While the Predators were rewriting the franchise record books in 2005-06, some of their top prospects were helping the team’s primary developmental affiliate in Milwaukee make some history of its own. Led by third-year head coach Claude Noel, the Admirals set a franchise high in points (108) and wins (49) en route to their second Western Conference title in three years.
“What really stands above in this team has been its resiliency,” said Noel. “They (the players) have embraced a lot of changes in having to take on different roles throughout the year because we have had so many people being called up and down.”
With Nashville losing 272 man games to injury, the recalls came early and often. Jordin Tootoo
, Scottie Upshall and Shea Weber
all spent extended time in Music City, forcing several younger players in the system to embrace leadership roles with Noel’s squad.
|Claude Noel at Predators Prospect Camp. |
“I think the maturity factor with them has been really evident,” said Noel. “With no older guys, now the young guys have been forced to take on that leadership role and they have done a great job. Now it is their team.”
Among those who have made progress this season has been 2003 second-round draft pick Kevin Klein
. In addition to teaming up with fellow defensive partner and team captain Greg Zanon to shut down the opposition’s top producers, Klein pitched in 42 points (10g-32a) in 76 games from the blue line, more than doubling his 16 points from 2004-05.
“Being here all year long has definitely not been a bad thing,” Klein said. “I know there are things I have to work on to get to the NHL, but I am just trying to bide my time, and doing everything possible to get to the next level.”
The Kitchener, Ont., native was given his first shot with the Predators this season, being promoted on two separate occasions in December and March. The 6-1, 195-pound blueliner was pleased that his hard work led to a stint with the Preds, and it helped him identify what he needs to work on to stick in “The Show.”
“I think going up to Nashville this year helped me to know what I have to do to compete at that level, and also gave me the opportunity to play with some very good players,” Klein said. “It gives me something to look forward to and motivates me to work harder.”
|Greg Zanon was an Admiral captain before joining the Preds. |
While Noel has relied on his core of players who have been there all season such as Klein, Zanon, Darren Haydar and Libor Pivko, he is sure not to discount the boost the Admirals have gotten when Nashville has sent reinforcements, especially in the team’s run deep into the Calder Cup Playoffs. Milwaukee received its first sparkplug of the postseason with the return of Tootoo before a decisive Game Seven in round one against the Iowa Stars.
“Jordin really helped us because he gave us some life, and another forward we could put in our top six. He came out and scored in the first four minutes and really carried us in that game,” said Noel.
More help in Upshall, Weber and netminder Pekka Rinne
came prior to the Ads’ second-round series with the Houston Aeros, giving the team just the kick it needed to roll off 10 consecutive victories, good for the second-best run in AHL postseason history.
“They gave us more depth,” said Noel. “We had a couple solid scoring lines and two good checking lines. Eventually, in that Houston series [the Admirals knocked off the Aeros in four straight games to advance to the Western Conference finals], they just got back to being part of our team and just added a huge boost.”
During that stretch, Rinne was a perfect 9-0 with a goals-against average nearing 2.00. Weber tallied seven points (5g-2a), while Upshall notched four goals and nine assists (13 points) during the hot streak.
Upshall’s playoff point-per-game average (1.5) was a continuation of his success in the league, which started in the regular season. When the Ft. McMurray, Alta., native was delivered to Milwaukee in mid-January, he ripped off a staggering 14 goals and nine assists for 23 points in just nine games.
“I certainly would have liked to be in Nashville, but I got to work on some areas of my game I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise, like the penalty kill and the power play,” said Upshall. “I was playing 18 or 19 minutes a game. Those are the things that make you better, not just playing six or seven minutes on the third or fourth line in the NHL. I am just trying to be the best I can be to be a full-time Pred come next season.”
Upshall’s streak in the regulars season – which included two hat tricks in a four-game span,
|Scottie Upshall earned a regular spot in the NHL after developing in Milwaukee. |
and multi-point efforts in all but one of the contests – earned the 6-0, 200-pound power forward AHL Player of the Week honors. More importantly, it allowed him to play the same style which got him drafted sixth overall by Nashville in 2002.
“Here (in Milwaukee) I play the style I did growing up – which is being a leader, and playing a solid game that makes it easy for other guys to jump on the bandwagon, like throwing the body around,” Upshall said. “In Nashville, I am a younger guy playing with some world-class athletes, so I just try to fight hard.”
Upshall also credits the playoff runs with both the Predators and Milwaukee in preparing him for what he hopes will be a long and fruitful career in Nashville in the years to come.
“The playoffs have been a huge step for me as a pro this season to showcase my talent,” Upshall said. “I had to just take it all in the last few years, so it was important year for me to mature as a pro. Plus, I was comfortable coming down and playing with these guys since I had spent some time here during the season.”
Klein and Upshall are just two of the Nashville prospects coach Noel has enjoyed reaping the benefits from during the playoff run, but he is sure many of them won’t stick around in the minors for long.
“I think the future is great for the Predators,” Noel said. “There are quite a few guys on this team that I think have a chance to make an immediate impact in Nashville next season, and some other guys who could sneak in down the road.”
While Noel thinks there could be some bumps in the road, as there are for any young player trying to make a name for himself at the next level, he said they will just continue to blossom with more experience. Much of that he credits to the entire franchise from top to bottom.
“It is important that everyone does there job in all parts of the organization to make it successful,” said Noel. “Everyone from management, to the scouts and the players have done their part in that development and that is what has made both the Predators and us so successful.”