We’re actually two games away from the official middle of the Milwaukee Admirals 2016-17 season. Once the road games against the Charlotte Checkers are played on Tuesday and Wednesday evening the Admirals will be at the exact midway point of 38-games played of their 76-game regular season. Yet, with a little break and a this four-game road trip due up, why not tackle our Report Card sooner rather than later?
~The Road So Far~
The Admirals currently have a record of 20-12-2-2 (44 points, 0.611 points percentage) and are third in the Central Division and sixth in the Western Conference standings. Things started off astonishingly well. The Admirals had a record of 12-2-2-1 through November. In that month they didn’t lose a single game in regulation.
Once once the Admirals reached the month of December it all started to pitter-patter into the current state the team is in now. The Nashville Predators injuries this season have caused massive fluctuations at key positions. In December it felt like the defensemen the Admirals relied on were all recalled. In January the forwards have been getting recalled. It has resulted in a record of 8-10-0-1 since the start of December and the current run of form is losing four consecutive games in regulation for the first time since the 2011-12 season.
For all the chaos there is serious optimism for what this team can be. Even when the Admirals were doing what they did to start the season they weren’t really playing their best hockey. Now, paired with all the recalls and reassignments, it seems that has caught up with them a little bit. The leadership group of this year’s team was hailed by head coach Dean Evason as the strongest he has had since arriving to Milwaukee. And he isn’t wrong. This is a team fully capable of a deep playoff run this season.
Most Impressive Player: Juuse Saros
Least Impressive Player: Max Görtz
Best Forward: Matt White
Best Defensemen: Alex Carrier
Best Goaltender: Juuse Saros
Best Rookie: Alex Carrier
Most Improvement: Adam Payerl
Least Improvement: Max Görtz
Player to Watch in the Second Half of the Season: Vladislav Kamenev
Player Who Needs to Step Up in the Second Half: Max Görtz
Player Who Will Step Up in the Second Half: Frédérick Gaudreau
Considering just how many players have dressed this season I feel it is necessary to clamp down the Report Card and make things a little less word heavy while also managing the grades differently. The Admirals have had ten players play five games or less this season. There have only been three players that have played in every single game to this point.
Grades are always purely of my own opinion and choice. With so many players who’ve registered less than 50% of the games played this season for the Admirals it would seam almost pointless to dish out “Incomplete” grades. That rule I tend to use generally doesn’t include goaltenders. If I were to stick to that there would be almost 40% of the roster earning no grade.
This time around I will be giving grades to all players with a few exception: those who were in on a Professional Try-Out Contract basis and those who appeared on Conditioning Assignment. Those lone players will receive an Incomplete. I also then kindly ask you take the grades of those who played minimal game time for the Admirals with a grain of salt. Again, it’s purely my own interpretation and I’d rather give a grade – than have that many not receive a letter grade.
In short: Letter grades will be given to all minus those on PTO Contracts or Conditioning Assignments. Please take into account that some of these grades can also reflect how little the players did play this season. Not many have played even half the games available to this stage of the season.
For the sake of convenience the players are listed in the manner of their uniform numerals for the Milwaukee Admirals this season.
