Milwaukee, Wis. - When it comes to Nashville Predators prospects, few - if any - have likely spent the last few months traversing the same whirlwind as Ryan Ufko.

Wrapping his junior year with the University of Massachusetts Amherst Minutemen on March 28, the defensive prospect inked a three-year, entry-level contract with his draft team a day later, clearing the way for him to make his American Hockey League debut with the Milwaukee Admirals on April 2.

Skating in his first nine career AHL outings down the stretch of Milwaukee’s 2023-24 campaign, Ufko recorded a goal and five assists. However, the fun was only just beginning. 

Now 12 games into his first Calder Cup Playoffs run, Ufko is just trying to enjoy the moment and help his new teammates to success.

“It's definitely been a transition, but it's been a fun one for me,” Ufko said following morning skate at UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena on Tuesday. “I played my last game at school and then I came here and played my first game within three or four days, so it was really quick but it was fun… It's definitely a little bit faster, guys are more skilled than in college and some plays happen a little bit quicker, but I try not to think too much about it. I just play my game and focus on myself.”

To be certain, there’s plenty to like about the rookie blueliner’s game already - the accolades and benchmarks from his final NCAA campaign proof positive.

Ufko finished this season named a finalist for the Hockey East Player of the Year award, a nominee for the Hobey Baker Award, a semifinalist for the Walter Brown Award and the winner of the Len Ceglarski Sportsmanship Award. The UMass co-captain was additionally named a Hockey East First-Team All-Star and earned three conference weekly honors, while establishing an NCAA career high in goals (10) and finishing second among Minutemen defensemen in points (26).

That success has certainly carried over into his play at the professional level.

“He's just a poised young man,” Admirals Head Coach Karl Taylor said. “He obviously played big minutes in college and he’s played great for us at the end of the regular season and in the playoffs. He just looks like he's got a lot of poise with the puck, but the surprising part with him is that he defends very well. And so we're not afraid to use him in different situations. It's not like he's just an offensive player. I think he defends really well and takes a lot of pride in that. And that goes back to his college coaches and his college team and how they prepared him and the minutes he played at that level.”

Indeed, running through the same program that produced Norris Trophy winner Cale Makar just a handful of years ago, Ufko felt his game grow considerably since his name was called by Nashville in the fourth round (115th overall) of the 2021 NHL Draft. 

“I've always tried to be an offensive player, so going to UMass was great for me,” Ufko said. “With the development they've had with their defensemen over the years, it was kind of a no-brainer. But the whole staff there and that whole program really helped me. So that was something that I'm really proud of and really grateful for, and obviously taking the next step now, we're still working. There's still room for improvement, but it's always a learning process.”

The rookie blueliner has of course been helped along in the process playing alongside 24-year-old defenseman Marc Del Gaizo, a fellow UMass alum and the owner of nine career NHL games, three full-length AHL campaigns and three trips to the Calder Cup Playoffs. 

“I’d never played with him before, but he knew all of what I was taught at UMass, just being there before me,” Ufko said. “Just having a helping hand off the ice too - someone saying, ‘It'll be fine, this is similar to what we did at UMass’ or ‘This is a little bit different’ - it's definitely something that was nice and useful to have as a tool. He's been great, it’s been great playing with them and he’s just a great guy.”

“They both skate well, they defend well and I think they both complement each other,” Taylor said. “We move things around, and we played seven [defensemen] quite a bit this year. So when that happens, the pairs get all juggled and they get moved around for everyone… But those two guys play well together, they move the puck well and I think they enjoy being around each other.”

The pairing has yielded positive results for the Admirals and for Ufko, who has played big minutes in his first 12 AHL postseason outings and yielded six assists and one goal - a timely, third-period insurance marker for Milwaukee in Game 5 of their Central Division Finals series against the Grand Rapids Griffins.

Of course, that goal - the first of Ufko’s professional postseason career - did tremendous things for the young skater’s confidence.

“That was definitely a good feeling,” Ufko said. “I love to be offensive and I try to make plays when I can. So doing that and getting rewarded for it kind of just tells me I can keep doing that, I can pick my spots, pick my moments when I have to. But it was just a great feeling.” 

“When you produce in a big moment, I think that's why we love these types of events and playing in the playoffs - the challenges that the young guys see and feel,” Taylor said. “And you can see it in Nashville with a lot of those players that were there from our team, like Luke Evangelista, Kiefer Sherwood, Michael McCarron and Mark Jankowski - the experience they had last year going through playoffs with us I think assisted them going through into the season run and into the playoffs. And having that experience, you want players to be under duress, you want them to be challenged, you want them to have to play against good teams and play in big moments.”

Prior to the Calder Cup Playoffs, Ufko was indeed tested in his share of big games - perhaps most notably at the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship, where the Smithtown, N.Y., native tallied the joint-most points by a defenseman (10) en route to a bronze medal for Team USA.

His medal-winning play on the world stage, his consistent production at the collegiate level and now in the AHL, are of course all encouraging signs for Nashville’s front office.

“The moment, for him, is never too big,” Admirals General Manager and Predators Director of Player Development Scott Nichol said. “You go back to his days in college and then even when he was at the World Juniors in Halifax - every opportunity he just seizes the moment and plays the same way… He just has ice in his veins and he makes the right plays. He doesn't overcomplicate his game, he just plays within himself and he has the belief and the confidence that he's going to get it done and so far he’s been awesome.”

The Admirals will look for Ufko’s confidence, as well as his offensive contributions, to continue on Tuesday evening as they look to chip away at a two-game deficit in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals against the Coachella Valley Firebirds.

Having staved off elimination by winning three in a row in the division semifinals, then battling past Grand Rapids in a tough, five-game division finals, the Admirals’ locker room has no shortage of belief headed into the important contest. 

“It's kind of all we talked about yesterday,” Ufko said. “We were down 2-0 to Texas and we came back here and we won all three, and then we lost the first game against Grand Rapids, but we came back. We believe in this group, and I wasn't here all year, but like everyone says, we were a first place team in our division for a reason. So we just have to believe in that. We all believe in each other and we all feel like we can get it done.” 

Puck drop at UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena is set for 7 p.m. CT, with the game available to stream with a subscription to AHLTV.