5 games, nagged on a bit and possibly hampered his play before he went out officially. It probably took him awhile until his legs were really back underneath him. Once he did spring to life in December he looked like a completely different player. I don’t think his first half has been anything like Henderson would have wanted it to be. If he remains healthy, and continues playing on the wing of his penalty kill battery-mate Austin Watson, that’s precisely why I think his second half of the season will be fun to watch. (C)

#16, Mathieu Tousignant: It’s been an interesting season to this point for Tousignant. I’d say for him some nights are better than others. Mostly what I like about him is precisely what the opponents hate about him – his aggressive edge on the ice. He plays very feisty hockey: finishes off checks, forechecks and backchecks aggressively, skates fast, and isn’t shy to get talkative with his opponents – nor drop his gloves with them. I like what he adds to the team on the lower forward lines. Still, I’d like to see more from him in an offensive sense considering the tools he has are there to make an impact. (C-)

#17, Mike Liambas: We all know about Liambas. He just checks hard and drops the gloves. Wrong. So very wrong. From pre-season practice and into the season I have been impressed by the work ethic of Liambas to make plays on offense and defense. He’s worked closely with assistant coach Stan Drulia on his game preparations and looks more and more sound on both areas of the puck. With how physical he is, I’ve liked seeing him work to the front of the net on offense and can see him being able to create chances setting up shop there when he is off the forecheck. It’s all a matter of learning for Mike. This season he’s learned a ton and that knowledge is slowly making its way onto the ice. (C+)

#18, Colton Sissons: Where do I start? How about a team-leading 12 goals to go with 10 assists for a team-leading 22 points. Here is the other place I could have started: this is his first season of professional hockey and in no way does that show in his game. From the opener in Abbotsford on forward Sissons has played fantastic. He has this incredible ability to skate into soft spots on the ice and go undetected by the defense. That same hockey IQ lends well to the defensive side of his game as well. He isn’t afraid to give up his body to block shots and had a very active stick to make the passing lanes a mess. And he’s just a 20-year old rookie. My hope is for this great start to continue. My fear, being that this is his first pro season, is that he hits a wall at some point and begins to slow down. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. (A)

#20, Miikka Salomaki: While his fellow rookie above, Sissons, might be tallying more goals – there hasn’t been a more energetic player on the ice this season than Salomaki. For as shy as this young Fin is off the ice it is amazing just how often his playing style gets under opponent’s skin. The moment he hits the ice it’s zero-to-sixty. He plays the game very physically and drives right in on the goalie – time and time again. His work rate is a constant of the team. He never stops. Heck, if you get to the rink for the pre-game skate at 6:30pm you’ll find that most nights he is the final Admiral to skate off the ice.. often staring down the clock until the final seconds just so he can get his money’s worth of practice. So, he’s shy and facing a language barrier as a rookie. His game speaks for itself. (A)

#21, Simon Moser: Nashville was such a big fan of Moser that he was one of the final cuts in camp before the season started. I can see why. Despite line combos being very erratic this year – no matter where Moser finds himself he seems to complement his linemates well and find ways to make a difference to their playing styles. Whether he plays with a center like Van Guilder or Sissons, he plays smooth offensive hockey and has been rewarded with 5 goals and 9 assists so far in his first professional season of North American hockey. I think with some consistency he can calm down a bit more and focus his game better. He could have a decent finish to the season if he does. (B)

#22, Scott Valentine: It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s a defenseman. It’s a forward. It’s a defenseman, again. Now it’s a forward, again! It’s Scott Valentine! …couldn’t help myself. The truth is, I really think the “Valentine as a Forward” experiment should be given the green light for full-time operation. I’m not saying he plays badly as a defenseman. He plays pretty well back there. Especially his partnership when playing in a d-pair with Scott Ford. Yet, when Valentine is put on the wing of a forward group he can be as lively and as tough of a forechecker as there is on the entire team. Whether or not the team decides to keep him as a forward really depends on the circumstances of who is healthy. It always seems the team wants him involved no matter the circumstance. If a d-man goes out – he’s back there. If a forward goes down – he hits the wing. His collective body of work this season, despite the constant shuffle, has been a positive for the team. If the team were to settle on him as a forward full-time.. then business could pick up for the better. (B-)

#24, Zach Budish: Not to sound harsh, but Budish is a difficult player for me to figure out because he can sometimes feel invisible out on the ice. Perhaps that can work to his advantage. He does have 3 goals and 4 assists after all. Like so many of the forward group he has also bounced around line to line – second, third, and fourth line. Time to gel might bring out the better qualities to Budish who, in my eyes, still looks fresh from a four-year collegiate hockey career. (C-)

#25, Josh Shalla: Similar to a combination of Budish and Cehlin, I feel Shalla is a player that was expected to produce offensively but simply became an invisible entity on the ice – leading to his reassignment to and from the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL. What bums me out about Shalla’s time in Milwaukee is his track record to score goals and his difficulty to do it on a consistent basis while wearing white, black, and Lake Michigan blue. When he was sent down to Cincinnati last season he scored a stunning 21 goals in 37 games. He has the capacity to do it. He just needs to actually do it. (D)

