It is the most wonderful time of the year. The playoff season in the world of hockey is upon us and the Nashville Predators, Milwaukee Admirals, and Cincinnati Cyclones are all featuring. It’s a great reflection of the organization and of how it has rebounded a season removed from the Predators AHL and ECHL affiliates missing out on playoff hockey.
When this 2015-16 season began my preview listed a few key points of discussion: (1) The impact last season might have on Dean Evason‘s job security if the Admirals poor finish to the 2014-15 season trickled into the start of the new campaign. (2) The new faces entering the team, either prospects or new additions from the off-season, and how the add to the Admirals. (3) The battle between Kevin Fiala‘s ears. (4) How will the Admirals defense work with familiar names no longer around? (5) How will Marek Mazanec‘s contract year go? (6) How will Miikka Salomäki look in his return from a shoulder injury that ended his season from mid-February to the finish line?
Now, some of what I said in that preview ended up never really making too huge of a dent in Milwaukee. Anthony Bitetto started, stayed, and played in Nashville this entire season with the exception of a conditioning assignment to the Admirals very early in the season. Salomäki started his season in Milwaukee but that didn’t last very long. He’s now up where he belongs. The rest though? They are all worthy of reflecting back on because most of those early season questions have been answered.
~Behind the Bench~
Evason was the recipient of a lot of heat from Admirals fans as last season came to an end. That heat has vanished after a resoundingly positive season from himself and his coaching staff. The Admirals went from a last place finish in the Midwest Division in the 2014-15 season to winning the Central Division in 2015-16. It was the Admirals first divisional crown since the 2010-11 season when Lane Lambert was behind the bench. The Admirals record of 48-23-3-2 (101 points) was the first time since that 2010-11 season in which the Admirals eclipsed 100 points and was the sixth time from fifteen AHL seasons that the Admirals were able to accomplish the feat. The Admirals 0.664 points percentage ranks them third best among the Admirals previous fifteen AHL seasons: 2005-06 (0.675) and 2008-09 (0.669).
All of those numbers and accomplishments are made all the more special when remembering what the Admirals are: an AHL hockey team. The roster is an ever changing chameleon. There were twelve players who played on the Admirals season opener who also played the season finale. Right now there are eight players with the Predators that featured at some point on the Admirals. There were four players currently on the Cyclones roster that logged ice-time for the Admirals. And eight players who dressed for the Admirals at some point that are no longer in the system – be it a PTO contract or the allure of playing in Russia again. For all of what happened last season the biggest issues the Admirals, as a team, seemed to have was being and playing like a team. When certain players were hurt, called up, cleared waivers and sent down, the Admirals were never able to find stability. This season it hasn’t mattered one bit who was in the locker room on gameday. This season’s Admirals showed up game after game, stuck to the identity and game planning established from Evason and his coaching staff, and found consistent results from start to finish. It was a joy to watch seeing so many different permutations of the Admirals deliver on a regular basis. That comes from a multitude of angles, be it the players tasked with entering the team or the veteran leadership group taking people under their wing, but the be all end all falls on the coaching staff to see it all come good. It did. And that shouldn’t be overlooked when considering the flack Evason took a season ago.
I feel a great deal of lessons were learned last season. Even if you happen to be reading this out of Nashville, Cincinnati, or abroad you’ve no doubt probably become familiar with the term suspended for a violation of team rules. This Admirals coaching staff has clamped down on poor behavioral traits. Late to a practice? Late to a team meeting? It doesn’t matter who you are, what round you were drafted in, or the prestige you had in a different country. If you weren’t accountable to behaving like a professional hockey player you were going to be held accountable for your lack of professionalism. It was strict parenting but parenting that needed to be done. There weren’t an alarming number of these situations this season but those that became public knowledge were first offenders who didn’t have those situations happen again. The right work ethic at the AHL level is certainly needed to achieve success at the NHL level. That’s precisely what I viewed the coaching staff doing when these situations occurred. Consider it tough love.
~The New Recruits~
This season’s new additions have been nothing short of impressive. There are many first year professionals or first year pros to the North American game that looked as though they made a seamless transition to life in the AHL with the Admirals. Let’s give a quick jog through a few of them, shall we?
