Today marks the first day of on-ice activities for the Nashville Predators Pre-Season Camp. And with that comes the counting down of days until the Milwaukee Admirals’ coaches and players migrate North for their own Pre-Season Camp. There is no official date set in stone just yet as to when the Admirals will take to the ice at the MSOE Kern Center and that comes from two key factors: the on-going World Cup of Hockey and on-going construction at the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena. That primary factor is that of the World Cup of Hockey which affords coaches and players due for Milwaukee that extra bit of time in Nashville with the big camp and allows for the last rounds of construction to be completed before the Admirals move into their brand new home for the 2016-17 season and beyond.
~The Big Three Questions~
A variety of important storylines are being presented right now in Nashville: Will Kevin Fiala make that extra leap this year and start with the Predators on opening night? Is Marek Mazanec actually the lock for the back-up role to Pekka Rinne or is Juuse Saros capable of stepping in now? What final pieces and parts will stick in place and who falls to Milwaukee?
Tackling those one at a time means starting with the big one, Mr. Fiala. Around this time a season ago there was all the feeling in the world that Fiala was going to climb into a role out of Pre-Season Camp despite the immense competition surrounding him. That didn’t happen. And the impact of Fiala being cut from Predators camp was something that lingered into the start of his AHL season. By no means was last year any sort of a lost season for Fiala. Instead I’d say it was exactly the season that he needed to grow as a man and as a player. For all the adversity there is out on the ice the battles off the ice are far more trying and taxing. Fiala was essentially cut from a big team for the first time in his career after having called his shot the months prior by saying he would make the team. It wasn’t so much his ability to lead the Admirals in scoring last season that was impressive as much as it was him overcoming early season struggles and accepting his place and roles with maturity. There were some hiccups along the way, team and league suspensions, but they were all taken as part of the learning process and taken to heart. By season’s end the Fiala on the ice and in the locker room from that of the start of the season were two different people. Should he make the Predators? Last season will have proved to work exactly as hoped for by Predators management, coaching, and the guidance given by the like in Milwaukee. Should he start the season in the AHL? He will have had last season’s situation to fall back on and know that all he truly needs to do is keep working. Either way, Fiala should factor into the Predators this season. It’s really just a question of if it manifests immediately or not.
Mazanec or Saros? That’s a question that came about a fair bit around Milwaukee last season but its now a Pre-Season storyline in Nashville. The assumption would be that Mazanec, who has both the time logged in the system and NHL experience to boot, is the front runner to back-up Rinne. I agree with this assumption for two reasons: (1) Mazanec has paid his dues and is coming off of his most consistent season since arriving in North America. (2) Saros is still incredibly young and should get the experience of a full-season at the AHL level of being heavily leaned upon as “the guy” in net. Rinne played 147 games in Milwaukee at the AHL level. Mazanec, 118 games. Saros, 38 games. There’s no telling whether or not the Predators eventually fast track Saros but the only way they can confidently or remotely go with that as an option is to give him a full-season as a first choice goaltender in the AHL. In Rinne’s first season with the Admirals he played in 51 games. In Rinne’s last season with the Admirals he played 65 games. Saros literally 50-50 split starts with Mazanec last season at 38 starts per goalie. That needs to be upped substantially and it will be a true test of Saros ability as well as endurance. Therefore it isn’t exactly time to pull the trigger on Saros. But, should he pass with flying colors as he did last season but on an even larger sampling size, it will give plenty of people something to think about next off-season.
And to allow for a better note on Mazanec as the choice of back-up to Rinne I tell Nashville fans this: relax. It’s bizarre to think that for as good as Rinne is that there is this unease in the air regarding his ability heading into the season. Last year’s 2.48 goals against average wasn’t all that great but his ability to bounce back for the better has only really seen further regressions twice (2008-09 to 2009-10, 2011-12 to 2012-13). He is still going to be great in net. Mazanec, in the same light, is now being promoted into a role he’s been groomed for. His progressions in the AHL have been steady but last season was an eye-opener. Mazanec entered the 2015-16 season seeing his previous year’s battery-mate Magnus Hellberg get traded to make way for the young hyped up goaltending prospect Saros who would be pushing for playing time in net. Mazanec could have fallen flat on his face, Saros could have steam rolled him and started more games, but the two split starts. Mazanec had his best AHL season, in my book, in 2015-16 and only a stinker of a regular season finale in Rockford by the team in front of Mazanec cost him the statistical numbers to cement that as a 100% fact. Mazanec is ready. He’s always been ready as proven by his past work for the Predators. Now he just has the chance to match his AHL level work in the NHL.
The final question is more of a sitting and waiting game. The Pre-Season Camp roster provides plenty of insight as to who could be on the AHL and ECHL radar given the attention provided by Nashville from Development Camp through the recent Rookie Camp and Tournament.
