The Long Game That Follows Juniors

(Photo Credit: Scott Paulus)
The early days of a professional hockey career can all be a bit wild and overwhelming. The key is to simply the approach to the game and not get caught out doing too much too fast. (Photo Credit: Scott Paulus)

The Milwaukee Admirals have four first-year talents on their roster this season. There are two defenseman, Alex Carrier and Jack Dougherty. And there are two forwards, Justin Kirkland and Anthony Richard. While Carrier has seemingly hit the ground running it isn’t completely the case for his fellow rookies.

Dougherty entered this season having had the benefit of joining the Admirals late last season and getting to experience game action ahead of the team’s Calder Cup playoff run. The Admirals are Dougherty’s fourth different team in four years after having gone from the U.S. National Development Team, the University of Wisconsin, and then the Portland Winterhawks. Him having joined at the end of the season and keeping with the program is effectively the longest run with a single team that he’s had since playing for St. Thomas Academy when he was 16-years old.

Richard, like Dougherty, also joined the Admirals late last season and got to log game time. Unlike Dougherty though those games that Richard played were playoff games. He was thrown right into the fire in the opening round series against the Grand Rapids Griffins and while playing through a lower-body injury sustained at the end of his last junior playing season. His time with Val-d’Or (QMJHL) spanned four-years in which he produced 238 points (111 goals, 127 assists) in 232 games.

(Photo Credit: Jeff Hanisch)
(Photo Credit: Jeff Hanisch)

Kirkland was the lone rookie this season that didn’t benefit from being around the Admirals at the end of last season. Carrier was able to do that and was joined by fellow Gatineau teammate and Predators prospect Yakov Trenin. Carrier unlike Dougherty, Richard, and Trenin just never had the opportunity to play. The reason for Kirkland’s absence was simply due to the great performance he and the Kelowna Rockets were putting together at the end of the season that saw their playoff run outlast the Admirals. Kirkland worked his way from the Saskatchewan junior scene before making it to Kelowna in the WHL. Once he made it there he totaled 169 points (71 goals, 98 assists) in 199 games.

All three of these players come from outstanding junior backgrounds before turning pro. So how are two forwards that had a combined 0.94 points per game still without a single point in the AHL through the Admirals first 19 games of the season?

At this point, for all the rookies, Kirkland and Richard are the lone of the group to have ventured out to the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL. It wasn’t a demotion based purely out of performance, either. The Admirals forward depth this season is very -very- deep and you can look at recent Nashville Predators games as evidence to just that. In their brief spells with the Cyclones they were being afforded ice-time that they wouldn’t otherwise be getting at the AHL level. And that, to a degree, says something about why a lesser start for the two is happening.

The biggest point for what I see with Kirkland and Richard is that they are two high level scoring talents from the junior ranks that sometimes get caught out doing too much too fast too often. Kirkland has had the better and more consistent approach in his 13 games with the Admirals. He has mainly played at center and is looking closer and closer to getting a breakthrough offensively. Richard’s speed is electric but he has moments where he can drift a bit and move out of areas on the ice that could help him produce. I’m sure that the pace of the pro game has been a touch hectic to adjust to. That proceed is simply being shown more in the form of an empty stat total from two forwards completely capable of doing much more.

(Photo Credit: Scott Paulus)
(Photo Credit: Scott Paulus)

Things haven’t been completely out of whack for Dougherty but what has been, for sure, is finding someone for him to pair with on a nightly basis. Dougherty has pretty much been paired with everyone defensively this season who has a left-hand shot: Trevor Murphy, Jimmy Oligny, and -most recently- Jonathan Diaby. Over the course of a season familiarity gets really good through game experience and the plethora of practices a team will go through. But, to go through this many permutations this early, it is a bit of a test for Dougherty to find his own feet. While Carrier and Adam Pardy‘s pairing has its own great chemistry and has had it from the moment Pardy has arrived there is something to be said about those two getting to evolve and get better as a tandem the more time they get to feed off each other. Dougherty has yet to really have that. And, with how the Predators injury troubles seem to keep flaring up, I’m not sure when he will.

It’s important for all of these rookies that have been off to a slower start to not end up gripping their sticks tight and continue to go through the learning process at hand. That less is more approach might even be the best way for all three to start getting loose and finding a groove. It isn’t juniors anymore. That point per game average isn’t going to massively translate into the AHL in a heartbeat. What all have around them though is what can help them slowly get a foothold and start finding some of that junior level success. Kirkland’s pairing on a line with Max Görtz in recent games has been so close to getting goals. Richard having a quick spell for the Cyclones that saw him earn his first pro goal and assist can be an evaluation point as to finding more of that night in and night out. It’s simply a matter of time.

Under the Dean Evason Era of the Admirals the team has had seven first-year skaters from the CHL play upwards of 50 games in a season for them. Their combined points per game average was 0.34 in that first-pro season compared to a combined points per game average of 0.67 in their CHL careers. The pro game that first full-season requires a long game mentality. There is a lot to adjust to. Provided all continue to learn from the experiences they are getting these slower starts can start to climb in the right direction.

What have you thought of the first-year pros that the Milwaukee Admirals have had this season? Do you feel that the depth needs a bit more replenishing right now or is the group around right now good enough to outlast the Nashville Predators injury bugs?

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