2017-18; One Long Lesson

(Photo Credit: Scott Paulus)

When I left the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena last night it seemed as if the city of Milwaukee was barren. I cut across all construction, took up towards the McKinley on-ramp, and was on my way home. It was in that silent drive on home that the dust had settled on a thought I had by the time December was rolling along. The Milwaukee Admirals weren’t going to make the AHL Calder Cup Playoffs this season. It perpetuated in the weeks and months that followed and only last night was it realized.

This is only the third time in the seventeen-year AHL history of the Admirals that they will not be making the playoffs. Yet, it is the second time in four-years that they have failed to reach the playoffs. What does that mean? What was this season? And what happens next for the Nashville Predators’ AHL affiliate?

I had two key areas of concern when the 2017-18 season started.

The first issue I thought could be a major problem area was goaltending. Which, in hindsight, I was more wrong than I was right. Anders Lindbäck was this team’s MVP from start to finish and there is zero debate there. He has had a whirlwind of a career but truly reestablished himself in his return to North America after one-season spent back home in Sweden.

Sadly, it was the likes of the goaltending behind him that struggled so mightily that Lindbäck needed to shoulder the load to an extreme. That only started to change once a more established netminder in Troy Grosenick was brought into the fold. The two both did so well as a tandem in a month or more of work together.

The second issue was one that largely went unsolved for the entire season. The Admirals had zero veteran presence on their defense and were going to rely completely on the prospect pool to sink or swim. Yes, Petter Granberg and Jimmy Oligny were both very good – but neither offered the stability or kick that so many of their oppositions within the Central Division had on the backend.

This season primarily relied upon whether or not the young talent on defense was going to be able to play at a high quality and with great consistency sooner rather than later. What happened, quite well represented in the Admirals track record over the season, were many ups-and-downs in form. Why? Because that’s what young players in that position do: they make mistakes, they learn from their mistakes, they improve, other teams find ways to disrupt and challenge them, and they are forced into adapting all over again.

It wasn’t until the NHL Trade Deadline, again, that someone such as John Ramage was acquired and greatly helped provide a more planted presence when on the ice – and even still he had Alex Carrier, forced to play on his off wing most of this season, alongside him. No one felt like they were used or placed in the best possible position to succeed on defense.

Where I feel the defensive issues were also impact comes from a gray area that I still don’t fully understand: the Norfolk Admirals as an ECHL affiliate. In a season where there are young players such as Fred Allard and Joonas Lyytinen – they need to be playing games as soon as possible. Even having someone such as Andrew O’Brien, at the time, working in an ECHL capacity to get his wheels going, working, and ready to be placed in the lineup at high speed would have been beneficial.

The ECHL Affiliation Agreement being terminated between the Nashville Predators and Norfolk Admirals caused an extra wrinkle to a turbulent prospect development cycle already compromised by having too many young defenseman at the same place at the same time with with healthy scratches being used and flat play being a result upon return to the lineup..

That agreement lasted less than two months into the active 2017-18 season. I don’t recall such dysfunction on an AHL/ECHL basis in the Predators organization’s history but it is ironic that it happens the instant they walked away from their one and only ECHL organization, the Cincinnati Cyclones, in order to go the Norfolk route.

There are then things beyond the Admirals control. Vladislav Kamenev was setting up for a career season, the leader of the Admirals offense, and someone who would be knocking hard on the Nashville Predators door for a recall. That didn’t happen. He was traded as part of the Kyle Turris deal. You can’t argue with the results for the Predators but what a move like that does is help the NHL team at the cost of thinning the prospect pool out to an extreme. It was felt in Milwaukee this season. It will continue to be felt in Milwaukee very likely next season as well.

These are all situations and storylines that were pretty well set before December rolled around. The Admirals season was turbulent early both on and off the ice. These unfortunate turn of events can than be summed up with injuries.

Yakov Trenin, just when he was starting to get on a roll, was sent flying head and shoulder first into the end boards by Cameron Gaunce of the Cleveland Monsters. He needed surgery early in the season, missed two months of hockey in his first full pro season. Cody Bass, another quality leader and gritty player that the Admirals could have used, suffered another significant injury that forced him to miss the rest of an AHL season for the second consecutive campaign.

The list of injuries stacks up and shows that an already thin amount of depth was highly put to the test. Again, the results speak for themselves as to how that worked out in the long run. There wasn’t enough quality pieces to both account for injuries or step up and force better internal competition to bring out the best in one another.

Here is the catch though. This by absolutely no means was a lost season for the Admirals.

