The Milwaukee Admirals have played thirty-eight games this season season. That’s literally the half-way point of the Admirals 2015-16 season. It feels crazy that we’ve already hit that marker, doesn’t it? Time really does fly! That being the case I feel it is time for a review on the players’ the season to date and divvy up some mid-season awards.
Most Impressive Player: Frédérick Gaudreau
Least Impressive Player: Stevie Moses
Best Forward: Frédérick Gaudreau
Best Defensemen: Jimmy Oligny
Best Goaltender: Marek Mazanec
Best Rookie: Juuse Saros
Most Improvement: Frédérick Gaudreau
Least Improvement: Jonathan Diaby
Player to Watch in the Second Half of the Season: Vladislav Kamenev
Player Who Needs to Step Up in the Second Half: Marek Mazanec
Player Who Will Step Up in the Second Half: Max Reinhart
~The Road So Far~
While the Milwaukee Admirals enter the official midway point on a sour note the reality is that this season has been tremendously successful. The Admirals ended last season winning four of the last twenty-six games. The Admirals would miss the playoffs for the first time since their inaugural AHL season of 2001-02. The summer presented many involved with a much needed mental break. Changes were then made on and off the ice. Players shuffled out of the organization and new prospects entered. The Admirals identity itself changed with a rebranding that brought forth new logos and uniforms.
As the 2015-16 season started it did so with echoes of the end to the campaign prior. That fortunately did not last too long. The team became a team – simple as that. For all the injuries, players being recalled to the Nashville Predators and reassigned, more injuries, recalls from the Admirals ECHL affiliate the Cincinnati Cyclones, the added need to sign ECHL talent on PTO contract basis just to fill out a lineup, and more injuries. Rinse. Repeat. And repeat again. Through it all the Admirals have maintained a strong team identity and done far more than keep their head above water. They’ve thrived.
At the mid-season marker the Admirals have lost five of their last six-games. They are fourth in the Central Division and fifth in the Western Conference. It’s been a rough patch -but- only a week ago they were the best team in the Western Conference. Despite all the injuries and roster changes they were that good. It was similar circumstances to that which crushed last season’s finish. That hasn’t happened. And I don’t feel the run of form that has caused the Admirals to stumble their way to the middle of this AHL season.
What has happened lately is a team that has just completed a marathon: nineteen games in forty days – nearly a game every other day. Fatigue, physical and mental, is a real thing. The past few games have really screamed an Admirals hockey team that isn’t playing with a full gas tank to go along with a roster than is stretched thin. At some point that will creep into the on-ice performances and results – and it has. What’s important to remember is that the Admirals have already done an immense amount of great work that has afforded them the wiggle room for a funk such as the one they are in right now. Other teams around the AHL will get through their own battles like this and, when they do, it will be up to the Admirals to take care of their end of business just like others have during their rough patch.
Everything I’ve sat back and watched out of this year’s Admirals team has been exciting to see unfold. They were the second youngest team in the AHL to start this season. Their ability to adapt in-game to momentum shifts and style changes have been outstanding. The goaltending has been great. The forwards have looked really good. And the defense, as banged up as they’ve been, have looked good when healthy.
My hopes for this team right now is for a deep playoff run. I don’t buy the Rockford IceHogs as a serious threat to the Admirals in the division or playoffs anywhere near as much as I do the Grand Rapids Griffins. For the Admirals to start really laying the foundation down on a solid playoff push and deep run for a possible Calder Cup they’re going to have to match up against the Griffins and display far better hockey when those two clash from here on out. Every Admirals-Griffins game is a litmus test for playoff caliber hockey. Should the Admirals start getting a foothold and match the strengths of the Griffins – why can’t this team achieve the spectacular?
I always feel the need for a preface to any report card that I do by stating the following. These grades are purely my own judgement. I also feel that it is only fair to grade an “incomplete” to any player that hasn’t played in half the games that the Admirals have played this season or have endured most of their season at the ECHL level with the Cincinnati Cyclones. That means, if the player logged nineteen games for the Admirals, he will receive a letter grade. For the sake of convenience I will be listing the players based on their uniform number here in Milwaukee.
2, Anthony Bitetto: When everyone’s favorite New Yorker was sent to the Admirals from Nashville on a conditioning assignment I have to imagine it wasn’t just nice for fans here in Milwaukee to see Anthony Bitetto hit the ice. I have to believe Bitetto enjoyed it just as equally. This season the 25-year old has been collecting dust as a seventh or eighth choice defenseman for the Predators. Collecting those NHL paychecks as a healthy scratch is probably pretty nice. Only playing three out of forty-three games probably isn’t.
