Yesterday’s news that the Nashville Predators locked up Colton Sissons for the next three-seasons was another kind reminder of what the organization is and has been all about for years. The Predators don’t just build from within they develop from within. It’s a process that has seen so many current members of the Predators roster hone their craft as members of the Milwaukee Admirals first before being unleashed as polished professionals at the NHL level.
When you look at the current Predators roster the team features sixteen players who have played for the Admirals. Let’s say that with some more BANG to it. Of the current Predators roster sixteen out of the twenty-four players on the roster played for the Admirals. Those sixteen Predators players that logged AHL time in Milwaukee played a grand total of 1,247 games with the Admirals. That includes five of players who have played above a standard 76 game AHL season: Austin Watson (229 games), Anthony Bitetto (183 games), Pekka Rinne (147 games), Gabriel Bourque (120 games), and Miikka Salomäki (117 games). That is a massive amount of professional experience gathered before reaching the ultimate proving ground that is the NHL. Yet, it’s the process that the Predators love to see their prospects go through. They want to see players develop at their own pace and be a polished product before becoming a frequent name brought up in the NHL. The goal is to set players up for long-term success rather than short-term instability that could come with pushing a prospect too fast and crumbling under the lights, camera, action of the NHL.
The contract that Colton Sissons received yesterday did have echoes of a recent one that the Predators just put together for Austin Watson this past off-season. Watson had played a total of 229 AHL games over the course of three full playing seasons with the Admirals before getting a brand new two-year contract from the Predators with the first year being a two-way deal for 2015-16 before bumping up to a standard NHL one-way contract in 2016-17. Sissons’ contract is a three-year deal that will be a two-way contract for 2016-17 before kicking into a one-way NHL deal for the following two seasons. When you look at the two players penned to these deals there is much more than just the contracts that are similar.
Watson and Sissons are two players that have been workhorses for the Admirals in their brief professional playing careers. Watson was tasked with operating in a multitude of playing roles that went up, down, and around with him gathering experience in just about any game situation that didn’t involve him being a defensemen or a goaltender. In short, I believe there is a reason why Watson hasn’t spent a single day in the AHL during the two-way portion of his 2015-16 contract. He has remained in the Predators outfit the entire season because he’s durable, he’s capable, and his quality across the board. That can all be said thanks to the day-by-day tests that came with all that was thrown at him during his tenure with the Admirals. Sissons is now in his third professional playing season. As a sophomore he had already won over the locker room to be voted by his teammates as an alternate captain at the age of 20-years old. A season later, hello 2015-16, he was named team captain. He is a natural leader and is so because of his maturity on and off the ice with a great dedication to work ethic.
Sissons, like Watson, has been thrown through the obstacle course that is being a top-line center at the AHL level. He has been on the power-play, penalty kill, and played with so many different wingers on his line that he probably should be seen only wearing this t-shirt. To this point Sissons has played 36 career games in the NHL for the Predators. While he hasn’t quite seen the same points production that he has in the AHL that doesn’t take away from him using his high hockey IQ to adapt to the situation he is being put in for the Predators. If he is being asked to play a smart defensive game and be strong on the face-off circle he’s generally going to deliver just that. Sissons has won 59% of his face-offs with the Predators this season which is the best in the NHL for a player who has taken a minimum of 100 draws at the face-off dot. With him, and an increased role, there’s reason to believe Sissons’ 0.60 points per game in the AHL can pump up his current 0.17 points per game with the Predators all while delivering sound and smart hockey surrounding that all-around game of his.