Let’s think back to the last season that the Admirals didn’t make the playoffs. 2014-15 was a train wreck. The season turned on its head the moment Brendan Leipsic was traded away and Miikka Salomäki was injured for the season on the exact same day. They ended the season dead last in the Midwest Division with a record of 33-28-8-7 (81 points, 0.533 points percentage).

The Admirals will not finish last in the Central Division this season. In fact, with one point in the final two games, they will lock up fifth place over the Iowa Wild. This season had no dramatic drop off of the map. The form in which the team played with was just relentlessly sporadic. The Admirals of this season currently have a record of 38-30-4-2 (82 points, 0.554 points percentage). This was a far better team than the 2014-15 squad and one that, since the NHL Trade Deadline, has gone 12-6-0-1 (25 points, 0.658 points percentage). It took the hard reboot of multiple trades to finally get the Admirals to settle down and work solid structured hockey. It just sadly was orchestrated too late to make a difference.

What matters a lot here, similar to 2014-15, is adversity that has been endured by the young prospect depth and the opportunity to grow because of the experience. Yes, in both instances, hardships and mistakes in the moment meant for a rough today. It is the lessons provided in those difficult moments that can make for a brighter tomorrow.

Who was on that 2014-15 squad? Were they just a badly assembled team that was dysfunctional and didn’t work out after that season? No, you had the likes of Pontus ÅbergViktor Arvidsson, Anthony Bitetto, Kevin Fiala, Frédérick Gaudreau, and Austin Watson. That was a young group too that processed a lot because of that season and all listed above greatly benefited from the lessons learned because of that season.

You can pretty well say the same of this season’s group. The Admirals might have had leaders such as Trevor Smith and Harry Zolnierczyk in the locker room but also had people like Tyler Moy in his first pro season to learn from the likes of them. Someone such as Justin Kirkland, from rookie to sophomore, started to really grow at the end of this season. Despite how difficult the start to the season must have been, given the lack of playing opportunities and ECHL outlet, both Allard and Lyytinen started to look and play the part once this first chapter closed. Milwaukee saw genuine growth by the end of a difficult season.

It hurts to not have playoff hockey in Milwaukee in 2018. It does. This city, and its fans, have been desperate for playoff success and it has been ages now since the Admirals even won a game let alone made it out of the opening round. This only adds to extended misery in that regard but I caution fans to view recent times as some sort of failure.

What the coaching staff of Dean Evason, Stan Drulia, and Scott Ford has done over time can be reflected in the preparation of current NHL names with the Nashville Predators. Hockey played in the AHL is what I like to refer to as The Long Game. There is a difficult balance between winning now in the AHL versus learning what it means to be a professional hockey player for those first few seasons of young adult’s careers. This is not the NHL with ready-now and polished talent. This is the AHL with “coming to an NHL near you” possibilities – not eventualities.

What we’ve witnessed over a period of many seasons with the Admirals is a steady progression in seeing AHL names move up and stay up as members of the Predators. That is the true mark of organizational success. The measuring stick from season to season is to win a Calder Cup but by no means should that be a defining mark of success. If the NHL parent club is having effective results due to it’s AHL developmental process? That’s success.

To me, the truth and reality of what this season was is something we can’t accurately identify today. It wouldn’t be fair at all. This is something, both individually and for the organization itself, that should make more sense in the seasons to come.

That alone is something I have already seen expressed back my way from fans. What comes next? What are the Admirals going to be in the 2018-19 season and who from this season is even coming back?

This upcoming off-season is going to be dramatically busy. You need only look at CapFriendly to understand how few returning players there could potentially be.

As of now, all of these players are contracted into next season: Allard, Carrier, Dougherty, Gaudreau, Grosenick, Kirkland, Lyytinen, Moy, Pettersson, Richard, and Trenin. The Admirals also can expect to see Tanner Jeannot and Niclas Westerholm who both signed entry-level contracts with the Nashville Predators recently. Mathieu Olivier, current playing with the Sherbrooke Phoenix in the QMJHL, is also expected to join the Admirals after having already signed an AHL contract.

But that’s it.

These are the upcoming unrestricted free agents: Bass, Bollig, Butler, Gaudet, Granberg, Lindbäck, McNeill, Mingoia, O’Connor, Oligny, Paterson, Pinkston, Ramage, Smith, Zengerle, and Zolnierczyk.

I will do the math for you in simple terms. That’s over half the current Admirals roster that isn’t due back -as of now- next season. The amount of roster turnover that can happen from 2017-18 to 2018-19 could be staggering. What I ask though is this: should it?

