2017-18 Mid-Season Review

(Photo Credit: Scott Paulus)

The Milwaukee Admirals 2017-18 season is officially at its halfway point. It’s been a difficult season to really gauge. October was great. November and December saw a nonstop sequence of ups-and-downs. Lately, things have started to turn for the better. Based on the two months previous to this upward trend it only feels hard to trust that this form will last. Hopefully time will tell.

The Admirals record is 20-14-4-0 (44 points, 0.579 points percentage). They are currently second in the Central Division and fourth in the Western Conference standings. For right now: that’s good. It has been a slightly turbulent season as the results have shaken out but -if- the lessons learned from those down moments are learned from it could mean good things for the second half of the season. The Admirals have a really young defense At times the team’s performance appears to reflect just how well or not well that young defense plays. These early experiences can go a long way into making the overall team stronger.

This is usually where I rattle off a player-by-player grade. However, I feel at this mid-season point that there wouldn’t be a lot of fluctuations in grading. I would have only given out a single “A” grade and no one that I can think of should get an “F” for their efforts. Rather that bulldoze through every player – let’s focus on Mid-Season Awards and some of the players in those discussions.

~Mid-Season Awards~

Most Impressive Player: Anders Lindbäck

Least Impressive Player: Justin Kirkland

Best Forward: Harry Zolnierczyk

Best Defenseman: Trevor Murphy

Best Goaltender: Anders Lindbäck

Best Rookie: Emil Pettersson

Most Improvement: Anthony Richard

Least Improvement: Justin Kirkland

Player to Watch in the Second Half of the Season: Yakov Trenin

Player Who Needs to Step Up in the Second Half: Yakov Trenin

Player Who Will Step Up in the Second Half: Emil Pettersson

~The Revival~

Anders Lindbäck has been the best player for the Milwaukee Admirals this season. I don’t know if you can even make a counter argument to that. In every single game that Lindbäck has played for the Admirals he has been tremendous. Given how his 2016-17 season transpired? It feels like we in Milwaukee are getting to sit back and watch a career revival. And that just makes me feel happy.

A season ago Lindbäck couldn’t lock down a dedicated NHL or AHL contract, rolled into the season on a professional try-out basis with the Ontario Reign in the AHL, he made 4 starts and had a record of 2-1-1-0 with a 3.40 goals against average and 0.870 save percentage, he was released of his PTO, and then returned back to his native Sweden with Rögle BK where he played 23 games and had to fight them out of relegation from the top flight. He returned to the franchise that originally drafted him back in 2008, the Nashville Predators, and is looking to get back on the right path to an NHL career.

What is so evident with Lindbäck in net for the Admirals this season is confidence. That confidence starts with the goaltender himself but he also has such a calming influence over the young defensive group playing in front of him that it makes the entire team operate better. His ability to move around his net and play the puck has been so good it can often feel like having a third defenseman on the ice. When teams know they’re having to match up against the Big Swede it means finding better ways to establish a forecheck and those dump-ins better be sent into the Admirals zone with force. Otherwise? Lindbäck is just going to get to it and guide the puck in an area where the Admirals can move forward.

And, yes, there have been the highlight reel level saves. This young Admirals defense is going to have its growing pain moments. Mistakes are how we all learn, right? It’s the unfortunate nature of the beast but those mistakes have been limited from being outright lethal in games when Lindbäck is making saves on breakaways, odd-man rushes, or power-plays that are utterly ridiculous.

It’s that where Lindbäck to me is the Admirals most impressive player by far. I’m not sure how the Admirals season would look right now if not for his work in those lull stretches in November and December. He saw an average of 34.5 shots per game across 17 starts in those two months and had a record of 10-4-3-0. There is a reason why he will be representing the Admirals at the 2018 AHL All-Star Classic. He has been brilliant.

