Let’s get past some of yesterday’s doom and gloom and get back to a more light topic, shall we? If there is a trickier group to navigate for end-season awards it would be judging who in fact was the Best Forward. The options and reasons are plentiful. So much so I’ll be going through those that were really in my running for this award and why.
The Milwaukee Admirals depth was brilliant in the 2015-16 season and the true showcase for that came up front at forward. The season started with so many centers on the team that Cody Bass, who would end up contributing to the Nashville Predators playoff run, was pushed to the wing. There was also some fella named Miikka Salomäki that started his season in Milwaukee. The organization’s forward depth was that packed.
When really weighing up all the options there was really one forward that set himself apart as the most well-rounded of the group this season. Someone who jumped over the boards as a first choice option on both sides of special teams and contributed in all aspects of the game. What makes it all the more special, something that again speaks to the depth of the organization, was that this forward wasn’t even drafted by the Predators. He was an undrafted free agent signing by the Admirals in 2014-15, spent his first pro playing season splitting time between the AHL and ECHL, came to Milwaukee for the 2015-16 season, was a healthy scratch on opening night, played every single game from then on out, earned an AHL All-Star Selection, and then an NHL contract from the Predators. Roundtable’s Forward of the Year for the 2015-16 Season could only go to Frédérick Gaudreau.
This story took on a life of its own so quickly this past season. By the end of November Gaudreau had already surpassed his offensive numbers in the AHL from his first pro playing season. In 2015-15, Gaudreau scored 11 points (4 goals, 7 assists) in 43 games as a member of the Admirals. It took him 16 games in 2015-16 to pass that and that wasn’t even when he was at his best.
The month of December was Gaudreau’s true breakout moment. At that time Admirals team captain Colton Sissons was recalled by the Predators. Gaudreau stepped directly into Sissons roles on the ice and succeeded in all of them. If you feel Gaudreau matching his AHL numbers from his first pro season in two months time was impressive look at December and December alone. Gaudreau surpassed his first AHL season’s offensive numbers within December 2015: 12 points (4 goals, 8 assists) in 14 games. It was that month that made him a must-sign target for the Predators who penned him to a two-year entry level contract. Two days after that moment he was selected to represent the Admirals at the AHL All-Star festivities in Syracuse alongside his head coach Dean Evason. There, he would be part of the first ever AHL All-Star Challenge and score 3 assists in the Final where the Central Division All-Stars won the inaugural event.
All the scoring numbers are very evident to those who didn’t event get to watch him play in Milwaukee. He ended the season scoring 42 points (15 goals, 27 assists in 75 games which includes scoring 23 points (7 goals, 16 assists) on the Admirals power-play. For those that didn’t get to watch him play in Milwaukee what you don’t see is his tireless amounts of effort exhausted shift after shift from a defensive standpoint. His work on the Admirals top forward line penalty kill, with Félix Girard, might be as fun of a penalty killing unit as I’ve ever seen. The two work so well, are intelligent in the way they take away time and space, and have the abilities to make transitioning from penalty killing to shorthanded attack. Gaudreau also might just be one of those rare examples of a forward that works better as a center than as a winger. It isn’t that he skates poorly in open ice, because he doesn’t, but he is incredibly smart at reading the game and plays the middle of the ice extremely well on both sides of the puck. The more that he can see the game in front of him the better he is at navigating through the given situation, offensive zone, defensive zone, power-play, or penalty kill. It’s not the flashy game that you might get from some of the more high profile Predators prospects but it also isn’t a far cry from exactly the type of player Gaudreau was tasked with filling in for in December, Sissons. Nothing drastic, nothing over the top, just smart and consistent play and effort.
Life at the AHL level is made all the more fun to cover when stories like Gaudreau’s emerge. There are so many players that go undrafted. The game of hockey is a massive international competition in which so many variables come in at the NHL Draft. Just because you go undrafted doesn’t mean the journey ends. Just because you end up playing hockey in the ECHL on an AHL or ECHL contract doesn’t mean the path to the NHL ends. When the Admirals 2015-16 season officially came to an end with their first round playoff defeat to the Grand Rapids Griffins the Predators recalled a handful of players from the Admirals. Gaudreau was one of those players. He wasn’t drafted by the Predators. He scored 7 points (5 goals, 2 assists) in 14 games as a member of the Cincinnati Cyclones in his first pro season under an AHL contract. He signed a new AHL contract in the summer of 2015 before earning his NHL contract through effort and performance in January 2016. He didn’t get into any of the Predators playoff action. But, much like the prospects or ATO signings at the end of an Admirals season, he was given a glimpse behind the curtain of what life at the NHL level is like. The Predators wanted that for Gaudreau. That’s a massive display of appreciation for someone that truly earned their place.
