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Admirals’ rookies set to make impact in Calder Cup Playoffs

by Peter Pupello / Tampa Bay Lightning
Here’s the thing about the Norfolk Admirals’ rookies:

“They play like veterans,” Admirals head coach Jon Cooper said.

That’s why there’s little concern regarding just how the first-year Admirals will fare when the team opens up its first-round series of the AHL’s Calder Cup Playoffs against the Manchester Monarchs.

Six rookies – forwards Cory Conacher, Tyler Johnson, Richard Panik, Ondrej Palat, Philip-Michael Devos and defenseman Jeff Dimmen – played an integral role during the regular season in helping the Admirals lock up first place in the Eastern Conference with a 55-18-3 record and a league-best 113 points. That, of course, was also helped along by a professional hockey-record 28-game winning streak.

Now, the first-year players hope to make an impact in the playoffs.

“A lot of these guys are only rookies by name,” Cooper added. “These guys weren’t the types of players 65 games ago that they are now. They’ve progressed a lot, and it’s a tribute to how far our young guys have come.”

Of the Admirals’ 273 goals scored during the regular season, 126 of those came from rookies.

Conacher, named the league’s MVP this past week, led all AHL skaters with 39 goals, while Johnson added 31 of his own. Both players each finished in the league’s top seven in scoring. Consider that Johnson also centers a line flanked by both Panik and Palat on each side, and half of that rookie core all of a sudden has the potential to change a game in just a single shift.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever played with players who have so much skill,” Johnson said of his linemates. “It’s pretty scary sometimes, just watching the things they do.”

Both Panik and Palat joined the professional ranks in 2011-12 after making the jump from the Canadian junior leagues last season.

Panik made good on his first professional season by scoring 19 goals and finishing the regular season with 41 points, which ranked fifth on the team. Palat, meanwhile, who last season played wing on a line centered by current Philadelphia Flyers rookie standout Sean Couturier, had only nine goals, but registered 21 assists and also recorded a plus-6 rating. And they’re not alone in their endeavor.

There is Devos, who after leading the QMJHL with 114 points in 68 games last season had 24 points and was a plus-16 as an Admiral, along with Dimmen, who notched 17 points and was a plus-9.

As far as the forwards go, all are tremendous skaters, adding quickness to the Admirals’ aggressive forecheck that helped them net the most goals of any teams in the league this past season. Not to mention, their presence has opened up space for their linemates, allowing them to create more quality scoring chances in the offensive zone.

Rookie Cory Conacher is one of six rookie forwards playing an integral role for the Admirals this season.
But the key to so many first-year players making a significant impact isn’t merely limited to just statistics.

One part of it is talent, of course, and the other is having the right mindset.

“We’ve talked about it a lot leading up to these playoffs,” Conacher said. “We have a lot of rookies in the lineup, but the key for us is to continue to play our game and not change too much. It’s important to stay within our element and have confidence that we can contribute and help the team win much like we have all season.”

While for some clubs the thought of fielding six rookies in the lineup might not be ideal, it was somewhat necessary for the Admirals, which underwent somewhat of an overhaul as the parent club in Tampa Bay continues to solidify its organizational depth.

Entering this season, while there were just enough veterans to help carry the load, the Admirals certainly didn’t suffer from having the club’s first-year players chip in as well.

“They took on a lot of responsibilities this season, which not only made them better players individually, but made us better as a team,” Cooper said. “They’ll be ready to take on the challenge.”

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