There are of course many other examples of how this process can be a great success story. I can think of no greater example of this right now than current Predators blueliner Anthony Bitetto for how the development process can shape an NHL level pro. Bitetto’s road to reach Nashville came from a lot longer road than simply the Admirals and the AHL. Where Bitetto perhaps saw his real grunt work done to get his game together actually started with a 23-game spell for the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL. Bitetto’s game was a little bit too erratic and he would find himself over-committing to the offensive aspect of the blueline game rather than, well, the name that is in his position: defense. The move to Cincinnati playing ECHL hockey allowed for him to log more minutes, sharpen some rough patches, and lay a foundation for a really breakthrough season that came with the Admirals in 2013-14. Not content or happy with his defensive work rate of that season – Bitetto tightened up his game even more and looked and played the part of a solid two-way defenseman for the Admirals in 2014-15 which set the stage for his first career NHL call-up and game that season. He now finds himself as a common name for the Predators and does so due to the path he took to get their that made him polished enough for the NHL.
The same can also be said of the young whipper snappers of the Predators prospects that get sent to Milwaukee despite having really high-end talent that could be tested right away in the NHL. Filip Forsberg was acquired from the Washington Capitals on trade deadline day of the 2012-13 season. He made his NHL debut at the end of that season but his true rookie season to the North American game came with the 2013-14 season. He started off with the Predators but, after some injury time and a bit of struggling efforts, the organization saw it best for him to go through the motions with the Admirals at the AHL level as a 19-year old rather than be overloaded or minimized at the NHL level. He played 47 games for the Admirals that season and scored 34 points (15 goals, 19 assists) as well as contributing a goal and an assist in the Admirals opening round playoff series against the Toronto Marlies. Forsberg wouldn’t see Milwaukee again after that. Instead he burst onto the NHL scene with an explosive rookie campaign that saw him play every game for the Predators, score 63 points (26 goals, 37 assists), be named to the 2015 NHL All-Star Game, and produce at a point per game clip (4 goals, 2 assists) in his first ever taste of playoff hockey at the NHL level.
When looking at the current crop that the Admirals have there are plenty more stories similar to the ones above ready to reach the same outcome. Kevin Fiala‘s path to the NHL is looking more and more like Forsberg’s by the day and his attitude and work ethic are seeing the fruits of the bigger picture. Fiala can do far more than score flashy goals and he needs to be able to process the full dynamics of the pro game in order to be an NHL mainstay. Vladislav Kamenev is a 19-year old center that is slowly being afforded more and more responsibilities as his debut season of professional hockey in North America unfolds. Look to the path of someone such as Sissons as an example of Kamenev’s road ahead before eventually becoming the player that should have fans in Nashville very excited to see play at center. Your Bitetto-style “hard work pays off” story might just be none other than Admirals AHL All-Star representative Frédérick Gaudreau who was an undrafted free agent signing in 2014-15, signed a second pro contract with the Admirals last off-season, and has performed so fantastically well this season that he earned a two-year entry level contract from the Predators that will keep him around on a two-way basis until the 2016-17 season. Not bad for someone who played 14 games of ECHL hockey for the Cyclones a season ago, right?
The process isn’t limited to forwards, either. Often times I wonder if Predators fans forget the amount of AHL service time their Finnish stud in net logged before being a perennial Vezina finalist. Rinne played three-seasons for the Admirals and appeared in 147 games. Marek Mazanec is currently playing his third season for the Admirals and is sitting on 107 career AHL games. Juuse Saros, the 20-year old Finnish goaltending prospect, is in his first professional playing season in North America and has 23 games under his belt. Time will probably go on to show that the waiting period, and the time spent getting more acclimated to the North American game in net, will be worth it.
The model of consistency that you see year after year between the Predators and Admirals is remarkable when looking around at the rest of the league and their NHL-AHL connections. The two organizations have been paired at the hip ever since the Predators inception in 1998-99. Through that time the names that have rolled through Milwaukee on the road to Nashville have been numerous and, looking ahead to the future, continuous. What stands out to me has been great scouting as well as great coaching throughout the organization which has lead to so many high quality professionals that were either ushered in with speed to the NHL or sharpened to get and stay there in the AHL. The process has worked forever. And it doesn’t appear to have any reason to change.
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