(Photo Credit: Stephanie Moebius)
I don’t often like making outlandish predictions. They often come back to haunt the prognosticator and become a point and stare contest in years that follow. That said, optimism is and should be extremely high for a number of reasons for the 2016-17 Milwaukee Admirals. The majority of last season’s highly successful team is back. New veterans and prospects inject experience and new competition into the squad. So here are ten bold predictions that you should expect to see coming to light over the course of this year’s campaign.
1. Frédérick Gaudreau and Vladislav Kamenev make their NHL debuts.
One of these two guys last season felt like they could make a push for the NHL with an explosive start to the year. And the other wasn’t even signed to the Nashville Predators. Both Gaudreau and Kamenev are being positioned for successful seasons at the heart of the Admirals forward group. Kamenev had a really good debut season to the North American scene but it was all done with a comfort level to his surroundings being a challenge. He knows the city of Milwaukee now. He is very familiar with the coaching staff, his teammates, and the style of play that the AHL delivers. He should take things up to a new level and eventually get a loom topside with Nashville. The same can be said of Gaudreau who can play at center or wing and in all game situations. Gaudreau is very defensively sound and his speed and skill on offense last season in addition to the defensive work rate put him on Nashville’s radar. He was placed in Colton Sissons role with the Admirals and arguably did better than Sissons during the Admirals captain last season. Gaudreau is a relentless worker who still treats practice sessions like job interviews. He’s gone from the ECHL to the AHL and has set himself up to complete his incredible story off by getting into the NHL as an undrafted talent in his third pro season .
2. Jimmy Oligny is signed to an NHL contract by the Nashville Predators.
The Nashville Predators have a freakish amount of defensive depth. And, if the most recent NHL Draft is anything to go by, the Predators are only building on it. So why would the Predators need an Oligny? Because he’s that good. Oligny, like Gaudreau, is another undrafted talent that has dialed himself in through the Milwaukee Admirals these last two seasons. His play last season was such that I named him the team’s Defenseman of the Year. As great as the Predators defensive depth is I feel retaining it is important. And, while the Predators 2016 NHL Draft Class is looking good, the likes of Dante Fabbro and Samuel Girard aren’t likely becoming pros in the system for a little bit anyways. Having Oligny become your man waiting in the wings in the event of a recall would be smart. He’s polished defensively and showed improvements to his offensive game last season to back that shutdown defensive ability up. If he stays the course? He’s due for Nashville to provide him a similar pat on the back which his pal Gaudreau received for his efforts last season.
3. Kevin Fiala will return one last time to the Milwaukee Admirals.
Nashville can rejoice that FialaMania has arrived but a lot of him sticking around topside this season will come down to consistency. I love that the Predators seem to have him positioned in a place to succeed as part of the team’s upper tier forward lines rather than lumped down with a checking line. It should allow for his speed and skill to sparkle that little bit brighter. The problem is, how often will he really shine and how long before a lack of shimmer make other options or permutations that much more attractive? I think Fiala hits a bump early in the season that sees him fluttered back to the Admirals for a spell that gets him top line minutes in the AHL that sets him on a course to fire back in the NHL. It worked for Viktor Arvidsson. It will work for Fiala. The key for all parties involved here is patience. In a different situation? Fiala at 20-years of age could well be making his debut season as a pro in the AHL such as Anthony Richard. Fiala is massively ahead of the curve in his pro level development. Now he just needs to figure out the NHL’s speed and grind. He will. Just be patient and expect some speed bumps.
4. Justin Kirkland will predominantly play at center this season.
At Development Camp this Summer in Nashville I watched a number of face-off drills taken with Kamenev squaring up against Kirkland. Much to my surprise the Russian, who played all of last season as a center in the AHL, was losing frequently to the WHL winger that transitioned to center midway through the season to ease the Kelowna Rockets during some injury woes. Kirkland is a big boy at 6-3 and 185 lbs. He’s very strong but deceptively quick. Best of all, he isn’t just an out and out goal scorer but someone who enjoys playing the role of provider and setting up his teammates. It may have been unfortunate circumstances that put Kirkland at center in juniors last season but I feel Kelowna found Kirkland’s best position. I imagine the Admirals coaching staff will be smart enough to see exactly that, as well.
5. Max Görtz will lead the Milwaukee Admirals in overall scoring and goal scoring this season.
As the prospect pool grows I truly hope Görtz isn’t someone that gets lost in the Predators organization. I get to view a lot of players transitioning from Europe to North America at the AHL level and, frankly, not many pan out or are all that suited for the smaller rink and North-South game. Görtz experience in his first North American season? He produced 47 points (18 goals, 29 assists) in 72 games. That point production was second best on the Admirals to Fiala who had 50 points (18 goals, 32 assists) in 66 games. Not only was Görtz producing offensively but he was incredibly smart and successful defensively. His Plus/Minus of +14 was tied for second with Oligny and trailed team leader Max Reinhart by 2 points. Görtz gets it. And his shot is a wicked one. He should carry on from where he was last season and, if anything, improve across the board.
6. Mike Liambas will be the one and only member of the Milwaukee Admirals to get snake bitten by the AHL’s new Fighting Major policy.