Juuse Saros entered this season with what felt like all the hype in the world. He had been talked up before even signing his entry level contract. Once he did sign it became clear that one of the two goalies that the Admirals had in 2014-15 wasn’t going to return. The goalie left out in the cold would be Magnus Hellberg with Saros joining Mazanec for the 2015-16 season. Saros isn’t the prototypical Predators mountain sized goalie but you’d never know the difference looking at his end-season numbers alone. Saros is so smart at reading plays, so quick laterally, and so competitive at snagging pucks in around the crease that his height is simply irrelevant. In his debut season playing professionally in North America where the rink is smaller, the game is faster, and the art of crashing the net more could throw off most newbies from Europe – Saros went 29-8-4-0 in net from 38 starts. He won 76.3% of his starts as a 20-year old first year pro. He also a 2.24 goals against average and 0.920 save percentage which were both bests among rookies in the AHL. What’s been most exciting has been the idea of this is a goalie in the early stages of learning this North American pro game and look at what he’s accomplished while learning.
When the news hit that Vladislav Kamenev was indeed making the leap from Russia to get his North American playing career going. Initial rumblings sounded as though he would be ushered in slowly and placed on the wing. That never happened. He was one of the Admirals top centers from day one and looked shockingly polished for a kid that turned 19-years old just two months before the Admirals regular season opener. He had played a full-season of senior level hockey in Russia with Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the KHL prior to this season but his numbers in Milwaukee blew those out of the water. In the KHL last season he scored 10 points (4 goals, 6 assists) in 41 games. In the AHL for the Admirals this season he has produced 37 points (15 goals, 22 assists) in 57 games. He’s been placed in all situations and performed well in all situations. No matter what the language barrier has been for him it hasn’t once manifested itself into his play on the ice and he should only get more comfortable with the language and North American game over time.
Tying the aforementioned violators of team rules this season with the current topic and you would find Max Görtz as the dead ringer under both keyword searches. After all, there was a reason why the man who ended up as the Admirals second highest scorer this season was kicked down to the ECHL for a cup of cold coffee. The thing that one quickly appreciates with Görtz is his honesty. He knew he did wrong. Admitted him turning up late for practice was embarrassing and quickly turned a corner. Görtz provided the Admirals with a unique skill set that they’ve not had in awhile. He offers good size, skates well, and had what Evason describes as a world class shot. Görtz set career highs for himself as a pro hockey player while competing in North America for the first time this season with 47 points (18 goals, 29 assists) from 72 games. Perhaps the best part to his season was the sheer consistency of his scoring. Görtz scored in 36 out of 72 games this season which effectively meant he scored every other game. For a debutant to North America – that’s pretty reliable.
Often times when looking at the way certain organizations build their future up it is done by snapping up players that flew under everyone else’s radar. Trevor Murphy has to go down as one of these players who I feel like many teams right now out to be kicking themselves over for not giving the undrafted defenseman playing in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) the past four-seasons a phone call and contract. The Predators did so much and look at the results. Murphy was a veritable Swiss Army knife for the Admirals. He rarely had a consistent defensive pairing and has been kicked up to play as a winger on many occasions. Why? Well, his skill set is such that if you take the job title away it makes a good deal of sense because of his speed, grit, and whopper of a slap shot. More accurately as to why simply came down to numbers most of the time. The Admirals have lots of defensemen. When you score 6 points (3 goals, 3 assists) on your debut at wing for the Admirals I have to imagine that also tickles the interest of trying it some more. No matter, Murphy’s first professional playing season ended with 32 points (11 goals, 21 assists) from 59 games. That was the most goals scored by an Admirals defenseman in a single season since Bitetto accomplished an 11 goal season in 2013-14.
For the run through of these players so far I think the vibe has been all kinds of positive. Let’s change that up a bit with a chat about Kristian Näkyvä who has had a mixed bag of a season. When the 25-year old Finnish defenseman arrived to the Admirals from Luleå HF of the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) it felt like he was being signed on as an offensive minded defenseman. His 2014-15 season in Sweden ended with him producing 29 points (10 goals, 19 assists) in 55 games. What became apparent right away with Näkyvä though was he, more than most, was being overwhelmed by his debut to the North American pro game. And that’s understandable. It’s far easier to skate up ice as a forward than it should be skating backwards as a defenseman. There were many occasions at the start of this season where Näkyvä was being turned inside out or being at the wrong place at the wrong time in his own zone. This was compounding to the fact that, for what he looked like he was signed on to do, he wasn’t providing offense nor being given much of a chance to run the Admirals power-play. Fortunately he has steadied his game as the season has gone on but his offensive upside just hasn’t manifested itself is all.
