The Milwaukee Admirals open up training camp tomorrow morning. There will be some stories formed out of camp the next week or so as far as how lines shape up, who will be the captains, who trickles down to the Cincinnati Cyclones in the ECHL, and much more. For right now I say let’s take a look at some of the basics because there are plenty of storylines worth taking stock of before the pucks start flying around at the MSOE Kern Center.
~New Season, Same Problems~
The Admirals ended last season with a record of 4-14-5-3 following February 15th in which they lost Brendan Leipsic to trade and Miikka Salomäki due to a shoulder injury that sidelined him for the rest of the season. There was no playoff hockey in Milwaukee for the first time since the Admirals inaugural season in the American Hockey League of 2001-02. It could be a concern to some that more of the same could be on the horizon. There are up to 17 returning names on this year’s Admirals team from the previous season. Yet I say turn your focus away from the players for a moment and shift them to behind the bench.
This is year number four of Dean Evason as head coach of the Milwaukee Admirals. In his first three seasons he has collected a regular season record of 113-80-18-17. In his first two seasons his Admirals made the playoffs but did so only to get eliminated in the opening round with only a single win from the two best-of-five game series to show for it.
Looking at all of that, knowing the team finished last in the division a season ago and missed the playoffs, you might be wondering if similar history is set to repeat itself. The simple answer to that, of course, is we won’t know for sure until some games are laid down. Even then I feel last season’s hot streak cold streak style could even lessen some of the ‘feel good’ out of an early successful period of play. Should this team start as cold as it finished though I think there can be cause for concern. There could come a point in this season if things go sour when someone asks whether or not the player development in Milwaukee and lack of team results go hand-in-hand. If there was any single person or group that is motivated to rebound from the struggles of last season I have to imagine it is Evason and his coaching staff.
What I think will help plenty is when we bring our focus back to the players themselves. There are so many returning faces that I think everyone has more than enough motivation to better themselves and what was on display a season ago. Even bigger than that of course is that the prospect pool of the Nashville Predators is a deep one and, for some, that itself is motivation enough. This is an important year for several names that need to put a big fat stamp down on this season as to not get lost in shuffle of forwards that will be entering the prospect pool after this season. Will they make Nashville keep them in their plans or end up out of a job? It’s up to performances shining through on the ice to make the answer to that question clear. Should the players hold themselves to that high level of a standard it should only mean good things for the Admirals as a team for this campaign.
When it comes to the new names arriving in Milwaukee this season there is a lot to like. Juuse Saros, Max Görtz, Vladislav Kamenev, Trevor Murphy, and Kristian Näkyvä are all Nashville prospects entering the fray. Meanwhile, some more seasoned names are also being added to the mix: Cody Bass, Max Reinhart, Jamie Devane, and Conor Allen.
The biggest name of the newbies is easily Saros. The 20-year old goaltender from Finland is making his first splash in North America this season and he enters with a large amount of hype surrounding him. There’s a good possibility that this Finn will succeed another Finn named Pekka Rinne in Nashville one of these years.
In my talks with Magnus Hellberg last season, I got a much better understanding of the adjustment process from the European game to North American game as it relates to goaltending. You not only have a smaller rink, and therefore a quicker game pace to deal with, but the manner in which offenses crowd the net and play off of rebounds is a higher point of emphasis than it is in Europe. Yet, it is still safe to say that this adaptation process is entirely individual. How fast can Saros adapt? The early signs from Nashville’s rookie and pre-season camps suggest that he has adapted quickly… very quickly.
Saros is not your prototypical Nashville Predators goaltending prospect. He’s a wee lad that only registers in at 5’10” tall. By comparison sake to the Predators goaltenders that we’ve come to know over the years he should look every bit on the ice like the kid that he actually is. What’s important to note is that height and size isn’t everything. In fact, I sometimes question if bigger sized goaltenders get away with the mistakes that someone with the size of Saros could ill afford to make. While a goaltender like Hellberg might get caught out by moving side-to-side only to rely on his size to bail him out. A goalie like Saros doesn’t have that. He’s never had that size as a bail out. In turn he has incredibly fast instincts and reaction speed to account for the extra bit of net that has opened up due to his size. It’s these instincts that will make his adaptation process to the North American game fast and the selection of “who is number one in net” for the Admirals a question mark from opening day forward.
As for the others, Kamenev and Görtz are two of the skaters I am really eager to see play for the Admirals this season.
Kamenev was the Predators second round selection in the 2014 NHL Draft. He’s a 19-year old Russian center who has 57 games of professional playing experience in Russia’s KHL with Metallurg Magnitogorsk. The on-ice life for him should be easy enough. He might not be the flashiest player to hit the ice for the Admirals this season but I think his age might get lost in how well he plays. As for off the ice it will be curious to see how he, his coaches, and teammates handle the language barrier. I say, if Marek Mazanec can come through it and speak the level of English that he can now, so can Kamenev. The game of hockey is a universal language. The more he and everyone learns to communicate with one-another off the ice will only allow him to feel more comfortable in his own skin.