Allow me to list a few players right now that people in Milwaukee and potentially Cincinnati should have their eyes on: Gabryel Boudreau, Mike Donnellan, Eric Knodel, Eric Robinson, Zachary Sawchenko, Tylor Spink, and Tyson Spink.
Out of those names there are already a few to keep a firm eye out on. Robinson became a familiar name when he joined the Admirals at the end of the 2014-15 season out of Dartmouth and proceeded to start the 2015-16 season with a bang before a knee injury around Thanksgiving ended his season. He took to the ice for the Rookie Camp and Tournament and looked just as dynamic as he did at the start of last season. I feel comfortable in saying he is a Evason-style player in that he always works hard and “does the right things.” If he is fully fit he should at least be due for Milwaukee once Pre-Season Camp begins and is likely for the ECHL as a flex player the Admirals could utilize again this season.
The next name that I think we should be getting used to is Boudreau who was a participant at this year’s Rookie Development Camp and has been brought into the mix again for the full-range of Predators Pre-Season activities. That same tag can be given Sawchenko but, unlike the goaltender, Boudreau is done with his junior playing commitments and is set for his first year of pro hockey this season. Boudreau made his professional playing debut last season as a member of the San Jose Barracuda in the 2016 AHL Calder Cup Playoffs. He was a second round draft pick of the San Jose Sharks in the 2013 NHL Draft and I’m willing to bet that high draft selection came due to his shot. I’ve watched him in person and his shot is a deadly one. He hits his wide variety of shots with pop and a very quick release. If the Sharks let him go? It’s the Predators gain to secure this 21-year old who still has plenty of potential.
~The Back Up~
For the sake of things let’s keep running with the assumption: Mazanec in Nashville, Saros in Milwaukee. That’s great. It makes a lot of sense. But who backs up Saros is debatably the biggest question facing the Admirals heading into the 2016-17 season.
Think about the onslaught of names that are behind Saros right now in the AHL/ECHL pipeline and the situation that awaits the Cincinnati Cyclones once everything falls into place: Jonas Gunnarsson, Mark Visentin, Brandon Whitney, Steve Racine, and Joel Rumpel. One of those first three names listed will compete for the back-up spot. The rest will end up in the trenches down in Cincinnati. The front runner to back-up Saros right now would likely be Gunnarsson but a 100% healthy Visentin could prove to be quite the competition heading into the season. Just because Saros made last year’s transition from Europe to North America look easy doesn’t mean that it is the same for everyone. If there is any true positions in the game of hockey that get exposed in that transition it is in net and on defense where the pace of the game can cause all kinds of havoc that wasn’t experienced in the Swedish or Finnish leagues. I’ve watched Gunnarsson up close this Summer and liked what I saw. He looked alright in the Rookie Tournament, as well. But when the temperature drops outside and the real games are played what kind of Gunnarsson is going to show up as an AHL goaltender? This is a goaltender that was basically tabbed over Janne Juvonen despite Gunnarsson having teatered between the top two flights of the Swedish Hockey League in his career while Juvonen has been the go-to for Pelicans in the top flight of Liiga the past two-seasons. It’s a risk. Visentin and his injury history, it’s a risk. Whitney, who struggled mightily last season in the ECHL, it’s a risk. If Saros will be “the guy” for Milwaukee he really is going to be earning that title if some of these depth selections don’t pan out.
~Don’t Forget About Me~
People know about Fiala. People know about Saros. Nashville was introduced to Pontus Åberg last season in the playoffs and there is a sense of anticipation for Vladislav Kamenev this season. Yet, someone I don’t often hear spoken of in these prospect conversations is a guy who hit the AHL running last season by the name of Max Görtz.
Görtz narrowly missed out to Fiala for the highest scorer on the Admirals roster last season. The Swede scored 47 points (18 goals, 29 assists) in 72 games. There are two stats I point to when comparing Görtz and Fiala last season, penalty minutes and plus/minus. Görtz had 18 penalty minutes to Fiala’s 78 penalty minutes, Görtz plus/minus came in at +14 while Fiala’s was -19. You can eye-roll the plus/minus as a stat all you want, call it a fluke stat, but that margin between the two is that of the second best forward and worst forward in that category on the team last season. In fact, Görtz was tied for second best in plus/minus on the entire team with defenseman Jimmy Oligny with both trailing leader Max Reinhart by a +2 margin. Görtz all-around level of play last season was reliable and, at times, explosive. In the month of December he scored 15 points (5 goals, 10 assists) in 13 games en route to being named the AHL Rookie of the Month. With one Swede with a power shot gone from the Admirals power-play, Viktor Arvidsson, who stepped in? It was Görtz – who hammered in a team best 11 power-play goals. Only seven players in the AHL scored as many or more power-play goals last season than Görtz. He also had 11 power-play assists last season which had him tied with Kamenev for fifth on the team.