Bitetto’s AHL and ECHL developmental process was one of the real bright spots to watch these last few seasons. It’s a shame to see all that hard work kind of go to waste. In the six-games that he played for the Admirals during his conditioning assignment he showed just how much of an anchor and veteran presence he can be. At this age, wasting away his chance for playing time by being repeatedly healthy scratched might turn him into one of his best friends… a player that got to the NHL but couldn’t get enough of a chance to prove that he can stay there and ends up being a respected AHL defenseman instead… Bitetto might just becoming the next Joe Piskula. The good news is that the Seth Jones trade has opened the door up for Bitetto to finally claim a spot. It’s on him to seize that opportunity before it passes him by for good. This could be his best chance to make a case to remain in Nashville past this season. (Grade: Incomplete)
3, Jonathan Diaby: When I looked back on last season’s mid-season and end-season report cards in respect to Jonathan Diaby I essentially said he was the youngest member of the Admirals defensive core and his season was reflective of that. One season under his belt and what has Diaby presented half-way through this season? Not much of anything good.
It is unfortunate that he had a brutal injury when playing ECHL hockey that slowed some of his playing time down there but the reality is his playing time should only exist with the Cincinnati Cyclones until he can adequately defend. Diaby offers zero offensive ability from the defensive position. That’s something that makes his presence in a system the likes of which Nashville loves to play a major question mark moving forward. It would be fine if he is a rock of a defenseman, using his massive frame to be a monster to go up against, but he hasn’t been. He plays uncoordinated and often it seems like his size is actually more of a hindrance than a positive. I’ve not seen a defenseman here in Milwaukee get turned inside out by forwards so often.
At 21-years old there is still time for Diaby to get things rolling. I just feel the ECHL is where that is going to need its launch pad point because he can be afforded more playing time and game situations to sharpen up his all-around game. Many view playing hockey in the ECHL as some sort of a setback. It isn’t if the time utilized down there is taken seriously and the lessons presented are learned. Taylor Aronson is a prime example of this being a successful developmental process. Can Diaby channel that? That question remains to be seen. (Grade: Incomplete)
5, Petter Granberg: For as many wacky roster items that have come about this season none has come more out of left field than the waiver claim by the Nashville Predators of defenseman Petter Granberg when they already had Victor Bartley and Anthony Bitetto stationed at mailing address: Cobweb Court, Healthy Scratch City, Tennessee 37203. It didn’t make sense at the time. The only rationale that I could cook up was that the Predators were stockpiling defensemen for a potential trade. And, gasp shock awe, that happened!
Granberg’s AHL numbers have been good as a defensive defenseman and he saw eight games of NHL experience with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He started his 2015-16 season injured. The Maple Leafs were looking to send him through waivers as a means to get him to the Toronto Marlies (AHL), get him rolling again, and maintain him under the Toronto banner. Yet, the Predators swooped in with the waiver claim and sent him on conditioning assignment with the Admirals to get him up to speed, knock off the rink rust, and go back to the NHL where he could go back to not playing hockey like he was before.
As it stands today, Granberg is thought of as the Predators seventh defenseman with Bitetto getting the nod ahead of him. Granberg made his Predators debut on 1/9/16 so there is reason to believe there is a rotation at work with the Swede being given a chance to succeed at the NHL level despite his limited NHL experience and injury woes to begin this season. (Grade: Incomplete)
6, Kristian Näkyvä: As I was weighing the options up for “Least Impressive Player” I strongly considered putting down Näkyvä’s name. When he was snapped up this past off-season he came in as a defenseman with offensive upside. That offensive upside hasn’t exactly been allowed to shine as he wasn’t provided a power-play role until injuries on defense presented the opportunity for him. Away from that he has been lackluster on both ends of the puck. His defense has had its sloppy moments and he’s probably been burned more than any Admirals defensemen this season.
The thing I takeaway with Näkyvä is this: he’s experiencing his first season of North American hockey. There’s no denying that the transition from Europe to North America is a challenge. Some take to it easier than others and I feel like the pace of the North American game has caught Näkyvä off-guard at times. What I’ve been seeing in more recent games is a better Näkyvä than the one from even as late as November. There’s reason to believe he’s processed the game, has become familiar with his surroundings on and off the ice, and is progressing forward. I’m hopeful he can keep getting better as this season storms to more and more crucial games. (Grade: C-)
7, Conor Allen: It was a sad day to see Piskula leave the Nashville Predators organization. Specifically, it was sad to see the Antigo native leave Wisconsin and the Milwaukee Admirals. Yet, it’s a young-man’s game at the AHL level and it’s key to find leadership qualities and strength out of the free agent market. Conor Allen was the replacement. And, while not as defensively strong, he has been just as serviceable.
What always leapt out to me when it came to Piskula’s presence to the Admirals was his work that you don’t find on a statsheet and might not appreciate until the game is over. He brought a calmness to the ice. Allen brings that same level of calm and confidence on the backend of play for the Admirals, as well. His defense is sharp, he can transition both himself or the puck up ice to get the offensive game rolling, and he’s good on the blueline offensively. He’s not overwhelming. He’s not eye-popping. He’s just a hard worker. (Grade: B)
8, Trevor Murphy: I have one basic comment to start this review off. Ney, a question. How was this guy not drafted? Trevor Murphy is a 20-year old defenseman with a rocket shot who skates well and whose skating ability makes for great defensive work in his own zone. The Admirals top goal scoring defenseman last season was Anthony Bitetto and Garrett Noonan with four goals. Murphy scored four goals in four games after returning from an early season groin injury. He bettered the mark set by Bitetto and Noonan a season ago in his twenty-second game of the season.
