Ads Influence Lifting Preds
By Jason Karnosky
The Nashville Predators are soaring to unprecedented heights this spring, reaching the pinnacle of the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in franchise history.
The wings carrying the Predators sky-high? It’s the Admirals, who helped shape the careers of 18 of the 25 players used by the Predators in this year’s postseason.
“Over half of the guys on our playoff roster came through the Milwaukee organization and that is exactly what development is all about,” Nashville Predators General Manager David Poile said. “It’s great for the city of Milwaukee and the type of hockey they get to see there and it’s going to be great for the players that will eventually play in Nashville.”
This year’s Predators playoff roster features eight players that played for Milwaukee in 2016-17 alone, including such key contributors as forwards Harry Zolnierczyk, Kevin Fiala and Miikka Salomaki, defenseman Matt Irwin and goaltender Juuse Saros.
Several other Smashville stars, including forwards Filip Forsberg, Calle Jarnkrok and Colton Sissons, were full time Admirals within the past three seasons. Even all-world goaltender Pekka Rinne, potentially on the way to his first ever Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP, had a two-game rehab stint in Milwaukee just three years ago.
“It’s very satisfying for everybody here in Milwaukee to see the successes of all of the Admirals (alumni) in Nashville,” Admirals coach Dean Evason said. “Nashville coach Peter Lavoilette can’t afford to go through growing pains with our young players. These guys were prepared for the NHL in Milwaukee and were ready to go up when Nashville needed them.”
The Admirals’ influence on Nashville, which is prevalent every season, is becoming more and more noticeable as the Predators advance further and further along in the playoffs. In Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals against the Anaheim Ducks, Nashville lost captain Mike Fisher and forward Ryan Johansen to injuries (in Johansen’s case season-ending). Former Admirals picked up the slack to win two crucial games and the series.
Pontus Åberg, the Admirals leading scorer in 2016-17, snagged the game-winner in Game 5, one shift after getting his face smashed on the ice. In the decisive Game 6 gritty Austin Watson (who has 232 AHL regular season games on his resume and three in 2016-17) chipped in a pair of goals, while Sissons, who played in 179 games for Milwaukee from 2013-16, picked up his first career NHL playoff hat-trick.
Sissons, Watson and Åberg are still in the early stages of their careers with bright futures ahead. Others, who called Milwaukee home at one point in their career, developed into some of NHL’s best talents, including Rinne, Roman Josi, Minnesota’s Ryan Suter and Montreal’s Shea Weber. This year a pair of young players that honed their craft in Milwaukee, forward Viktor Arvidsson and defenseman Ryan Ellis, are enjoying coming out parties and look destined to be stars of the future.
Arvidsson, a Nashville fourth-round draft pick in 2014, was hardly a household name when he arrived in the Music City for development camp later that summer. Yet, Predators Chief Amateur Scout Jeff Kealty and later Evason, saw something special in Arvidsson. The Admirals bench boss found himself casually asking the undersized Swede if we was willing to come over and play in Milwaukee for the upcoming season.
“He said ‘Absolutely, that is exactly what I want to do’,” Evason recalled. “Nobody knew if (Viktor’s) game would translate to North America or not, but from that point forward he just kept going upward with his development. His work ethic is second to none. Clearly, he has the skill to skate, shoot and make plays, but it’s that competitiveness that allowed him to have the great success he’s having.”
Ellis was a much higher draft selection, picked by Nashville in the first round of 2009. Yet, the Flamborough, Ontario native needed extended time in the AHL to polish up his game and show that as a 5-10 blue liner, he could compete every night at an NHL level.
“(Ryan) is very similar to Viktor Arvidsson in that they are both very skilled guys who are undersized but work their butts off,” said Evason, who coached Ellis in 32 of his 61 AHL regular season games.
“Everybody said (Ryan) was too small and too small to defend in the NHL, but we knew he would find a way to have success because he plays the game the right way and competes. He did that for us in Milwaukee and now he’s doing it with Nashville on a consistent basis.”
The play of Arvidsson, Ellis as well as many other Milwaukee developmental players such as Mattias Ekholm and Colin Wilson shows not only the impact Milwaukee has had on this year’s playoff run, but the impact the Admirals have on the Predators sustaining this level of success over the long haul.
There are few developmental relationships in the NHL/AHL that can rival Nashville and Milwaukee. Since 2003-04 when Nashville made the playoffs for the first time, the Predators have missed out on the postseason just three times. Meanwhile, the Admirals failed to be playoff bound just twice in their entire AHL existence dating back to 2001-02, winning a Calder Cup and losing another in the championship round along the way.
Current Predators forward Vern Fiddler was a part of Milwaukee’s 2004 championship team, while Rinne backstopped the Admirals four series run two years later.
“Milwaukee’s already won a title, but we need to win that big one, the Stanley Cup, someday,” General Manager David Poile said. “We do things the right way on and off the ice with both franchises.”
Like the Predators, this year’s Admirals made the playoffs after posting a 43-26-4-3 record. Unfortunately, Milwaukee fell in the first round to Grand Rapids in three tight games. Two of those losses came in overtime, while the other was a one-goal game until the Griffins scored a pair of empty net goals.
“We likely had the closest group, the most balanced group, of any team I’ve coached here,” Evason said of the 2016-17 Admirals. “Grand Rapids was very good, but we were right there. It hurts a little bit more knowing that with a timely goal, or a bounce, that series could have been a different story.”
It was a tough lesson to endure for the Admirals, but many players benefited from the experience and the closeness of the series, including forward Frederick Gaudreau.
“It was hard to finish the season the way we did,” said Gaudreau at the conclusion of Milwaukee’s playoff run. “I’m going to go to Nashville and will see what happens. I’ll take it as it comes but I will be ready when I’m needed.”
When Fisher dressed in a suit instead of a jersey for the last two games of the Western Conference Finals, Gaudreau became indispensable. Laviolette found the Bromont, Quebec native black ace ready for the challenge.
"We were minus a couple of (centers) and were running low on options,” Laviolette told reporters after Game 5. “(Thankfully Frederick) jumped in and did a terrific job."
With Milwaukee and Nashville agreeing this spring to extend their affiliation agreement through 2021-22, expect much more success for each squad over the next few years, as Milwaukee keeps developing talent and Nashville keeps benefiting from it.
“We were very disappointed with how our season ended, yet at the same time we were very pleased with the development of our team,” Evason said. “You look at the some of the players here, and then look at the way they’ve played up in Nashville, they were prepared to play from their time in Milwaukee and that’s exciting for the whole organization.”
That development is likely to be reflected in Nashville for years to come. The only question now is whether the Predators will get to enjoy the ultimate benefit from their Admirals assets—a Stanley Cup, this spring.
Four more Nashville wins will result in names, players that polished up their skills in Milwaukee, being etched forever on hockey’s holy grail.