~Fiala vs. Fiala~
I’ve written in great length about Fiala’s maturity this season. It all comes in a simple package of his building up this summer, being cut in pre-season camp by the Predators when he felt like he was going to make the opening night roster, starting slow and boarderline uninterested in Milwaukee, suspended by the AHL for flipping off the Lake Erie Monsters bench, and then well and truly getting the wheels to find traction on the tarmac.
In the lag period to Fiala’s 2015-16 season he went 10 games until his suspension from the league came down. He had 5 points (0 goals, 5 assists) in that time and it took him 12 games until finally netting that first goal of the season. He was his own worst enemy at the time. He was either doing too much on the puck or looking like the ghost of Fiala on the ice. The scariest part to me in the beginning stages of the season was that, for how much better of shape he got himself into, he lacked any sort of explosiveness. There wasn’t even that “take over” factor of being the guy playing like his job was on the line every shift that could help make a moment like this one possible. He needed a reboot. Call it fate or not but his suspension seemed to be that reboot. Heading into December Fiala had 6 points (1 goal, 5 assists) from 15 games. In the month of December he provided 12 points (5 goals, 7 assists) in 14 games – in December alone.
There is a reason why Fiala ended the season as the Admirals leading scorer with 50 points (18 goals, 32 assists) in 66 games. He’s that good. The reason for all the immaturity moments have just as easy of an explanation. He’s still only 19-years old. There’s more than a simple on-ice development at work here in Milwaukee with Fiala and his road to Nashville will benefit because of that. He’s aware of the bigger picture. He wants to be an NHL level talent now. But he also knows that he has areas to his game that need brushing up still. That’s a sign of maturity. And that’s a sign to Nashville that they’re going to be having another energetic winger capable of playing NHL hockey a season from now.
~The Retooled Veteran Defense~
This was a big storyline to me when the 2015-16 season was starting up. There wasn’t going to be a Scott Ford anymore on the ice. He was moving to the bench. The Admirals were going to be without their captain and best out-and-out defenseman from a season ago, Joe Piskula, because the Predators opted to let him sign with the Anaheim Ducks organization in the off-season. Instead, the Predators brought in Conor Allen and hoped some of the younger lads like Jonathan Diaby or Garrett Noonan or even a returning to health Johan Alm could step up. None of that happened. And it wasn’t until January until the reset button was pushed.
In January the Admirals made a major change to the way they played defense. Evason wanted to make for an even three-lefties and three-righties approach so the team managed to acquire Stefan Elliott and Patrick Mullen. At the NHL Trade Deadline this went even further when the Predators added yet another right-handed shooting veteran defenseman in Corey Potter. Not too shabby considering Taylor Aronson was effectively the lone true right-handed shot on the Admirals blueline for about a season and a half until these changes were made. The impact of Elliott, Mullen, and Potter have been nothing short of incredible. From Mullen’s debut game for the Admirals on 1/15/16 the team went a shocking 25-10-1-2 from their last 38 games of the season for a 0.697 points percentage in the time the defense was restructured.
It is questionable from an organizational perspective as to why these sorts of changes weren’t implemented from the very beginning. If having a three-left and three-right defensive group was so important why not plunge into or attack the developmental platform right away to purge out some of the surplus of lefties and ship in righties on defense? What was the real draw for adding Allen if only to dump him for Mullen in January? It’s questionable. But, I suppose, a lesson learned from all parties involved. Besides. The same people involved with composing the team at the start of the season were smart enough to make the changes in January, right?
~Out of the Headlights~
This season was as important of a season that Mazanec will have played in his professional playing career. His contract is up after the 2015-16 season ends and it is followed in synchronous fashion with the ending of Predators back-up goaltender Carter Hutton‘s contract as well. With Saros entering the organization this season, and it look more and more likely that Janne Juvonen isn’t far behind him, it’s safe to say that every time you watched Mazanec play a game in net this season it was taken like a job interview for the Predators 2016-17 back-up role to Pekka Rinne.