If Diaby was give the “ease up, relax, he’s 20-years old and the youngest defenseman of them all” moniker a season ago then what of Murphy? He’s a completely different defenseman, true, but checks all boxes as a highly talented well-rounded player. His playing style is precisely why a team like the Predators must have been giggling themselves to sleep when they signed him this summer. He’s their kind of defenseman. He’s fast, skates well, shoots well, passes well, and can defend his position. Bitetto was a really fun project to see develop here in Milwaukee. Murphy is going to be that next fun defenseman to see get better and better and better. At this age that’s what’s coming for him. And that’s exciting. (Grade: B)
10, Max Görtz: I was very sad when this Swede signed his entry-level contract last season only to play another campaign for Frölunda. You could point to his ol’ Färjestad buddy Pontus Åberg as a reason to why playing last season would be important. There is a learning curve to coming over from Europe to the North American game and it’s better to get that process and first-year in the system quickly and build on it. At the midway point in Görtz’s first-year it’s looking like the adaptation process took about a month and a half.
From October to November Görtz only had 4 points (1 goal, 3 assists) in sixteen games. He also was late to two team meetings and was penalized as such. He was suspended for a game by the team and sent to the ECHL for a game. All of that right now could be considered his wake up call and grind process because December was nothing short of spectacular: 15 points (5 goals, 10 assists) in thirteen games which earned him CCM/AHL Rookie of the Month honors.
Görtz has an incredible shot. He also has good size, skating ability, and passing ability. It’s not clear yet if December was a flash in the pan or a sign of more great things to come. The exciting news is that there is still a half season still to play and -what if- he keeps producing at that high a clip? (Grade: B+)
11, Adam Payerl: If not for some kid named Frédérick Gaudreau this might be one of the better stories this season. Adam Payerl was an undrafted free-agent signing of the Pittsburgh Penguins back in 2012. His AHL numbers with the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins had been alright, nothing flashy, but he was a consistent worker who found himself without a job this past off-season. No real AHL jobs were on the table. He signed with the Cincinnati Cyclones to an ECHL contract and was invited by the Admirals to their pre-season camp where he would get a PTO contract and perform so well he bumped up to a standard AHL contract to stick around the rest of the season.
Payerl’s best AHL season of his career was in 2013-14 where he produced 11 points (5 goals, 6 assist) in forty-three games. This season with the Admirals Payerl has 19 points (6 goals, 13 assists) in thirty-six games. He really has been one of the most underrated performers on the Admirals roster. He does good work in all three zones of the ice and I feel can be tasked with playing on any line for the Admirals and succeeding. (Grade: B)
12, Kevin Fiala: Let’s start with a quick overview of Kevin Fiala’s self-made disastrous start to this season, shall we? He told Nashville Predators General Manager David Poile that he would make the NHL roster in the summer. He was cut early into the Predators pre-season camp and sent to Milwaukee. And that’s where this story really begins.
Fiala struggled heavily out of the gates – very heavily. What concerned me so much was that he lacked any sort of explosiveness that he featured when he hit the ice for the Admirals the season earlier. His off-season strength and conditioning weren’t apparent at all. He looked sluggish and borderline uninterested. Ten games into this season Fiala almost had as many penalty minutes (28) as he did shots on goal (34). The bulk of those penalty minutes came when he let his emotions get the better of him and he decided to flip off the Lake Erie Monsters bench, was handed a game misconduct, and subsequently a two-game suspension by the AHL.
I’ve used the “he’s 19-years old” excuse so many times during that span that it just about did my head in. But, guess what, he’s 19-years old. What you wanted to see from Fiala was precisely what he did following his suspension. He woke up. In the ten games played before his suspension he hadn’t scored a goal yet and had 5 assists. After his suspension he has picked up 16 points (6 goals, 10 assists) in twenty-four games.
What leaps out at me a ton from Fiala as this season has gone on is something people won’t get to see often which has been his off-ice demeanor. At the start of the season when the reporters would head into the locker room Fiala would be the first player dressed up and out the door before anyone had a chance to so much as play with the idea of interviewing him. I don’t even think there was enough time to shower in that span. He just booked it. It felt individualistic on his part to get away from the rink as fast as possible. Following his suspension he started hanging around more, he started lowering the shoulders, he would joke around with his teammates more, and looked way more loosened up and relaxed. Coincidentally, as this off-ice attitude came about, Fiala’s on-ice performance was getting better. It was as if someone had a heart to heart with him to remind him that he’s a teenage kid, treat the game like what it is – a game, and have fun with it.