Last night on Twitter I threw out a little poll to see who out of my top candidates you thought was deserving of this award. Those candidates were Gaudreau, Pontus Åberg, Max Görtz, and Kevin Fiala because Twitter limited me to four poll answers. At the time I’m publishing this there were 84 votes with Åberg holding the majority claim of 40%, Gaudreau in second place with 35%, and Görtz and Fiala rounded out the last of it.
Without question many more than just those names could have been listed. Girard comes to mind. Adam Payerl and Matt White‘s contributions to the Admirals this season were terrific. Max Reinhart had a career year as part of the Admirals. And Vladislav Kamenev really impressed at center in his debut season to North American hockey.
Yet, it is those top four that I stuck with and there is a good reason why that Twitter poll went the way that it did. As much as can be made of Åberg hot finish to the 2015-16 season he really had a solid start and middle before that. This season Åberg looked so much more comfortable and in control on the ice. I can think of no better complement to the play of a forward than when a coaching staff looks to double shift you regardless of what line you get that second shift on. You’re playing so well – get on the ice ASAP. That was what the Admirals coaching staff was getting forced into doing by the end of the season with Åberg and that all came together after improvement after improvement during the course of the season. If Gaudreau can log two great games for the Admirals at the end of the 2014-15 season that sparked him I can’t wait to see what the end to the 2015-16 season does for Åberg. In the final 21 games of the regular season Åberg scored 22 points (11 goals, 11 assists) and was held without a point in only 5 games. He was held without a point during the Admirals 3 game playoff series defeat to the Griffins but had the instant confidence booster by being given his NHL and Stanley Cup Playoffs debuts for the Predators. He was tabbed to play over the likes of Mike Ribeiro. That’s your feather in the cap moment. Now comes the exciting time for Åberg of getting back and staying there.
If not for some Juuse Saros kid your choice for Roundtable’s Rookie of the Year would have gone to Görtz. Since his draft selection by the Predators in 2012 I’ve kept an eye out in his play in Sweden and was excited by what he could be for the Predators organization. He has the size, the shot, and the strength needed to be a quality power-forward on the wing. I couldn’t have imagined him performing as well as he did in year-one of North American hockey. His best scoring performance of his career prior to this season came in Färjestad’s under-20 squad where he produced 35 points (17 goals, 18 assists) in 28 games in the 2011-12 season. His best effort prior to this season at a senior team, or in a professional league, came in 2014-15 with Frölunda where he scored 28 points (14 goals, 14 assists) in 53 games. That level of play not only carried into Milwaukee at the AHL level he bettered his career high: 47 points (18 goals, 29 assists) in 72 games. If Görtz follows the sophomore season upswing like his fellow Swede Åberg did things should get plenty fun in Milwaukee and possibly Nashville in 2016-17.
In the words of Big Ben, “Kevin Fiala… yeah.” There is no denying two things from Fiala’s 2015-16 season. There was some immaturity and there was some incredible play on the ice. What I feel is important to note is that at 19-years of age that maturity thing is correctable as time goes on while on-ice abilities can also get even better with age. Fiala not only flipped off the entire Lake Erie Monsters bench, coming to an AHL Western Conference Finals near you, he also was the Admirals leading scorer for the 2015-16 season with 50 points (18 goals, 32 assists) from 66 games. As much fuss that can be made of his sluggish and feisty start to the season – it’s relatable. Fiala is a big time competitor. He talked himself up big for an opening day roster spot in Nashville to start this past season. That didn’t happen. He comes to Milwaukee and proceeds to go 11 games before scoring his first goal. There is a level of frustration that boiled over and manifested itself on to the ice at the start of the season. What you hoped to see is what you got to see by the end of the season. He was relaxed. He was loose. And he really seemed to have learned a tremendous deal from that stressful and frustrating start to the season. The developmental process to the game of hockey sometimes lends itself more to adjustments off the ice as much as on it. That is something Fiala really came to grips with as he comes of age. His get under your skin feisty and competitive attutude on the ice is an asset. He just needs to learn how to channel it the right way. That’s what the 2015-16 season was for him in a nutshell.
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