His ability to score and his shot were known coming into last season. Would most have expected it to show off as well as it did in his debut season in North America? Not likely. But the element that ties everything together nicely is the on-ice maturity he displayed right away. Mistakes are minimal. Penalty issues don’t come up all that often and that comes from a big bodied player that can battle along the boards to get pucks. He isn’t careless. He showed a patient approach to his game last season and it paid off. Now that he should be a lot more comfortable knowing the North American game and the system of hockey the team looks to provide it is going to be a fascinating watch to see if Görtz can go from the guy that people just aren’t talking about to the one they would most like to see get called up in the middle of the season.
What excites me the most about the 2016-17 season for the Admirals isn’t as much the new venue they will be playing at but that pretty much all of last year’s team will be returning. You know, that team that went 48-23-3-2 (101 points, 0.664 points percentage) and won the Central Division? Sure there are some veteran names that left but some veteran names were added right back on. That’s the life of an AHL team. But the added entertainment value of the life of an AHL team is the new talent and prospects that join year-to-year. This season there will be four first-year pros that were drafted by the Predators that could make splashes straight away: Justin Kirkland, Anthony Richard, Jack Dougherty, and Alexandre Carrier.
If forward roles weren’t stacked enough for the Admirals in the 2016-17 season they will be seeing the inclusion of Kirkland and Richard. It’s worth noting that Richard made his pro debut in the playoffs with the Admirals last season and looked energetic despite playing with a lower-body injury. He’s healed up. And now he gets to really open up the throttle for his first full-season of pro hockey. As for Kirkland? He should be the one everyone is most excited to see take to the ice for the first time this season. When everyone was busy talking about Jimmy Vesey my mind shifted towards Kirkland. He’s younger, bigger, stronger, and more dynamic. The true selling point between the two though is that Kirkland sounds like just the type of player that an Evason is going to love to coach. He can play center. He can play out on the wing. Better than that? It doesn’t matter to him as long as he is out there doing what the coaches are telling him.
Defensively this year’s Admirals group will be a young one but I feel that’s been the conversation these last few seasons. Adding Matt Irwin should be a positive influence on the group but the hope is for guys such as Oligny and Trevor Murphy to really up what they were able to achieve a season ago as players such as Dougherty and Carrier enter the mix.
Dougherty has been in a storm these last few seasons where he can’t quite settle down and grow in the same place: USA Hockey National Team Development Program (2013-14), University of Wisconsin (2014-15), and Portland Winterhawks (2015-16). Hopefully by coming on-board with the Admirals he will finally have a stable platform from which to build from because, despite all the rapid changes in scenery, he has still done very well for himself. That showed late last season when he managed to play for 3 games with the Admirals. The pro debut is out of the way. His first pro point has already been achieved. He knows the team, its coaches, and its players. Perhaps this season is one where he can finally settle in and blossom.
Carrier is the one player on this list where I fear the numbers game could potentially rattle him down to the ECHL for his first full-season of pro hockey. That wouldn’t be a bad thing but my experience this Summer seeing his line-work with Murphy really makes me hope that they stick together for awhile. The two had instant chemistry and have games that are quite similar to one another. They aren’t the biggest defensemen on the ice but their skating and puckhandling skills make-up for the size. If the Predators defensive structure and the ideals of what it is to be a Predators defenseman is to be an active offensive presence by joining the rush while utilizing that same skating and attacking ability to defend? There might not be a better example coming down the pipeline than a paring between Murphy and Carrier. I just hope Milwaukee gets a chance to see it work this season.
This season is going to be a roller coaster ride that far exceeds the on-ice product for the Milwaukee Admirals. It is a reintroduction of the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena as the home to the franchise that it once housed when it was the MECCA. A changed environment is going to be a surreal feeling those first few games. I actually wonder just how many fans have actually never stepped foot inside of the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena but are bracing for that first experience in close to a month’s time. Those who have experienced it but will be taking in all the renovations. Myself? I last attended an event in the building during the US Cellular Arena days for a Motocross event with my dad when I was a middle school kid. Seeing these changes to what I remember are simply impressive.
As last season was unique with new uniforms and the realization that the BMO Harris Bradley Center was no longer going to house Admirals hockey this too is going to have such a unique look and feel about it. While renovations will be on-going, as the old becomes new again, the constant that we can all rely on is that this year’s team should provide the same level of excitement that it did a season ago. The benefit of last season, despite the painful playoff exit, was the experience and the time provided to learn and grow. Those players are pretty much all coming back. The idea of unfinished business and multiple players looking to prove their NHL value right now should make the 2016-17 season a special one on the ice. And it will be paired at the hip with a special one off it as the Admirals well and truly have a place they can call their home.
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