There is a lot of weight and expectation being put on the shoulders of young Kevin Fiala. Plenty of which Fiala put on his own shoulders before this season even started. I think that weight crushed him early and the suspension was his version of rock bottom where he could process his surroundings and get better perspective of his situation. When you look at the Nashville Predators and the prospects that have transitioned up and maintained roles on the team it’s the polished players that have utilized their AHL time well. Fiala is 19-years old and unpolished. He’s immensely skilled. But he’s unpolished. There is growing up on and off the ice that needs to be done for him but that’s precisely why the AHL exists. It’s a developmental league and a prime place for Fiala to sharpen his skill set. He just can’t get caught expecting more of himself that what he can deliver. (Grade: C+)
13, Matt White: There is nothing I enjoy more, doing what I do, than seeing ECHL players finally earning chances to climb up the ranks and succeeding. Gary Steffes was just such a story as that at the end of last season. Matt White is that for the Admirals this season.
Through all the wild injuries and call-ups to Nashville it was getting to the point where the Admirals desperately needed bodies in camp just to field a twelve man forward group. Rather than go to the well of familiar faces the Admirals went to the Manchester Monarchs (ECHL) and took two names on the upper echelon of their scoring list. One of those names was White who had never played a game at the AHL level at the time of his PTO signing. In his second career AHL game he scored two goals and an assist. He currently has 10 points (4 goals, 6 assists) in seventeen games with the Admirals.
What stands out to me for White has been the confidence the coaching staff has in his abilities on the ice. There is no better example of that by how White operates on the point at times on the Admirals power-play. He’s not a guy that is going to make boneheaded mistakes and he plays a confident and calm game. He’s showing that what he does in the ECHL translates well to the AHL. That’s not bad for a desperation PTO signing in my book. (Grade: Incomplete)
15, Zach Budish: It was sad seeing someone like Zach Budish have the off-season that he did considering 2014-15 was his first true wire-to-wire season of solid hockey. The best that afforded him was an invite to the Iowa Wild’s pre-season camp where he was cut. Read that again and join myself and Mr. Budish in high level sadness.
Budish wasn’t around with the Admirals long but he contributed as he so often did: smart play, defensively responsible, and an ability to chip in on offense. It was only four games but he had a pair of assists. The Admirals won all but one of those games that he participated in before releasing him back to the Cincinnati Cyclones (ECHL). He’s been doing well for them there, too: 26 points (11 goals, 15 assists) in thirty games. Hopefully that gets him back on the AHL radar somewhere after this season. (Grade: Incomplete)
16, Félix Girard: On a review such as this you’ll see me tossing the numbers around a ton for players. I’m going to skip that for Félix Girard because it’s not the goals or assists that blow me away with his game. This guy is a warrior and delivers hard work every shift for the Admirals.
Girard’s responsibilities from last season to this season feel like they’ve not changed too much. Yet, his effectiveness and abilities have grown. He is outstanding in the faceoff circle. The best penalty killing forward the Admirals have. And is starting to show that Mark Van Guilder knack for bringing the best out of his supporting linemates. Game after game you never have to question what you’ll be getting out of Girard. He isn’t providing the offense night in night out but you can’t lose sight of the fact he has already bettered his offensive numbers from last season. He’s been a model of consistency in an Admirals forward group that has been tackled by injuries and call ups. (Grade: A-)
17, Jamie Devane: If you were to think of Jamie Devane’s highlight reel to this point you wouldn’t necessarily find anything like what he was traded for in Taylor Beck. Instead, you’ll see solid uppercut knockout of San Antonio Rampage bruiser Daniel Maggio.
Similar to Girard, lots of what Devane brings to the table isn’t necessarily “wow” based numbers game. He plays a physical game that works great on the lower forward lines for the Admirals. I feel like I’d call him a “wear and tear” specialist for forchecking and defending. Oh, and yes, occasionally dropping the gloves if need be. Thinking back to last season the Admirals had Mike Liambas, Rich Clune, and Triston Grant in that role. It’s not that they were bad but their size didn’t necessarily thump a lot of what other teams brought to the table. Devane is 6’5” which tops the latter names out by seven, seven, and four inches respectively. Is Devane doing Beck level work for the Admirals? No, but Beck always needed a Devane level player to wear the defensemen out by the time he took to the ice. (Grade: C+)
18, Colton Sissons: In his first pro-season, Sissons produced at an outstanding level for the Milwaukee Admirals and managed to play seventeen games for the Nashville Predators along the way. Last season he got off to a tremendously slow start and didn’t get a single look up at the NHL. Halfway through his third pro-playing season Sissons has almost perfectly split time between the Admirals (twenty games) and Predators (nineteen games).
I think one of my favorite aspects of Colton Sissons is how much it meant for him to be named the team captain of the Admirals. Even a veteran like Piskula was iffy about taking on the role of captain last season and if it meant lessening his chances of a recall to the Predators. That simply isn’t the case but it’s a thought that entered the mind. For Sissons, he took it like a challenge that he wanted to bear. The process for who the captains are with the Admirals comes down to the players in the locker room voting for it. Sissons was 21-years old when this season started, had two-years of pro experience, and had the locker room won over. What more can I say than that?
