The 2015-16 season is the Milwaukee Admirals fifteenth season as members of the American Hockey League (AHL). At the moment they stand in first place of the Central Division through sixty-seven games with a record of 41-21-3-2 (87 points) and have the second best record based on points percentage in the Western Conference.
Around this time a season ago things weren’t all that great. A calendar year ago the Admirals record was 32-25-6-5 (75 points) and it was trending downwards – fast. The Admirals record in March, through today’s date, was a woeful 3-8-2-1. Jump ahead to present day and the Admirals one-year later have a 8-3-0-2 record in the month of March with things trending very steadily in the upright position.
During this past month one of the real bright spots has come in the form of the line combination of Kevin Fiala, Vladislav Kamenev, and Adam Payerl. This group has been paired together for the last twelve games and, during that time, have a combined 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists). It’s funny to think, through all the roster moves and permutations that an AHL season provides, that over such a long period of time this line reformed. They were paired together all the way back on 10/20/15 when the Admirals won their first game of this season. After that, it wasn’t until 3/3/16 when all three were placed together again after many different variations of one playing with one or the other. In particular, the 2014 NHL Draft duo of Fiala and Kamenev have been paired together for a total of sixteen games this season.
If there was ever a storyline that was going to be fun to watch develop over the course of the 2015-16 season it was going to be how these two teenagers take to a full-season of North American hockey. That storyline expands to much more than simply the on-ice product as well.
For Fiala, he was looking to capitalize from his first taste of the North American game that he took in last season and make a case for time spent with the Nashville Predators. For Kamenev, he was set to join a very alien world in which no one on the Admirals roster spoke Russian and the one place where he would perhaps feel most comfortable, the ice, was a more smaller and confined version to that which he became accustomed to as a senior team player with Metallurg Magnitogorsk of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). The good news was that they were both joining an organization in the Admirals that is rather experienced in developing talent from around the globe. In fact, this teenage tandem playing the better majority of a season is the fourth in the AHL history of the team following the likes of: 2004-05, Kevin Klein and Ryan Suter… 2009-10, Colin Wilson and Chet Pickard… 2013-14, Colton Sissons and Filip Forsberg.
Fiala’s season expectations started off massively high for himself. Having taken in some of what the North American game has to provide from his entry to the 2014-15 season it makes sense that the level of confidence from the Switzerland native was as high as it was. He had played thirty-three games for the Admirals at the AHL level scoring 20 points (11 goals, 9 assists) and also managed to make both his NHL debut and NHL Playoffs debut. That introduction was a good one but it felt early on in the off-season that he had set the bar extremely high on himself by saying the following to Predators General Manager David Poile.
“At the end-of-the-year meetings when [Head Coach] Peter Laviolette and I are talking to players, we’re usually the ones doing 90 percent of the talking,” Poile said. “So we did the talking to Kevin and then he says, ‘What do I need to do, I’m going to be playing for the Nashville Predators next season. I’m not going to [AHL affiliate] Milwaukee, I’m going to be playing [in Nashville].’” ~David Poile
Fiala did go to Milwaukee. And he did arrive after having failed to deliver on that statement. His competition in pre-season camp was a stacked one. Austin Watson, Viktor Arvidsson, Miikka Salomäki, Colton Sissons, and Stevie Moses were all in the running for spots out of camp and Fiala was one of the early birds to get bumped down to Milwaukee. When he arrived he did so by scoring a game-winning overtime goal in the Admirals final pre-season game where he played on a line with, you guessed it, Kamenev.
The regular season unfortunately didn’t have the same level of explosiveness for Fiala. It took nearly a month and a half into the season before he scored his first goal of 2015-16. By that point Fiala has already made enough noise doing different kinds of damage.
On 11/11/15, Fiala became a target to the Lake Erie Monsters after running through their goaltender Joonas Korpisalo with 8:38 remaining in regulation. Fiala received charging minor for the hit to Korpisalo and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for the scrum that followed. As the game was in its final seconds Brett Gallant tried to go after Fiala and clocked him with an illegal check to the head. Cody Bass stepped in on Fiala’s behalf to buddy-up with Gallant. From there Fiala would proceed to make his way from the Admirals attacking zone, skate past the Monsters bench, flip the bench off, get caught for his gesture, and be sent packing from the game nineteen seconds before the final horn sounded. Fiala received a two-game suspension from the AHL for his actions.
While that moment was indeed a bad one it appeared to generate the desired wake-up call effect needed for Fiala to get with the program. After being pretty much dormant for the opening two months of the season he blew up in December by scoring 12 points (5 goals, 7 assists) in fourteen-games during a time in which the Admirals went 9-5-0-0. His next eighteen games would see him produce 11 points (4 goals, 7 assists) with an interruption inbetween from his first NHL action of the season where he would score his first career NHL goal on his first shift with the Predators in 2015-16. Yet, it is this current stretch where he has been playing alongside Kamenev and Payerl where things have really all come together. Fiala has 14 points (6 goals, 8 assists) in his last twelve games.
What is perhaps more important than what can be read out of a box score is the evolution of his demeanor off of the ice. When Fiala arrived in Milwaukee last season he came across as nervous and stiff. When you’re playing in your third different country in four years – it kind of makes sense. The weight of expectations for an 18-year old player to make a good first impression on the organization that drafted him with a fifteenth overall selection is huge. Those same expectations were on his shoulders as he stated he wasn’t going to Milwaukee and that he was going to be playing in Nashville. The pressure ratcheted up when that didn’t happen and the poor start to his AHL season was dragging along all the way until he earned a suspension. Somewhere along the way it seemed as if the focus became less between the ears and more straight out of his eyes. Fiala’s far more loose and relaxed and, dare I say it, acting his age. He’s having fun. He’s looked to have been enjoying himself and his current status in Milwaukee for a long time now. The correlation to the shoulders dropping a bit off the ice and the on ice product taking a step forward doesn’t come across as very coincidental. He’s grown up a ton these last six months.