#29, Mark Van Guilder: This is the sixth season in which Mark Van Guilder has suited up with the Ads and every season he seems to take a step forward. This year, he has 5 goals and 7 assists. It’s not going as well offensively as last year. Also an oddity this season has been penalty minutes. Last season he spent 9 minutes in the penalty box in 73 games. Already this season he has 16 penalty minutes. While he is in no way leading the AHL, much less his own team, in penalty minutes – it does speak to the off-start to his season. Unlike some of the young guns of the roster, I can see a guy like Van Guilder working through it and making a bigger difference as the season grinds along. (B-)

#31, Marek Mazanec: Another one of those players I heard about in pre-season camp that was intriguing was Mazanec. When Scott Ford told me Mazanec was going to be pushing Magnus Hellberg hard – I kind of wanted to laugh him off. Boy did I shut up fast. Not only did he win all 5 starts in net for the Ads, but he was called up in-place of Hellberg in Nashville and played so well he earned the NHL Rookie of the Month award for his work in the month of November. He played incredibly composed in net for a 22-year old in his first year of North American “smaller rink – quicker game” hockey. Last season, Hellberg’s adjustment to the North American game took some time before he settled in. Mazanec settled in almost instantly. It seemed like he rarely was fooled by shots, he was able to manage rebounds well, and –scariest of all– could get even better – which was proved by his work up top the moment he went in net for the Predators. As the goalie situation goes within the system, Mazanec just goes to show how great it is to have quality strength in quality depth. (Incomplete)

#33, Bryan Rodney: I doubt that there is a more polarizing figure to Admirals fans than Bryan Rodney. On one hand, I think criticism on him is spot on. How many veteran defensemen does this team need? When will he stop making soft passes that lead to easy turnovers? When will he realize he isn’t Kris Letang and avoid skating too far forward and costing his team odd-man rushes? Then he makes a stunning lightning fast past for an assist that will leave your jaw on the floor and every fault of his prior to that seems to be made accounted for. In other words – he’s a head scratcher that can sometimes single handedly make and break a game. For what it’s worth I think we’ve seen far more right than wrong out of Rodney this season. (B-)

#36, Joonas Jarvinen: The big Fin was sidelined at the start of the campaign for seven games. Ever since his return to the lineup he hasn’t missed a game and has provided very reliable minutes of defense for the team. For believers in the plus-minus statistic, of the entire team no one has a better plus-minus than Jarvinen with a +9. He only posted a negative plus-minus in four out of his twenty-three games played this season. As far as the young d-men go – Jarvinen has stood out as the best defensive minded player through the first half of the calendar. (B)

#37, Scott Darling: The happiest student of Ben Vanderklok’s has played phenomenally to start the season. He has won 7 games from 9 starts, allowed 1.43 goals per game, a 0.955 SV%, and has earned three shutouts. His efforts this season have been recognized by the AHL twice: Player of the Week (ending December 29) and Goalie of the Month (December). And to think I laughed off Mazanec threatening Hellberg in pre-season camp. What we have here is just one more quality “big man” in net. Depending on how the Predators goaltending situation shakes out when Pekka returns, the 6’6” Darling has shown incredible strides in his first real lengthy stint at the AHL level and could play his way into staying in the Ads roster for the majority of the season. It’s has been him against Hellberg to start the year. December showed that the team is much more confident with Darling. And boy did he respond to the task. (A)

#41, Taylor Beck: Another player falling under scrutiny, Beck has put up 8 goals and 8 assists in twenty-six games this season. While it might have been a disappointment for him to have not made the Predators opening day roster – you could tell why he started the campaign off in Milwaukee. He wasn’t playing like himself. At the beginning of the season I had questions about his fitness and/or health. He didn’t play with the same speed or agility I was used to seeing him play with. In fact, it wasn’t until the start of December where I thought he was back up to his full speed: 3 goals and 5 assists in the month of December. Perhaps like Henderson, he played with a lower body injury that sapped his game up that -little bit- to start the season. With his legs fully under him – he’s about as talented a forward as there is on this roster. (B)

#45, Magnus Hellberg: After last season expectations were huge for Hellberg. The start to this season just hasn’t gone to plan for him. An injury on day one of Predators pre-season camp. Decent first three starts. A call up to Nashville. Bench. 12:12 of an NHL debut stopping three of four shots. Back into the fire and surrendering nearly three goals per game. The truth is, I think Hellberg is caught in a loop of trying too hard and getting himself flustered in net. When he calms down and plays with confidence – you get a netminder that can deliver a 40 save shutout against a very highly skilled team in the Oklahoma City Barons. All too often this season he has been fighting himself. It’s a little like what happened with Pekka Rinne last season in the sense he’s being caught scrambling that little too much. For someone as talented as Hellberg is in net – the term less is more might be all the difference for him. One game at a time. One save at a time. (C-)

