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Fiala's Offense, Van Guilder's Coaching Have Admirals Gunning for First

by Thomas Willis / Nashville Predators

Twenty-three games remain in the Milwaukee Admirals regular season schedule, and the Nashville Predators’ primary affiliate find themselves in the beginnings of the playoff push.

Two points currently separate three clubs for the top spot in the Midwest Division, and the Ads will have a chance to tie for first on Friday in a contest with the Grand Rapids Griffins. A recently concluded nine-game winning streak vaulted Milwaukee back into the conversation for a division title, something that center Mark Van Guilder said has been a motivation tool.

“It is important,” Van Guilder said. “Because our division is so tough, you can get a lot of confidence from playing those teams like Rockford, [Grand Rapids] and Chicago 12 times a year and somehow coming out on top - that would be huge.”

“Everyone keeps winning and we keep seeing ourselves next to them in the standings; it definitely makes it tough,” Admirals forward Colton Sissons said. “They’re not going anywhere, but neither are we. It’s going to be a fight to the end, I can already feel it.”

Fiala Adjusting Quickly:

Most hockey fans know of the long list of adjustments forced upon a player moving from a European league to either the American Hockey League or National Hockey League in North America.

There’s the smaller sheet of ice to consider, which changes zone reads and makes the entire game seem quicker with players required to make faster decisions. Plus, skaters are often prevented from beating defenders with speed and are forced to settle on the offensive front. Adapting to these new elements can make or break a player’s career, and that’s not even considering the move thousands of miles from home as an 18-year-old.

That’s the adjustment Predators 2014 first-round pick, Kevin Fiala, underwent last month when he left Sweden and HV71 to join the Admirals.

“When he first game over, to his admission, he felt there was no time and no space and that people were on him quickly,” Admirals Head Coach Dean Evason said of Fiala’s acclimation to the AHL. “It took him a few games, three or four, and we kept telling him it would slow down. Do the simple, little things right and the other part will come...we’re [impressed] with how quickly he’s adjusted to the North American game.”

Playing the part of mentor and coach is nothing new for Evason, who said he sees a player’s time with the Admirals as the ultimate preparation tool for the NHL. With players making the huge shift like Fiala has, their time under his tutelage is even more important.

“The main thing is teaching [players from Europe] to not play too much one-on-one hockey,” Evason said. “[Fiala’s] vision is great, but a lot of times guys like that tend to think they can do more than they probably should in one-on-one situations...You also have to learn to be sound defensively. You can play offense for sure, and he can clearly do that, but in order to play in the National Hockey League, you’ve got to play a two-way game.”

After a brief, slow start, Fiala has skated as nearly a point-per-game player with 12 points in 14 games. The winger’s production has been an immediate offensive boost to the Admirals, something of which Fiala’s new teammates have taken notice.

“He’s a nice addition and getting some big points for us, but it was a tough change for him,” Sissons said. “He’s a young kid, and he had just changed his lifestyle completely coming over here. He’s done a great job, and I think he’s done better and better with each game.”

Fiala’s acclimation to the AHL is far from complete, but his ability to roll with the punches and start contributing offensively is certainly a positive sign for the future.

“Clearly, he’s gifted with offensive awareness and talent,” Evason said of Fiala. “He’s gotten better, and playing in the tight areas and making plays when the opportunity presents itself...he’s had to adapt to that, and he’s done that very quickly here.”

Admirals Player-Coach?

Rarely do NHL superstars make the best coaches. Consider Wayne Gretzky, for example. No. 99 holds all of the League’s top scoring records and is largely regarded as the greatest player to ever put on skates, but he fizzled out in four years as the Arizona Coyotes head coach, never qualifying for the postseason.

It’s often more about a person’s ability to communicate why and how to make a play on the ice that makes a good coach rather than the speed of their wrist shot.

This is where Admirals forward Mark Van Guilder comes in.

“It’s always been a lot easier for me to see things from the bench and describe how to do them, then to actually complete them on the ice; that’s kind of the struggle for me,” Van Guilder said with a laugh. “I think it’s my job here. I was good at this even back in high school and in college, just helping guys along with systems and little things here and there that can help their game.”

Evason, the Ads “actual” coach, is very appreciative of his veteran forward’s help with instilling good habits in Milwaukee’s particularly young group of players. He says Van Guilder is catalyst in a league that requires, “winning and developing.”

“We talk all the time about how you can teach as much as you want as coaches and with video, but the teaching comes from within the room from your veteran players,” Evason said. “Van’s been that guy for us. Fiala and [Viktor] Arvidsson were playing with him and they joked that the coaches wanted not a father figure, but a grandfather figure for them to play with. But that shows the respect they, and the entire team, have for him.”

While the 31-year-old center’s long-term career path is currently far from his mind with the Admirals beginning the stretch run, Van Guilder’s results speak for themselves, even if he’s modest about them. The forward has helped not only Fiala with his adjustment process, but has been a sounding board for Sissons - the team’s current goal-scoring leader.

“These guys are so talented and hockey smart that they’re going to make those steps anyway to be honest,” Van Guilder said. “With Sissons, we’re both centermen, so it’s the little things like faceoffs. We just watch each other and how we’re doing against a certain guy, for example, and give each other tips. This and that and the penalty kill, I think little stuff like that can go a long way.

“With Fiala, he’s just so new to this style of hockey from where he comes from. I just try to give him little tips and advice like, ‘hey, you don’t have as much time in this area.’ Sometimes you’ve just have to take what they give you and be patient and wait for the next shift, something like that. I think it’s a little bit of a learning curve, especially for him coming from a whole other style of hockey.”

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