2, Petter Granberg: While is time at the NHL level this season has been up-and-down I’d say his work in the AHL has been pretty good. He never tries anything flashy. He’s a stay at home defenseman with serious strength around in net and on the wall. As for the actual system that the Predators like to play, with active and pinching defenseman, I don’t think it fits Granberg’s game. (Grade: C)
3, Jonathan Diaby: I’ve seen more strides taken this season from Diaby than the past two seasons combined. His skating still badly -badly- needs work but his defending has greatly improved from a tall and lanky guy that would get turned inside out on a near shiftly basis. He’s learning a lot right now. And there is plenty to keep learning towards overall improvement. (Grade: D)
5, Jack Dougherty: As far as the first year pro defensemen go I feel like Dougherty has had the tougher go of things with all of the roster turn-over. He’s just about played with every possibly defensive permutation available to him outside of pairing with other right-shot d-men. He’s become far more comfortable all-around as this season has progressed. At times, you nearly forget that he is a 20-year old for how big he plays the game. There is a lot to like for his future. He’s starting to get rolling the more this season progresses. (Grade: C)
6, Adam Pardy: I don’t think the Predators or Admirals could have anticipating the injury woes hitting them as hard as they did this season. The veteran depth defenseman that the organization had entering this season was Irwin. He did outstanding. And then he stayed up for good. The Admirals acquired Pardy from the Springfield Falcons to get veteran depth back. Pardy was on an AHL deal after failing to earn an NHL contract from the Florida Panthers. His phenomenal work not only earned him the NHL deal that eluded him in Florida but he ended up logging game action for the Predators. He’s been a fantastic addition for the organization. (Grade: B+)
7, Matt White: I am still in shock that it took until December of last season for the Admirals to be the first team to give White a chance to play in the AHL. All he has done since joining the organization has been to produce 52 points (20 goals, 32 assists) in 87 games. He is currently the Admirals leading scorer and operates across the board on special teams. He is to the Admirals this season as Gaudreau was last season. The Predators should consider penning him to a two-way contract if he continually produces as he does. (Grade: A)
8, Trevor Murphy: It was a very slow start for Murphy this season. Perhaps things were more between the ears than anything but -thankfully- that’s in the past. Murphy is having a real good sophomore campaign. The Admirals really missed out on having offensive minded defensemen over the years. Murphy has brought that since his arrival and he’s also polishing up defensively. He, like Dougherty, has been cycled around a ton with the defensive cycle between Nashville and Milwaukee. Through it all – he’s handled it pretty well. He can be a crucial part of the Admirals getting to another level in pursuit of a Calder Cup this season. (Grade: B)
10, Max Görtz: This one really hurts me to grade and to say but Görtz has been the most disappointing and frustrating player to watch this season. And, at times, I’m not even so sure it is all his fault. I’ve joked with him after games or practices this season that there has to be something that the Hockey Gods have against him this year. He was the Admirals second leading scorer a season ago. He has less goals scored than Diaby this season and Mazanec is an assist shy of trying him in that department. Görtz has had the misfortune of being kicking around to tons of different lines that have been a little jarring at times – pair that with a scorer gripping his stick a bit tighter and awaiting those pucks finally getting through for goals and it never happening – and you have Görtz’s sophomore slump in a nutshell. He can be so much better. He can still be what he was. Perhaps it just takes that next goal for him to explode. For the Admirals’ sake? I hope it is soon. The team misses having him do what he did a year ago. (Grade: F)
11, Adam Payerl: I was impressed by what Payerl provided the Admirals out of the blue last season. He has played every bit the part of a guy who earned a contract from the Predators after his 2015-16 season came to an end. He is fully capable of coming up and serving a solid role for the Predators if needed. He can play great two-way hockey, be physical, go to the dirty areas, score, set-up, and run both sides of special teams. He has been great. (Grade: A-)
12, Kevin Fiala: If he were here longer? I’d have tabbed him as the “Most Improved” player I’ve watched this season. It isn’t even the scoring aspects where I say that, either. Everyone knows Fiala can be a highly flashy and skilled player. It is the shift-to-shift work rate and attention to detail that has me excited for what Fiala has accomplished this season. He has really matured and started playing a more complete game. He is still only 20-years old but has 144 games of North American pro experience under his belt between the AHL and NHL. People might forget that in a different situation he’d be a first year pro this season or last season. He is way ahead of the learning curve and is still getting better. (Grade: B+)