I feel like this will probably be the final season for Sissons in the AHL. The coaching staff in Nashville seem to love his ability and those who’ve watched him grow here in Milwaukee know precisely why. Sissons doesn’t do any one thing amazingly but he excels across the board in all game situations. That talent translates and has translated at the NHL level. (Grade: A-)
19, Eric Robinson: When Eric Robinson arrived from Dartmouth College he looked brilliant on the ice for the Admirals. He had the knack for being at the right place on the ice to either shoot or set up scoring chances. When he was brought back for this season it was a quality depth signing. His production at the ECHL level was explosive to start this season. That followed into his brief time with the Admirals, too. In 2015-16 between the Cyclones and Admirals Robinson scored 13 points (7 goals, 6 assists) in thirteen games.
This is when things get all very sad because Robinson suffered a significant knee injury on a Thanksgiving Day game for the Cyclones and it appears his season is likely over. For the injuries that would follow, roster moves up down and around, Robinson would have likely been a great addition to the Admirals roster if he stayed healthy. Instead, he’s missing out on what would have been his first full professional playing season. Again. It’s sad. He showed signs of being someone the Admirals could have leaned on this season. (Grade: Incomplete)
20, Miikka Salomäki: If anyone deserves to be dealt a better hand than they received last season it was Miikka Salomäki. He went from scoring a goal in his NHL debut to out for the rest of the season in a flash. That was devastating and his presence being out of the lineup for the Milwaukee Admirals was certainly felt for the rest of the 2014-15 season. If you pair his injury up with the trade that sent Brendan Leipsic off to Toronto the Admirals went on to win four of their last twenty-six games played. I feel like the bigger of those two going down was Miikka whose relentless on-ice work rate and attitude sets the table for everyone to match his compete level. He’s very much a heart and soul sort of player and now Nashville fans get to see just that on a regular basis.
Salomäki’s 2015-16 season started with the Admirals but it was only going to be a matter of time before he went up and stayed up. He played four games for the Admirals, scored a goal and an assist, and has since played twenty-five games for the Nashville Predators where he has totaled 4 points (2 goals, 2 assists). (Grade: Incomplete)
21, Stevie Moses: I’m sure there was a point when the Nashville Predators signing Stevie Moses was a great idea. I was just never invited to that think tank session. The moment that news came about my general reaction was this: a small winger who likes to shoot a lot and score goals… kind of like Viktor Arvidsson.
This was always going to be a “low risk, high reward” signing for the Predators. Moses set the KHL record for goals scored in a single season last year and was snapped up for one-year and $1 million. He was waiver exempt and, after not showing well in pre-season camp, arrived to the Milwaukee Admirals where he scored 7 points (2 goals, 5 assists) in sixteen games at the AHL level. Obviously that’s not what Nashville expected. Clearly that’s not what Moses expected either.
Both sides mutually agreed to part ways and Moses packed his bags up to make his way back to Russia-land where SKA St. Petersburg acquired his KHL playing rights. Since returning to the KHL he has picked up 10 points (7 goals, 3 assists) in nine games. It’s weird to think that this is a reversal of the normal model of European players coming over to North America, struggling to adapt, and going back where their playing style is more suited to bigger rinks. Moses started at the University of New Hampshire, played AHL hockey for the Connecticut Whale, went to play hockey in Finland for Jokerit, and must have just found his calling. (Grade: Incomplete)
22, Joe Pendenza: This is the third season that Joe Pendenza has been able to take part in with the Milwaukee Admirals. He’s been a depth player that flips between the AHL and ECHL since signing on in the 2014-15 season and signing to return this past summer. Joe skates really well. He offers great pace and can contribute on both sides of the puck because of that speed.
While Joe hasn’t necessarily broken out of his first-year pro status like Frédérick Gaudreau that doesn’t necessarily mean what he’s offered is bad. He’s contributed on the wing and at center on a lower-line basis and factored in well when called upon. I feel as if part of what dropping Budish was came down to the likes of already having Gaudreau and Pendenza in-house at the AHL level who not only play as good or better but also have center experience. I’m not sure Pendenza will offer the same offensive upside Gaudreau has shown but he’s been great at the exact reason why he was signed: depth. (Grade: C-)
23, Taylor Aronson: The developmental evolution of Taylor Aronson has been incredible to see unfold over these last three-seasons. This was a player that looked lost in his previous AHL opportunities, went to the Cincinnati Cyclones at the ECHL level, worked hard, gained experience, entered the 2014-15 season with confidence, had a breakthrough season, and has been one of the best defensemen for the Admirals again this season.
I use the term evolution very expertly because the chances to Aronson’s game and perhaps role for the Admirals has taken on new dimensions from one season to the next. Last season he provided much better offense than defense. This season I can’t get over how brilliant he is on defense. Sadly, I need to use his partnership with Näkyvä as an example as to what I mean in that respect. Näkyvä would often blow coverage or lose an assignment and leave Aronson and an Admirals goaltender of your choice to bail him out. Quite often it has been Aronson being the man breaking things up before anyone in net needs to answer the bell. He has been great.
