The Retooled Admirals Defense

(Photo Credit: John Saraya)
Stefan Elliott has provided an instant impact on both sides of the puck since joining the Milwaukee Admirals from the Arizona Coyotes organization in a three-team trade that saw Victor Bartley head to the Montreal Canadiens. (Photo Credit: John Saraya)

The Milwaukee Admirals last four games have had their moments. There have been plenty of real positives to take but, unfortunately, the injury bug has also soured the way the offense operated for the last two of what was a four game road trip. It’s tough to see the likes of Viktor Arvidsson and Vladislav Kamenev miss any sort of time out due to injury considering their dynamic playmaking and scoring ability.

Fortunately, the injuries at the forward position came at a time where the Admirals are playing only a single game over the next twelve days. That rest period should let their bodies heal up and heal up well. The team has returned home to Milwaukee after completing the four game road trip and have a concert night game Saturday against the Grand Rapids Griffins. After that the AHL All-Star break begins with a wait before a two game California road swing against the Stockton Heat and San Diego Gulls awaits.

What the Admirals lost in Arvidsson and Kamenev in the games against the Lake Erie Monsters was pretty evident. Arvidsson was out for both games and the team missed his high energy work rate on both ends of the puck – especially his ability to finish scoring chances. And then Kamenev left the Friday game in the second period due to a lower-body injury after having dished up a primary assist on an Admirals power-play goal in the first frame. He wouldn’t play the follow up contest on Saturday afternoon and it meant adding the third cast member from the Manchester Monarchs (ECHL) to the Admirals’ AHL stage this season, Matt Leitner, on a PTO basis just to have the forward depth to field a complete roster. The moment Kamenev left Friday night the Admirals offense went flat and the Saturday effort lacked real energy or creativity that was eye-popping on the two previous road games against the San Antonio Rampage.

Where the Admirals lacked offense in Lake Erie something well and truly stood out. Yes, a massive amount of credit can be given to Marek Mazanec on his efforts for the weekend. He stopped 40/42 shots on goal in the two games against the Monsters, took an overtime loss on Friday, and earned his third shutout of the season on Saturday. He was brilliant. But equally so was the newly retooled Admirals defense that was playing in front of him.

When the Nashville Predators made trades on back-to-back days that saw both defensemen Conor Allen and Victor Bartley leave for a different pair of defensemen in Patrick Mullen and Stefan Elliott it didn’t necessarily carry the gravitas of, say, the Ryan Johansen trade. It was almost purely a Predators push to strengthen their AHL outfit when you think about it. I don’t feel Mullen will be around past this season. Elliott has the potential to stick around with his great track record behind him. But, for the here and now of the 2015-16 season, the moves were basically meant for the Admirals – not the Predators.

Those trades beg the question to an outside observer which is the following: were Allen and Bartley doing poorly? And the answer to that question is a mix of yes and no.

Allen wasn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination but he was was pretty one dimensional in his style of play. What I mean by that is Allen has two more points scored as a member of the Admirals this season than Elliott has. Allen had 6 points (1 goal, 5 assists) in 31 games with the Admirals. Elliott has already produced 4 points (2 goals, 2 assists) in 3 games since arriving from the Arizona Coyotes organization – all while defending his position very well to boot.

Bartley was collecting dust, cobwebs, and NHL paychecks in Nashville before he went through the waiver wire process, cleared, and returned to the Admirals for the first time since the 2012-13 season. Including regular season and playoff games Bartley played in 92 games from a possible 193 games played (47.6%). He had been an outsider to the incredible defensive depth in Nashville, sent to Milwaukee, played with some rust and alack of offensive ability he used to show as an Admiral, and also wasn’t looking too sharp on defense. Where he made up for the flaws was his constant professionalism as a teammate and as an individual to work hard first, improve now, and get back to the NHL as quickly as possible.