13, Tylor Spink: I really liked what I saw of this-half of the Spink Twins when they both participated in Admirals Training Camp. He’s a really smooth player. I would be surprised to see him battle up to the AHL level more down the road. Either that or a good European future could be ahead for him, too. (Grade: Incomplete)
13, Blake Kessel: The younger brother of Phil. The older brother of Amanda. Blake arrived to the Admirals under unique circumstances for himself. He had been the top scoring defenseman in the ECHL as part of the Atlanta Gladiators. He was then traded to the Kalamazoo Wings and decided to never report to the team. The Admirals, needing defensive help, snapped him up. He didn’t look out of place. He just wasn’t as much a fit as others that would swing in. He was released from his PTO and continues to not report to Kalamazoo. (Grade: Incomplete)
13, Garrett Meurs: The definition of how crazy the month of January was for the Admirals was when Kamenev received his first call-up. The Russian had traveled with the Admirals to San Jose ahead of their road games in California. He then needed to travel cross-country to make it for his NHL debut against the Florida Panthers. The Admirals needed a body to fill out a roster – and that’s where Meurs stepped in to join fellow PTO forward and Wheeling Nailers teammate Army. He played a lone game. And that’s almost all there is to say. (Grade: Incomplete)
15, Reid Boucher: For someone who plays as well as Boucher it is just sad that he finds himself in the gray area of great for the AHL – but not completely NHL ready. He went from the New Jersey Devils to the Nashville Predators to the New Jersey Devils to the Vancouver Canucks. He has been a waiver wire sensation this season. It’s unfortunate. Everywhere he has ever played he can really produce. (Grade: Incomplete)
15, Rick Pinkston: Where Kessel on PTO was neither bad nor good – I’ve been really impressed by Pinkston. There have been some communication blunders on the ice, which I could expect with joining a team on PTO with no real familiarity to the group, but there have also been smart and no-nonsense work on his part that has him still with the Admirals as the depth filters back in. I like what I see. If he goes back to the Manchester Monarchs? They have themselves a solid defenseman. (Grade: Incomplete)
16, Félix Girard: What was toughest about seeing Girard get traded away wasn’t something you could point to on a list of stats. He was a heart and soul player for the Admirals since he arrived. He was one of the more vocal leaders in the group and was the best face-off winners that I’ve ever covered. His efforts on the Admirals grind lines and -especially- the penalty kill will be greatly missed. (Grade: B-)
17, Mike Liambas: It has been fantastic to have Liambas back in the fold here in Milwaukee. He grew so much as a player under the guidance of the coaching staff here and continues to do so. This evolution as a player earned him his first career NHL game back on 12/3/16. With the AHL’s Fighting Major policy he isn’t wracking up penalty minutes left and right as he would in years past. That rule has actually allowed the improvements he has made over the years to shine. He is a great defensive minded player who can punish the opposition. He isn’t the biggest guy on the ice but he can always deliver the most pain. Best of all? He is yet another incredible leader of this Admirals team and serves a great role in the locker room. It has been like he never left. (Grade: C+)
19, Eric Robinson: Last season looked to be Robinson’s breakout year. Instead it became one to forget. After a hot start he blew out his knee and needed season ending surgery. When he returned to the fold for the Predators Rookie Tournament he looked better than ever. He could well have taken a great part of the Admirals efforts as the roster was depleted this season. But, he was the central piece to acquiring Pardy from Springfield. He hasn’t done the level of damage I know he would be capable of in Milwaukee since arriving to his new team. It’s a bummer. Hopefully things turn for the better for the Dartmouth grad. (Grade: D)
19, Justin Kirkland: It has not been the start to Kirkland’s pro career that he can be all that happy about. That said, he has taken it all in stride and continually works hard. I feel like whenever I watch the Admirals practice Kirkland is among the best at all drills he gets thrown into – including winning almost every shootout drill I’ve watched the team do. He’s started slow. He has. Perhaps playing at the center position isn’t the most ideal position for him as was the case with Watson. Time will tell on that. For now, he is slowly starting to ratchet things up. With Girard now gone it might afford him even more chances to open up his game. (Grade: D+)
20, Miikka Salomäki: I feel so gutted for Salomäki. In recent years he had a shoulder injury that ended his 2014-15 season. Now it appears that a lower-body injury might end or completely stall his 2016-17 season. It would be one thing to say his “bull in a china shop” mentality needs to be dialed down but that hasn’t been the real issue. It’s all just unfortunate stuff that has taken him out of action this season. He’ll turn 24-years old in March. I would really hope that he can be back by season’s end. He has only shown a taste of what he can do on the NHL stage. (Grade: Incomplete)
