One of the real bright spots for last night’s Nashville Predators viewing party at Major Goolsby’s was the pleasantly surprising developments that took place in pre-game warm ups. Pontus Åberg was on the ice. Mike Ribeiro wasn’t. That wasn’t anything too special right away considering Åberg looked set to make his NHL debut in Game 1 against the San Jose Sharks only to be healthy scratched right at game-time. This time it was different. Ribeiro stayed a scratch. And the Predators second round draft pick from the 2012 NHL Draft, 22-year old Swede Åberg, was announced to the lineup for his NHL Debut.
As much of a shock as it might feel for some in Nashville, probably more so for the casual fans tuning in for the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, it shouldn’t be. To make your pro debut in a playoff scenario where the team has their back up against the wall in a 2-0 series hole speaks volumes that far exceed the player himself. The foundation of the Predators is build upon by successful scouting, drafting, and developing. When you pause to look around the people Åberg suited up with it all makes sense. The profile of the game is bigger. The moment of making your NHL debut is huge. But, at the end of the day, Åberg found himself in a lineup with four players that he suited up with in Milwaukee last season or even this season. It just becomes the same old game at that point.
The confidence of the Predators coaching staff to make a lineup change of a veteran in Ribeiro for an NHL debutant in Åberg says an awful lot about their trust in the developmental process. Åberg has playoff experience but, when you look back on his professional or senior level playing career, the bulk of that has come in his native Sweden. Including last night’s 4-1 Predators win in which he debuted Åberg has played in a total of 30 playoff games since the 2011-12 season: 13 games with Djurgårdens IF (SHL and Allsvenskan), 13 games with Färjestad BK, 3 games with the Milwaukee Admirals (AHL), and 1 game with the Nashville Predators (NHL). Prior to last night’s game his only North American playoff playing experience came in the recent weeks leading up to his debut when he and his Admirals teammates were swept in the first round of the 2016 Calder Cup Playoffs by the Grand Rapids Griffins. So, if you were thinking the decision of Åberg over Ribeiro was a matter of big game experience – you would be wrong. It was less to do about that and far more to do about the player that Åberg has become in the space of his first two full-seasons of North American hockey playing in the AHL with the Admirals.
You would be hard pressed to make a bigger introduction to a new team, new fan base, or -simply- new country better than the way that Åberg did last season. In the first period of his North American playing career he scored a spectacular solo goal. He slashed through several members of the Charlotte Checkers before dusting off a goalie who almost single-handedly eliminated the Admirals in the first round of the playoffs the year prior – Drew MacIntyre. You could watch that goal over and over again and still make the same face that Brendan Leipsic is making as he goes to celebrate with Åberg in the corner. It was brilliant.
It would have been fantastic if the debut season in North America could have shined that bright every night for Åberg and the Admirals in the 2014-15 season. It would have – but life at the developmental ranks isn’t without its immense learning curves and struggles. Åberg was off to a great start in his first season as a member of the Admirals. He scored 19 points (13 goals, 6 assists) in his first 27 games. He then proceeded to slow way down at the turn of the calendar to only muster up 15 points (3 goals, 12 assists) from his last 42 games of the season. The Admirals weren’t all that sharp around him either, mind you, as the team missed out on the Calder Cup Playoffs that season for the first time since the Admirals inaugural season in the AHL – a streak that spanned twelve consecutive playoff appearances – gone. The Admirals finished in last place of the Midwest Division with a record of 33-28-8-7 (81 points, 0.533 points percentage).
If there was any saving grace to the Admirals final few games of the 2014-15 season it was when head coach Dean Evason really started to challenge players to compete more at the finish line. Åberg rose to the challenge as he notched 4 assists in the Admirals last 4 games of the season including ripped 17 shots on goal in the final month. The precision of his shot wasn’t quite there, 1 goal from his final 31 games, but the fire from earlier in the season was reignited. That attitude carried into the off-season and followed into the 2015-16 season.
There could have been some early concerns, both on Åberg’s part as well as those watching him, that he again wasn’t quite finding the back of the net to start this season. October came and went without a goal to stretch his goalless drought in the AHL to 14 games. The first game of November comes and, with a primary assist from fellow Swede Max Görtz, that goal finally came. Now would be the fun opportunity to cheat time a bit and jump to the end of the regular season to cite that Åberg ended up being the Admirals top goal scorer with 25 goals from 74 games.
The goal scoring feat for Åberg was great but that alone isn’t something that sees a player elevated to debut in the middle of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The precision element to his game this season was a very real element to his improvement. In 2014-15, he scored 16 goals from 158 shots on goal. In 2015-16, he scored 25 goals from 159 shots on goal. The precision spills across from shooting to other avenues of his game. His passing was smarter. His overall defense and work on the back-check was more attentive and provided a more detailed touch to his already talented offensive skill set. By the end of the season he was being double-shifted by Evason, à la Taylor Beck, and was eating up the minutes while providing the Admirals an absolute maximum on offense. In the Admirals last 21 games of the regular season Åberg scored 22 points (11 goals, 11 assists) while being held without a point in only 5 games. He was becoming Mr. Everything and was the hottest Admirals forward entering the playoffs.
I already explained at length why the Admirals playoffs were what they were. It’s unfortunate that the Admirals 2015-16 season ended as quickly as it did. The team went from the bottom of the division to winning a division title for the first time in five-seasons and were the second best team in the Western Conference entering the playoffs. If you wanted to find a specific player that summed up the Admirals headache inducing match-up against the Griffins it would be Åberg. He had 4 points (2 goals, 2 assists) in 10 games against the Griffins this season which includes them shutting him out offensively in the three-game playoff series. That doesn’t make Åberg bad. That doesn’t mean Åberg cooled off. That’s just another feather in the cap of a Griffins team that is supremely polished.
As Åberg arrived to join the Predators for the second round playoff series against the Sharks it was his first career NHL recall. There are now several “Black Aces” up with the Predators and for nearly all of them this time isn’t exactly about getting on the ice anywhere near as much as it is simply taking in the environment and experience. At the AHL level, you see so many college and junior playing kids turn up at season’s end to get that taste of what life at the pro level is about. That’s really what being a Black Ace is more than anything. It’s a look past that glass ceiling that so many players are knocking on repeatedly to see if anyone is still paying attention. Nashville pays attention and their developmental process screams it. All you need to do is look over their roster and count down all the players that are there that played in Milwaukee. Åberg did more than take in the environment last night. He participated in it. That shouldn’t be surprising. Look at that Predators team and look at those Admirals teams of the past. It truly is a play together, learn together, win together mentality. Åberg is just the latest example of that.
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