The primary pipeline for introducing talent to the Nashville Predators has long been the Milwaukee Admirals.
From draft picks, to prospects and ultimately to NHL regulars, the majority of Predators players have spent time with the club’s minor league affiliate before coming to Nashville, and that tradition shows little sign of changing.
But while the value of the Admirals may be unaltered, the coaching transition in Nashville and player personnel changes in Milwaukee have revised the Admirals appearance. Predators Assistant General Manager Paul Fenton has seen this firsthand, due to his role as GM of the Admirals.
“We’ve had a consistent pipeline that comes into Nashville. But the most interesting part is when you make a coaching change at the top level, it kind of opens up everybody’s eyes and makes people know that they have to make an impression,” Fenton said. “We’re looking forward to seeing our kids come in here from Milwaukee and make an impression on the new staff.
“Our track record is going to be the same goal, we’re going to try to develop kids that are going to be able to help us win here in Nashville.”
Fenton won’t know exactly what his roster will look like in Milwaukee for a couple weeks, until the slew of position battles are worked out in Predators training camp. At least 16 skaters competing for 12 forward spots certainly makes for an interesting competition.
“We’re excited because we’ve got some young talent that could possibly come in and take someone’s job away,” said Fenton. “Every year it seems that somebody makes an impression to some degree, a unique impression that catches people’s eyes. Joel Ward is the most recent one that comes to mind. We had him playing in a checking role for [Milwaukee], but he came in and made such a good impression on the coaching staff that he made his way [on to Nashville's roster].”
Nashville’s depth at forward could be boosted by the presence of Calle Jarnkrok and Filip Forsberg (both spent time in Milwaukee last season) or 2014 draft pick Kevin Fiala, a trio that Fenton says all have a legitimate chance at playing for the Predators this season.
The Admirals are ready to promote a large number of forwards to Nashville if needed, due to the recent influx of talent up front on the team. Austin Watson, Taylor Beck and Miika Salomaki will likely all take on even more important roles in Milwaukee this season, while the introduction of Pontus Aberg and Brendan Leipsic (both 20-year-olds) will give the Admirals plenty of depth at forward.
On the blue line, the Admirals will feature a young nucleus with four defensemen that are ready to fill in if injury strikes the Predators defensive corps.
“We signed one of our veteran players back in Joe Piskula. He played a couple games for Nashville last year; that’s why we originally signed him--to be a depth defenseman. We feel very comfortable that he would be the first guy we’d look to,” Fenton said. “Anthony Bitetto had nine goals in about the first 25 games last year. He’s got an offensive flare, a physical edge to him and he’s a great skater. We think he could be ready too.
“We signed Johan Alm as a free agent. We originally projected him to make our lineup here in Nashville, but we added some other depth; so he should be close to making it. And there’s Garrett Noonan, who played four years of college hockey. He’s got an edge to his game and we think he could play some games for the [Predators] too. Those four could step in and play games for Nashville, so we’re pretty confident.”
The Admirals steadied a shaky situation in goal for the Predators last season, when Nashville netminder Pekka Rinne missed 51 games. Goaltenders Marek Mazanec and Magnus Hellberg both logged their first NHL minutes during the stretch of contests Rinne was absent, but the pair might be best served to spend their time in Milwaukee this season.
“Maz really challenged things last year and showed that he’s mature. I think he’s just going to mature this year,” said Fenton. “But Hellberg had a real troubling year. He really didn’t establish himself as a prospect last year; he had a tough time. We challenged him this summer to go and get his game back. He’s got to re-establish himself this year as a prospect. He’s going to have a tough go to make himself a No. 1 or No. 2 goalie in Milwaukee. We’re going to find what type of competitor Hellberg is.”
The addition of former Cincinnati Cyclones goaltender Rob Madore will also help to increase the competition level in the Milwaukee crease. Fenton says Madore should push Hellberg and Mazanec to sharpen their skills quickly.
Like the NHL club they support, the Admirals will have a variety of interesting storylines at the team’s three positions. The youngest team ever in Milwaukee will attempt to qualify for the postseason for the 13th-straight year, while several forwards and maybe a couple of defenseman could be called upon to play for the Predators in 2014-15. However the season plays itself out, there’s little doubt the Admirals will be developing the talent Nashville needs to succeed. Just as they have for more than a decade.