20, Derek Army: I said it in recent games and I will say it here. Army is the sort of player you see come in on a PTO basis and wonder why he wasn’t already an AHL talent to begin with. He works incredibly hard. Goes right to the net. Scraps it out hard. He can play center or wing well. And has shown a knack for offense with some heads-up defensive reads to go with it. He’s 25-years old. I think it would be great seeing him staying around for the Admirals. He is versatile and can probably perform better as he gets comfortable with the team. (Grade: Incomplete)
21, Harry Zolnierczyk: I always hear from players that “Z” is the funniest player they’ve been around in the game. His vocal leadership skills have been great to have around the Admirals this season. He skates insanely fast and is a true spark plug player that has now shown that ability for the Predators at the NHL level. His constant work rate is something that sets a tempo for a group to match. Whether it has been for the Predators or the Admirals I can only say that I’ve loved watching him work this season. (Grade: A-)
22, Shawn O’Donnell: Yet another of the “PTO” brigade, O’Donnell originally came into the mix in Admirals Training Camp as part of the lucky Cincinnati Cyclones that get an AHL look prior to the start of the season. That “interview” process, if you will, had a lasting image for the Admirals coaches as they enjoyed seeing his tough and aggressive style. He’s played five games for the Admirals. I can’t think of many moments where he had a negative impact on the game. (Grade: Incomplete)
23, Trevor Smith: I’m not sure what impresses me more. What Smith does on the ice or what he does off of it. Smith is already having one of the best AHL seasons of his career offensively. Yet, what doesn’t get seen in broad daylight as the puck drops and the game plays out is the reason why he is the Admirals captain this season. I’m not sure I’ve seen someone who gravitates to the leadership responsibilities better than Smith.The only other one who comes close is the man who became an assistant coach for the Admirals last season. After almost every game, win or lose, Smith gathers up the group to have a team talk. He is the captain. He is the leader. And he has been consistent throughout the entire season on the ice on top of those off-ice qualities. (Grade: A-)
24, Anthony Bitetto: Some of the worst luck this season has happened surrounding Bitetto. I’d say the man can’t get a break – but he did right after his initial comeback following a conditioning assignment. After that, we are where we are today and I greatly hope that 2017 treats Bitetto better than 2016. He has always been the type of player to process the previous season and better himself from it. He was fully set to do that this season in a big way for the Predators. It may have gotten off on the wrong foot but he’s back now. He can still really provide the Predators great two-way hockey from the blueline. (Grade: Incomplete)
29, Mark Visentin: Speaking of bad luck, these past few seasons for Visentin have featured some of the worst of that. While he has had some ups and downs as part of the Cincinnati Cyclones in the ECHL this season -the biggest key for him- is that he gets a healthy run. That’s all that I would hope for him to have so he can move forward and really get a run going for himself. He has great abilities between the pipes. He can be real quick and play in net bigger than he appears. Ankle injuries derailed the last few years. But, with a clean bill of healthy, who is to say this guy couldn’t show off what made him a twenty-seventh overall selection in the 2010 NHL Draft? This year is all about regaining confidence. So far he has played more games in the AHL and ECHL than the past two seasons combined. That’s a start. (Grade: C-)
31, Marek Mazanec: This looked to be the season that Maz was playing for from his arrival to North America in 2013. He was going to be -the- back up for the Nashville Predators. Unfortunately, the inconsistency of playing time trickled into his form and it made for frequent changes to who is the back up in Nashville. That situation now seems to be resolved. And Maz isn’t the choice. That is not to say Maz has played himself out of the role at all. Saros simply played his way in. Since his last reassignment to the Admirals I don’t think I’ve seen a better Maz in net for the team since he showed up. He has looked and played so calm, square to shooters, and smooth around the net. Results fluctuate for him in the win column as the team has hit a snag but that isn’t a reflection of how he has played. He’s been great since returning. And his attitude has been first class given how easily it could be for him to be down on himself about this season. He hasn’t at all. And he continues to work extremely hard in case the Predators need him again. (Grade: B+)
