For two straight years the Admirals have enjoyed dynamic end of season runs just to squeak into the Calder Cup playoffs, only to have that late season success fail to carry over to the Calder Cup playoffs.
But Admirals fans should have every reason to be optimistic about the roster they will see every night at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Returning Milwaukee coach Dean Evason’s squad returns five of its top nine scorers from its 2013 playoff roster, plus five defensemen and one of the AHL’s preeminent goaltenders in Magnus Hellberg.
“Our ultimate goal is to win the Calder Cup, but to also balance that with developing players to play in Nashville or somewhere else in the National Hockey League,” said Evason, who offers some stability behind the bench for a team that’s played for four head coaches during the past three seasons. “There’s no question that we want to take another step in the right direction and we really like the group that’s here in Milwaukee.”
The Admirals will start this year’s campaign well-stocked offensively. Up front forwards Austin Watson (team leading 20 goals last year), Kevin Henderson (17 goals), Taylor Beck (a team best returning 41 points), Mark Van Guilder and Patrick Cehlin represent 71 goals back in the fold.
“We have a lot of guys back from last year who were big pieces in our group,” Watson told reporters. “(And) we’ve got some good young guys coming in (to compliment them).”
This crew will certainly be determined, considering that Watson, Beck and Henderson each made their NHL debuts last season with the Predators. Beck saw action in 16 games, scoring three goals and seven points. Watson scored his first ever NHL goal in Nashville’s home finale against Calgary, while dressing for six contests. Henderson picked up his first ever NHL goal in his debut, and then suited up for three more NHL games beyond that.
“We have (a lot of) motivated players,” newly-minted 2013-2014 Admirals captain Scott Ford said. “(Many of) our guys have some NHL experience and we have some guys that had tremendous training camps up in Nashville.”
Milwaukee’s top returning forwards will be complimented by talents such as Zach Budish, Josh Shalla, Colton Sissons, Miikka Salomaki and Simon Moser. Last spring Budish registered four points in nine games with Milwaukee after racking up 94 points in 124 games at the University of Minnesota. Shalla was a 2012 ECHL All-Star after scoring 21 goals in 37 games with Cincinnati. Sissons and Salomaki, 2012 and 2011 second-picks of Nashville, represent fresh blood in Milwaukee, along with 24-year-old Simon Moser who was maturing into one of the top players in the Swiss National League A before signing as a two-way free agent with the Predators.
“We think the talent level here is greater, not only with the veterans we have coming back, but with these young players—the Salomakis, the Sissons and the Mosers,” Evason said. “They’re talented players that need to gain the experience of playing pro hockey before they take that next step in their careers. We’re happy with the mix of veteran players, but also with all of the skilled players throughout our lineup.”
Supporting Milwaukee’s offensive weaponry is a returning stable of defensemen that will provide as good of a backbone as there is in the AHL. Despite losing several quality of defenders to the NHL, including Victor Bartley, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis to Nashville and Jonathon Blum to Minnesota, the Admirals blueline will feature five defenders in Scott Ford, Joonas Jarvinen, Anthony Bitetto, Scott Valentine and Joe Piskula that saw action for the Admirals during the 2013 playoffs.
“We have a good young defense corps that is ready to take that next step because they’ve played in enough games and played in enough key situations,” said Ford, who is back for his sixth season in the Brew City. “It’s great for (management in) Nashville, because they know that they have a good group here that’s constantly knocking at the door to push the guys up top.”
A pair of veteran newcomers with at least three years of AHL experience, Theo Ruth and Bryan Rodney, should prove worthy additions to Milwaukee, along with developing prospect Charles-Olivier Roussel who dressed in 17 games with the Admirals last season.
With a great core in front of them, life should be a little easier this season for Hellberg, who developed into one of the great second-half stories last season. It was Hellberg’s impressive play that not only unseated veteran netminder Jeremy Smith, who was a key component of Milwaukee’s previous two Calder Cup playoff teams, but also allowed the Upsalla, Sweden native to emerge as one of the league’s top prospects.
With goaltenders Pekka Rinne and Carter Hutton manning the fort in Nashville, the Predators are looking for Hellberg to continue his impressive maturation in the AHL this season. But the Admirals’ net won’t just be restricted to the big Swede every night. The Predators found another unpolished European goaltending gem in rookie Marek Mazanec. The Ceske Budejoivce, Czech Republic native was one of the surprises of Nashville’s training camp, making a lasting impression on his teammates.
“(Our success) will definitely start with our goaltending and Magnus Hellberg made great strides last year,” Evason said of the AHL’s February Player of the Month. “His development was absolutely tremendous. With Mazanec, the young Czech, we feel that we have two number one goalies as opposed to a one and a two. In both of them we have very young, but talented prospects.”
With Hellberg and Mazanec providing stability and elite goaltending, the Admirals look primed for a fast start, something Milwaukee struggled with in each of the previous two seasons.
“There’s no question that we have a high expectations and anticipation for the start of the season,” Evason said. “We’re putting a lot of pressure on ourselves to play the game right way. All-in-all we should be setup to not get behind early in the year.”
Knowing how hard the climb back up from the bottom of the AHL standings is during the season, the Admirals want to ensure their positioning is better when the calendar turns to March and April.
“We hope to not have to make that end of season run this year and it’s just about being consistent as a team,” Admirals defenseman and Antigo, Wis. native Joe Piskula said. “Points early in the season are way more valuable than you realize when you get down to that final stretch. How important these early games are is big thing for the younger guys to realize.”
If Milwaukee can avoid its recent early pitfalls, the potential is high to return to the playoffs for the 12th consecutive season and make some serious noise in the American Hockey League’s Western Conference, where division rival and defending Calder Cup champion Grand Rapids resides.
“It’s just a matter of putting ourselves in a position early enough so that we are not in an absolute dogfight down the stretch, yet we are still playing our best hockey.” Ford said. “It’s been a bit of a learning experience for our guys, but now that we are a little bit older, maybe not in age but in professional games played, guys should understand how the grind of a full AHL season works. Everyone is excited and chomping at the bit to get at it up in Abbotsford on Friday.”