The Milwaukee Admirals started the 2017-18 season with plenty of returning faces from a team that last season felt truly special that simply ran into a Grand Rapids Griffins buzzsaw that would ultimately work its way to a Calder Cup triumph. 19 players returned from last season’s Admirals squad. Come opening night of the new season the Admirals would win 5-2 on the road against the Iowa Wild. 20 players suited up that night. Jump ahead to the day after the NHL’s Trade Deadline and a quarter of the Admirals opening night roster has been traded away. This season was built to fail from the beginning and a final attempt was made the last two days in the hopes of rescuing what is left of it.
The Admirals defense to start this season featured eight options with varying degrees of experience but a closely bunched group as far as age was concerned. The Admirals oldest defensemen entering this season were Petter Granberg and Andrew O’Brien at 25-years of age. Granberg had played 227 games in his career between the NHL and AHL entering the season while O’Brien had 220 games in his career between the AHL and ECHL.
Both were followed closely in age by 24-year old Jimmy Oligny who some could say was and is the Admirals elder statesman on defense. Oligny entered the season having played his entire professional career as a member of the Admirals which featured 193 games with the Admirals across three-seasons with a one-off appearance with the Cincinnati Cyclones in the ECHL.
Behind Granberg, O’Brien, and Oligny: Trevor Murphy as he entered his third pro season, Alex Carrier and Jack Dougherty as they entered their sophomore seasons, Fred Allard making his professional debut after finishing his major junior playing career with Chicoutimi Saguenéens of the QMJHL, and Joonas Lyytinen who arrived to Nashville Predators Rookie Development Camp without a clue of whether or not he would even be playing in the AHL this season after having showed up at the end of the season in 2015-16 and never factoring in nor getting a contract for the season that followed and ultimately signed a new contract in Finland’s Liiga for the 2017-18 season with Kärpät more than a month before he would sign an entry level contract with Nashville.
On Opening Night of the 2017-18 AHL Season those defenseman, behind a questionable established veteran group on defense, came in at the average age of 20.8 having played an average of 93.8 games of career experience – across all professional levels (NHL, AHL, Liiga). And that was it. That was the attempt by the Nashville Predators and Milwaukee Admirals at outfitting an AHL defense for this season.
This defensive structure was destined to fail. No one was placed in a position to succeed in the first place. It took the entire organization 24 losses in regulation from 55 games of the regular season before committing to hitting the nuclear option. Trevor Murphy, quite arguably the Admirals best defenseman this season, was packaged up to acquire what the Admirals should have had long before the season ever started: a veteran defenseman. Yet, is John Ramage really even the best possible answer?
Let’s run through some of Milwaukee Admirals head coach Dean Evason‘s year-to-year teams and their top defenseman by professional experience.
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2012-13: Mike Moore is 27-years old and had logged 259 games in his professional career leading into the season. Moore is named team captain for the Admirals at the start of the season yet -during the middle of the season- the Nashville Predators acquire then 28-year old Joe Piskula from the Calgary Flames organization and later also add former Admirals captain Scott Ford, 33-years of age at the time, from the St. Louis Blues organization. Piskula had 380 games played in his professional career at the time he joined from Abbotsford Heat while Ford had 555 games under his belt when he arrived from the Peoria Rivermen.
2013-14: Both Ford and Piskula return and do so a year wiser and with more games tacked on from the end-season stint with the Admirals. Ford is now at 576 career games as a pro and is made, once again, captain of the Admirals. Piskula is now at 403 career games as a pro and becomes the Admirals alternate captain underneath Ford. Behind them is a 29-year old named Bryan Rodney who added 511 games of professional experience.
2014-15: Piskula remains on-board and takes over the duties as Admirals captain at 30-years old with 478 games of professional experience. Yet, the defensive group around him and mostly young and vastly inexperienced. Beyond Anthony Bitetto, who was 24-years old at the time (130 games of pro experience), the average age of the Admirals defense was 21.2 years of age. That was until they signed 30-year old Ian White to a professional try-out (PTO) contract that would tread its way until the end of the season. Speaking of which, Ford would arrive for 12 games on a PTO contract of his own very late in the season from the South Carolina Stingrays. The move to bring the 35-year old was done in an attempt to spark a sputtering Admirals team that was on the verge of missing the playoffs for the first time in thirteen seasons of AHL competition. The Admirals missed the playoffs.
2015-16: This would be the season of the reshuffle. Cody Bass, a forward, entered the season as the oldest player on the roster at only 28-years old. The Admirals started with 25-year old defenseman Conor Allen as an alternate captain and would then see the return of Victor Bartley from the Predators after he had cleared waivers to rejoin the Admirals at 27-years of age. Allen had only 152 games of pro experience to his credit at the time while Bartley had logged 323 games by the time he joined out of waivers. Yet, that all went away once the desire for an even split of right to left handed shooting defenseman was applied and Patrick Mullen and Stefan Elliott would come in their place as well as the NHL Trade Deadline Day delivery of Corey Potter to the Admirals defense. Potter was 32-years old (596 career games of pro experience upon arrival). Mullen was 29-years old (339 career games of pro experience upon arrival). And Elliott was 25-years old (281 career games of pro experience upon arrival). What followed would be the Admirals winning their first divisional title in five-years as well as recording the third best regular season based on points percentage (0.664) in the AHL history of the team.
