This organization has provided some truly special stories in recent years. What can make them that much better is that they hit across all levels: Cincinnati, Milwaukee, to Nashville.
The recent NHL debuts for Mike Liambas and Frédérick Gaudreau were tremendous success stories. They were both undrafted players that achieved ECHL status and earned their chance to play in the NHL for the Nashville Predators. Mark Van Guilder played 387 games professionally between the AHL and ECHL before finally earning his one NHL game at 30-years old.
With the current stockpile of talent situated in Milwaukee there are even more potential success stories just waiting for the call from Nashville. And I believe I have another unsung player on the cusp of following the likes of Van Guilder, Gaudreau, and Liambas in suiting up for the Predators. That man is Adam Payerl.
Before quickly pointing out that Payerl has already achieved the dream of playing in the NHL its very much worth understanding the journey he has been on to get back.
When Payerl was at his over-age season of junior hockey with the Belleville Bulls he was a free agent invitee to the Columbus Blue Jackets camp in the hopes of getting signed. He did well enough to get into pre-season games for them but they didn’t lock him up do a deal. Instead, he returned to the OHL and produced a career best 47 points (22 goals, 25 assists) in 61 games. What the Columbus organization skipped over was Pittsburgh’s to gain.
The Pittsburgh Penguins signed Payerl to a three-year entry level contract following the end of his final junior playing season in 2011-12. During his first pro season he had spells between the AHL and ECHL but mainly stuck around with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Something that he’d do until the end of his entry level contract in 2014-15. Being with that team, as a young up and coming forward, provided an opportunity to be around one of the AHL’s best players and leaders: Tom Kostopoulos.
“He is a great guy,” smiled Adam Payerl when speaking of Tom Kostopoulos. “He was huge in my development for sure. He was just a great guy on and off the ice. A good guy that I tried to learn a lot from and soaked in everything he talked about. He always had little pointers and habits. You were always watching and learning from him.”
The standout moment for Payerl’s time in the Penguins organization was getting his chance to contribute at the NHL level. It was at the end of his sophomore season as a pro when the Penguins recalled Payerl. He made his NHL debut on 4/6/14 on the road against the Colorado Avalanche.
“That was a pretty surreal experience,” said Payerl. “I have a lot of fond memories. It was only half a week but I played a couple games, met them on the road in Colorado. I played pretty well, actually. I had a handful of chances. I probably should have had a goal but [Semyon Varlamov] was playing a pretty good game.”
With his family watching on in attendance Payerl and the Penguins won a 3-2 shootout that night over the Avalanche. Payerl played sixteen shifts for 9:33 of ice-time while on a grind line with Craig Adams.
“It was pretty anxious the night before,” commented Payerl of the build up to his NHL debut. “I had a hard time falling asleep – pretty anxious. I was pacing around my hotel room. The rest of the team wasn’t there yet because they had played the night before in Minnesota. So, I got to Colorado before they did. I was in the hotel that night watching the clock waiting for bed time to come and for the next day. Once the first couple of shifts are out of the way I kind of got in a rhythm and it felt like another game. But, when you’re on the bench, you look around and there’s 20,000 people. It’s pretty surreal.”
Payerl’s NHL time wound extend one more game. That contest took place in Pittsburgh against the Detroit Red Wings in a game that also was decided in a shootout. The Penguins took that one as well. After that game Payerl would go back down to the AHL where he would play out the rest of his entry level contract with the Penguins organization. When it came time to work out what was next the Penguins opted to not re-sign Payerl and he became a free agent.
“It was kind of mixed feelings leaving there,” said Payerl. “It was kind of bittersweet because I had good experiences there but then I left. I wasn’t sure where I was going to go.”
Summer of 2015 was a long one for Payerl. The wait for another NHL contract came and went. Then the wait to field AHL contracts came and went, as well. Payerl quickly set his sights on signing an ECHL deal with the idea of fighting his way back to an AHL spotlight. He signed an ECHL contract with the Cincinnati Cyclones. One of the perks of joining the Cyclones is being afforded the opportunity to join the Milwaukee Admirals Training Camp and get a chance to audition for an AHL opportunity.
“Every year we try to help Cincy out with bringing a couple guys that they feel have a shot at playing for us at some point,” said Milwaukee Admirals head coach Dean Evason. “It’s a nice recruiting thing for Cincinnati to have the ability to say you can come to the American Hockey League training camp – and [Payerl] was one of the guys.”
From the moment Payerl arrived to Admirals Training Camp ahead of the 2015-16 season he looked like a perfect fit with the Admirals group. He had a very professional approach to both the on and off ice aspects of the game. He was also impressing the Admirals coaching staff for how hard he was competing day-to-day.
“The first practice we were really impressed of how he played the game,” said Evason. “How he skated, how he shot the puck, his skill level, and then getting in the couple of games that he did we decided right away that we wanted to get him under contract. It was almost immediate that we knew he was going to be on our team.”
Payerl’s time with the Cincinnati Cyclones for the 2015-16 season never happened. He started the season with the Milwaukee Admirals on a professional try-out contract and quickly earned a standard AHL contract. At the time he was scoring a point every other game, 4 points (2 goals, 2 assists) in 8 games, and that included scoring a game-winning overtime goal and an assist in his Admirals debut.
As the 2015-16 season progressed the decision for the Admirals to bring in Payerl looked better and better with every game. He could play in all situations. He was very polished defensively. And, for Payerl, he was reaching offensive production that he hadn’t been able to hit since his time in junior hockey.
In Payerl’s time with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton he scored 31 points (10 goals, 21 assists) in 130 games. In Payerl’s 2015-16 season with the Admirals he scored 29 points (13 goals, 16 assists) in 74 games. It was an all-around game and effort level that simply wasn’t ignored on the Nashville Predators. Come the end of April 2016, Payerl had signed that NHL contract that had alluded him the summer prior and it all came off of signing an ECHL contract and then competing on a PTO contract at the AHL level to earn his AHL deal.
“It’s a great story,” said Evason of Payerl. “Doing all the right things being not only a good hockey player but a good person, a good teammate. He’s now worked himself into a leadership role on our hockey club. He’s just an all around good guy and he plays the game the right way.”
The next time Payerl suits up for the Admirals it will be his 100th game with the organization. This season he has hit the ground running across the board and is on pace to surpass his pro-best offensive output from a season ago: 15 points (6 goals, 9 assists) in 25 games. The question next seems to be if his hard work has him on Nashville’s radar give how hard he has been knocking on their door.
“He is,” quipped Evason. “He is on their radar. We’ve already talked about it a couple of times this year when they’re going into play a bigger stronger team. Different people that there’s an opportunity to get called up that [Payerl] is a guy, whose big, strong and grinds, and has a great start to his season. I think in the right circumstance there is no question that he could get a shot at getting called up this year.”
It has been two years, eight months, and ten days since Payerl last played in the NHL. 985 days of work with a combined 161 AHL regular season and playoff games played. His time spent with the Admirals has shown plenty of organizations just what they missed out on two summers ago when he was a free agent up until September. Now all that would be left is to follow the likes of Gaudreau and Liambas as incredible success stories that have taken the road to Nashville from Milwaukee.
“It would be unbelievable,” smiled Payerl of a possible return to the NHL. “I don’t want to get my hopes up. I’m just trying to take care of my day-to-day business here. But, that’s the end goal. To try to get there. And do everything I can to get there.”
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