It’s a shame that Aronson has and will likely miss around a month of hockey due to a lower-body injury. He has been out since the Admirals’ Boxing Day game and it could be until the end of January at the soonest before he returns. The great news will be having him back, rested, for the playoff push to come from February on to the finish. He’ll be a great part of the Admirals defensive core seeing this team cross that finish line for sure. (Grade: A-)
24, Vinny Saponari: The Legend of Toe Drag City made his return to the Milwaukee Admirals after an ill-fated year as a member of the Hartford Wolf Pack that saw him spend more time with the Greenville Road Warriors of the ECHL than the AHL. 2015-16 hasn’t been much better.
The Admirals were Vinny Saponari’s third different AHL pit stop from the ECHL this season. Good enough to be on the AHL radars. Not good enough to stay in the AHL. It’s sad when you think back to his quality 2013-14 season with the Admirals where he scored 33 points (15 goals, 18 assists) in fifty-eight games. For what it’s worth he played a controlled style game when with the Admirals this go-round. He didn’t score a goal but did tally 3 assists in eleven games of work. Good. But just not good enough, I’m afraid. (Grade: Incomplete)
25, Max Reinhart: I’ve already busted out the Mark Van Guilder title in this Report Card. Who better sums up what the ol’ Admiral legend brought to the table than Max Reinhart this season? He’s not someone you probably leave the rink thinking about, his game doesn’t scream at you, yet he goes about his business quietly and has the team lead in goal scoring at the midway point of this season with 11 goals.
Reinhart has had to really be an anchor for the Admirals while guys shuffle around him at the center and wing spots throughout injuries and call ups. No Colton Sissons means having a player like Reinhart step in a share a lot of that weight. Cody Bass goes down that means defensive zone faceoffs get tilted to a Félix Girard and Reinhart taking Girard’s former load. He’s been like a Swiss Army knife that coasts under the radar of bigger names. Luckily for him, I notice what he does and his all-around game is something that had me wanting to see him get the call from Nashville after Mike Fisher experienced that injury of his. That didn’t come. But it didn’t slow Reinhart down either. He kept being the pro that he is and sticking to what he could do to be next in-line should anyone else get banged up. (Grade: B+)
28, Zac Larraza: First things first, if you didn’t catch my news along the social media platforms for Admirals Roundtable, Zac Larraza was officially released from his PTO contract yesterday. It’s a slight shame because I feel he looked good when he played but, at the same time, he served his part. Larraza, like his Manchester Monarchs (ECHL) teammates Matt White, was brought in to help the Admirals out through all the injuries and roster call ups. He did his part and can take away his first AHL goal from his time with the Admirals: 3 points (2 goals, 1 assist) in ten games. (Grade: Incomplete)
31, Marek Mazanec: When the Nashville Predators signed Juuse Saros to his entry level contract and traded away Magnus Hellberg to the New York Rangers I couldn’t think of someone with the crosshairs more firmly planted on him than Marek Mazanec. It’s not even for just one reason, either. Prove yourself worthy of us trading away Hellberg and keeping you. Prove yourself to be the back-up in Nashville for the 2016-17 by making us forget about Carter Hutton. Oh yeah, and be better than this 20-year old stud goaltender from Finland who made it even easier to trade Hellberg away. No pressure.
This season has already proved to be the best season I’ve seen out of Mazanec since his arrival in 2013-14. He’s basically had three games where you might say he was roughed up or it was a bit on him. For everything else he has met the pressure cooker season and been great: nineteen games played, 9-8-2-0 record, 2.60 goals against average, 0.915 save percentage, and a shutout. Mazanec, like his battery-mate Juuse Saros, has always provided an excellent foundation for the Admirals to build upon every game. (Grade: A-)
33, Viktor Arvidsson: If you came here without reading my synopsis of Stevie Moses first you might want to go back and do that because, well, yeah. There was no denying what Viktor Arvidsson brought to the table for the Admirals last season. He led the team in scoring and did so by 11 points over the next closest player.
Arvidsson is actually similar to another winger we’ve had the chance to know here in Milwaukee named Miikka. They’re both relentless and relentless in different capacities. Where Salomäki is the bull in the china shop Arvidsson is a non-stop worker with an appetite to shoot the puck. In his brief spell back with the Admirals after beginning his season in the NHL Arvidsson scored an AHL best thirteen game point streak. That streak ended on the last game he’d play for the Admirals before getting returned where he belongs. He’s picked up 5 points (3 goals, 2 assists) in twenty-four games for the Predators. The more comfortable he gets topside the better I anticipate those numbers to be. There is no denying that shot of his. (Grade: Incomplete)
36, Cody Bass: This year’s tough luck award might be a no-brainer if Cody Bass’ season keeps going as it has been. Because, well, c’mon! Bass time and time again played well, was generating scoring opportunities for himself but not coming through, offered great faceoff work on the defensive end of the rink, went up to Nashville for his first taste of NHL action since 1/25/14, and then proceeds to miss a month’s worth of Admirals hockey due to the dreaded “upper-body” injury.