Considering what the Admirals have become since the NHL Trade Deadline it makes you wonder what would have happened had this team been together from the beginning.

We know that Grosenick will be back but his former San Jose Barracuda teammate Brandon Bollig has done such a tremendous job being the physical player that, unfortunately, Pierre-Cédric Labrie just wasn’t enough of and one the team missed ever since Mike Liambas wasn’t brought back.

Tyler Gaudet and his former Tucson Roadrunner teammate on defense Ramage arrived in the trade that sent Trevor Murphy to the Arizona Coyotes. Both have done a really good job and Ramage’s presence on defense is one the team lacked until he showed up. He has a calming veteran instinct on the ice and is someone with a proven track record for success.

Elsewhere, you look at some of the Admirals own veteran pieces and hope they comeback.

Bobby Butler has had such a positive influence this season. His scoring touch is one thing but he is a quiet leader that it would be great if the Predators organization to kept him around. Smith, the captain, has been one of the best locker room leaders I have had the pleasure to watch in my time around the Admirals and it would hurt to lose that sort of leadership quality.

Jimmy Oligny, although on an AHL contracted basis, is someone who has been a perennial top defenseman for our end season awards at Admirals Roundtable and a leader in his own right on what is a thin veteran defensive group that could get weaker next season. It would be so odd if the original French Fries get broken up to the point Gaudreau is all that remains. Oligny is a big part of that locker room.

There are many I would love to see back. There really is. This isn’t really a group with certain pieces you think should just be forgotten about. Unfortunately, knowing how this business can be, that simply isn’t going to happen.

I want to see Lindbäck return next season more than anything -but- if he did well enough this season to earn a better NHL opportunity this off-season? You cannot fault him for taking that chance. Some listed above might find the professional scene playing in Europe to be more attractive, both financially and for the life experience traveling abroad, than the AHL. It happens. It’s going to be a frenzied off-season of player movement with departures. By that same measure arrivals will be required. The depth of this organization, away from the Nashville Predators and their stacked NHL roster, is painfully thin and about to get trimmed to the limit.

What happens next for the Admirals are two more games against the Iowa Wild before calling the 2017-18 season a wrap. It has been a testing season but one that all involved would like to see on a positive note. We likely will have to wait awhile before the Nashville Predators season comes to an end but that can become the next focus in Milwaukee: supporting the organization.

The off-season ahead for the Admirals will be a long one. Things are about to change. But that’s good. The lessons of the season extend beyond the rink itself and I would hope a better organized team gets assembled from the start of the season rather than one by the end.

Remember how things happened last time the Admirals missed the playoffs? They had one of the franchise’s best ever regular seasons and won the Central Division. The ball will be in the court of David Poile and Paul Fenton this off-season to make the organization the best it can be. Let’s see what they do with it.

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3 thoughts on “2017-18; One Long Lesson”

  1. I’m excited to see how big of a jump Richard makes next season. He really made some strides this season, and his speed makes him exiting to watch whenever he has control of the puck.

    Im not in the “Fire Dean” crowd, because I understand that prospect success outweighs Milwaukee’s success in this league, and what he’s done to get guys ready for Nashville can’t be argued. He’ll be here to stay. That said, please, for the love of God, change the power play up next season. The constant passing around the offensive zone (assuming they actually get it into the zone), with no presence in front of the net was beyond frustrating. Last night’s wasted double minor only cemented that.

    Regarding Butler, I was under the impression he only came to the AHL this season to showcase for the Olympic team. I guess I see him going back to Europe unless somebody is willing to give him a two way deal.

    Finally, bring back Bollig, or a Bollig/Liambas- like player!

  2. I agree with Mark in his comments on Dean. While I personally would like to see a coaching change, he’s actually been doing what he’s been hired to do – prepare players for the NHL. My only complaint in this year (and maybe the last couple of years) is that from a fan perspective it doesn’t appear he’s making big adjustments when things aren’t going wrong. I could be completely wrong because I’m not a coach and don’t know the actual technical systems he runs but when things were going bad, nothing changed. Almost all season we were out shot by our opponents. The PP started out good but then deteriorated. Nothing with our PP changed all season. Same looks all year long.

    Either way, can’t wait for next year already!!!!

  3. Steve: I never understand the idea of the coaching staff not being able to “adjust” when it is them instructing the players to do so and they don’t adapt or execute what is told. You can go back through all of Dean Evason’s post-game interviews this season and hear the term “we shot ourselves” in connection to that. What I do think though for the players: those coming back will be better because of this season.

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