It wasn’t exactly that long ago that the 2017-18 Season Preview was published. Yet, so much has already been solved or shaken up, it feels as though another speed run through the Milwaukee Admirals is required. Yesterday’s news cycle alone almost demands it. When viewing the landscape of the AHL this season: it’s as talent filled as the league perhaps had ever been. The competition is going to be tremendous. There will be no better reflection of that than the AHL’s Central Division. And the Admirals are going to be a huge player within that murderer’s row of teams.
In the Central Division this season there are a few powerhouse teams being constructed. The defending Calder Cup Champions, the Grand Rapids Griffins, are always a balanced, well-coached, and deeply talented group. Much of that Calder Cup winning team will be returning: Tyler Bertuzzi, Colin Campbell, Jared Coreau, Matthew Ford, Martin Frk, Joe Hicketts, Brian Lashoff, Matt Lorito, Dylan McIlrath, Robbie Russo, Ben Street, and Eric Tangradi. That’s just a handful. And that’s just the Griffins. With the AHL Affiliation Agreement between the Vegas Golden Knights and Chicago Wolves – that is an AHL team that is getting revitalized after a few bumpy seasons with the St. Louis Blues at the helm. Take the Vegas influence and pair it with an associated effort from St. Louis: you get a stacked team. The Wolves could launch a first line with T.J. Tynan centering Beau Bennett and Teemu Pulkkinen. In AHL terms – that’s frightening. It’s made even more frightening considering the possibility that defenseman Brad Hunt, who lit up the AHL before becoming a castaway waiver wire acquisition by the Predators in 2016-17, could very well be in the mix running the show on the blueline. That’s all before mentioning the Cleveland Monsters, Iowa Wild, Manitoba Moose, and Rockford IceHogs have all taken steps forward after a season ago.
Meanwhile in Milwaukee: things have ratcheted up to match the top level competition. The Predators surplus of talent meant trimming their roster down and sending both Frédérick Gaudreau and Vladislav Kamenev to the Admirals to begin their 2017-18 season in the AHL. It felt expected for one of those two players to do that – not both. Gaudreau’s story is one that just doesn’t stop getting better. He arrived in the Summer of 2014 as an undrafted free agent who signed an AHL contract with Milwaukee. He split his first pro season between the AHL and ECHL. He then shot off like a cannon in the role of then Admirals captain Colton Sissons during the 2015-16 season. So much so that Gaudreau was named an AHL All-Star. So much so that the Predators signed him to an entry-level contract. It would prove to be genius as Gaudreau’s 2015-16 success was quickly followed by an astonishing 2016-17 campaign. Gaudreau, a defensively responsible forward who could rotate between a natural center position and wing, racked up the offensive production: 48 points (25 goals, 23 assists) in 66 games with the Admirals. His form was such that the Predators elevated him up for his NHL debut and he suited up for 9 games last season. Still, as is the case with the Gaudreau story, there is always more – as his more memorable contributions came during the Predators run to the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Finals. Gaudreau became the second NHL player and first in 73 years to record his first three goals during the Stanley Cup Finals.
It would have made plenty of sense to see Gaudreau stay with the Predators to start their season. Only problem is that their roster is packed. Gaudreau did sign a three-year contract to remain part of the Predators organization. The first two-years on that contract are on a two-way basis before bumping up to a standard NHL contract in the 2019-20 season. Gaudreau is still on the rise. His time in the NHL isn’t over. And that’s a massive asset for the Admirals to have for the start of this season.