36, Cody Bass: Indirectly, I feel the reason for Watson’s emergence in Nashville this season has a lot to do with Bass starting his season there while Watson started in Milwaukee. Bass was the hard hitting scrapper. Watson, at that point, wasn’t. Someone got the hint though and Watson has since really opened up his game. As for Bass? He suffered a lower-body injury in late-December and it is unclear whether or not he will return this season. It would be a shame if that is the case. Bass, like Maz, returned to the Admirals with no ill will and simply wanted to be as good of a team player as he could be. He was doing well for the Admirals. If he could return it would be a great boost for both what he provides on and off the ice. He’s a leader and a warrior. (Grade: C)
37, Jonas Gunnarsson: If you were to look at Gunnarsson’s stats this season you would assume he has struggled massively in his first pro season in North America. That isn’t true at all. He has had the misfortune of finally getting rare starts at times when the Admirals completely bombed in front of him. All that came early in the season when the Maz/Saros flip-flopping by Nashville really held Gunnarsson as a hostage to the NHL team’s own indecision. Now that it feels set that the combo for the Admirals is Maz and Gunnarsson the two can really start to work better and get game time. I’ve enjoyed seeing Gunnarsson’s work in net. He seems really comfortable in net and has never really looked out of place for someone new to the North American style of play. He is only on a one-year contract through Nashville. It would be smart for them to give him more time after this season, too. I think he can be serviceable down the road if they needed him. (Grade: C+)
38, Justin Florek: Admirals Training Camp often provides some unique storylines. Payerl last season showed up on a Cyclones’ ECHL contract. Florek this season showed up almost as a job interview. He made a solid impression and has had himself a relatively nice start to the season. There are times in which I feel Florek can get caught out overplaying the game on offense. His offensive numbers are almost better than they were a season ago with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers but they certainly have fallen off a cliff from the Florek that was part of the Boston Bruins organization. I think there is even more to his game than what I’ve seen. I’d love to see it. I just don’t know if he’ll be on the similar level or qualities that Payerl has been providing. The two could be equal in the way that they play – but they just aren’t. (Grade: C)
46, Pontus Åberg: A detail that can get overlooked is the approach that a player has to the game after becoming a father for the first time. Åberg became a dad in the off-season. And I feel as if the maturation process off the ice trickles into the man and player that he has become on it. Åberg has been really solid for the Admirals this season. At the start of the year he was becoming the sort of player worthy of being doubled up for shifts. It put him into the NHL and his work earned him his first career NHL goal – which wasn’t a cheap one, either. Åberg continues to blossom these past two seasons. He really exploded at the ended of last season which put him in the fold for an NHL debut during the Predators playoff run. Should he return to such a scenario it will be heavily relied upon Åberg’s speed and work being consistent through each and every shift. He is a player who is at his best when he plays the game shot out of a cannon. He needs more of that to be an NHL regular. (Grade: B-)
47, Jimmy Oligny: There have been times this season when the seasoned and experienced man in defense for the Admirals is the 23-year old Oligny. As odd as that sounds it is a role that he can take on well. Oligny should have earned an NHL contract with the Predators after last season. I’m staggered by the fact that still hasn’t happened. He isn’t offensively gifted, no cannon of a shot like Murphy, but he skates at a very high level while playing very physical and remains the Admirals best defensive defenseman. While Pardy-Carrier might be the top defensive pairing this season? Oligny remains a real anchor for the team when they need one on defense. (Grade: B)
51, Austin Watson: I alluded to it when talking about Bass. Watson’s game has taken a needed evolution this season. Yes, he has been doing well lately but he is also finally playing in a position to succeed and play provider for really the first time with the Predators. He did it time and time again for the Admirals. He is starting to do it with the Predators. I think it comes with an extra gear that he has found in his skating ability which has always been a sore spot – not particularly the quickest guy on the ice. He has also started to really punish more players with that big frame of his. He’ll always be a master shot blocker. Now, he is starting to deliver what fans saw him doing in Milwaukee on a more frequent basis in Nashville. (Grade: B)
52, Matt Irwin: I’m sure the Predators would have liked to have had more veteran depth to start the season on defense. That said, they struck gold by having Irwin in the mix early. He played so well with the Admirals early that, injuries or not, he seemed due to get a look for the Predators. It didn’t take long. And he has since played his way into a new contract for the Predators. It is a huge credit to him and the professionalism he showed in his brief time with the Admirals that he launched back into the place he wanted to be and remains there. (Grade: B+)