~Sophomore Woes~

As I noted up above. I don’t think I would grade anyone with an “F” at the midway point of the 2017-18 season. Where you start to consider that is with this season’s version of Max Görtz: Justin Kirkland. Even then you can help but feel the multitude of roles he gets thrown into doesn’t necessarily mean Kirkland is doing a bad job. He’s just not getting the chance to work as consistently as a season ago when on a line with Vladislav Kamenev and Adam Payerl on a nightly basis.

Where I feel Kirkland does his best work is out on the wing. He can roam more freely, be a bit more creative, and use his size camped out in front of the net. With all the injuries? With Kamenev traded? Kirkland gets stationed at center. Which, to be fair, I would classify him as above average on the face-off dot. Yet, he isn’t being penciled down as a center with wingers with pace or skill. He is often times finding himself on a line with veterans such as Cody Bass or Pierre-Cédric Labrie. It’s either that or he ends up getting Derek Army or Trevor Mingoia. It’s not that any of those combinations aren’t capable of netting a goal at some point. But they operate more in a checking style or table setting role. As a result it feels like Kirkland is kind of trapped until he can start producing regardless. 37 games played this season, 0 goals scored, and only 5 assists produced at even strength.

(Photo Credit: Cleveland Monsters)

Kirkland isn’t alone in the sophomore slump feeling, either. A season ago Alex Carrier was -the man- on defense as a first-year pro. Jack Dougherty ended his 2016-17 season in great form. Now both feel to be having down years. With Carrier I feel a lot like I’m seeing the same evolution that Anthony Bitetto went through from his 2013-14 to 2014-15 seasons. The offensive abilities are nice -but- the job title literally says defense in it. Carrier like Bitetto appears to be going through the motions of handling a defensive role while not being as mysterious to teams as a year ago. As for Dougherty he came into the season with a banged up shoulder and hasn’t really looked anywhere near as comfortable as he was last year. You would hope some of the times he was scratched and rotated through with the added defensive depth would help but it can also act to reduce chances or responsibilities. Fred Allard and Joonas Lyytinen are both more comfortable options on the Admirals power-play right now than both Carrier and Dougherty. There is something strange about that.

In the cases for both Carrier and Dougherty I wonder how their starts to this season factor into the Predators decision to re-sign the likes of Bitetto as well as Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber to new contracts. On one hand, the good news is that Carrier and Dougherty can settle into the developmental process in the AHL and grow. On the other hand, that ceiling for both to elevate themselves becomes a lot more dependent upon who is injured more than how well either is playing. With neither doing that well to begin the season it’s a lot easier to re-sign all of the added depth defensemen you already have that think the pipeline has you covered within the next two seasons.

~Rookies & Injuries~

This hasn’t been as successful of a rookie class as last season’s felt like around the mid-season point. In fairness, I don’t know whether or not that would be the case had everyone stayed healthy. It’s been extremely unfortunate – especially for Yakov Trenin and Tyler Kelleher.

Kelleher had an amazing off-season. He was the best player at Rookie Development Camp, went on to have a good Pre-Season, and quickly had an impact with the Admirals by scoring 7 points (5 goals, 2 assists) in the first 6 games. He suffered a lower-body injury during practice, toughed it out for a game, but has proceeded to miss 11 games of the Admirals last 12 games played.

Trenin appeared to be switching a lot with Kirkland as far as who played at center or on the wing. Things had been going pretty well for Trenin no matter which role he was given. What’s such a bummer is he has now missed the Admirals last 23 games due to injury. He was on the receiving end of a boarding major and game misconduct courtesy of Cameron Gaunce which would earn the Cleveland Monsters defenseman a three-game suspension by the AHL. Trenin would need surgery. He hasn’t played since that brutal collision with the end boards back on 11/18/17.

The positive news for Trenin is that he has been skating with the team for four weeks and has the potential to return this coming weekend. The Admirals could use the attacking boost. Trenin had 7 points (3 goals, 4 assists) in 15 games before the injury. More importantly he just added further quality in depth scoring with room to be doing better than he already was doing. My hope is that he returns fully fit and refreshed for the second half of the Admirals season.