Of the two reassigned by the Predators: Kamenev seemed the likely candidate to be returned to the AHL. It’s in no way a knock on his abilities or talent. It’s just the numbers game of filling out the NHL roster. Rather than have a 21-year old sitting out and watching hockey at the NHL level it’s better for him to be playing maximum minutes and staying active at an AHL level. It’s a model of development and polishing that has worked extremely well for the Predators organization. You can find no better proof of its success than last season’s Stanley Cup Finals run with players such as Gaudreau and Pontus Åberg stepping under the spotlight and performing. Kamemev can be considered in that category now. He is right on the cusp of being an NHL talent. But, that said, rushing the Russian isn’t necessary. His first season in North America, 2015-16, could be described as overwhelming when considering the human element away from the ice. He was in very much an alien environment: language barrier, new team, smaller ice surface, learning a different style and brand of how hockey is played, etc. Just so much as processing all of that first season in stride, with a pit stop captaining Russia in the 2016 IIHF World Juniors on top of it, was an accomplishment. The real test was last season as a sophomore in the AHL when the “mystery” of who the player is and how they play is lifted. Kamenev responded by nearly leading the Admirals in scoring: 51 points (21 goals, 30 assists) in 70 games. He pushed his way on up for his NHL debut on 1/6/17 on the road against the Florida Panthers. He’d follow up his debut with another game. But that was his NHL run during the 2016-17 season: 2 games,
As much as both would prefer starting their season at the NHL level this action by the Predators is one that makes their AHL affiliate a force to start the season. Kamenev and Gaudreau combined for 20.4% of the Admirals’ goals forced a season ago. That’s back now. That’s some lethality that wasn’t to be expected back. Those two can immediately be inserted into top forward roles, log extended minutes, work both sides of special teams, and position themselves in such a way that -if needed by Nashville- they’re NHL ready when called upon. That’s a benefit for the players. That’s a benefit for the Predators. And that’s especially a benefit for the Admirals.
Away from the star power comes the core foundation of any successful team: leadership. It hasn’t taken long at Admirals Training Camp the past week and a half to realize that the strength of last season’s group, its veteran leadership, is still the strength of the 2017-18 roster. Yes, there are some changes along the way: Justin Florek moved off to Europe with Iserlohn Roosters in Germany, Mike Liambas signed a two-way NHL contract with the Anaheim Ducks where he will likely play with the San Diego Gulls in the AHL, Adam Pardy is still a free agent, Adam Payerl is now with the Providence Bruins in the AHL, and Matt White went the Germany route too by signing with Augsburger Panther. But with exits come job vacancies and Nashville found a way to make things work for Milwaukee.
Trevor Smith returns as the Admirals captain in 2017-18. As noted in the initial preview: this is the first time since Nolan Yonkman (2008-10) that the Admirals will have a returning captain. One better than that, the Admirals will also see a returning alternate captains group with two veterans who have worn the “A” on the front of their Admirals sweater the past two seasons: Cody Bass and Harry Zolnierczyk. Additional reinforcements were made during the past off-season to bring in Calder Cup proven names such as Bobby Butler and Pierre-Cédric Labrie. These are all high caliber, veteran, proven, and successful players that add a wealth of knowledge to a youthful AHL locker room. Every team can use calm leaders who -when they speak- demand attention. That is precisely the sort of leadership that Smith and Bass provide. Additionally, every team needs leaders that can keep things light and make those around them loose. The Admirals and Predators can vouch for Zolnierczyk being that sort of high quality personality that can get those around him upbeat and smiling. Labrie, coming across the enemy lines from the Rockford IceHogs, has already attracted that same sort of infectious attitude around his new teammates in Milwaukee. The leadership group is packed. And it isn’t limited to those playing their trade at forward who are up in age.
The Admirals locker room also features budding leaders on defense. Jimmy Oligny is about to begin his fourth season with the Admirals. Jimmy Oligny is starting his third season with the Admirals. Those two, like the difference between a Bass and a Zolnierczyk, offer different personalities but both warrant respect for what they add to the team as individuals.
