In the salary cap era, teams are relying more heavily on their AHL affiliates to develop a steady flow of NHL-ready talent. The Milwaukee Admirals have been a model of development for the Predators. During the 2008-09 season Patric Hornqvist
, Ryan Jones, Cal O'Reilly, Jed Ortmeyer, Antti Pihlstrom
, Mike Santorelli, and Alexander Sulzer all split time between the Preds and Admirals. And Preds rookie goaltender Pekka Rinne
was just one season removed from starring for the Admirals.
As Nashville looks to the 2009-10 season, the organization will look for even more production next season from the crop of young players currently playing for the Admirals. The 2009 AHL Calder Cup Playoffs are a first chance for the current Admirals to show what they’ve learned throughout the year and make a case for promotion next season.
Cody Franson and O'Reilly have started the process strong. Through the first weekend of games, O'Reilly leads all AHL scorers during the post-season with six points in three games, while Franson ranks among the top-scoring defensemen with three ponts.
“It’s the best time of year where the best hockey is played,” O'Reilly said of the playoffs. “If you can play well and do well in the playoffs you can translate that over to the NHL. If I can help my team and play well it can show that I am more ready to play in the NHL next year.”
Franson echoed those sentiments. “I think it will help a lot. Playing in Milwaukee helps you work on certain areas of your game that need improvement and we have a lot of practice time and time when we can work on those areas. It’s been good in that sense. I was able to put up decent numbers through the season. I played better defensively and improved on the part of my game that needed to be improved on. I think it came along quite nicely.”
O'Reilly was helped by his late-season experiences in the NHL, appearing in 11 games for the Predators during a pair of call-up stints. During his last tour with the Preds, O'Reilly stepping into a scoring line role and showed well while centering top forwards like Steve Sullivan.
“I learned what’s it’s like up there, how all the players are and how I’m going to have to play and what I’m going to need to work on to be a good player in that league and stay in that league,” O'Reilly said of his stints in the NHL. “I went up to the top league and played against the best players, when I came back down I just wanted to bring that leadership, that experience, that intensity here and help my team here.”
Nashville Assistant General Manager Paul Fenton thinks the experience was a good one for the young center. “I think what it did was give him a taste of what the NHL is like and what he is capable of doing at that level. He’s got to go back and concentrate on what’s going to make him successful; speed, playing with drive is what is going to bring him back here. And he’s going to do that. He’s obviously very productive down there, but to apply it all together for the role he’s going to play up here, he’s just got to continue getting bigger, stronger, faster, and doing things at a little quicker pace.”
As for Franson, he didn’t get the benefit of a stint in the NHL this season, but after a successful rookie pro season in 2007-08, the second-year pro made significant strides this year … enough so that he was honored with Second-Team All-AHL recognition.
“Yeah, every time you play when it is not your rookie year it’s a little easier to get comfortable out there and play with a little more confidence and do things you wouldn’t do as a first-year guy when you aren’t playing with as much confidence; that definitely plays a part in it and it has gone well,” Franson admitted.
“He has to continue to play with the intensity that we require for our defensemen,” Fenton said. “His skating is still one of these things that he has to continue to work on. He’s still real young and his strength will come, hopefully more this summer, to challenge for a job next year. He’s certainly going to be considered for a job next year because of the qualities I mentioned.”
But the Preds scouts still gush over Franson’s skills and abilities. “His passing skills are elite. He might be the elite passing defenseman in our organization. And his ability to shoot the puck while he’s on the move and getting it through traffic and on the net, is what everybody is searching for in the NHL. The second game (vs. Rockford) he scored a tremendous wrist shot goal that he put just inside the post and under the cross bar … from the blue line. He had his head up, he saw the spot he wanted, he pin-pointed it, he threw it right through some oncoming traffic right to the top of the net. If you thought that was by luck, it wasn’t. This kid has as accurate a shot from the point as anyone we’ve had. You can compare Shea Weber
to him, but Weber is more the power, more the ‘I’m just going to put it on net and I’ll power it past you.’ But Cody seems to have a purpose with every shot he takes. By doing that, it’s a weapon we can sorely use, both here and in Milwaukee.”
The Predators hope to get an extended look at their next wave of young players during a long playoff run with the Milwaukee Admirals this spring.