Milwaukee's Role in Sustaining Nashville's Success
Feb 10, 2011
by Jason Karnosky
Few National Hockey League teams have lost more man games to injury than the Nashville Predators this season.
Yet, as of Thursday Nashville sits in fifth place in the Western Conference with 65 points, just five points out of the Central Division lead.
How is this possible? Thank the Milwaukee Admirals.
Seven members of 2010-11 Admirals opening day roster: Nick Spaling, Matt Halischuk, Chris Mueller, Linus Klasen, Mark Dekanich, Andreas Thuresson, Teemu Laakso, and early season acquisition Steve Begin have all suited up in games for Nashville, and the “Milwaukee eight” have all been monumental in keeping the Predators afloat in the playoff race.
On December 3 Dekanich stepped into the Predators’ backup role after Nashville starter Pekka Rinne suffered a knee injury in a game against Columbus.
Milwaukee’s All-Star netminder immediately impressed his new coach.
“He’s a guy that has gotten better every year,” Predators coach Barry Trotz said. “But I look at Mark Dekanich and see an extremely good athlete who is very receptive to learning and works at his craft. There’s no question that he is going to play in the National Hockey League (fulltime some day).”
Instead of the Predators flopping without Rinne, goaltenders Anders Lindback and Dekanich backstopped an impressive run for the club. During the 22 days that Rinne was missing from the lineup, Nashville went 6-2-1.
Dekanich savored his time up with the Predators and saw his first NHL action in 50 minutes of work against the Los Angeles Kings on December 18.
“Playing with that caliber of players every day in practice and watching games from the bench was a great learning experience and that’s how you get better,” Dekanich said. “It was great to be able to get that chance.”
Next to get the NHL call for a prolonged period was forward Linus Klasen. Milwaukee’s offensive maestro stepped in for two weeks around the holidays and played in three games with the Predators.
“It’s a dream come true to play in the National Hockey League and I’ve loved every minute and every day,” said Klasen during his time with the Predators. “To stay up here I know I have to continue to work on the small things, but I think I can be a successful player in this league.”
If you include his one game stint against Detroit on October 30, Milwaukee’s leading scorer averaged nearly 13 minutes of ice time with Nashville and saw over 16 minutes of action in Nashville’s 2-0 loss to St. Louis on December 26.
“Both Klasen and Mueller have done a pretty good job,” said Trotz when he had both Linus Klasen and Chris Mueller in his lineup. “Klasen, obviously, has a special set of hands.”
Chris Mueller earned his NHL promotion on December 27 and would go on to suit up in 15 games for the Predators.
Mueller’s trip up to the next level was a true Cinderella story, as the West Seneca, New York native started the season playing with the Admirals on an AHL contract only. But through his first 33 games in Milwaukee, Mueller tallied 12 goals and added eight assists for 20 points, good for second best on the Admirals.
Mueller’s strong play caught the attention of Trotz and Predators General Manager David Poile, who decided to give the former Michigan State standout a shot with the Predators by upgrading his contract to a two-way, AHL-NHL deal.
“I thought I was working my way toward a new contract, but being called up was a huge surprise,” said Mueller two weeks after joining Nashville. “It was very overwhelming at first, but now I am taking it day by day and trying to play responsibly and keep producing.”
Mueller’s best night with the Predators came against the Phoenix Coyotes on January 18. Playing on a line with fellow Milwaukee call up Matt Halischuk and forward J.P. Dumont, Mueller picked up a pair of assists in 12 and a half minutes of ice time during a 5-2 Predators rout.
“Chris has a really good skill set and a really good work ethic,” Trotz said. “He’s worked really hard to become a good player and get himself into the mix.”
The latest Admiral to earn the call to the NHL this season was Matt Halischuk, who has made the most out of his current promotion. After picking up two assists playing alongside Mueller against Phoenix on January 18, Halischuk scored his second career NHL goal in a 5-1 Nashville win over Colorado on January 20.
Other than Halischuk, the player who started the season in Milwaukee that has had the biggest impact with the Predators is Nick Spaling. Spaling saw four games of action with the Admirals to start the year, but has been playing with the Predators ever since.
Through 47 games of NHL action this season with Nashville, Spaling has collected four goals and seven points, but his biggest impact with the Predators has come on the penalty kill. As one of the NHL’s top shorthanded specialists Spaling has helped Nashville’s penalty kill succeed at a rate of 86%, which is third best in the league.
“Our penalty kill wasn’t going very well (until we called Nick up),” Trotz said. “That’s what Nick does – plays center and kills penalties. We’re still looking for a little more offensive from him, (but) he’s done a really good job as a detailed guy who has played very well.”
Having so many key contributors from the Admirals playing up with Nashville for extended periods of time has had the potential to make life stressful on coach Lane Lambert back in Milwaukee. But Lambert says he enjoys seeing his players take the next step in their careers, even if it is on a short term basis in the NHL.
“We do pay careful attention to the guys that move up within the organization and the progress they make as they go forward,” Lambert said. “Because that’s our job—to develop guys to play and succeed in Nashville.”
As the Predators and Admirals push forward toward the playoffs in the final months of 2010-11, Nashville’s management can breathe a little easier knowing that if a player is called upon to step up from Milwaukee, they will get the job done.
“The guys from Milwaukee have fit in fairly well, even though they all bring different skill sets,” Trotz said. “But I think coach Lane Lambert does a tremendous job of getting his guys in Milwaukee to play the way that we need them to in order for them to be successful in the National Hockey League.”