Who's in Milwaukee (Forward Edition)?
Posted By: Aaron Sims
Moving on from the goalie column I posted last week, we now look to the forwards.
Nashville has a solid, if unspectacular group of forwards at the NHL level. There is also a contingent of youngsters pushing for those spots.
If you were to look at the Predators roster on the team’s website
, you would see 13 forwards, six defenseman and two goalies listed.
In that group of 13 forwards, the following should be locks in Nashville: Martin Erat, Mike Fisher, Patric Hornqvist, Sergei Kostitsyn, David Legwand, Jerred Smithson, Nick Spaling, Jordin Tootoo and Colin Wilson. That is nine players.
The four listed that still have some work to do are: Niclas Bergfors, Matt Halischuk, Cal O’Reilly and Zack Stortini. I put Bergfors on this list because he needs to play with urgency and passion (required by every team, especially the Preds). I have O’Reilly on the list because, after a good start, he faltered a bit when given his big chance last season before a season-ending injury. It does appear Nashville will give him another try. Halischuk spent the bulk of last season in the AHL, but I think he’ll get the chance to be the team’s new “Joel Ward” and Stortini is on the list because he’s a tough guy on a two-way deal. Stortini skates a lot better than many other one-dimensional fighter-types, so that is certainly a major asset for him.
All 13 forwards are on one-way contracts except Wilson and Stortini.
The recent signing of Wisconsin native Craig Smith has thrown a bit of a nice wrench into the plans. Smith had two very productive seasons at the University of Wisconsin for head coach Mike Eaves. The last few months have proven to be huge for the Madison native. Smith told Andy Baggot of the Wisconsin State Journal that Nashville officials were OK with him returning to school, but their outlook changed when Marcel Goc and Ward signed free-agent contracts elsewhere earlier this month. Eaves said Smith didn’t get any guarantees of playing time from Nashville but he has a good chance of reaching the NHL in 2011-12. Smith started the spring as one of the stars for Team USA at the World Championships against NHL-competition in May.
Of course, Blake Geoffrion, who finished the season with Nashville, is in the mix for a full-time job with the Preds.
Then you have two Europeans expected to play in North America this season: Jani Lajunen and Juuso Puustinen. The 21-year-old Lajunen was a 7th-round pick of Nashville’s in 2008. He was second on his team in plus-minus last season in Finland. He also was a member of the Finnish team that won the World Championship in May.
Also from Finland, Puustinen is somewhat accustomed to the North American game as he played two seasons with Kamloops in the WHL. He tallied 124 points in 124 games for the Blazers before starting his professional career back in Finland. The former Calgary draft choice is just 23 years old. He scored 26 of his team’s 150 goals this past season for HPK Hameenlinna. That’s 17%. In the last six seasons, Rich Peverley has scored the highest percentage of Milwaukee’s goals in a single season with 30 of the Admirals 227 in the 2006-07 season (13.2%).
Lajunen and Puustinen will have to show they can play a responsible two-way game. I hate how the term “two-way” is seen as detrimental. It means the guy is well-rounded and responsible. Why is that a bad thing? I digress. Linus Klasen is one of my favorite people. He genuinely cared about how he was playing and knew he had to change his game to play in North America. Old habits were hard to break for Linus, however, and with a young family he had to make some decisions. He went back home. Lajunen and Puustinen will have to be sharper than Klasen.
Kyle Wilson has been an impressive scorer the last few years in the AHL. He earned his first extended time in the NHL with Columbus last season and will be on a one-way deal with Nashville in 2012-2013.
Chris Mueller was one of the feel-good stories in hockey last season. Can he replicate his play and stick with the parent club? How about Ryan Thang, Gabriel Bourque, Brodie Dupont and Taylor Beck?
Competition is a great thing and Nashville is wise to promote it. As much as fans of the team would love to see a 50-goal scorer, there just aren’t many out there. If a team has one, it’s going to keep him.
Nashville has proven it will stash a bigger contract in the minors if it needs to. Ryan Jones and Jed Ortmeyer are players that were in Milwaukee for an extended time even though their contracts paid them nearly $1 million. Trades are also possible. If Kyle Wilson scores eight goals in the preseason, how could Nashville send him to the minors? Someone would have to go to make room.
With all of those preludial paragraphs, I now come to the list of forwards I think we’ll see at the beginning of the 2011-2012 season in Milwaukee. I will assume Nashville keeps 13 forwards. I also stress the “beginning” of the season. Nick Spaling was here at the “beginning” last year, but was soon up to Nashville for good.
Blake Geoffrion (called up early, in my opinion)
Craig Smith (needs to light up camp in Nashville to stay, in my opinion)
Mark Van Guilder
That’s 15 forwards. Injuries will happen. Questionable production will happen.
I’m a bit of a homer…really, I am. I have to say I’m excited by the potential of this club. Claude Noel told me several years ago that if a team is counting on rookies, there’s going to be issues. Beck and Latta, two players being counted on for good things, went through the playoffs with the team last spring. That’ll certainly help their respective causes.
At center, the Admirals should be stronger than they’ve been in a while. Geoffrion, Mueller, Van Guilder, Latta and Wilson are all solid men in the middle. There’s a good mix of size and speed.
Champagne is intriguing because of his size and his ability to put up points at the junior level. Coach Kirk Muller, an all-star center in his playing days, may have a fun project this season in Champagne.
The potential scoring from the wings, specifically Thang, Smith, Dupont, Bourque, Beck, Puustinen and Lajunen is very exciting.
Latta, Dupont and Flynn can provide toughness up front. I’m a tad surprised Flynn didn’t have more fighting majors last season. Let’s see what happens this year.
I know, I know…I’m using that four-letter word, “potential”. This year’s group of forwards has the “potential” to be as potent as the group in 2005-06, the last group that made it to the Calder Cup Finals.
Congratulations to Binghamton Senators play-by-play man Grady Whittenburg (radio), sportswriter Tim Leone of the Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News (newspaper) and Jamie Staton of WMUR-TV in Manchester, N.H. (TV) for winning the AHL’s James Ellery Award for outstanding media coverage. Grady spearheaded a “Plays of the Week” segment for all AHL announcers to use this past season and received rightful praise.
With the hiring of Peter DeBoer to be head coach in New Jersey, five of the 30 NHL head coaches were either players or coaches for the Milwaukee Admirals: DeBoer, Claude Julien (Boston), Jack Capuano (Islanders), Ron Wilson (Toronto) and Claude Noel (Winnipeg).
Former Admirals goalie Wade Flaherty
will serve as Winnipeg’s goalie coach. Former assistant coach Brad Lauer
is an assistant for the Syracuse Crunch (AHL).
We’ll be at the Wisconsin State Fair again this season. Stop by our booth and get your tickets for next season. The AHL schedule should be released soon.