(Photo Credit: Scott Paulus)

The best first-year of the bunch is the oldest of the rookie class. Emil Pettersson arrived to the AHL scene four-years after he was drafted by Nashville. He celebrated his 24th Birthday yesterday. As different of a path as Pettersson took to arrive to North America it’s hard to not take into account the professional playing experience he already had while back in his native Sweden: 107 games in the SHL and 96 games in the Allsvenskan. It’s as though he showed up as a finished to near-finished product. He plays such a creative game at center. His passing is excellent. And his face-off work has also been good. He is second on the team in scoring with 28 points (8 goals, 20 assists) in 34 games. Pettersson has been a highly pleasant addition. It almost felt he was never going to make the leap from Sweden. And here we are all this time later and Pettersson will represent the Admirals at the 2018 AHL All-Star Classic. It’s a distinction well earned. He has been that good. I would go as far to say that if he were pushed into a center role for the Predators as early as this week? I think he would do just fine. He doesn’t do any one thing overly flashy but he is a smart player who does lots of little things well. His contract still runs through to next season. I’ll be fascinated to see if he continues on this level and can make it to Nashville down the road.

Elsewhere, the Admirals rookie defensemen have been an interesting watch just because the ECHL affiliation agreement being terminated has meant having Fred Allard and Joonas Lyytinen in the difficult place of good but not consistent enough to always play. I think both have shown great ability, especially on the offensive side of the puck, and their skating ability is such that you know exactly why the Predators had interest in drafting them both. Still, both need to come to grips with the defensive responsibilities of AHL level play. That will come through experience. Ironic element of that is that experience is hard to earn with so much internal competition for playing time. Even someone who can be as good as Andrew O’Brien has been scratched for 17 games.

~The Olympian~

After two seasons playing abroad it was nice to see Bobby Butler return to North America and the ranks of the AHL. He might be 30-years old but the Marlborough, Massachusetts native still has outstanding skill, a high caliber shot, and good escapability from out on the wing. At the mid-season mark he is leading the Admirals in scoring with 29 points (17 goals, 12 assists) in 38 games.

(Photo Credit: Scott Paulus)

The highlight of this season right now is the sight of Butler telling his father the news that he was selected to represent USA Hockey for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. To me that put a visual on what this year’s hockey competition at the Winter Olympics will be. Sure, there are some former NHL names in the mix but the top of the top aren’t being allowed by the NHL to compete. As much as we would enjoy that elite level competition the sight of Butler making the Olympics is representative of what this tournament will be. These are humble people that are still playing to the best of their abilities and are about to achieve a dream by playing for their countries on the biggest international stage that there is. I’ve had the chance to see Butler after games in the Admirals locker room playing with his little son. This is a time in Butler’s life that he, his family, his loved ones, and teammates are always going to remember. Right now, his preparation into the Olympics is to continue playing at the high level that he has with the Admirals. I’m sure he would have been on the radar for his abilities before this season. But his performance and consistency this season is what has made him the Admirals top scorer and someone who can make yet another incredible moment for himself come February in South Korea.

The Admirals will certainly miss Butler in their lineup while he is competing in the Winter Olympics. He has suited up for every game and is reliable across the board as a top line forward. That is a lot of responsibilities and offensive production that are going to need filled either individually or collectively in February. It’s why I feel the return of Trenin and Kelleher will be really important. That depth is going to need to fill that void.

~Trevolution~

I’ve gone back and forth during this season as to who the Admirals top defenseman is. Petter Granberg has quietly had a great season. He has always played with great strength and is a stay at home style defenseman. The problem had been his pace and offensive effectiveness. In other words, when you watch the way the Predators defensemen play it shouldn’t be hard to tell why he often struggled in Nashville gold. Though, he has quite literally taken great strides in that department.

What I nearly overlooked at the time was Granberg’s defensive partner to start the season, Trevor Murphy, was having his best season of his professional career. It’s continued on since being partnered with Dougherty.

Murphy has always had key tools that can make him a flashy defenseman. His slap shot is a cannon. He can skate very well and his vision from the point can make him a great power-play quarterback from the point. The only thing that crept into his game over the last two seasons would be defensive or visual lapses that could effectively turn a game on its head. When you have such great attacking tools it can overwhelm the defensive aspects that need to be adhered to.