Right with Oligny and Murphy in the defensive leadership is a sophomore by the name Alex Carrier. When the Admirals play their second game of the regular season Carrier will be turning 21-years old. He looks, plays, and carries himself as someone who has been around the pro ranks for a long time. He is so composed and mature on the ice and was quickly tasked with top line defensive responsibilities in his first pro season and elevated himself to make his NHL debut with the Predators where he’d log a pair of games. Carrier storms into his sophomore season after a solid look in the pre-season with the Predators and is -without question- the Admirals top defenseman to start 2017-18. He is going to be tasked with the same immense work load that was thrown at him a season ago. The question is now, with him being less of a mystery to those in the AHL, is if he elevates his game after a year’s worth of experience or if a year’s worth of experience for the league playing against him slows down Carrier’s rapid progression to the NHL scene. With how deep the Admirals defense is, young or not, Carrier doesn’t have to be “Mr. Everything” for the team. He just needs to keep being himself. Jack Dougherty ended last season strong and enters his own sophomore season looking to continue on in great form. Frédéric Allard and Joonas Lyytinen both arrive as a first-year talents who possess tons of qualities that exemplify what makes Predators active style defensemen so difficult to match up against. Their arrival and competition seem to have ignited an extra gear out of Petter Granberg. It’s a young defensive group. Carrier sits atop of it. But all will be pushing each other throughout the season. That internal battle strengthens individuals and makes the entire group better as a result.
It felt as though the biggest storyline coming into Training Camp in Milwaukee was going to be who backs up all of those defensemen in net. It seemed it was a three horse race: Anders Lindbäck, Matt O’Connor, and Jake Paterson. That mystery was solved on Day 1 as Admirals head coach Dean Evason made it quite clear that Lindbäck would be the team’s first choice goaltender and it would be left to O’Connor and Paterson to compete for the final role in net. After a week’s worth of Training Camp, and both splitting the pre-season road game in Rockford, it was determined that O’Connor was given the back-up role to Lindbäck with Paterson due for the Norfolk Admirals who begin their Training Camp this Friday.
There still isn’t the most safe feeling regarding the goaltending. But the team in front of either Lindbäck or O’Connor can go a long way into making those incredibly tall goalies comfortable. The defense has great speed. They can’t afford to let that turn against them and allow for open spaces to emerge and find gaps in these two giants in net to open up while they’re in a lateral scramble. The quicker pucks can exit the Admirals defensive zone the better. And the Admirals defense and forwards have the pace and precision to be able to make that work. If they do, both Lindbäck and O’Connor can settle into the course of a game – a run of games – and the season.
If all these pieces really snap together: this is an Admirals team that can be a truly devastating force to play against. This is a team capable of doing something that they have struggled with in recent years and that is to match the quality and depth over in Grand Rapids. The playing styles between the two organizations have always been similar. The difference has been that quality and depth. The Griffins have always had that strength and they’ve used it move past the Admirals in the opening round of the Calder Cup Playoffs twice in succession without dropping a single game. Not to mention: they’re the reigning and defending Calder Cup Champions. I don’t feel this year’s team in Milwaukee looks or feels like one due for another unceremonious departure from the opening round of the playoffs. I feel this is a squad that has strengthened over the last two seasons under Evason and the Admirals coaching staff and blossomed into the beast that it gets to be this season. If the Predators can remain healthy. If the Admirals can remain healthy. If the youthful defense can settle in early and grow. And the goaltending backs everything up when it absolutely needs to. This is an Admirals team primed for a deep playoff run. That’s something Milwaukee has desperately missed watching.
The last time the Admirals played a game in May came on 5/1/14 when they were officially swept by the Toronto Marlies. The year prior to that the Admirals played twice in the month of May which saw the Texas Stars win both contests en route to eliminating them out of the opening round of the playoffs. That series saw the last time that the Admirals had won a playoff game. They have lost eleven straight playoff games and have been eliminated via the sweep in three consecutive opening round series. It hasn’t been since the 2011 AHL Calder Cup Playoffs that the Admirals won a playoff series. 2017-18 should be the season where that painful trend stops in Milwaukee. This is very much a team capable of achieving big things.
What are your early feelings regarding the 2017-18 season for the Milwaukee Admirals? Which areas of the team -positively or negatively- stand out the most? Will defense or goaltending be the difference between this team succeeding and failing to deliver a deep playoff run?
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