We’re a week away from Milwaukee Admirals Pre-Season Training Camp. Festivities will be taking place from the MSOE Kern Center next week Tuesday and will build towards two exhibition matches. The Admirals will travel to the BMO Harris Bank Center next Thursday before hosting the Chicago Wolves inside the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena next Saturday. The week that follows that is the final preparation before the 2017-18 season officially begins. The Admirals start on the road against the Iowa Wild.
To get everyone prepared before all the action picks up it is time to look over some of the key storylines heading into Training Camp and the 2017-18 season. This season proves to be a bit more mysterious than last season. Who is the starting goaltender? Where is all the offense going to come from? Is the Nashville Predators organizational depth finally starting to stretch thin at the AHL level? These are questions that should be answered quickly into the season. Let’s preview what to expect come Training Camp and into the start of the new season.
It’s important to start 2017-18 with a reflection of where the Milwaukee Admirals ended last season. It was a second consecutive sweep by the Grand Rapids Griffins in the opening round of the Calder Cup Playoffs that ended the Admirals season. The Griffins would carry on all the way to winning the 2017 Calder Cup. The Griffins featured a stacked roster with the Detroit Red Wings missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Meanwhile, the Admirals roster missed a key contributor in Pontus Åberg due to the Nashville Predators post-season successes and the Predators would be strengthened by the Admirals elimination from the Calder Cup Playoffs as Frédérick Gaudreau made an impact during the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals. The Predators would fall short in six-games to the Pittsburgh Penguins but the organization’s depth was shining throughout their deepest playoff run in team history. It’s that young depth that had the opportunity across both the NHL and AHL levels last season that will be looking to take one step further forward in 2017-18. And there are plenty of reasons to believe that can be the case – especially in Milwaukee.
2016-17’s Rookie Class was a very good one in Milwaukee: Alex Carrier, Jack Dougherty, Justin Kirkland, and Anthony Richard. All grew over the course of the season and Carrier did well enough to reach the NHL for a pair of games in his first professional playing season. 2017-18’s Rookie Class will look to follow in their footsteps: Frédéric Allard, Tyler Kelleher, Tyler Moy, and Yakov Trenin. What’s fun about this year’s new blood is: Allard is the only one to not have suited up for the Admirals yet – everyone else already has and some have already notched their first pro goals. While last year’s group will look to avoid the sophomore slump -they’re no longer mystery men anymore- it’s on some of these freshman to step up and step up fast. Moy and Trenin should be leaned upon this season to contribute in a number of facets. By that same line of thought: Kirkland and Richard will also need to take a step forward in their developmental process. Carrier should be considered the top defenseman for the Admirals this season and Dougherty could look to expand upon the way he was finishing his first-year as a very reliable two-way defenseman.
The great news is that there is a good leadership group returning. That was the backbone of last season’s squad and it was headed up by team captain Trevor Smith. This will mark the first time since Nolan Yonkman (2008-10) that the Admirals will have a returning captain. Additionally, the Admirals should also be seeing Cody Bass return to the mix and do so at 100% fitness. Bass’ 2016-17 season was cut short after sustaining a lower-body injury in late-December that required surgery.
There is some worry of how that leadership group will shape-up from one season to the next. Mike Liambas is gone – signed with the Anaheim Ducks organization and is expected to factor in for the San Diego Gulls in the AHL. Adam Payerl and Adam Pardy are both gone. In their place the Admirals will see new faces in the form of Bobby Butler and Pierre-Cédric Labrie. Both have a history of Calder Cup success with the Admirals top two leaders: Bass & Butler in 2011 with the Binghamton Senators, Labrie & Smith in 2012 with the Norfolk Admirals. That foundation of veteran leadership combined with proven championship level success is a great launch pad to build upon with the youth of the Admirals roster.
The single biggest question mark that comes with this season is one that hasn’t been the case for a great many seasons in Milwaukee: goaltending. Marek Mazanec is now long gone. Juuse Saros has established himself as the second in command for the Predators backing up Pekka Rinne. The prospect pool at goaltending isn’t ready yet for an AHL conversion for the likes of Janne Juvonen, Karel Vejmelka, Konstantin Volkov, or Tomáš Vomáčka. The Predators didn’t want to bring back Jonas Gunnarsson. That meant starting over from scratch courtesy of the free agent market. The resulting signings by both the Predators and Admirals were: Anders Lindbäck (NHL), Matt O’Connor (NHL), and Jake Paterson (AHL). This very much is a wide open competition for who is the top, second, and third choice option for the AHL outfit. It would be safe to assume the Predators would hope Lindbäck regain some of his old form within the organization but, as recent history has shown, the Swede has sputtered with consistency badly. A reliable option for both the Admirals and the Predators, who will want a third choice goaltending option for themselves to emerge in the case of an emergency situation, is needed to surface. The two weeks ahead will say a lot for the comfort level of the Admirals coaching staff to find who fits where.
Goaltending might become the most significant issue that needs to be nailed down. Yet, with Åberg and likely Gaudreau both hanging at the NHL level full-time this season, the Admirals will need an offense to account for a departure of some serious firepower. Those two combined for 56 goals last season – 24.5% of all the Admirals goals forced. Gaudreau could possibly trickle down or even start the season in the AHL, possibly, but he should be the Predators key flex option between the NHL and AHL. It’s here where Vladislav Kamenev comes in as arguably this season’s most important player. This is his show to run. And it needs to be his show to run.
Kamenev is entering the third season of his North American professional playing career. 2015-16 could be best described as an alien experience for him. He had to deal with the language barrier, living in a completely different country, adjusting to a smaller ice surface and different structured style of game, and handle duties as a high level center against top notch AHL level competition. In that first season he finished seventh on the team in scoring with 37 points (15 goals, 22 assists) – and did it while playing in only 57 games after missing time due to the 2016 IIHF World Juniors and brief injury spells. It’s the sophomore slump that you worry about -but- Kamenev excelled in 2016-17. If not for Åberg being the machine that he was a season ago the top scorer on the Admirals would have been the young Russian. Kamenev produced 51 points (21 goals, 30 assists) in 70 games and also climbed up to play twice for the Predators to also scratch off “NHL Debut” on his list. The aim for Kamenev is to do well enough consistently enough to get back in the NHL mix. But, more than anything, this season for the 21-year old needs to be the one that sees him elevate himself from good to great much in the same way Åberg and Gaudreau have in recent seasons. Kamenev will be leaned upon heavily as the top center and forward for the Admirals this season. The opportunity for him to take that next step in his developmental process is there for him to take. He isn’t in a rush to make it in the NHL scene just yet. But this could be the season worth looking back on where it spiked upwards and he didn’t need the AHL as a proving ground any longer.
This year’s team has pieces of the previous two years that preceded it that had loads of promise. It would feel that there is a chance for good things to come if the big question marks get answered quickly out of Training Camp or the early months of the season. Should goaltending be the issue early and often? This could be an up-down-and-around campaign. The Admirals last playoff win came on 4/27/13 at home against the Texas Stars. Since, the Admirals have made three playoff appearances from the past four seasons and been swept out of the opening round on each occasion. It is a playoff winless drought of 11 games under the watch of head coach Dean Evason. You need only look up to the Predators roster to see that Evason and the Admirals coaching staff is doing its job well. It’s simply the culture of winning crucial games in crucial times of the season that need to start changing for the better. Is 2017-18 the season in which that happens? We’re about to find out.
What are your expectations for the Milwaukee Admirals in 2017-18? How will the goaltending battle pan out? Do you think that this is the team to break out of the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs? Is a veteran defenseman needed to help anchor things or are you confident in the young group the team has right now?
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