Bass has since made his return from that injury and also broke the goal scoring drought to claim his first as a member of the Admirals. As the oldest member of the 2015-16 roster, just 29-years old, Bass’ best attributes may yet to have been tapped into. I always think players like Bass shine as the playoff push comes. He has been there, he’ll be a great locker room guy for many of his teammates, and hopefully can avoid another injury to contribute as much on the ice as he does off it. (Grade: C)
37, Garrett Noonan: I do a lot of comparisons between the likes of Noonan and Diaby. It often comes down to a basis of who should be in the Admirals setup and why. I’ve discussed Diaby. Noonan is unfortunately not far off on what I said with Diaby but for an entirely different reason.
It’s not that Noonan has played bad defensively as a member of the Admirals. I think he’s done rather well. What confuses me is when a player of his caliber can do such great things with the puck, shows he can provide on a good level in college and for the Cincinnati Cyclones in the ECHL, but is like a ghost for the Admirals on the blueline. In twenty games for the Cyclones he has averaged 1.3 shots on goal per game. In fourteen games with the Admirals he has 2 shots on goal… that’s it, that’s all of them.
I don’t know if Noonan gets overly cautious or if he’s in damage limitation mode but I’d be excited to see him take some more risks when he’s with the Admirals. It’s not as if his skating ability is all that poor that he can’t trek back if he cheats up ice. So take some chances and be more creative on the blueline. Seeing the Predators bring in players like Alm, Näkyvä, Murphy, and Granberg should be taken as a sign that players like Noonan and Diaby aren’t going to plan. It’s up to them to make one last hurrah of it. (Grade: Incomplete)
46, Pontus Åberg: This season has sort of lined up for Pontus Åberg to be a real breakout performer for the Admirals. If you think about seeing players such as Arvidsson and Salomäki get sent up to Nashville you realize key areas of production on the wing are there to be had and players need to step up and fill that void. A Swede has taken it upon himself to accomplish that – but that Swede wasn’t named Åberg.
While he isn’t producing to that high of a rate on offense I would still argue Åberg is looking far more the part this season than last even if numbers don’t exactly show it. He has 12 points (9 goals, 3 assists) in thirty-six games for the Admirals this season. It feels like he should have far more than that the way he has played.
What’s important for Åberg from here on out will be to tighten up his defensive approach to the game, he has a rough -12 rating … only Fiala’s -16 is worse on the entire team, and to slow his game down a little bit. If there is a player not named Fiala who gets caught up doing the flashy individualistic plays and getting torched while doing them it’s Åberg. The slower he can tackle the game the more his real skill set should shine. He can pass incredibly well and does have a good shot. If he stops turning the puck over more of that can be on display and those offensive numbers will increase. (Grade: C)
47, Jimmy Oligny: When naming who the “Best Defenseman” was for the mid-season awards up top the name Jimmy Oligny followed immediately. He has been an absolute rock back there. His team leading plus/minus of +9 speaks to that and he has even added a new wrinkle to his game called offense this season. All of last season he had 5 points (1 goal, 4 assists) from fifty-three games of work. He has 9 points (2 goals, 7 assists) at the mid-season mark.
What’s funny to think about with a player like Oligny is not too dissimilar to what’s going on with fellow member of the French Fries Frédérick Gaudreau. There is a lot of name talent in the Admirals lineup featuring players that were drafted high by the Nashville Predators or acquired by the Predators in other means. Oligny and Gaudreau are undrafted players, signed to the Admirals, both working so hard to punch their NHL ticket. One of them put pen to paper on an NHL contract and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Oligny follow in Gaudreau’s footsteps either during this season or by season’s end. He’s earning that every game and it would be a shame if Nashville don’t give him the nod as they did with Gaudreau. Both have been massive overachievers this year and it isn’t a fluke it’s all them and their dedication to working hard. (Grade: A)
55, Johan Alm: Another season and another injury spell for Mr. Alm that has made getting on the ice a challenge. Last season it was Alm’s wrist. This season it was a lower-body injury keeping Alm out for up to eight games with the added crunch of Petter Granberg sidelining him for even longer than that when he arrived on conditioning assignment from the Nashville Predators.
I’m going out on a limb in saying these past nine-games for Alm have been the best he’s looked as a member of the Admirals. He’s a shot blocking machine and has been really scrappy in his own zone. For all we know this might be the first time that Alm has experienced a level of comfort with the North American game as well as a clean bill of health since he joined the organization from Skellefteå. I’m hoping that this current run is a sign of better to come or, at the very least, more of the same. (Grade: C)
61, Brandon Whitney: Remember those awesome games that Rob Madore spent with the Milwaukee Admirals last season? Like, he didn’t play in a single game last season but he still had a custom painted Admirals mask and sat on the bench. Remember? Me too! … That’s been Brandon Whitney in Milwaukee this season. At least he’s been performing well when called upon with the Cincinnati Cyclones? (Grade: Incomplete)
64, Victor Bartley: The moment the Predators picked up Petter Granberg on waivers I was expecting Bitetto to get tested on waivers and rejoin the Admirals. I figured he’d be the more likely of Nashville’s stationary slash lounging defensemen to pass through waivers considering his limited NHL experience. To my surprise, the Predators went with Bartley instead and -even more surprisingly- he cleared and joined the Admirals for the first time since the 2012-13 season.
