The hiring of Nashville Predators Head Coach Peter Laviolette a year ago this month sent a shock wave down to the very roots of the organization.
Not only did the installation of a new philosophy and on-ice system impact the modus operandi of the NHL club in Nashville, but it also shaped the way the Predators’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals, approached their 2014-15 season. Since the Admirals act as the primary pipeline for supplying players to the Preds year after year, it only makes sense for the desired style of play in Nashville to first be instilled into the franchise’s draft picks and prospects at the AHL level. Hence the aforementioned far-reaching change when Laviolette was introduced as the Predators second head coach in franchise history on May 6, 2014.
This is the point where Milwaukee Head Coach Dean Evason and Predators Assistant General Manager and Admirals GM Paul Fenton come in. The two men were tasked with adapting the Ads’ system of play on the fly in order to expedite the implementation of the Preds’ new culture to their future recruits. What starts at a stream’s headwaters eventually affects the whole river after all.
“Our lifeline has been the Milwaukee pipeline and not a lot of teams can say that,” Fenton said while sitting in his office at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville earlier in the month. “We primarily take all of our prospects and draft picks [from Milwaukee] and keep it cost efficient...We believe as an organization that it benefits us in the long run to let our kids go through growing pains.”
As the Predators raced out to one of their best starts in franchise history during October and November, 500 miles away, Evason and the Admirals were feeling out the repercussions from their on-going system tweaks. Following a few ups-and-downs (including a six-game win streak and later dropping seven in a row) as the campaign neared its midpoint, the Ads bench boss began to see that as longer-term changes continued to be made, he’d also have to make small adjustments to his team in the interim.
“Halfway through the season, we did flip a few things because we realized we didn’t have the same defensive corps as the Nashville Predators,” Evason said. “That’s a huge strong point for their hockey club and it wasn’t so much for us. We had a lot of young people on our backend, so we had to tweak the new system a bit - not so much to protect them - but to put them into a position to succeed.
“We weren’t as quite as aggressive as Nashville was with their defense getting up into the neutral zone and beyond.”
A slight deviation from a reliance on defensemen pinching into the zone to continue an offensive cycle - a staple of Laviolette’s method of attack - was one audible Evason had to call based on his current personnel. That example in turn reveals a great truth of the AHL: due to call ups to the NHL, injuries and conditioning assignments, the continuity of a minor-league team’s roster is always in flux.
“Basically in the minors, it really goes game to game to be honest with you, because you don’t know the group that you’ll have a lot of times,” Evason said.
Milwaukee’s coach of three seasons described a point in February with defensemen Anthony Bitetto in Nashville and Joe Piskula injured that he put a forward back on the blue line.
“At one point, we had Michael Liambas, who’s a winger, playing defense for us for two or three hockey games because we didn’t have enough defense,” Evason said. “So things can be very situational, and it gets tweaked all the time, but certainly we’ll continue to use the same structure as Nashville.”
Despite those lineup wrinkles, the mission of the Admirals remains the same, Fenton and Evason say. As the primary source of talent for the Predators, the duo will continue to incorporate Nashville’s new mindset on the ice and in the locker room. With a year of learning and testing under their belts, this offseason promises to be an important one for the Admirals now that Fenton and Evason have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t.
Fenton says he and Evason will talk frequently over the next month or two as they analyze how the Ads can improve and what players could help them the most. They’ll also determine how to better assemble their team while fitting into the mold put forth by the new Preds bench boss 12 months ago.
“As we’re putting together a team for next year, we’re recognizing some areas we can improve on and then trying to fit people into that,” Evason said. “We’re going to have some more young people coming into our organization, and we’d like to surround them with some veteran people as well. We have to make decisions in that area and then go pursue the right people to fill out our roster.
“We’ll make some adjustments this summer and leading into our season. But again, we’ll have the same structure as Nashville and we’ll start to see what our hockey club will look like here.”