#51, Austin Watson: Last season, Watson spent the majority of his time with the same line: centering Daniel Bang and Juuso Puustinen. This season he has centered a multitude of different lines combinations that have seen him play with the likes of Rask, Salomaki, Moser, Budish, Tousignant, and Henderson. The Bang-Watson-Puustinen line last season put up great numbers out of the partnership playing seamless hockey. So far, Watson has put up 8 goals and 11 assists with a mishmash of wingers around him. That’s not too shabby. His best linemate this season, for my money, has been Henderson. The two play a very similar style of hockey. They’re skilled, strong, play gritty defense, and can get on the attack fast. That started with their work on the penalty kill together and wound up translating when Evason paired the two on the same line. If Watson is to have a strong second half of the season he’s going to need to continue playing the way he has with a stable line. His partnership with Henderson is the beginning of that. (B+)

#55, Charles Roussel: Of the current crop of d-men on this team I wonder how many overlook the growth of Roussel this season. From pre-season on I’ve noticed similar upgrades to his game as has been the case with Bitetto. The lone downer and reason why he might get overlooked is simply – he isn’t producing the numbers to back it up. At least not yet. His skating ability looks fantastic this year. He can quarterback a power-play. Defensively, he might be a work in progress as far as keeping the play in front of him, but he also hasn’t made that many mistakes when his number is called. He is in the last year of his contract. So far this season it’s been a big step in the right direction. (C+)

#74, Vinny Saponari: One of the last names cut before the season started for the Ads, Saponari returned to the fold from Cincinnati in late-November. His stick skills and skating ability have looked very good since rejoining the team. He’s also earned the trust of his coaches to place him on the power-play. There is much to like with Saponari. I think his play, especially if it continues as it has, may well keep him in Milwaukee for the rest of the season. Should he keep playing on the top forward line with Salomaki and Sissons – his numbers, 3 goals and 4 assists, can only get better. (B-)

#88, Joonas Rask: Tuukka’s brother (sorry Joonas) is another player that I’m curious whether or not people like what they see. The honest truth is, if you look at his career numbers, he isn’t the type of player to produce big offensive numbers. Where he makes up for the lack of offense is with incredibly consistent shift after shift effort. Rask may well be the best defensive forward on the team. He plays very tight defense, has quick hands and stick skills to create takeaways, his speed makes him a neutral zone pest to play against, and that same speed makes him a relentless backchecker that causes the opponents to often times have to dump the puck in rather than freely skate into the zone. His offense might still need some work. As I mentioned, he won’t set the world alight. His passes sometimes aren’t the best. He can sometimes get lost in his own stickhandling and skate into trouble. However, if his speed and stickhandling can be honed in, Milwaukee might be in for a show to watch while he’s playing here. He creates plenty of chances on skill alone. Sooner or later those chances outta be rewarded with numbers. (C+)

Agree or Disagree with the Awards or Grades? Let me hear your take!

6 thoughts on “Mid-Season Review: Grades and Awards”

  1. JoeBlockhead: I’m not insinuating that he is faking an injury at all. I’m simply saying him having a nagging injury, considering what the team expected from him at the start of the season, is a huge disappointment. Who would you push into that category opposite Cehlin?

  2. This is outstanding work. Very in-depth and spot on. I am a little more disappointed with Beck’s play than you are. Would have given him a C. For someone who the Preds couldn’t shut up about at the end of last season, he’s been decidedly meh. Henderson has been invisible to me. Impressed with Sissons. Watson has been steady.

  3. Griffin: Beck and Henderson were in that mix of ‘least impressive’ for awhile but both have started showing significant signs that they’re back to last season’s form – especially Beck’s play in December. I think time will tell if Henderson can get a boost out of playing alongside Watson. The two seem to really be on the same page. Should a guy like Cehlin make it back into the mix he would be a fun change-up to that line and I think all would benefit from one another.

  4. I agree with most of the grades and in-depth thought, but I concur with Griffin on Beck and Henderson. As Griffin stated, for Beck it’s not only that he played so well last year, but the fact that he played with the Preds for a fair number of games towards the end of the season caused the expectations for him to skyrocket. Considering he wasn’t playing well enough to stay in Nashville, I think we were all expecting him to light the AHL on fire.

    As for Henderson, sorry to say, but I nearly forgot he was on the team! That’s another guy that I had high expectations for after last year.

    I think Watson can be a lot better than he has been playing. It’s not that he’s been bad, but maybe his play and progress has been somewhat hampered, in terms of ice time, with the fantastic additions of Sissons and Salomaki along with how highly the Preds think of Moser and Forsberg’s time in Milwaukee (a guy that in my mind has shown he has no business playing in the A, just needs to be given some growing time in the NHL).

  5. I agree with JoeBlockhead. I’d put Shalla on the most disappointing category. Can’t put Cehlin there because of injury. Just not fair. Also agree with others that Henderson has been invisible most of the year. :(

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