The Nashville Predators have a long history of developing players through a process that includes time spent playing as a member of the team’s top minor league affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals.
In all but the rarest of cases, Nashville’s coaching staff and management adhere to a path for prospects that allows the young players to get their first professional hockey experience in the American Hockey League, not the National Hockey League.
The play of rookies Roman Josi, Gabriel Bourque and Ryan Ellis during the 2011-12 season served as a validation of that process. All started the season in Milwaukee and were called up to the parent club during the season. Once in Nashville, Josi collected 16 points (5 goals, 11 assists) and a plus-1 rating in 52 regular season games, playing as one of the team’s top-four defensemen. Bourque posted seven goals and 12 assists in 43 Predators games before tying for the team lead in goals (3) during the playoffs. Ellis notched 11 points (3 goals, 8 assists) and a plus-5 rating in 32 NHL games.
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After going 6-2-0-2 over their final 10 regular season games to make the playoffs, the Admirals ran into a tough Abbotsford Heat team that swept them in three games in late April. After Milwaukee was eliminated from AHL post-season play, defensemen Jonathon Blum and Victor Bartley, forwards Chris Mueller and Kyle Wilson, and goaltender Jeremy Smith were recalled by Nashville and added to the Predators’ playoff roster. None saw NHL playoff action due to the Preds’ incredible depth, though Mueller and Smith practiced with the parent team.
Canadian Hockey League Playoffs
OHL: Prospect Austin Watson’s London Knights won the Ontario Hockey League championship, defeating the Niagara Ice Dogs in five games. Watson, a center, tallied 10 goals, seven assists and a plus-10 rating in 19 playoff games and was awarded the Wayne Gretzky 99 Award as playoff MVP.
QMJHL: Prospect Charles-Olivier Roussel won the Quebec Major Junior League championship with his Saint John Sea Dogs team, who completed a four-game sweep of Rimouski on Thursday. Roussel ranked second among league defensemen in playoff assists with 12 and collected 15 points in 17 games.
WHL: Cameron Reid’s Portland Winterhawks lost in seven games to the Edmonton Oil Kings in the Western Hockey League finals. Reid, a center, posted five goals, six assists and a plus-7 rating in 22 playoff games.
--Doug Brumley, NashvillePredators.com
Even players like Ellis, who had a highly decorated Canadian major junior hockey career, find it beneficial to get their start in Milwaukee.
“I think it’s a great learning curve,” Ellis says. “Coming out of junior, college, or wherever you played, I think you have to adjust to the pro life. Playing in Milwaukee gives you a chance to do that. I think for me personally it did. Coming up here [to the NHL,] I kind of had a little bit of experience at the pro level, and to adjust to this wasn’t as hard as you would think it would be.”
Trotz says he noticed a marked difference in the three rookies’ play between training camp and the time of their NHL call-ups.
“Roman was behind the 8-ball,” Trotz says. “He had a concussion issue. Early last year he broke his wrist. But he needed to play big minutes down in Milwaukee and then when he came up he played well. Same with Ryan Ellis: Ryan had a good training camp but he needed to play with more pace. And he did that with the American League and when he came up he did well.
“Those are things that you need players to do, go through that process. They won’t have those hiccups. I always talk about going through Milwaukee; if I had my druthers, I don’t think a player that is under probably 20 years old should play in the [NHL]. Or 21 years old. And there are some great players, trust me.”
For contrast, Trotz pointed to the play of rookie forward Craig Smith, who made the jump directly from college to the NHL for the 2011-12 season. Smith had a respectable first campaign, collecting 14 goals and 22 assists in 72 regular season games. Twenty-five of his 36 points came in the first three months of the season, however.
“The easiest part of the year for a player is the start of the [season]—for young players to compete at the NHL level,” Trotz says. “Because the NHL level is the lowest it will be all year at the start of the year. So when you see a guy get out of the gates really good, a young player, that’s not uncommon, because they’re playing at their top level and a lot of the veteran players haven’t really hit their stride yet. That’s why you see a lot of times, some rookies will fall off after about 20, 30 games and then they never really finish real strong.
“Craig Smith was a good example this year. He got off to a great start, great training camp, and as the season started to ramp up and ramp up, his play went down. But he’s never had to play as many games.”
Another of Nashville’s top prospects, 21-year-old defenseman Mattias Ekholm, struggled to a much greater degree while making the direct jump from Sweden’s Elite League to the NHL at the start of the 2011-12 season. He had troubles adjusting to the North American style of hockey under NHL pressure and returned to Sweden after playing just two games with the Predators. For the coming season he plans to return to North America—this time on a path that runs through Milwaukee.
Sometimes a young player’s innate talent can tempt an organization to circumvent the minor league development stint, but Trotz believes the slow and steady development plan proves itself over time. It’s why the Predators tend to be patient and conservative with prospects in most cases.
“So many teams will rush a guy at 18 or 19 [years old] and then he might have a good first year, might even have a good second year,” Trotz says. “Then something will happen in his career and he’ll fall off and then it starts getting ramped down and he doesn’t know how to stop it. Where when you’ve gone through the ups and downs of trying to climb up the ladder [between the AHL and NHL], you know how to climb. And when you do hit a dry point or some adversity, you sort of are able to stabilize. So you might take a half step backwards and then you start going forwards.
“[Whereas] guys that have never had that adversity, they start going down the ladder, they don’t know how to stop the slide. Therefore doubt creeps in, [lack of] trust creeps in and their minutes are reduced and their production goes down and then all of the sudden they’re one of those busts that you talk about. ‘Well this guy never made it.’ Well, he never was given a chance. I don’t say he wasn’t given a chance to play in the NHL; he wasn’t put in a position to have success. The great ones won’t have a problem with [the transition straight to the NHL]. But there are very few great ones, if you think about it.”