Around this time a year ago one of my biggest concerns heading into the season was the Milwaukee Admirals defense being too young and too inexperienced. And that was with Matt Irwin likely in the fold at the time. At the moment, the elder statesman of the Admirals defense is 24-year old Jimmy Oligny who suffered ligament damage that required season ending surgery in April. Despite that, the defense really should be one of the least concerning elements to the Admirals efforts in the 2017-18 season. Yes, they might be young -but- they’re a year better off than a season ago and last season proved rather well for that group.
Oligny’s return to full fitness will be something to keep an eye on in the early portion of the season. Should he be back to his ol’ self the Admirals will be in a great place. In 2015-16, Oligny was the team’s best defenseman and should have been bumped up to an NHL contract with the Nashville Predators for how good of a defensive defenseman he is all while having great skating ability to drift up ice and help in the final third. That didn’t happen. He did suffer a season ending knee injury late last season which ultimately hampers his efforts to get that NHL deal from Nashville. But he is in the last of a two-year AHL contract with the Admirals. At this stage of his career he has already played 193 games in the AHL. Should he get back into 100% fitness and form he’ll be playing for that next contract by having his best season. For him to do that he needs to keep being himself, playing smart, being consistent, and also continuing to evolve as a good leader within the locker room. I’ve often joked to Oligny that he is the “dad” of the group of Québécois known as the French Fries. Last season he partnered up in the “dad” department with first time father Pontus Åberg as he adjusted to his first season of hockey as a parent. Those leadership skills go a long way. And they should continue to do so this season when he might well end up being the oldest defenseman in camp at only 24-years of age.
Behind Oligny there are other players in that age group: Petter Granberg & Andrew O’Brien. It could feel like Granberg is in a very odd place within the organization. He isn’t a Predators style defenseman that can skate quick or zip around with pace. The Swede is a more traditional stay at home defenseman that packs serious physical strength. He’s strong in his own zone and around the net -but- doesn’t seem to offer much beyond that. Which is where the counter to him, O’Brien, differs. O’Brien is similar to Granberg on the physical and strength side of things but he also skates well for a big defenseman and has really quick instincts in the attacking zone which helps generate plays for the forwards. O’Brien was brought in mid-season during the 2016-17 season in the Max Görtz trade. It will be nice to see what O’Brien could be like coming into the Admirals in a more relaxed and comfortable environment rather than learning everything and everyone on the fly.
There are then, of course, the youngsters that showed up last season: Alex Carrier & Jack Dougherty. I couldn’t speak highly enough of Carrier’s efforts last season. No really – I mean that. He came into his first pro season and managed to play and carry himself like he had done it many, many times before. It was his confidence, ability, and poise that put him in a Predators uniform for a pair of games as a 20-year old rookie in 2016-17. He was that good. And there is plenty of reason to believe he can grow further past a season in which he produced 39 points (6 goals, 33 assists). The biggest reason of which is the maturity that he shows. At Rookie Development Camp he spoke about bringing more leadership for the coming season. He gets it. With Dougherty, it wasn’t so much how he started the season but how he ended it. Dougherty looked sharper, quicker, and looser as the season progressed. He was paired with just about everyone in his first full pro season but appeared to grow with confidence throughout the process. There is some serious comfort for Dougherty finally settling into a single program with the same voices and faces around him, too. He was on a span of going from the U.S. National Team Development Program (2013-14) to the University of Wisconsin (2014-15) to the Portland Winterhawks (2015-16) before finally reaching the Admirals and getting some AHL action in before the end of that season. Both Carrier & Dougherty should be exciting to see develop in their second season. I also don’t think either should be a worry when it comes to any sort of sophomore slump because, at day’s end, their base is defense-first and their attacking ability shines off of that. They proved to be reliable last season. Their next step is to become dependable.
Looking over to a left-side defenseman, I wouldn’t say that Trevor Murphy necessarily had that sophomore slump but had a few too many of those first-year hiccups that he had creep up at times. I’ve said that Anthony Richard‘s skating ability can be detrimental to him at times because he is almost too fast for his own good. Sometimes I think that happens within the head of Murphy. He is thinking too much and can be caught out looking at the background rather than the foreground, attempting the home run play instead of the smart play, and can sometimes let his emotions overwhelm him into taking bad penalties. The counter to all of those eye-squinting bits of comments is that he has all the tools capable of being a Predators style defenseman. He has a hammer of a slap shot, he skates really well, and that skating ability can have him all over the ice establishing pressure on defense and on offense. Similar to Richard at forward: he just needs to settle down that little bit and refine his approach to let those tools shine. The calmer Murphy can play the game the more explosive I feel he could be. In what will be his third pro playing season perhaps that’s just what the Admirals are going to get.
This year’s real wild card is the team’s new French Fry, Frédéric Allard. Often times you will see players at the end of their collegiate or major junior season leave and join an AHL team to get that feel for things heading into the next season when they become a first time pro. Dougherty did that in 2015-16 and logged game time. Carrier also did that in 2015-16 but didn’t log game action – rather he was around the group, participated in practice, and took in his surroundings. Allard didn’t get to do any of that. He will quite seriously be getting thrown into the mix as fresh as can be. His first Rookie Development Camp, after being drafted in the third round of the 2016 NHL Draft, could have been helpful as he’d have been coached up by Admirals staff – but he was injured and didn’t participate. This most recent run at camp he was healthy but Admirals head coach Dean Evason really wasn’t as involved this season as he was last season. Still, Stan Drulia & Scott Ford ran him through the paces and should have had a good sense for what they see from Allard and vice versa. It’s the early stages of the season that could tell an awful lot of how the first pro season will go for Allard. The way things are stacked up he could potentially be seeing trips to the Norfolk Admirals in the ECHL to keep him active rather than potentially being a healthy scratch.
The real final element that, to this point, hasn’t been answered is whether or not a veteran depth signing at defense will come or not. The 2015-16 season put a pretty good stamp down that it is an area the organization would rather have. That season they ended up acquiring Stefan Elliott, Patrick Mullen, and Corey Potter to bolster leadership qualities on the back-end. Last season, yes, the Predators had Irwin but it was Adam Pardy that needed to be acquired by the organization after Irwin cemented himself into the NHL mix. Could Pardy be re-signed? Could Irwin or perhaps Anthony Bitetto or Yannick Weber be slotted down from Nashville to Milwaukee before the start of the season? It’s not certain, but that last question feels most probable after that interesting move to trade for Alexei Yemelin from the Vegas Golden Knights. It does seem like there is still something more at work both with how Nashville has their defensemen stockpiled right now and Milwaukee lacks a veteran on defense.
This all said. If the Admirals were to begin the season tonight with the defensemen that they have: they’re in really good shape. The group might be young but they’re all really levelheaded for their age and most are trending upwards to boot. What may also be amusing is that two-seasons ago, and a more primary trigger for why the organization went to get Elliott and Mullen, the Admirals only had one right-handed shooting defenseman: Taylor Aronson. As of now the Admirals are entering the 2017-18 season with an even split of four righties and four lefties. Balance is everything. You can’t get more balanced than that.
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