Last season saw the emergence of four first year players with the Milwaukee Admirals: Alex Carrier, Jack Dougherty, Justin Kirkland, and Anthony Richard. All showed rather well but most have had to face real adversity in their sophomore campaign.
For Kirkland, his struggles in 2017-18 has an exact date circled around when things became difficult. 5 November, 2017. Vladislav Kamenev was traded away from the Admirals as part of a three team trade that helped acquire Kyle Turris to the Nashville Predators. The organization did not bring back Adam Payerl and now Kirkland’s lone linemate that he gelled so well with as a first-year pro was traded away. It would take a month before he would even register a point.
Kirkland’s path to reaching the AHL wasn’t necessarily unusual. He had such a deep run in the WHL Playoffs with the Kelowna Rockets that by the time his 2015-16 season was done – so was the Admirals. He had a #32 jersey prepared in the event the Rockets were eliminated but he never wore it. Kirkland wouldn’t show up in Milwaukee until the start of the 2016-17 season.
What was obvious out of the gate when Kirkland did arrive to the AHL scene was he had all the tools as a forward to be excited about. He started out on the wing in Kelowna but injuries to his teammates at the en of his junior career meant seeing a shift towards a center role which he thrived in. His face-off work was such that he gave then face-off wizard Félix Girard troubles in practice. Kirkland is 6-3 and comes in on an AHL website near you at 204 lbs. He has size but he also has a good bit of pace and skill with the hands. It’s that combination that made him so potent in the WHL for Kelowna: 169 points (71 goals, 98 assists) in 199 games as well as 31 points (19 goals, 12 assists) in 47 playoff games.
It always appeared, at every Admirals practice, Kirkland was one of the best players across all drills. He always did things not only skillfully but with a smooth veteran-like touch. But that was practice. In actual game situations that wasn’t entirely the case.
During his rookie 2016-17 season Kirkland would make his professional debut in the ECHL as a member of the Cincinnati Cyclones. He would score his first pro point with the Admirals on an assist but less than a week later record his first pro goal with the Cyclones. His ECHL time wasn’t lengthy, by any means, but numbers on the roster were such that his play wasn’t fitting him in as quickly as one would hope. It wasn’t until the Admirals formed a line that featured Kirkland-Kamenev-Payerl that all started to click.
From the formation of that line, 2/10/17, until the end of the season Kirkland produced 13 points (6 goals, 7 assists) in 22 games. Prior to that line coming together he had 8 points (3 goals, 5 assists) in 34 games. Those three worked off of one another so well and all complemented each other’s skill set tremendously. While Pontus Åberg and Frédérick Gaudreau were off having an “anything you can do, I can do better” contest for the 2016-17 season it was often the engine of Kirkland-Kamenev-Payerl down the heart of the forward lines that provided the team stability on a nightly basis.
“Looking back on it, I had some ups-and-downs,” said Justin Kirkland reflecting back on his first pro season during 2018 Nashville Predators Rookie Development Camp. “Especially the start. Trying to get in and find my place on the team. A few trips down to Cincinnati. With all of that happening I think I developed and grew so much as a person not even so much as a player. I learned about myself and how I have to handle situations when things don’t go my way like that. I matured a lot and I think I took my game to another level in the second half.”
This is when it all starts to change. Payerl is not re-signed by the Nashville Predators, he does not end up back with the Milwaukee Admirals on an AHL contract, and instead finds himself with the Providence Bruins on an AHL contract. The Admirals start their season off going 6-4-0-0 before seeing Kamenev traded away. Kirkland had 4 points (0 goals, 4 assists) in those opening 10 games. He and Kamenev were never put on the same line. And then the struggles came.
“I started to realize with last year, you see guys come and go, but I don’t think that makes it any easier,” said Kirkland following early season trade by the Nashville Predators. “Especially with a guy like [Kamenev]. I think you’ve seen how well liked he is around the room. That’s a part of the business.”
The moment Kamenev was moved it left a vacancy in Milwaukee. The trade made benefited the Predators and the Predators alone. That’s the business. It’s up to those on the Admirals to take the void left from Kamenev and make their own name with the added chance of playing time. The problem is that no one actually did that.
Yakov Trenin and Kirkland often fluctuated between center and wing roles and neither seemed to get a clear grasp on the role or settle into that situation until it was time for a new shake-up to the lineup. Stephen Perfetto quit the team and went to Rögle BK instead. Derek Army was recalled up from his ECHL squad, the Wheeling Nailers.