Görtz is a player I’ve been excited about seeing for a good amount of time. He’s a strong winger with good skill to go with his size. He is coming off of his best playing season of his career in which he scored 28 points (14 goals, 14 assists) in 53 games with Frölunda in Sweden. My lone concern was that how his season ended last year would hinder his 2015-16 start. Görtz ended last season being taken off the ice on a stretcher in the SHL playoffs after receiving a headshot. He was caught with his head down as he skated in towards goal. How would he handle himself getting back on the ice for a game after a scene like that? Luckily, his Rookie Tournament and work in pre-season both have looked good and any sort of “getting back in the saddle” jitters he might have had simply didn’t show in his performances. That’s as good of a sight to see as seeing his name on the scoresheet. I feel like Görtz is just the type of winger the Admirals have been needing to have success. Look at how well Austin Watson has performed on the wing scoring wise and think about having a second incarnation of that on the depth chart. Someone who won’t get out-muscled or out-sized working the wall and can scrap it out in front of the net for gritty goals as well as whip some in from open play. That’s who Görtz can be for this year’s Admirals team.
~The Fiala Conundrum~
This off-season I felt more and more confident that Kevin Fiala would make the Predators opening day roster. Be it simply depth up top, or the coaching staff thinking he isn’t ready yet, his season starts in Milwaukee. This will begin a fun chapter of the 2015-16 season that should mirror one from the 2013-14 season when a kid named Filip Forsberg found himself in a similar scenario. Highly talented, but unpolished. Can play in the NHL, but you’d rather have him logging top line AHL minutes than lower tier NHL minutes (if not healthy scratched).
Fiala certainly looks better than last season which should mean amazing things for the Admirals. When he arrived midway through last season as an 18-year old he practically hit the ground running: 20 points (11 goals, 9 assists) in 33 games. Not to mention, some of his goals were just flat out ridiculous.
If there were to be any concern for Fiala this season it purely comes from between the ears level stuff. For example, how will the disappointment of not making the Predators opening day roster impact him? Will he be extra motivated to get back up top or shaken up from losing out on an NHL spot? What if he starts well, continues to do well, but the Predators still don’t have the room for him and would rather he keep developing at the AHL level? Does he start gripping the stick tighter wanting that NHL time or continue going about his business and controlling what he can control. Time should tell with that and hopefully a sophomore slump is avoided.
No matter what proceeds in the Fiala storyline of this season it’s quite simple. He is an incredible talent. What I’m sure can be instructed to Nashville fans eager to see him hit the scene, similar to Forsberg back in 2013-14, is to be patient. Being as young as he still is – the more he can play this season the better (AHL or NHL). I’m sure the reason why he is in Milwaukee is for the same reason I’d have sent him to Milwaukee. Why not play top line minutes instead of here-and-there action on the fourth line in Nashville? While playing in the NHL might satisfy your ego logging those lower line minutes sort of defeats the purpose. Let him play. Let him learn. Watch him grow.
~Defensive Wake Up Call~
This time last season I was more worried about an inexperienced defense more than anything else. Heck, if you were to tell me that Taylor Aronson was to have the season he had a year ago I might have fainted. Sadly, Aronson’s improvement and some decent work out of the pairings of Joe Piskula and Anthony Bitetto were about as good as it got really. The defensive structure of the team last season was quite sloppy and players such as Johan Alm and Garrett Noonan were spotty when part of the Admirals setup.
Jump cut to present day and Piskula is gone, PTO contractee Scott Ford is now an assistant coach with the Admirals, and some new names have been added. The loss of Piskula still saddens me in the sense he really was the most consistent defenseman on the Admirals last season and provided the calm presence you’d expect from a veteran like him. With him gone now the team will look to lean on two players that are is six-years younger than Piskula in Allen and Bitetto.
I think Bitetto needs no introduction. His game keeps evolving and, while the scoring touch might be lacking, his defense has looked better and better. The prospect of him being able to produce offensively as he did in 2013-14, scoring 36 points (11 goals, 25 assists) in 73 games, and then playing as stout defensively as he did last season is perhaps just what Nashville are looking for when it comes to his long-term outlook with the organization. He’s set to be the Admirals top defenseman this season. Has the potential to be a team captain considering his standing and respect level within the locker room. One season removed from making his NHL debut and this could be the most important season in Bitetto’s career. Everything is in place for him to put it all together. Can he do it?
