Rookies Looking for Their Shot in the Show
Apr 4, 2012
The American Hockey League prides itself on its role as a training ground for National Hockey League prospects.
NHL teams entrust their AHL affiliates with their top draft picks and free agents, hoping to nurture them into potential stars at the game’s highest level.
That development role is most pronounced in the league’s large crop rookies, many of whom get their first taste of professional hockey by earning ice time for AHL squads such as Milwaukee.
“Our organization doesn’t just go out and pick players, (instead) they go out and find Nashville Predator-type of players,” Admirals coach Ian Herbers said. “They find guys who are going to work and come to the rink wanting to get better every day. All of our first year guys have done that.”
Led by forwards Michael Latta and Taylor Beck, along with defenseman Victor Bartley, seven Admirals rookies have come to the forefront as key components of Milwaukee’s every day roster from the start to finish this season.
“We have a lot of rookies on the team this year,” Latta said. “(Therefore), all of us had no choice but to step up right away.”
In his first full season with the Admirals, Latta has emerged as Milwaukee’s premier power forward. The tenacious checker combines a crafty scoring touch (13 goals in 48 games) with a raucous style of play that has resulted in the second most penalty minutes of any Admiral this season (95).
“It’s a lot different than juniors because here you’re playing against men, so it’s a lot tougher, more physical and you can’t get away with stuff you can in juniors,” Latta said. “I’ve had a great time, learned a lot and improved a lot. It’s been a good transition so far.”
Though the 20-year-old lists as a rookie in the AHL, the Predators’ third-round draft pick in 2009 (#72 overall) caught on with the Admirals at the end of the 2010-2011 season. Latta skated in four regular season contests, and then recorded one assist in seven more games in the 2011 playoffs.
This year Latta’s play has taken off. The St. Clements, Ontario native ranked as one of the team’s leading scorers with 20 points through December.
“Michael’s a versatile player for us, but he also very driven and wants to play in the National Hockey League,” Herbers said. “He wants to be on the ice in key situations with the puck on his stick and being the player that decides the fate of games. Having a player with that type of character and intensity rubs off on everybody else.”
Though injury trouble sidelined Latta for nearly two month during the second half of the season, the first-year forward remains one of the Milwaukee’s most valuable offensive weapons.
“Everything was going good for me and the team and then I broke my wrist,” Latta said. “When I came back eight weeks later I just tried to pick up from where I left off.”
Selected two spots higher than Latta in the 2009 draft, Beck followed a similar career trajectory as his former Guelph Storm teammate, arriving on scene in Milwaukee at the conclusion of the 2010-2011 season.
“I am very pleased with (Taylor’s) development because he’s come a long way from last year,” Herbers said. “He’s really using his size, likes to drives the puck wide and creates a lot of offensive opportunities for us.”
The 20-year-old finished with a pair of goals in eight playoff games before joining the Admirals on a fulltime basis for the 2011-2012 campaign. But unlike Latta, Beck started out slowly, scoring just three goals in his first 17 games.
“It was a bigger hop up that I expected (from juniors),” Beck said. “At the start of the year I wasn’t playing as much as I anticipated.”
But as the St. Catherine’s, Ontario native adjusted to fulltime life as a professional, his production steadily increased. Skating in 67 games to date, Beck now ranks as Milwaukee’s third leading scorer and top rookie producer with 14 goals and 38 points.
“Recently I’ve been playing quite a bit and in different situations,” Beck said. “I think I’ve earned the coaches’ respect and hopefully that can continue.”
Though Beck and Latta represent key prospects for the Nashville Predators in the coming years, Bartley has endured an entirely different route to gain his fulltime playing status in the American Hockey League.
After going undrafted at the conclusion of six years in the WHL, Bartley caught on for a total of 18 games with the Providence Bruins and Bridgeport Sound Tigers during the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 seasons.
It was at that point that the smooth-skating Ottawa, Ontario native took his game to Europe, playing a full season in Sweden’s HockeyAllsvenskan for Rogle (one level below the Swedish Elite League).
Hoping to strike rich with another late bloomer, Nashville signed Bartley to a two-year deal in the offseason allowing the 24-year-old to return to the AHL.
“My transition’s been pretty smooth so far,” Bartley said. “We’ve got good coaches and a good group of guys here, so I’ve been enjoying it.”
Bartley has been a nothing short of invaluable with Milwaukee, ranking 13th in the AHL for scoring by a defenseman with 37 points, and second overall amongst AHL rookie blue liners. For the Admirals, Bartley ranks as the team’s top scoring defenseman and owns the fourth most power play goals (7).
“(Victor’s) mobility is a big asset for our team,” Herbers said. “He gets to loose pucks first and can skate them right out of our zone. On the offensive side he makes a good first pass so he’s good in our transition game, but he’s also a solid defender who keeps a tight gap.”
Defensively the emerging star ranks second on the Admirals in plus/minus with a rating of +12. Bartley is also the only Admiral to dress in all 69 games to date.
“I pride myself in my skating ability and it has paid off so far in my career,” Bartley said. “This year it has paid off in the AHL with (my) two-way play.”
Other first year players such as, Jani Lajunen, goalie Atte Engren, Joel Champagne, Scott Valentine and Ryan Ellis have all played key roles with the Admirals this season.
Prior to his fulltime call up with the Predators, Ellis was playing at an All-Star level in Milwaukee, scoring 18 points in 29 games. Meanwhile, Lajunen and Champagne rank as two of the best defensive forwards on the Admirals, owning matching ratings of plus four. Back on the point, Valentine is one of the Bradley Center’s fan favorites, delivering devastating checks and 67 minutes in penalties through 56 games. Engren has served as a strong 1a option in net for Milwaukee. He is 6-10-0-3 in 42 games with the Admirals this season.
With just two weeks remaining in the regular season all of Milwaukee’s talented crop of first-years professional no longer compete as rookies, but rather represent key contributions to the team’s success. As the Admirals conclude the season with seven of their final eight games on the road, their efforts will be relied upon ever more as Milwaukee vies for its 10th straight postseason appearance.
“Once you hit the halfway point you don’t really look at yourself as a rookie anymore, but (rather) you see yourself as a player that needs to come to the rink every night and contribute,” Bartley said. “Hopefully we can keep banging away and earn a playoff spot.”