While all eyes in Nashville were focused on the Predators run to the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, another club a few hours north was also making noise, led by future members of the Preds roster.
The Milwaukee Admirals of the American Hockey League, Nashville’s primary minor-league affiliate, finished their 2015-16 season with 48 wins, their highest total since 2009, and 101 points to clinch their first division title since 2010-11. In his fourth season with the club, Head Coach Dean Evason guided the Ads to their 13th playoff berth in the last 14 seasons, with perhaps the best roster his club has ever seen.
“We had a great year, we really did,” Evason said. “Our season was phenomenal. We went through a lot of adverse situations, our players developed individually and our team developed as a group… I thought the team that we had here, that [Predators Assistant General Manager/Admirals General Manager] Paul [Fenton] put together, was as good as any team as we’ve seen here, and I don’t mean just skill wise, but the combination of veterans and youth and skill and grit, we had it all.”
Milwaukee lost in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs, of course not the ending they hoped to achieve, but there was a silver lining. Forwards Colton Sissons and Cody Bass, who both began the season in Milwaukee, were skating with the Preds during their postseason run in mid-April. As a result, both Sissons and Bass, Milwaukee’s captains, weren’t able to lead the club.
However, the ultimate goal in the AHL is to mold players into NHLers. From that standpoint, the triumphs were plentiful.
“That’s what we’re doing here, we’re trying to put people in positions to have success,” Evason said. “When we saw Bass go up and Sissons go up, it’s a great pride thing. It hurt us in the playoffs to not have those types of people in the leadership roles, but we were so excited and happy for them to get their opportunity. We’re disappointed how it ended, but certainly happy with the overall success that we had as an organization here in Milwaukee.”
Much like Sissons and Bass, a number of players saw success during 2015-16, improving their game in Milwaukee in hopes of getting a chance in Nashville. The opportunity came for some last season; for others, it’s still a year or two away. But Evason and his staff know in due time the players who led the Admirals in the present will find themselves sporting Gold in the future.
Viktor Arvidsson, a fourth-round pick of the Preds in 2014, has continued to solidify himself as an NHL regular. Arvidsson saw 17 games in Milwaukee last season, and 56 more at the NHL level, potting eight goals and 16 points with the Preds; not to mention, a game-winning, overtime goal in Game Six of Nashville’s Round Two series with San Jose.
“When Arvi scores the goal there in Nashville, we were obviously excited for the Nashville Predators, but we’re so excited for a guy like Viktor Arvidsson, who we’ve seen develop in front of our eyes,” Evason said. “For him to get his opportunity and have success here is extremely exciting for everybody in the organization. I was just saying how fun it is when we bring up a player and tell him that he’s going to the NHL for the first time, which we did with Arvi, and then to see him have success, it gives us great pride.”
Evason and Assistant Coaches Stan Drulia and Scott Ford got that chance on a few occasions last season, and will undoubtedly be doing so again soon. One of those players who got the call was Kevin Fiala. The 19-year-old winger, who participated in five NHL games last season after skating in one contest in 2014-15, led the Admirals in scoring, posting 18 goals and 50 points in 66 games. Still maturing in all aspects, Evason ultimately liked what he saw out of Fiala during his first full season with the Admirals.
“Kevin made great strides this year,” Evason said. “There were a lot of adjustments early for him, on and off the ice, but the reason he was down here and with us is to do exactly that, and develop, not only as a hockey player, but as a person. He had some growing pains through the year, he had some stuff on the ice and some situations that happened that needed some adjusting, but for the most part, Kevin had a really good year. Clearly, the stats indicate on the ice that he performed very well, and he made great strides in maturing as a young man.”
A pleasant surprise for Evason and staff was the play of winger Max Gortz. The 23-year-old Swede spent his first season in North America, and while it took some time for Gortz to adjust to the new lifestyle, Evason believes everything began to come together, allowing Gortz to slot second on the team in points with 47 in 72 games played.
“He has a world-class shot, just world class,” Evason said of Gortz. “He’s close to getting a shot, but in order for him to get that shot, he just needs one more gear in his stride. He’ll find that this summer, but off the ice, he was a great teammate… he adjusted very well and went through a stage and a maturing situation and came through them, and it allowed him to have success on the ice for what he did off the ice.”
Perhaps the best story of the season in Milwaukee was that of Frederick Gaudreau. Never drafted, Gaudreau signed a two-year, entry-level contract with the Preds in January after continuing to impress during his first full AHL season. He hasn’t gotten the call to Tennessee yet, but Evason believes it’s only a matter of time.
“Freddie Gaudreau was everything for our hockey club this year; it’s a tremendous story,” Evason said. “From a guy that came to development camp and was a tryout when we signed him, and to where he is today… You hear the clichés all the time, the first guy on the ice, last guy off, works so hard, it’s very true about Freddie Gaudreau, and that’s allowed him to sign an NHL contract this year.
“We can use Freddie Gaudreau as a wonderful example of a guy that had the right attitude in every situation that you put him in and it’s allowed him to have success. He’s not in the NHL yet, but he has an NHL contract, for a guy that just came for a tryout. Certainly the entire organization should take pride in how Freddie has developed so far.”
At the goaltending position, the Admirals had a perfect combination with Marek Mazanec and Juuse Saros backstopping Milwaukee to the division title. Saros even notched a game in Nashville, making his NHL debut on Nov. 28, 2015, against Buffalo. Saros posted a 29-8-0 record for the Ads in 2015-16, earning four shutouts over the course of an impressive season.
“As far as Saros, we can’t say enough about him and what he did this year,” Evason said. “He is one of the most mature, young people that we’ve had come through this organization, and it’s certainly allowed him to have success. He’s a great teammate, the guys love him, and they clearly played very well and hard in front of him.”
The seasons in both Milwaukee and Nashville have recently come to a close, but there’s only a month to go until Predators Development Camp gets underway at the end of June. It’s there that the Preds get to see some fresh players and evaluate how familiar ones have improved. Someone is going to get the call for the first time soon enough, and Evason can’t wait to deliver the message. As has been said before, the road to Nashville, Tennessee, runs right through Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
“We’re just really looking forward to getting to know these guys a little bit more for the week, to watch them go through the Development Camp and become leaders, and it’s exciting,” Evason said. “Any time you start the new year, you get to look at some new faces, build some relationships here in development camp and look forward to training camp from there.”
Photos via the Milwaukee Admirals, to view more, click here.