On the opposite side of the spectrum there is the Russian teenager, Kamenev. It’s fun comparing the likes of Fiala and Kamenev just because the two are so different. Fiala is the brash, flashy, and highlight reel making one of the two. While Kamenev on the other hand has the language barrier keeping him rather quiet and low key and the manner in which he plays can pretty much be summed up the same way. It’s not that Kamenev isn’t flashy or worthy of making the highlight reel. It’s that he plays so smoothly on the ice that he makes things look slowed down or easier than they actually were to accomplish. His arrival to the North America seemed as if he’d be placed on the wing as a bit of an eased transition to a much faster and more physically demanding game. That hasn’t happened at all. He’s worked entirely from center this entire season and taken up all responsibilities that that entails: even-strength, power-play, penalty kill, etc. He does it all and does it all in a very calm manner on the ice. Which is perhaps why his lone flare up this season was a bit of an eyebrow raiser.
Like Fiala, Kamenev did actually earn a two-game suspension from the AHL this season. It was a consequence of a boarding incident on 10/29/15 when he hit Matt Fraser of the Manitoba Moose hard. There was no penalty called for the play on the ice but the incident was reviewed by the league itself which brought about the suspension. This, however, was not the eyebrow raising flare up for Kamenev. Instead, his incident didn’t happen like Fiala’s at the AHL level but instead with the whole world watching.
The 2016 IIHF World Junior Championships Gold Medal Game this year was between the host nation Finland and Russia. Kamenev was captain of Team Russia and putting together a tremendous tournament. Unfortunately, not too many are going to remember what Kamenev did on the goal scoring side of things in the tournament as much as they will all remember him losing his cool with the officials late in the game, picking up a misconduct penalty with 2:09 remaining in regulation after Finland just took a 3-2 lead, skating to the penalty box and breaking his stick at the door which struck an official sitting in the penalty box, and earning a game misconduct for doing so. Russia would managed to actually equalize with six-seconds remaining in regulation to force overtime but Kamenev could only watch from deep in Team Russia’s locker room tunnel as Kasperi Kapanen scored the game winning goal in the overtime period.
While Fiala’s low point this season happened around his team with a supporting cast around him to provide prospective and insight going forward – Kamenev’s low point was followed by a flight back to the United States. It might not be the comparison all would immediately understand but the first thing that I thought of was when David Beckham was red carded in the 1998 World Cup. For those unfamiliar I’d give this a watch but the short story of it is being “the man” of your national team only to be the one figure that could stand out as a let down or scapegoat as to why the team failed. At a team or club level the taste of failure is a bitter one. At the national level with as much media attention focused around the game as a World Juniors Final? Failure, specifically individual failure, is down right toxic. The true test of Kamenev’s first season in North America wasn’t necessarily coming from something that happened on the ice in Milwaukee as much as it was how he was going to bounce back from making an emotional mistake at the penalty box in the Hartwall Arena.
There aren’t many stories I’d be willing to tell of things I see happen in the locker room of the Milwaukee Admirals -but- there is one too good to not put a spotlight on. After Kamenev did return to the Admirals from his World Juniors experience there was a small spell in which he sat out to get recovered from the tournament wear and travel. He watched the game from the media section not too far from myself and, after the game, sat alone in his equipment stall. As I was awaiting to conduct interviews Marek Mazanec approached the Russian teenager. He went to shake his hand but, before doing so, mocked Kamenev breaking his stick at World Juniors. Those in the locker room at the time were all laughing. It was the perfect way of letting the rookie know he’s just one of the boys and that the team was there for him.
Kamenev made his return to the Admirals lineup from his World Juniors on 1/15/16 in San Antonio. He scored a goal four-minutes into the second period with the secondary assist coming from none other that Mazanec who would proceed to earn a shutout on the evening. This was followed the next night by yet another goal for Kamenev. His first two-games back from such a low moment resulted in a pair of two-point nights (goal and an assist) and wins for the Admirals.
The high-highs of getting back into the groove of things back in the AHL was sadly short lived. Kamenev had been selected to participate in the 2016 AHL All-Star festivities in Syracuse where he would have joined both Frédérick Gaudreau and head coach Dean Evason as Admirals representatives. Unfortunately, a lower-body injury prevented that from happening and he was sidelined for four-games. It would take awhile before he sprung back into gear but, like Fiala, it all seems to have come into place once this line combination of the teenage tandem and Payerl came back together. Kamenev has scored 6 points (3 goals, 3 assists) from his last twelve games. Once again, he’s not just doing the flashy things that make the stat-sheets busy he’s also doing things that exemplify why Team Russia would want someone such as him as a captain. He’s a smooth and steady player in all game situations. His intelligence of the game is something that has transcended the language barrier and helped to make his first pro season in North America a joy to watch as he gets more and more comfortable with the different style of play and the English language itself.
There is a difference between what Fiala and Kamenev bring to the table. No doubt about that. But, for how there first full-season of North American hockey has developed, it seems very fitting that these two have found themselves playing on the exact same line and having a high level of success. The Admirals string of twelve consecutive playoff appearances came to a thunderous end last season with the Admirals finishing dead last in their division. A season later the eyes are set for a return to playoff hockey as well as the potential for the Admirals first division title since the 2010-11 season. Times have changed for the Admirals. And time is serving both Fiala and Kamenev very well on their road to Nashville.
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