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Rookies Looking for Their Shot in the Show

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.”

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