2017-18 marked the first time that the Milwaukee Admirals lacked a 50 point scorer since the 2012-13 campaign. The 216 goals scored this past season was the fewest scored in a regular season by the Admirals since 2014-15 when they last missed the AHL Calder Cup Playoffs. It wasn’t that the forward group was poor by any means. In fact, of our end-season awards at Admirals Roundtable, this choice is by far the most difficult.
I feel that there are six forwards who could rightfully get the nod for the Admirals Roundtable’s 2017-18 Forward of the Year Award. Yet, I can only decide on one. And that one is Anthony Richard.
In his sophomore season Richard took a massive step forward. It was clear as day in his debut season that he possessed game changing speed. The problem was simply trying to harness it and get him to mentally slow down a bit and know when to turn on the jets. He scored in both games on Opening Weekend of the 2017-18 season in Des Moines and never stopped showing flashes is game-altering speed and skill.
To once again go back to 2016-17: Richard’s campaign consisted of a painfully lifeless start that resulted in 4 games played with the Cincinnati Cyclones in the ECHL. He scored a goal and an assist there but suffered a concussion that left him out of action for a month. He returned better for having detached from that first pro season and that time away allowed him to reset his game. He would end the season having recorded 16 points (4 goals, 12 assists) in 55 games with the Admirals in the AHL.
This season Richard saw zero action in the ECHL, played a single game shy of the complete 76-game regular season AHL schedule, and produced 36 points (19 goals, 17 assists). In every single game that Richard played he had the look and feel of someone on the Admirals active lineup that could change the course of the outcome for the good all by himself. He was a spark plug across the board. His power-play work improved. His speed and skill translated defensively and he was the only forward to have played 55 games or more and end the season with a positive plus/minus rating. He did everything. And, to be quite honest, the only negative here is that offensive numbers quite frankly should be a lot higher than they were.
What I hope to see next season from this season is a similar progression. He doesn’t have to more than double up his offensive production as he did from rookie to sophomore. But what I do think can and will be done is an off-season spent in a gym, getting himself bigger and stronger, and for him to pair that speed up with a touch of grit the likes of which has done Viktor Arvidsson and Kevin Fiala a world of good around the net. Richard is always going to create odd-man attacks to complete breakaways for himself with his speed. His wheels are that good. Once he gets at the end of that rush though he needs to refine his finishing touch at full speed or open himself up better for a dish opposite wing to bury the many, many, many scoring opportunities he creates.
If that crucial puzzle piece missing from Richard’s game actually manages to land and stick? I believe the sky is the limit on what that 21-year old is capable of. The skating ability Richard has is world class. He just needs to polish up his scoring touch that little bit better. If that starts to shine with great regularity? That’s when #90 should get the call from Nashville.
Who else did I have in the running for this award? Frédérick Gaudreau, Harry Zolnierczyk, Bobby Butler, Trevor Smith, and Emil Pettersson – in that order. Allow me to explain each -in depth- individually because they all deserved a piece of this distinction.
Gaudreau likely should have spent far more time at the NHL this season than he did. In 2017-18 he played 20 games for the Nashville Predators and contributed 3 assists. That all came relatively earlier in the season though and it was really after early-December where it seemed he would be more of a primary fixture in Milwaukee. He was never down on himself. He didn’t beat himself up over the scenario. He just went about his work. And, as brilliant as he was last season, he was arguably better this time around. Last season he hit the 20 goals plateau for the first time in his entire hockey career: 25 goals in 66 games. This season he had 22 goals in 54 games all while having the highest plus/minus (+9) of anyone on the Admirals roster. Additionally, although he might not wear a letter on the front of his jersey, make no mistake that Gaudreau’s influence on the likes of Richard -as a mentor- has been massive in his development these past two seasons. For all the things Gaudreau does right, for how hard he plays, and how quick he reads plays offensively and defensively: he only had a single penalty called against him the entire season, just one. To me, this was Award Winner 1-A, 1-B. Richard and Gaudreau were outstanding all season long. I just felt Richard’s game-by-game impact was that little bit more noticeable for the Admirals across the entirety of the Admirals season.
Zolnierczyk’s season started off with the Florida Panthers believe it or not. That almost feels like a distant memory at this point. He was released from their Training Camp, quickly re-signed with the Nashville Predators on a two-way contract, and turned up for a full season in the AHL with the Milwaukee Admirals. Florida’s loss. Springfield Falcon’s loss. Milwaukee’s gain. What he did this season was incredible: 42 points (21 goals, 21 assists) in 73 games. It was the most goals he scored in a single season since playing Junior A hockey for the Alberni Valley Bulldogs ahead of joining Brown University. On top of that, his relentlessness in attack and as a leader is about as good as it gets. This was a banner year for the 30-year old and newly crowned dad.
Butler’s goal last off-season was to represent the United States Men’s Hockey Team bound for PyeongChang in the 2018 Winter Olympics. He signed an AHL contract with the Admirals. And he hit his goal by scoring 21 goals in 46 games with the Admirals prior to officially joining Team USA in South Korea. Sadly, there appeared to be a certain sapping of an Olympic hangover for Butler. I can’t even begin to imagine the emotional roller coaster all of that could have been like -in the middle of a season- and then adding up the amount of travel that came with that. Still, early in the season, he was scoring big goals left and right. The man has played five full AHL seasons now and managed to score 20 goals or more in four of them. I’d love to have that sort of reliable production brought back next season – I really, really would.
Smith is -the- captain of this team. He acts and plays that role to the letter by the letter stitched on the front of that uniform. What I can almost overlook at times are the various little things that add up over sixty-minutes that a guy like Smith does. His face-off work is always very strong. He operates across the board on special teams. He does a good job across all three zones but can be equally as good in his defensive zone as he can be low down in the attacking end of the ice. And, before you know it, he accumulates a very respectable 43 points (17 goals, 26 assists) in 66 games. Injuries did creep into the picture, especially earlier in the season, for Smith. But it always felt that the team without their captain had a directionless feel to it.
And then you have the man who finished his first North American pro season as the Admirals leading scorer. Yes, Emil Pettersson produced 46 points (13 goals, 33 assists) in 72 games and was also an AHL All Star alongside fellow Swede and Admiral Anders Lindbäck. So, why did I have him this far down in the pecking order? For me, it boils down to two things. The first I feel was inevitable regardless of the amount of senior level games played in the SHL. He had to adapt to a ton of different elements of the North American pro game and take it all in at speed. It’s not an easy thing to do no matter how old you are and it reminded me a lot of Vladislav Kamenev‘s first pro season with the Admirals where it seemed like both are doing really well but both were operating on auto-pilot as the minds were busy processing everything at break neck speed. What matters here is, despite all of the between the ears stuff, Pettersson still managed to do incredibly well and played a polished game that can certainly be improved thanks to a year’s worth of in-game experience at this level in this country. The second part that can fly under the radar by stats alone is the need for him to be more productive than just the power-play where -half- of his points came from. That’s a fantastic quality to have that sort of vision and ability to generate a near top of the league best 21 power-play assists but that same ability should be prevalent at even strength.
As noted. This really did come down to these six forwards for me and it was very tough. If you had Gaudreau? I think you’re right. If you had Zolnierczyk or Pettersson? You certainly aren’t wrong at all. I think all of these guys made great contributions to the Admirals this season and it is the likes of Richard and Pettersson that I’m excited to see next season as to how they grow from 2017-18. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if it comes down to them vying for this award next season.
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