This has been the season where Murphy isn’t making game altering mistakes. He is making more of the right and necessary plays defensively and that allows for the offensive work to shine after the fact. Murphy recorded 21 assists in his pro debut season of 2015-16. He matched that last season. We’re 38 games into the 2017-18 season and Murphy has already generated 18 assists. He had 10 power-play assists in each of his first two seasons with the Admirals. He had 8 power-play assists right now. The less Murphy has forced his attacking attributes the better his overall play has become. If injuries did stack up on the Predators enough to the point a recall for a defenseman was necessary? Murphy is the guy right now. He is earning that distinction.

~The Road Ahead~

It’s been a painful topic for years now with the Admirals: Playoff Success. The ultimate goal for all AHL teams is to be developing talent and preparing them for the NHL stage. Dean Evason and his coaching staff during his run as head coach accomplish that yearly. There are 11 players on the current Predators roster that were part of the Evason Era in Milwaukee. That part has worked out fine.

What hasn’t worked out are results in the Calder Cup Playoffs. The Admirals are 1-9-3 in the playoffs under Evason. The last time the Admirals won a playoff game was 4/27/13 when they beat the Texas Stars 2-0. They have lost 11 games consecutively in the playoffs and have been swept out of the opening round the last three times they have appeared. You have to go back to the 2010-11 season when Lane Lambert was head coach and the Admirals last made it out of the opening round of the playoffs.

The Predators in their current state are going to be really good for many years to come. Their scouting and draft process has brought in numerous talents that are making great impacts for the Predators and Admirals. I don’t see that honestly changing any time soon. The Predators are a team built for long-term success and last season’s deep playoff run should be the start. Eventually you would like to see the Admirals match and continue that winning attitude and culture.

I still don’t really know what this year’s Admirals team is. It’s been that bumpy of a road so far. What I hope for is that enough lessons get learned that by crunch time this is a team that isn’t shaken by the moment, earns a playoff spot, and can get that first playoff victory in five-years out of the way. Momentum is a very real thing on hockey. The Admirals went 6-2-2-0 in their last 10 games into the halfway point. They’re starting to piece together really good form. Should everyone stay healthy to allow for the pieces to lock at the right time? This is still an Admirals team capable of a deep run.

How do you feel the Milwaukee Admirals have performed through the midway point of the 2017-18 season? Who are your most and least impressive players? What will the Admirals need to do or change in order to have a successful run for the 2018 Calder Cup?

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3 thoughts on “2017-18 Mid-Season Review”

  1. Another excellent piece of writing. What is interesting but I didn’t see, is something Aaron Sims mentions often is how tight the standings are and how a win or loss is the difference between 2nd and 6th place. The competition level is tight and every point is critical.

  2. Mark: And Aaron is spot on. I always think the Central Division is the toughest top to bottom in the AHL. This season it’s a woodchipper of a division. Manitoba Moose (0.731) and Cleveland Monsters (0.389) are the extreme ends of the spectrum. From second place to sixth place the difference from the Milwaukee Admirals and Grand Rapids Griffins is 0.055 on points percentage. It’s crazy.

  3. This is a great mid-season report and I know how seriously you take your job. You do not disappoint your faithful readers. I do take umbrage with one statement however. When discussing Bobby Butler, you say “He might be 30… but he still has outstanding skills…” and my point is that 30 is absolutely not an age when a player’s skills have eroded to the point that you mention his age and marvel. In fact, Butler is truly in his prime and over the next couple/few years will provide scoring at the AHL level that should benefit the Admirals or any other team he may choose to ply his trade for. Poor guy has proven time and time again in a few NHL organizations that he is the perfect AAAA player and a great asset down there. So, if that 0 had been a 6 or a 7, your piece would have been perfect :)

    I look forward to my rookie and pre-season Camp pick to click, Emil Pettersson making his Preds debut soon.

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