The depth down the middle was such that a line featuring all Admirals top veteran players wasn’t just necessary but it was propping up the team as best it could. Trevor Smith, Bobby Butler, and Harry Zolnierczyk were leading from the front. Emil Pettersson was showing very well in his first season in North America. But it wasn’t until the trade by the Predators to acquire Mark McNeill from the Dallas Stars organization that quality depth was brought into the roster that allowed for better flexibility from the third line down. And even then, at the time of the trade, the Admirals record was 21-20-4-0.
It had taken Kirkland 39 games and 49 shots to record his first goal of the 2017-18 season. The McNeill additional changed a lot for Kirkland. In the 16 games played since McNeill’s arrival, and the further changes made to the Admirals roster, Kirkland has been put back on the wing in 13 games and produced 7 points (5 goals, 2 assists) while the Admirals have gone 8-4-0-1.
Kirkland’s versatility and strong ability in the face-off circle is a great thing. Yet, his play on the wing is where his tools seem to shine the brightest. It was the case last season alongside Kamenev and Payerl. It has shown to be the case once again, and around the exact same time, this season. Through the stretches when he wasn’t scoring it wasn’t that he was playing badly. He was playing a more defensive role and limited as such. It’s been about finding that balance between the two sides of the puck, much like bringing out that machine that does drills at practice so well, out of Kirkland and getting the 100% product to surface in game situations. That’s how he has started to play in his sophomore season.
“I think [Kirkland] is likely playing the best hockey that he has played since he’s become a pro,” said Milwaukee Admirals head coach Dean Evason. “He doesn’t have the goal total but the way that he’s played he could have sixteen [goals] right now. We really like his development and progress this year.”
Behind this evolution for Kirkland has been something of an ace in the hole for himself and the Admirals: the shootout. The Admirals have played 10 shootout games this season. Only the Hartford Wolf Pack have played as many shootout contests in the AHL in 2017-18. The difference? The Wolf Pack don’t have Kirkland shooting first in their lineup.
Kirkland’s first shootout attempt of this season came on a whim. It was a game played in Manitoba on 12/9/17 and Kirkland, an Alberta native, had his parents in attendance and the Admirals coaching staff thought he’d be fired up to go out first. He did. And he has only missed a single shootout attempt since.. from nine opportunities.
“I’m surprised teams don’t know the move by now,” laughed Admirals defenseman Jack Dougherty after the shootout win on Saturday against the Rockford IceHogs. “It’s tough for teams to beat us when we start off with a goal every time in the shootout.”
It’s slowly becoming a running gag now that Kirkland doesn’t change his move. Even before all of the shootout contests for the Admirals Kirkland seeks out advice from teammate and goaltender Anders Lindbäck – only to see him stick with the same move.
“[Lindbäck] is a smart guy,” said Kirkland. “He studies the other goalies. He knows what is going on. I just always give him a look and ask him what he thinks.”
“Well, I don’t know. I still give him tips and he just goes and does the same move I feel like every time,” smiled Lindbäck.
“It’s literally the same move,” stated Evason. “Obviously if he gets to situations where they’re going to start pre-scouting him he’s got some options off of it.”
You just can’t argue with the results. Kirkland is 8/9 in the shootout this season and has 3 shootout winning goals. He leads the league in both categories. Heck, Adam Tambellini of the Hartford Wolf Pack is the only player in the AHL this season who has more shootout attempts (10) than Kirkland but he is 6/10 along the way. The Admirals are 9-1 in the shootout this season. That total is already enough for the team to have broken the previous Admirals single season record in the AHL for shootout wins which was set back in the 2009-10 season.
“It kind of worked out well in Manitoba with my first opportunity, said Kirkland. “If I don’t score that one then we’re probably having a different conversation. I was lucky to score that first one and get on a roll.”
What is starting to really surface through all of the ups-and-downs of this season for both the Admirals and Kirkland – is confidence. All that you can ever really ask for in the AHL is for the learning process to be adhered to and for progression to really show. Mistakes. Lulls. Losses. They’re all going to happen. It’s learning from all of those and refining one’s approach from them that can be the difference between an NHL and AHL player. Kirkland has started to really make these progressions.
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