2016-17: When the season started it felt as though 28-year old Matt Irwin would be the Admirals veteran defensive anchor. He arrived to Milwaukee with 400 games of professional experience between the NHL and AHL. And then, after only 4 games, he was recalled by Nashville and was never to be seen again. He didn’t even play a home game in Milwaukee it had happened all so fast out of the blocks on the season. That meant the organization needed to improvise and locate a suitable successor and they did. The Admirals acquired 31-year old Adam Pardy in an AHL trade with the Springfield Falcons that would later turn into an NHL contract for Pardy with the Predators. He had logged 562 games as a pro before suiting up for the Admirals and would link up as a top pairing with teenager and first-year pro Alex Carrier to form a lethal lightning and thunder tandem. Oddly though, behind Pardy, the defensive make-up of the Admirals was nearly identical to what it would start out as. That comes true further once the Predators and Anaheim Ducks swapped disgruntled and struggling prospects which saw the arrival of Andrew O’Brien. Still, the average age of their playoff roster on defense -aside from Pardy- was only 21.9 years of age. And that was with a 26-year old Rick Pinkston filling in for an injured Jimmy Oligny.
2017-18: Petter Granberg is 25-years old and had logged 227 professional games upon season entry. The rest is rather well covered in this lead in -but- the piece by piece crumbling of the team was evident as early as November. The ups and downs of results are nonstop as is the form of play. Vladislav Kamenev gets traded by the Nashville Predators organization as part of the Kyle Turris trade. Then the massive mid-season overhaul begins. Andrew O’Brien and Tyler Kelleher get traded to the Dallas Stars organization in exchange for Mark McNeill. Brandon Bollig and Troy Grosenickk are acquired from the San Jose Sharks organization by Nashville for a sixth round pick. Victor Ejdsell, a potential option by season’s end in Milwaukee or for next season, gets packed along with a first and fourth round pick by Nashville to land Ryan Hartman from the Chicago Blackhawks. And lastly the likes of Trevor Murphy, Pierre-Cédric Labrie, and Derek Army are traded to the Arizona Coyotes organization in exchange for John Ramage and forward Tyler Gaudet. The nature of the forwards, defense, and even how the goaltending will work game-to-game is dramatically altered as an Admirals team is plummeting away from playoff contention in desperate hopes of recovery.
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This is how things have slowly fallen into place for the Admirals. If I didn’t know any better, which to be clear I do not, I would say the Admirals finding moderate success in 2016-17 with a very young defense and a veteran forward group caused for belief that it could be stretched even further this season if younger defensemen could all take one big leap together.
Yet, at the heart of that group, are sophomore players who are no longer a mystery to anyone. People know who Carrier is within the AHL and likely could have made even bigger waves by making that NHL debut as a first-year pro a season ago. He went from being an unknown sensation to a target to be studied and defeated. And he has. Darn near everyone on the Admirals defense has and mistakes made, be it structural or panic driven, can cause chain reactions within games that the Admirals can’t recover from (eg. 3:53 span on 2/24/18 in the second period against the Texas Stars that saw a 1-0 Admirals lead become a 4-1 Stars lead).
It is here when two questions must be asked. Why did the Nashville Predators take until the NHL Trade Deadline to solve a very blatant veteran defenseman discrepancy for the Milwaukee Admirals if seeing AHL success is actually a point of pride for them? And, in the end, did they actually solve any problems with the Milwaukee Admirals or simply create some new ones?
Ramage is a 27-year old that was selected in the fourth round of the 2010 NHL Draft by the Calgary Flames. He came up through the United States Development Program. He won Gold for Team USA as part of the U18 World Juniors and U20 World Juniors. He played collegiately at the University of Wisconsin for four-years and served as captain for his final two playing seasons. He only dipped a toe in the ECHL during his first pro season but ended up contributing to the Alaska Aces winning the 2014 Kelly Cup.
Ahead of the 2015-16 season Ramage signed as a free agent with the Columbus Blue Jackets and would end that season lifting the Calder Cup as a member of the Lake Erie Monsters in the AHL. Things were really soaring for him under the Monsters banner somewhere until this season. That entire team has been rough in the AHL so you hoped for it to just be them. He gets traded back on 1/22/18 to the Arizona Coyotes organization all for the expensive cost of future considerations.
Did the change of scenery help Ramage? Not really, but it certainly helped Arizona who got a pretty good return on investment for him. Ramage last two seasons were great. 2015-16, scoring 27 points (8 goals, 19 assists) in 68 games with a plus/minus of +5. 2016-17, scoring 25 points (4 goals, 21 assists) in 69 games with a plus/minus rating of +1. This season there has been a slight regression. Between his time with the Monsters and Roadrunners in the AHL he has collected 12 points (4 goals, 8 assists) in 45 games with a plus/minus rating of -10. What’s worse, even when he was good, is that this man can’t stay out of the penalty box. In his AHL career he averaging 1.09 penalty minutes per game and has averaged 1.18 penalty minutes per game this season including 16 penalty minutes (all minor penalties) in 12 games with the Roadrunners.