55, Alex Carrier: When I first saw Carrier he was in from juniors at the end of last season doing a morning practice session for the Admirals. He never had the chance to play. He was just getting a feel for the pro environment. During my trip to Predators Rookie Development Camp I feel as if Carrier was one of the most impressive players that I sat back and watched. That was then. And I had no idea he would do what he has done. Carrier is among the youngest players on the roster this season in his first professional playing season. You would never sense that when you watch him play. His skating ability is tremendous, his defending is solid, and he can truly cruise around on offense to the point he almost acts as another winger in the attacking zone. He isn’t up with the Predators right now simply as a pat on the back. More so, I feel he was recalled in the event he can debut and play. That nearly happened this past weekend. But his time will come. Much like Carrier arrived to Milwaukee late last season to open his eyes this current stint with the Predators should allow him to see the end-goal he is working towards. He has reached it far faster than I bet even he imagined but it is truly deserved. He has been that darn good. (Grade: A+)
74, Juuse Saros: I expected this to be the season where Saros is allowed the chance to play a full AHL season with the role of being “the man” and shouldering a hefty work load. I felt last season he arrived with so much hype that I was pleasantly surprised to see him match it. This season he has more than done that – he’s succeeding it by miles. Saros reads the game in net better than most forwards. His lateral speed in net is staggeringly good. As much as people can poke about his size or height I feel it is that element that has made him the speed demon in net that he is. The most important thing of all though is his maturity. He acts and behaves like he has been in the pro game for years on end. He is 20-years old and learning still. What he is doing this season isn’t being “the man” in Milwaukee it is showing to Nashville that he could quite possibly be “the man” right there and right now. He played himself into his NHL role far more than Mazanec played his way out of it. I only wonder now when he starts to play himself into Pekka Rinne’s role next. The ETA on that is getting shrunk with every appearance that Saros plays for the Predators. (Grade: A+)
89, Frédérick Gaudreau: If you are looking for the top feel good story of the season it was seeing Gaudreau and Liambas sitting on the bench together in the NHL. Both have come on different and long paths to make it. Gaudreau is likely someone who will play even more of a part for the Predators down the road. He is so polished across the board. He is one of the hardest working players that I’ve seen – he treats practices with the same level of determination as an actual game. And, while he isn’t having as big of a season as he was a season ago, I do feel that the Girard trade could hopefully slot him back into the center position and change that. Gaudreau can be a top forward for the Admirals as this season continues. He can do even better than what he’s accomplished so far. (Grade: B)
90, Anthony Richard: It’s hard to grade Richard simply because he has struggled so much and then was sidelined with a concussion that put him out of action for nearly a month. His speed is his strongest asset. Yet, at times, it can also cost him offensively as he gets too aggressive, erratic, or careless moving forward. The concussion happening – no one wants that to ever happen at all. Yet I think that him sitting out and watching the game a little bit can set himself up for a more comfortable injection back into the Admirals lineup for the 2017 stretch. He can be a dynamic playmaker. He just needs to settle down and keep the game a bit more simple. (Grade: F)
91, Vladislav Kamenev: I thought very much of Fiala and Kamenev as a Yin and Yang. Fiala was the explosive forward who needed to be roped in at times. Kamenev was the smooth forward who you sometimes wanted to see pushed more. This season Kamenev has the training wheels of last season off and he is really starting to show what he did a year ago at better pace and better consistency. The last game that the Admirals played it was almost impossible to not see #91 flying around the ice working hard on or off the puck. He’s really started to settle in. And that was an area last season that I always thought made his work that much more impressive. The language barrier is becoming far less of an issue. Understanding the North American pro game versus that of Russia’s KHL is a long dead issue. He made his NHL debut this season and should dip a toe back there again before this season is done. If he is in Nashville next season? He’s earned it. If he is back in Milwaukee next season? It isn’t a negative one bit as this 20-year old continues to evolve into the strong two-way center that he can be for the Predators for a great many years ahead. I’m excited for what Kamenev can be for the Predators. (Grade: A-)
Do you agree or disagree with the Report Card? Write about it in the comment section below and tell me some of your Mid-Season Awards.
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