Remember the 2013-14 season when Liambas set an Admirals record for penalty minutes in a season with 267 penalty minutes? That was fun. That was 25 fighting majors worth of fun. Consider now that at fighting major #10 you will be automatically suspended for a game by the AHL, as well as fighting majors #11, #12, #13, and that the penalty increased to a two-game suspension at fighting major #14 and on forwards… I don’t think we’ll see Liambas as Liambas as he can be. That being said, you cannot take the fight out of the dog and Liambas is the fight and, in a lot of ways, the heart of the Admirals. When he gets close to #10 the discussions will be had for him to relent and take the high road but hockey things tend to happen and sometimes you just can’t help it. Remember last season when Oligny was dragged into his second fighting major to get him ejected from a game… by Liambas? It just happens. And players who are smart enough to know someone is hovering around this new rule might take advantage of the situation. The story of Liambas’ 2016-17 season will be composure and using his head. That said, even if he cut last season’s fighting majors in half he would still hit the AHL’s new fighting major policy and be suspended a game. It might just be unavoidable. If anything, make the fights count for something.
7. Austin Watson will remain in the AHL for the 2016-17 season but record his fourth consecutive 20 goal AHL season.
I’ve already gone over Watson extensively but now allow me to put a bit of a stamp down. This isn’t a knock against Watson, because it isn’t, but the surrounding talent in the organization has simply exploded past him. Whether it is a center such as Sissons or wingers such as Miikka Salomäki or Viktor Arvidsson. The prospect pool has come up and swallowed Watson whole. Fiala is there now. Kamenev is waiting in the wings. Gaudreau has come out of nowhere and is knocking on the door. Watson is a solid lower-line defensively crisp winger at the NHL level who might just be in the wrong organization at this stage of his career. With that said, he is surrounded by an incredibly talented Admirals team at the AHL level where he can vault himself back into other team’s radars once his contract expires after this season. He became one of just three Admirals to score three 20+ goal seasons to start his career. And, considering the teams he did that damage with compared to this season’s lineup, he might be in for his best AHL season of his career. Watson needs to make the AHL his NHL for this season. It might be bittersweet but the payoff if he plays his cards right could get him back where he wants to be.
8. The Milwaukee Admirals repeat as AHL Central Division Champions.
Taking a look around the AHL’s Central Division and you immediately turn your head to last season’s Calder Cup Champions the Cleveland Monsters or the team that swept the Admirals from the playoffs the Grand Rapids Griffins. The Monsters are still a beefed up team that have a lot of returning names from last season’s success. The Griffins? Ditto. Those are the real challenges to that crown this season. The Chicago Wolves have a depleted, familiar, and uninspired looking team. The Iowa Wild… And the Rockford IceHogs have essentially migrated the successful parties of their team from last season to the Chicago Blackhawks to help ease cap space woes. The Admirals really managed to overachieve a season ago with a 101 point (0.664 point percentage) campaign. The team was incredibly young and layered with inexperience that spoke more towards how great the 2016-17 season could be. Well, last season ended up being rather special. And this season should at the very least match last season success of claiming a divisional crown.
9. Dean Evason will secure his first AHL Playoff series victory since becoming head coach of the Milwaukee Admirals in the 2012-13 season.
This is Evason’s fifth season as head coach of the Milwaukee Admirals. He has made the playoffs three of the previous four seasons. In those three playoff appearances Evason’s playoff record is 1-9. His only ever victory came in his second playoff game behind the bench for the Admirals. He has lost eight straight playoff games and the Admirals have been swept out of the playoffs in their last two appearances. Thankfully, with the roster compiled this season, that simply isn’t going to happen to the 2016-17 Admirals. The mad scramble to locate veteran character in the middle of the season? The Admirals already have that in bulk. The fight to break into Nashville’s glass ceiling to make it into the NHL is as competitive as it has ever been with several NHL caliber talents stuck in Milwaukee simply due to the numbers game in Nashville. The Admirals are the sort of a team that could make a deep playoff run. Perhaps the most exciting element to the season? Juuse Saros as the -first- first choice Admirals goaltender since Jeremy Smith back in the 2011-12 season. He’s only going to make the comfort level of the team that much better knowing what he’s capable of night in and night out.
10. The Milwaukee Admirals will crack into the AHL’s “Top 10 in Attendance” list for the first time since the 2011-12 season.
The last time the Milwaukee Admirals were in the Top 10 in Attendance for the AHL they drew 236,579 fans for an average of 6,226 per night. Last season’s numbers were a touch down from that -but- not by too much. The Admirals drew 234,404 fans in the 2015-16 season for an average of 6,169 per night which listed them at eleventh in the AHL. That’s on the cusp but, what’s exciting, is simply Admirals hockey right now. Last season’s attendance saw a year-to-year boost of 13,659 fans. Those fans, either new or being reenergized by last season’s excitement, should be along for the ride as that same high level team takes to a building that they can now humbly consider their home: the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena. I’ve read comments from loyal fans that remember seeing Admirals hockey at the ol’ MECCA and are excited to see that sight return. But I also consider myself in the mix when it comes to fans who probably need something such as Admirals hockey in that building… to reintroduce me to that building. I last saw an event in the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena when it was called the US Cellular Arena when I was just a motocross fanatical kid. It makes me wonder just how many fans attending games or events at the BMO Harris Bradley Center all these years may have neglected the old barn as much as myself. But these times are a changin’ and so to is the ol’ MECCA. Downtown Milwaukee right now is a construction zone where not only is the new becoming new but the old is becoming new too. It’s exciting to think that the Admirals, whose history at the MECCA is incredible, is going to take life for an entirely new generation of fans with a venue that will start to take shape into just that generation of fans. The attraction of Admirals hockey speaks for itself. The attraction of returning, reintroducing, or first-time experiencing the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena this season also speaks for itself.
Of the ten provided, which stands the greatest chance of coming true? What are your bold predictions for the Milwaukee Admirals 2016-17 season?
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