The harsh reality that there is a business side to the sport of hockey smacked everyone back over the head yesterday with two key names from the Milwaukee Admirals going to pastures new: Magnus Hellberg and Joe Piskula. Each case presented the business scenarios that come with the sport. Either a team made a trade to move a player elsewhere or a player makes the decision to leave on their own terms. It was certainly sad seeing both leave but it’s such because of their impact on and off the ice in Milwaukee.
When looking at Piskula’s situation it’s one I think most are fine with. He signed on with the Anaheim Ducks organization and may well have a better opportunity to play more NHL games than the log jammed defensive core of the Nashville Predators would ever allow. At this stage in his career Piskula should be continuing to push for NHL hockey because his time with the Admirals showed how good of a defenseman he is. If the Predators aren’t an option he was always going to be looking for the best possible fit. That place was Anaheim. Their AHL option is San Diego Gulls of the ECHL’s new Pacific Division. He leaves behind his native Wisconsin where he not only grew up in Antigo, played college hockey for the Badgers, but also captained the Admirals.
In Piskula’s career he has only played 13 career games in the NHL. The hefty bulk of his professional playing career has been in the AHL where he has played 533 career games. He will be turning 31-years old this Sunday. All that being said and you think the picture that was just painted is a bad one. It isn’t at all though. His last two seasons with the Admirals have been perhaps the two best of his pro career: 140 games, 40 points (4 goals, 36 assists), 86 penalty minutes, and a plus/minus rating of +40. It feels like he’s actually trending upwards rather than falling off with age. Anaheim clearly saw and respected that. And I would love for Piskula’s time with the Admirals to have been that last big push to get him a longer NHL run than his career high of 5 games in a single NHL season. He’s earned it. He’s not a slick skating puck moving offense defenseman. He isn’t a thrash and bash physical defenseman. He’s just incredibly smart on and off the puck and can play in all on-ice scenarios that the Ducks would be able to throw at him.
And then, inhale-exhale, there is the case of what happened for Hellberg yesterday. It’s safe to say that the reaction I’ve read across Admirals Roundtable’s social media reach is that this one stung a lot. It was a punch square in the feels and a cold hard slap from a thing called reality. I equate Hellberg being traded to the New York Rangers yesterday as being a lot like getting your shots when you were a kid. You knew it was coming, you saw it was coming, there is no avoiding it, and then it happens.
Here’s the flip side to that analogy though. The aftereffects of getting a shot when you are a kid was pretty much just the amazement that you spent all that time worrying about the shot and now its all over and life goes on. Guess what? Life does still go on and it goes on in the form of big time goaltending prospect Juuse Saros and his first full-season of pro hockey in North America.
That is precisely what I feel the Nashville Predators brass would like everyone to be thinking and feeling. The reality is this. In the way that the Predators rewarding Austin Watson for his efforts in Milwaukee set a great example for all current and incoming Predators prospects that hard work and dedication to the Admirals in the AHL could pay off with NHL reward – the Predators shattered that sentiment by tossing Hellberg, a former second round selection, to the recycling bin like a partially drunk can of soda. When you’re good? You’re good and Nashville recognize it. When you’re good? I don’t know so go away.
The handling of the Milwaukee goaltending situation and how Hellberg was kicked to the curb had that sort of careless feeling behind it and one that I would go so far as to say puts Marek Mazanec directly in the firing line as well. This wasn’t about Hellberg. It wasn’t about Mazanec. It was about how Nashville could comfortably fit Saros in Milwaukee as soon as possible. It makes me at the very least wonder what this off-season would have been like if the Predators opted to not go two-year deal on Carter Hutton when they did and instead gave him a one-year contract. Is Mazanec not the back up now? Is your AHL tandem Hellberg and Saros? Or, for all we know, Hutton skips a one-year deal and the Predators build from within by maintaining Scott Darling as an AHL option and promoting Mazanec. It’s easy for me to say something such as that now but so is saying that wouldn’t happen because I’m sure a veteran option would have been brought in in-place of the AHL options in hand. It’s that line of thinking that is ‘safe’ general managing and not one that takes risks and sees if what you drafted has value. In the case of Hellberg? The Predators never cared to find out. Either that or his cameo of a relief appearance that lasted 12:12 of ice time summed up his entire career from past to present to future and I didn’t see what everyone else saw.
In short, it’s just as sad way to end what was a really great time with the Admirals organization for Hellberg. I feel like there were far more highs than lows from him in net and his ceiling really hasn’t been touched yet. The Rangers got themselves a goaltender with big upside who now has that extra little chip on his shoulder and they acquired him for a sixth round draft pick all the way off in 2017. Hellberg should be competing as the first choice goaltender of the Rangers AHL affiliate the Hartford Wolf Pack this coming season. He’ll be given the chance to play regularly which is something he never had too often the last two seasons as an Admiral. If he makes good on his potential? I think everyone in Milwaukee will be celebrating while Nashville fans will be asking, “why?” Should things be same ol’ same ol’ from Hellberg, and the group in Milwaukee one-up him, then things ended up working out as Nashville would like. My hope is for one Swede to eventually learn up close from another Swede, Henrik Lundqvist. That would be a fun and very Tre Kronor goaltending tandem.
So what does this do for the 2015-16 Admirals? It makes the focus a clean, simple, and driven one. Mazanec and Saros will be battling against each other for playing time and Brandon Whitney will be hanging out with the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL in case anything problematic were to occur (that means injuries – knock on wood). The reality here is that the Admirals are perfectly fine. I feel Saros can live up to his hype but will have to make that tough adjustment in net to the speed and playing style of North American hockey. The rink is smaller, the game is faster, the players crash the net harder, and the importance of where you place the rebounds is paramount. During this entire learning process Mazanec will need to repay the Predators organization with results for the faith they showed in him to keep him over Hellberg who had out-performed him last season. Mazanec will need to do this without the Admirals best defenseman Piskula in front of him and possibly even without Anthony Bitetto if he makes the Predators out of camp. This season will already be defined much like last season was. Can the team’s immaturity and defensive ability do enough to match the offensive want-to? While a question like that hangs in the balance the man in net is the great equalizer who can smooth over the rough patches. According the the Predators those two men are going to be Mazanec and Saros. Will it work? Tune in this fall to find out.
What is your take from yesterday’s moves made by the Nashville Predators and former Predators players and prospects? How do you feel Hellberg will do as the expected number one goaltender of the Hartford Wolf Pack next season? Can Piskula make the Ducks roster to start the season or will be be back in the AHL for the majority of this season? What pieces need to be added to Milwaukee to either fix or build upon their current roster?