The Admirals have already been a team this season that can stunt their own momentum with costly mistakes and penalties. Should that trend continue with minimal impact defensively or offensively for Ramage? It will make your eye twitch extremely hard considering the breakout season that Murphy had already been enjoying: 26 points (8 goals, 18 assists) in 48 games with a plus/minus rating of -1. While penalty troubles were an issue for Murphy in the past he was correcting it this year. Yes, his 69 penalty minutes as he exits the Admirals might be glaring but a hefty 22 penalty minutes came from one game that saw him take a slash and then get the boot for abuse of the officials. If you even so much as leave in that slash but negate that one bizarre Van Andel Arena moment he would be in far lesser trouble than it looks: 1.02 penalty minutes per game.
Now comes the kicker to all of this. The Admirals lost two defenseman and gained one. They have added far more strength at forward and that is a position that will need to collectively help make life hell on opposing teams to alleviate stress loads on the defense. This is where all of this might pay off in the long run of the 2017-18 season despite the hole the Admirals put themselves in. What if the reinvention of the forwards group sets the foundation for much better and consistent team play?
Ramage has the Calder Cup and Kelly Cup on his résumé. Bollig has a Stanley Cup. It is strange that the Admirals turnaround could end up being with the assistance of two former Chicago Blackhawks but Bollig and McNeill offer a big bodied presence that lends itself better to the direct approach play that the Admirals lost sight of in the past road trip: get the puck to the net, get traffic to the net, and create multiple scoring chances by putting pucks to the net. It sounds so easy. But the Admirals can benefit from a less is more approach right now rather than branch out and do too much.
Something else that Bollig can do for the Admirals is change the dimension in which they play. This guy plays a hard game. Cody Bass is an unknown as far as if he can return to the ice this season. No disrespect to Labrie: but he wasn’t Bass and he certainly wasn’t Mike Liambas. What Labrie provided was often very smooth, simple, and smart plays which you could almost overlook over the course of the game. He was effective by process of making the right plays, often. Bollig can do that, be a quality locker room presence, and bring some hurt. This season the Admirals have missed those moments when the game was lagging and a guy like Liambas would deliver a huge hit or simply work a hard shift by driving the pace and finishing checks. The Admirals have lacked that bite this season. Bollig can help there.
Then comes the curious case of Gaudet. He will be 25-years old in April and is in the middle of his fourth professional season. He is 6’3″ and can play center and wing while providing skill and raw strength. You know who that reminds me of? Adam Payerl – another style of player that the 2017-18 Admirals have badly missed. While one side of the trade, Ramage, appears to be in a small rut this season it is Gaudet who is turning the corner at the AHL level. He has already matched a career best in scoring this season with 22 points (11 goals, 11 assists) in 48 games. Continued versatility for the Admirals with center depth can allow for the likes of Justin Kirkland and Yakov Trenin to play in a position they should be playing in and excelling from: the wing.
Lastly, the feel good story of Troy Grosenick coming back home to the state of Wisconsin to play for the team that he grew up watching and that inspired him to play hockey: the Milwaukee Admirals. Last season he was something special in the AHL for the San Jose Barracuda: he ended 2016-17 second in the AHL for wins (30), third in goals against average (2.04), tied for second in save percentage (0.926), and first in shutouts (10). It all lead to him claiming the Baz Bastien Memorial Award last season as the league’s best goaltender.
This season hasn’t quite worked out well for Grosenick, unfortunately. He has a 6-9-2-2 record from 20 appearances this season with a 2.98 goals against average, 0.902 save percentage, and no shutouts. The good news now? He, and Anders Lindbäck, shouldn’t have to be living with the weight on top of them of having to start every single game and both can be afforded the chance to rest while competing for time in net. Additional good news is that Grosenick signed a contract extension prior to the start of this season and is under Nashville control through 2018-19. In other words, the Brookfield native is going to be an Admiral from now until next season with a chance to keep growing. He has 2 games of NHL experience. His NHL debut resulted in a 45-save shutout which made him just the twenty-second goaltender in league history to record a shutout upon debut. He can still be something more than just an Admiral.
The latest AHL Calder Cup Playoff Primer paints a very scary picture. The Admirals are going to start March in sixth place of the Central Division with a record of 26-24-4-1 (57 points, 0.518 points percentage). They have 21 games remaining and have one distinct advantage at their disposal over those they are chasing: home ice.
The Admirals will look to rock the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena for 13 of their last 21 games. They simply cannot waste that advantage nor leave points on the table anymore. McNeill? Ramage? Bollig? Gaudet? Grosenick? The Admirals Fab Five need to help guide this team back on track. It is unclear now whether or not all of these drastic changes will work now or hurt long term. Where the team needs to focus is today and purely on themselves. The Central Division hasn’t slowed down all season. And it will not stop to save the Admirals playoff hopes.
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