We’re only ten games into the 2016-17 season and I already feel as if a word that is going to get used a lot this season is character. The Admirals as a team has character. The UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena is an old school building that has character. This was something felt and said quickly by Milwaukee Admirals head coach Dean Evason at Media Day ahead of the season and it is already an attribute of the team that is strongly being showcased.
“We feel real good about our group of veteran people and prospects. But most importantly we’re excited about the character of this team as opposed to other teams of the past. We’ve had real good teams here. The character of this group seems really high and really good.” ~Dean Evason
What does this character element mean, you ask. To me it means having leadership far and wide in various aspects where it is needed. There are veteran players who have been part of the Admirals current group for a few seasons that know life and the process of the team and city. There are new veterans that were brought in that conduct themselves professionally on and off the ice and lend themselves to teaching and assisting those in the locker room. And the young up and coming talents of the team feature a background in their own right as leaders from previous teams, locker rooms, and have taken that mindset into the professional ranks.
Recent years the Admirals roster has been either the youngest in the American Hockey League (AHL) or among the youngest. As a developmental league you expect that to a degree but would also expect such youth to trickle into less than favorable results as opposed to the rest of the league’s more polished or experienced players and minds. Last season in particular the Admirals played 23 players who were 23-years of age or younger at some point in the season. They played 6 players that were teenagers. And that team was able to finish on top of the Central Division, nearly even the entire Western Conference, with a record of 48-23-3-2 (101 points, 0.664 points percentage).
How is something such as that achieved? Is it a simply matter of having the right pieces? Having a locker room and on-ice chemistry that clicks incredibly well? Or are there key players that pull extra weight and can be accountable when things shouldn’t be going right? The answer is of course – all of the above. What helps it all come together though is having the right leaders in the room to make it all work. The Admirals have a room filled with leaders. And this season’s team just so happens to have a room with heart and soul type players and people.
If you were to purely judge someone such as Mike Liambas based on his career’s statistical measurements you would probably consider him to be an undersized enforcer. On paper, saying that, you can probably assess that he clearly has warrior spirit and one that can endear him to his team, teammates, and the fans. The thing is that Liambas has always been far beyond the sort of player that simply drops the gloves when he chooses to. He isn’t just a fourth line AHL level grind it out player. Liambas is a leader. Liambas is the type of person that can lighten the mood of a locker room and tighten it up. He is both a vocal leader and one who can lead by example for the way in which he conducts himself as a professional athlete.
After completing the 2012-13 season a young defenseman by the name of Anthony Bitetto sought out advice for a diet and work out regiment to better prepare himself for the riggers of a pro hockey season. The man who helped him was Liambas and the lessons learned for Bitetto saw him produce career best offensive numbers in 2013-14 with the Admirals and gave him a platform to start working on the full-game as a pro level defenseman.
When arriving to the Admirals as an 18-year old first year pro after completing a junior playing career with the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League Colton Sissons roommate for the season just so happened to be Liambas. The two quickly formed a solid friendship. Sissons was a skillful yet tactically sound two-way center. Liambas the hard-nosed winger that scrapped it out. Both learned tremendously from one-another and Liambas’ game in that season and the one that followed grew to new heights as a very solid defensive minded forward.
It was bittersweet to see last season when Liambas signed an NHL contract through the Chicago Blackhwaks. He earned an NHL contract but wasn’t just leaving the Admirals organization but playing head-to-head against them as a member of the Rockford IceHogs. He has his moments but, one season later, finds himself right back in familiar surroundings in Milwaukee. It hasn’t taken long to see what bringing Liambas back to the team does for the team. It doesn’t take much from watching him at team practices as to why he wears an “A” on the front of his jersey. He has the keen ability to know when to get his teammates to laugh and when to get them to listen. He can bring them together post-practice and come up with a silly activity such as who can hit the net on the fly from a slap shot taken at center ice. He can then skate on up to an individual player to communicate through details and specific questions. And, once the puck actually drops, he can make even the best of the best impressed for the compete level that he brings to the ice.
That is Liambas. One player in a group of now 22 players on the Admirals roster. Trevor Smith is one of those leaders. Harry Zolnierczyk and Adam Payerl are those type of leaders. Adam Pardy, someone who only recently acquired, is now one of those leaders. And what do they all have in common? They are good quality people as well as quality players. It is an aspect of the Admirals in recent years to bring in quality people as much as they are a player on the ice. And it makes plenty of sense at the AHL level when wanting to set an example for the professionalism required to reach the end goal of playing in the NHL.
It is then that this ideal of what it is to have a solid locker room with quality people as well as players also gets found by the Nashville Predators scouting process. This isn’t limited to players that the Predators draft, either. Frédérick Gaudreau, Jimmy Oligny, Trevor Murphy, and Matt White were all undrafted players that made their way into the Admirals roster. Those names were solid players and leaders who wore letters in their junior or collegiate playing careers before becoming professional hockey players. But, what of those who were drafted that exist on the Admirals roster right now? Alex Carrier was an alternate captain for three of his four-year junior career with Gatineau (QMJHL). Jonathan Diaby was an alternate captain for his final two seasons of a four-year junior career with Victoriaville (QMJHL). Jack Dougherty was an alternate captain in his one and only junior playing season for Portland (WHL). Félix Girard was a team captain for his final two seasons of a four-year junior career with Baie-Comeau (QMJHL). And, despite never captaining a league team, Vladislav Kamenev has served as team captain for his national team at the Under-18 and Under-20 levels.
So, why then should any of us be all that surprised that ten games into the 2016-17 season that the Admirals find themselves with the best record in the Central Division by claiming 15 points out of a possible 20 points and all while not yet truly playing their best hockey? It is because the team is comprised of a solid and grounded group of people. All that flash and all that offensive skill will come in time if the team continues to provide detail oriented hockey with an emphasis on not only minimizing mistakes but learning from the ones made.
There is still so much to come yet this season. There will be games when the Admirals manage to fall 6-1. There will be rough patches and stretches when players get recalled and swapped around. That’s AHL hockey. The importance is having precisely what the Admirals have which is high level leadership and character from a wide range of individuals in their locker room. It’s what takes those heavy defeats or stretches and turns them into something the likes of which the Admirals are on right now – a four-game winning streak. The Admirals a season ago had a special group that achieved pretty much everything but winning a Calder Cup as the team exited the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Much like the building they’ve returned to this year’s team has a character and a charm about it that might just see them take that extra step.
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