Bartley has played fourteen games for the Admirals since rejoining. It’s not been the greatest of times for him, either. On his first game back he was a -3 player on the ice and has an overall plus/minus rating of -7. He’s also missed the past four games due to injury. It’s all sort of been a rude return, really.
What I’m looking forward to is for Bartley to get back on the ice healthy and be the good two-way defenseman he has been in the past. It was unexpected to have someone of his ability at defense this season. How about having him in the stretch drive looking to get the Admirals back into the playoffs? He will be a great on and off ice leader in that respect, as well. (Grade: Incomplete)
74, Juuse Saros: There is a small cringe-worthy feeling of “too good to be true” when a prospect enters the Admirals with as much hype or promise as Juuse Saros did. That guy the fans fell in love with in Milwaukee? Hellberg? Trade him for a stapler or something. Saros is here now. 20-years old and so much still ahead of him. What exactly was he going to be able to do to meet that introduction up? Well, precisely what he has done through thirty-eight games of this AHL season that’s what.
Saros hasn’t shown an ounce of a European game to North American game transition fault at all with the Admirals. His lateral speed, his vision, his hockey IQ all account for that size that make people tilt their head and say aloud, “But I thought all Predators goaltenders are tall enough to see the future.” His size doesn’t matter. If anything, it’s probably his size over the years that has sharpened his mind for the playing area around him in net and be so quick to read the action around him. His transition into the AHL from Finland has been perfect.
Through thirty-eight games the Admirals have perfectly split game time for both goaltenders and there is a good reason for that. They’ve both been fantastic performers. Saros has made nineteen appearances at has a 14-5-0-0 record with a 2.46 goals against average, 0.918 save percentage, and a shutout. In my book, he should have been tabbed with an AHL All-Star selection. He’s been the best rookie netminder in the AHL this season, period. (Grade: A)
89, Frédérick Gaudreau: Hearing the news that this guy signed an NHL deal has been one of the real highlights of the Admirals season for a very simple reason: the developmental process works. Gaudreau was an undrafted free-agent signing by the Admirals two summers ago, spent his first pro season last year split between the AHL and ECHL but mainly was a healthy scratch in Milwaukee, was brought back for this season, and has exploded.
There hasn’t been a better example of a player seizing an opportunity and rising to the occasion on the Admirals roster this season than Gaudreau. He was a healthy scratch on opening night. He started out as a fourth line winger. He shuffled up the deck on and on until team captain Sissons was recalled by the Predators. Who assumed that role Sissons played? Gaudreau. How did he play? Insane. Whether he was operating as top line center, on the power-play taking faceoffs and contributing, working top penalty kill unit with Girard, or being one of the top man penciled in for the Admirals to win shootouts – he did everything and everything well.
Gaudreau has been leading the Admirals in scoring for awhile now and currently finds himself in a tie for the team lead with Görtz. One of those guys would have made some of sense to hear attached to that title a year out last season. Though, I imagine most would have taken the Swede of those two options. That’s a massive credit to how much work Gaudreau has put in and him signing that NHL contract with the Predators is hopefully the first of many rewards to come. Seeing players work as hard as Gaudreau is something everyone can cheer on: from undrafted to AHL/ECHL playing time to an NHL contract. That doesn’t happen by accident. (Grade: A)
91, Vladislav Kamenev: The Admirals have two 19-year olds on their roster. It’s funny to think of what polar opposites they are, too. Kevin Fiala is brash and energetic. Vladislav Kamenev is reserved and easy-going. Those aren’t just personality traits but how they perform on the ice, as well.
What I enjoy the most out of Kamenev’s game is how smooth he plays. He makes certain passes, defensive plays, or goals look effortless. Best of all is this: I had the impression he’d be eased into his first North American playing season by playing on the wing. He has played center the entire season and looked great on faceoffs. In twenty-four games with the Admirals he scored 14 points (6 goals, 8 assists). He left in December to take part in the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championships where he captained Russia to a silver medal scoring 6 points (5 goals, 1 assist) in seven games.
I wasn’t too sure what to expect from Kamenev in his first North American pro playing season. What I’ve seen I’ve liked and I believe things will only get better the more comfortable he gets on and off the ice. With Fiala you feel as if the coaching staff is trying to always settle him down. Kamenev is the easier version of the two. He’s going at a steady pace and the coaching staff might not even need to encourage him to ratchet it up a higher level. All Kamenev needs his time to settle into his new environment and keep being himself. He’s a talented kid. (Grade: B)
Agree or Disagree? Comment below with your thoughts on the season so far. What are your Mid-Season Awards for the Milwaukee Admirals?