Allen is the oldest defenseman on the Admirals this season. And when I say older I mean by about five months on Bitetto. Allen is an undrafted defenseman who played his trade with UMass-Amherst. After finishing up in college he made his pro debut in the AHL with the Connecticut Whale. He then proceeded to play with the Hartford Wolf Pack in the AHL and played 7 games with the New York Rangers in the NHL. His AHL numbers, especially last season, are solid. In 2013-14 he played 72 games, scored 31 points (6 goals, 25 assists), had 71 penalty minutes, and a plus/minus rating of -4. In 2014-15 he played 72 games, scored 34 points (11 goals, 23 assists), had 113 penalty minutes, and a plus/minus rating of +1. He might not be the Sconnie that you knew and love in Piskula but I say give this Chicago native a chance. He should fit in nicely, play a quite similar brand of hockey as Bitetto can, and might not even have hit his ceiling yet.
~Czeching In With Maz~
This off-season’s early storyline was the goaltending dilemma. Will Saros make the leap to North America? If so, who stays and who goes? That has of course been answered but now leaves a question mark as it relates to Mazanec.
If the Predators are as invested in Saros as they appear to be does it mean he’ll end up getting the majority of starts in Milwaukee this season over Mazanec?
Early into the goaltending situation being figured out the more I understood the reasoning behind why Nashville went the route that it did. Mazanec has the NHL experience and would be that slightly bit more acclimatized to help out in the event of an injury that required a call up. Yet, with that in mind, is he purely back in Milwaukee on that condition while Saros gets that majority of starts in net? It’s a question that will play out before our eyes early in the season.
What is curious to see will be Mazanec’s start, middle, and end to this season. He has started great the first two years of his Admirals career.
2013-14, Mazanec started the season off with five wins in his first five starts before getting an NHL call up that saw him get Rookie of the Month honors in November 2013. He labored a little bit in his return to the Admirals – losing six of his first seven appearances in February 2014 – but he literally needed to shoulder the load in goal during that time due to the amount of injuries at the position. Once he settled back in? Brilliant: he won nine of his last twelve games including his last four straight and had a 0.926 save percentage across that span.
2014-15, Mazanec once again started off the season by winning his first five starts of the season. But, much like the Admirals season as a whole last year, it was up down and around from then on out. His save percentage month-by-month broke down: 0.924, 0.894, 0.885, 0.947, 0.905, 0.867, 0.902. Basically, when he was good – he was great and when he was rough – he was ROUGH. To allow me to dip into something I said during my end season grades for last season… Hellberg allowed three or more goals fourteen times. Mazanec allowed three or more goals twenty-five times. There’s no tip-toeing around it. That’s simply not good enough.
There is a lot on the table for Mazanec this season and by that I really mean it being the difference between being the back-up in Nashville next season versus heading back home and playing for HC Plzen. Mazanec needs to step up to the plate, meet the challenge and hype train of Saros head on, and be the anchor in net here in Milwaukee. Should he flounder in his chances there is no reason why the net shouldn’t just be handed off to Saros to speed up his developmental process. The pressure is on and how Mazanec is able to handle it this season should be the difference between him succeeding Carter Hutton and not being back at all.
~Heart and Soul~
I believe I mentioned a kid named Salomäki getting injured for the season somewhere up top. Well, good news, that injury has healed up and he is back to 100% fitness for the 2015-16 playing season. So much so he was given a five-minute major for boarding and a game misconduct in the Predators pre-season opener. Some look at that as bad. I look at that and say he’s back to the way he was (more or less).
Considering his shoulder injury last season you’d wonder if more plays like that, such as a high impact boarding check, would get eliminated out of Salomäki’s arsenal. While I’m sure the coaches weren’t please at the time with him doing that I also think there was a wry smile as well. It’s that level of full throttle play from Salomäki that makes him so fun to watch and as effective on both sides of the puck as he is.
The game misconduct will probably be met by the player and coaches the same way it was when he suffered the same fate as a rookie here in Milwaukee. But it should also rebound as it did where he’s not a nasty player whose aim is to deliver checks like that. He’s simply an aggressive bull in a China shop. The moment that he went down for the season last year it felt like the team lost a big part of their identity. Salomäki’s tenacity on the ice in some ways is a great table setter for each and every forward to take the ice and commit to working as hard as he does in all areas of the ice. Him being back fully fit will be a hugely welcome addition to the team.
There’s plenty more storylines out there. For example, I’m thinking this should be an outstanding season for Colton Sissons and have briefly talked about why I think that should be the case. Plenty of stuff to talk up but tomorrow will be the first day of training camp downtown. I’ll be there and hope to catch up with the team afterwards so expect a Chatterbox or two this week. Hope to see you at the MSOE Kern Center this week. Not sure what the schedule is? Have a look here.