The obvious here is that both Allen and Bartley are well respected individuals that are great for a team to have on and off the ice in terms of leadership. The sad reality is that they just weren’t providing enough versatility. The Admirals cheat sheet pens them as a team with defensemen unable to really threaten at all from the defensive zone up the ice and into attack. One, that doesn’t sound like mapping and mirroring the Predators attacking philosophy. Two, it puts a firm defensive focus to ignore the Admirals blueliners all together. Teams could simply set sights clear on shutting down Admirals forwards in the neutral zone and attacking zone to slow their pace down, box out around the net, and take away key ice from the forwards. Their only option in attack becomes board play, where they can get outmuscled, or pass back to the blueline to attempt to reset the defensive posture and find new points of attack… which would work if more shots on goal were generated from the defensemen… but that’s not happening with Allen and Bartley… so the defense would hold back and stay tight to the forwards and generate tougher passes and generally turnovers.

Allen’s AHL career numbers for shots on goal have gone down massively this season. He went from 1.43 shots on goal per game from 2013-15 with the Hartford Wolf Pack to 1.00 for the Admirals this season. Bartley’s shots on goal per game number was also steadily declining: 2.05 (2011-12, Admirals)… 1.29 (2012-13, Admirals & Predators)… 0.71 (2013-16, Predators & Admirals).

Now, let’s compare that “shots on goal per game” number to the new additions of Elliott and Mullen.

Elliott: 2.20 (2011-12, Monsters & Avalanche)… 2.00… (2012-13, Monsters & Avalanche)… 2.73 (2013-15, Monsters & Avalanche)… 2.14 (2015-16, Coyotes & Admirals).

Mullen: 1.19 (2009-12, Monarchs & Reign)… 1.44 (2012-14, Wolves-Comets-Senators)… 1.17 (2014-16, Senators & Admirals).

See what a small difference it can make when the added option of shots from the blueline becomes an extra dimension for the new look Admirals defense? Yes, it is great having a balance of three right handed shooting defensemen (hey Taylor Aronson, hi) to three left handed shooting defensemen to work pucks around the wall and provide options and looks from the blueline. But how about just giving any look from the blueline to the net in general? That’s what both Elliott and Mullen have done throughout their careers and it’s an aspect of their game that makes an Admirals offense less forward-centric and more balanced when they’re on the ice.

Elliott has 82 games of NHL experience to his name – which is more than Anthony Bitetto, Petter Granberg, and Allen combined by a hefty 51 games. Mullen has yet to play an NHL game in his career at the age of 29-years of age… but, you know what, neither does anyone else not named Elliott in the Admirals defensive group. His experience and ability shouldn’t be kicked under the rug on that basis alone when comparing him to any of the two outbound Admirals defensemen from two weeks ago. His ability to fit the role the Admirals need, a right handed shooting two-way defenseman, makes him a better fit than either Allen or Bartley.

In four games for the Admirals Mullen has no points of offense, 2 shots on goal, was on the ice when the Admirals scored a goal 3 times, wasn’t on the ice for a goal against once, and participated in two shutout performances.

In three games for the Admirals Elliott has 4 points (2 goals, 2 assists), has 3 power-play points (2 power-play goals, 1 power-play assist), has 12 shots on goal for an average of 4.00 shots on goal per game, 6 penalty minutes (cross-checking, tripping, hooking), he has been on the ice for 5 Admirals goals forced and for none scored against – including Saturday afternoon’s shutout.

I won’t lie. As a spectator I think that going from games the likes that the Admirals played in San Antonio to the ones played in Lake Erie can feel like a buzzkill. The Admirals outscored the Rampage 9-3 in two games and blew the doors off them with pace and precision. That pace and precision wasn’t to be found by the Admirals offense so much in Lake Erie but it was with the Admirals defense. You can credit the same speed and puck skills that Elliott and Mullen possess as defensive assets that helped assist Mazanec in net a great deal for his solid weekend against the Monsters.

There is much to like about what these moves have created. And that’s without even mentioning how great it is to have a completely healthy Aronson back in the mix alongside the defensive group that now stacks its defense three lefties and three righties. That balance is a nice quality for a team to have but the performance level of the players on the ice is all that matters at days end. Elliott and Mullen, for a mid-season introduction to the Admirals roster, are going to provide a well-rounded game that can alleviate pressure both off the forwards and the man between the pipes. It’s only been a small sample size of this retooled defense but the performances speak volumes of positive change. There have been four games played and more shutouts posted than points lost.

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