What Mazanec managed to do this season was perform his best wire-to-wire season since making the trek to North America from his native Czech Republic. In 39 apperances, 38 of which were starts, Mazanec held a record of 19-15-5-2 with a 2.45 goals against average and 0.912 save percentage as well as earning 4 shutouts. If not for that stinker of a defensive outing for the Admirals in the regular season finale, where he was made to suffer a 7-1 loss, Mazanec would have either surpassed or matched career bests in all of those major goaltending categories. It’s quite frankly a shame that he was hung out to dry in that game because it reflects poorly to his numbers and hints that he laid an egg when it just isn’t true. This was perhaps the first season in North America where Mazanec didn’t once have a deer in headlights level performance. He was solid from the start of the season all the way to the end of the season and did it all while under the pressures of a hungry young Finnish goaltending prospect sharing net time and a cloudy future of what could happen to him in the next off-season. Never once did Mazanec and Saros seem flustered by one another. It was an internal competition, yes, but a friendly one. The two really pushed each other hard and did it all while being supportive of who got tabbed as the starting goaltender. There isn’t really much else you could have asked for out of the Czech.
If this was a job interview then for Mazanec: did he get the job? For my money I could see this hilariously coming down to money. Hutton had a fantastic season backing up Rinne in Nashville by logging 17 appearances with a 7-5-4 record, 2.33 goals against average, 0.918 save percentage, and a pair of shutouts. When Hutton first signed on with the Predators organization you have to remember he did it with barely having any NHL experience to his name. The goalies competing for the back-up job at that time all lacked serious NHL experience with Hutton, Mazanec, and Hellberg all vying for the role. Now that three-seasons have effectively passed the back-up role likely comes down to Hutton and Mazanec with the much younger Saros expected to take on a far more significant role as the Admirals number one goaltender in 2016-17. Should Mazanec beat out Hutton it would simply be down to the money factor. He won’t cost near as much as Hutton would. For a Predators organization that still need to lock up Filip Forsberg, Calle Järnkrok, and possibly even Petter Granberg you have to think the lesser the money given to the back-up to Rinne, who will still carry the weight of games on his shoulders, is beyond attractive. The only question is whether or not Hutton would be willing to play for even less than he already does. Because I feel Mazanec, to be an NHL back-up, would take less if it meant a one-way contract was on the table.
~By The Numbers~
When you start looking more at the numbers that the 2015-16 Admirals put up you start to truly have an appreciation for what they actually accomplished. For starters, their 48 wins this season only trailed the likes of the 2005-06 and 2008-09 squads which earned 49 wins. What makes that all the more special is that the two squads with 49 wins did that in an AHL era of an 80-game season as opposed to the current 76-game season the Admirals exist in today. The 2015-16 Admirals points percentage is just behind both of those teams but that sets them apart as the third best Admirals AHL team from fifteen seasons of operation.
When viewing the 76-game era this year’s Admirals team managed to: earn the most wins (48), most points (101), score the most goals (224), allow the second least amount of goals (193) with only the 2011-12 team allowing fewer (190), and they took the second fewest penalty minutes (1045) only coming up shy to the 2012-13 team (1013). Not only did this year’s Admirals team become the first in the 76-game season formula in the team’s AHL history to break the 0.600 points percentage barrier they ended with 0.664. The next closest to that margin in five-seasons was 2013-14 which narrowly missed the barrier with a 0.599 points percentage.
And then there is a statistic specifically aimed at you. Yes, you – the fans. The 2015-16 season wasn’t just a smashing success for the Milwaukee Admirals on the ice but around the ice. Attendance hit 234,404 fans on the season for an average of 6,169 fans per home game. That is the highest attendance figure since the 2011-12 season (6,226) and only the fourth time in fifteen AHL seasons that the Admirals averaged over 6,000+ in attendance for a season. If there were any way to end this retrospective of the regular season it is like that. The team was brilliant. And so were all of you.
What were some of your favorite moments from the regular season? What were some of the big surprises that cropped up during this season? Is the success of the season a sign of even better things to come as the Nashville Predators drafting and scouting has provided the Milwaukee Admirals with such a solid and young team for this season?
Be sure to keep updated with Admirals Roundtable through social media platform of your choice: follow along Twitter, like us on Facebook, get photo updates on Instagram, and listen along on SoundCloud.