If you were to look over the Milwaukee Admirals run under head coach Dean Evason you would see a rather successful regular season squad that has yet to escape the first round of the AHL Calder Cup Playoffs. The playoff run in the Evason era is 1-12 with three successive exits via sweep and an eleven game losing streak. The Admirals last playoff win came against the Texas Stars on 27 April, 2013. They won 2-0 behind a 23-save shutout by Magnus Hellberg and received goals from Austin Watson and then team captain Mike Moore. Watson wasn’t the only current Nashville Predators player on the roster for that last playoff win for Admirals. Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm were both active in that game.
What can standout from the playoff exits that followed is the team’s youth and veteran leadership structure sometimes not providing for the greatest of on-ice consistency. In the season after that last playoff win, 2013-14, the captain was Scott Ford and his alternates were Joe Piskula and Mark Van Guilder. 2014-15, the Admirals went with Piskula as captain and saw a then 20-year old Colton Sissons join Van Guilder as an alternate captain. The Admirals streak of twelve consecutive playoff appearances ended that season. 2015-16, Sissons would be made team captain with a veritable hodgepodge of alternate captains behind him in a season where he played 38 games in the AHL and 34 games in the NHL.
Establishing a core leadership group comprised of veteran talent started last season with the arrival of Trevor Smith. He was on top of a leadership group that had many other solid and established players behind him: Cody Bass, Harry Zolnierczyk, Adam Pardy, and Mike Liambas. While some of those names have either moved on or are still free agents the process of keeping a veteran leadership group has remained a focal point for the Admirals. And it is almost already solidified after yesterday’s signing of Bobby Butler.
Perhaps there is no better place to look at than the opponent that has swept you from the playoffs in successive seasons. The Grand Rapids Griffins veteran leadership group last season comprised of the likes of Nathan Paetsch, Matthew Ford, and Ben Street as players at or above the age of 30-years old. That was still followed by other respectable or proven names for the AHL level: Eric Tangradi, Matt Lorito, Brian Lashoff, Nick Jensen, and Mitch Callahan. That’s an awful lot of names before you start getting to prospects such as Yevgeni Svechnikov, Martin Frk, Robbie Russo, Anthony Mantha, and Tyler Bertuzzi. While the Admirals and Griffins can offer a stylistic game in which the two can play the same way and beat one-another in the same fashion it is the Admirals who are always fighting an uphill battle against the Griffins based upon roster structure and depth alone. The Admirals have never had the amount of veteran, experienced, proven, or reliable talent that the Griffins are able to compile through the Detroit Red Wings. It isn’t feasible for the Predators and Admirals to overload an AHL team with names in the same manner the Red Wings and Griffins are capable of doing. It becomes a literal men against boys playoff series and the men have won. It isn’t to outright say that the Admirals purpose as a developmental team for the Predators is a failure, because look at how the Predators reached the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Finals, but it is saying that Nashville prospects in Milwaukee need to carry an immense weight upon arrival -while being consistent- if they are to achieve overall team success.
The great news is that you could see this trend getting changed the moment after the Admirals failed to reach the 2015 Calder Cup Playoffs. While the leadership structure was static the great news was there were that many options at alternate captain to begin with: Conor Allen, Félix Girard, Max Reinhart, Jamie Devane, Jimmy Oligny – not to mention Bass. A better culture of experience and leadership was being established and that continued in that 2015-16 season with the arrival of Patrick Mullen, Stefan Elliott, and Corey Potter.
That roster building mentality moved forward for 2016-17 with additions like Smith and Zolnierczyk in mind as high caliber locker room leaders and on-ice workers. The same could be also said once Pardy arrived via trade after Matt Irwin made his rise back into the NHL ranks. The time for the pre-season and training camps leading into the 2017-18 season is still a tad aways yet but you can already make sense for this off-season’s continued work on this path. Smith and Bass are back in Milwaukee next season. You effectively already have a returning captain and alternate captain. The last time the Admirals had a returning captain was Nolan Yonkman from 2008-2010. The Admirals not only have a great roundup of prospect talent that are either returning or prepared to start their professional careers but the established members of the leadership group is intact. On top of that it is being built further. Pierre-Cédric Labrie was brought out of the smoldering misery of the Rockford IceHogs ranks and into a position where he can better succeed much as he did when he won the 2012 Calder Cup with the Norfolk Admirals alongside -his teammate once again- Smith. The latest inclusion, Butler, is another proven player who packs NHL experience and is another Calder Cup winner – in 2011 alongside Bass with the Binghamton Senators. That is four forwards at or above the age of 30-years old who have all won the Calder Cup in their careers. It is possible for every forward line this season to have a Calder Cup champion on it. That is a new wrinkle to an Admirals roster that has always been extremely talented but very inexperienced at the professional level.
Where things become special is when the veteran and youthful pieces fit together. It was said numerous times throughout last season: that group of people, not just the team you see on the ice, was special. At this moment there are 18 players expected to return from last season’s roster. The veteran group is experienced, proven, and reliable. They can all take a certain weight off of players like Vladislav Kamenev, Anthony Richard, Justin Kirkland, Yakov Trenin, Tyler Moy, or Tyler Kelleher. To be able to do that can allow the Admirals to better contend with the Griffins of the league routinely. With that routine comes consistency which leads to team success. It may have taken the Admirals missing the playoffs in 2014-15 to come to grips with the balance between developing talent for the Predators and achieving AHL success at the same time. The past two seasons, at least, have paved the way for what could be a big 2017-18 season.
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