Despite End, 50th Season a Special One
by Jason Karnosky
Milwaukee Admirals—2020 American Hockey League (AHL) champions.
That statement comes with an asterisk, as Milwaukee did not actually finish the 2019-20 AHL season as the team carrying around the Calder Cup. However, on March 12, 2020, when the music stopped on the 2019-20 AHL campaign due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Admirals had best record in the league (41-14-5-3—90 points).
The AHL’s record book will be left blank when referring to the 2020 postseason, but Milwaukee will never forget all that its professional hockey team accomplished in the franchise’s 50th anniversary season, or what could have been in the magical spring that never was.
“This is a bittersweet championship if you want to call it that,” said Admirals Owner/CEO Harris Turer, whose franchise was awarded its second ever Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as the AHL’s regular season champions. “The 50th season of Admirals hockey began with such excitement, and we just had an outstanding team on the ice and an outstanding team off the ice. It’s just too bad because as an organization we would have liked the chance to challenge for the Calder Cup.”
With the league’s best defense (Milwaukee allowed just 144 goals in its 63 games), plus an offense that finished second in the league in scoring (211 goals scored), the Admirals would have been the favorite to win the franchise’s second AHL title. That is a bitter pill to swallow for Admirals coach Karl Taylor, who was a deserving choice for the AHL’s Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award, given to the AHL’s outstanding coach for the 2019-20 season.
“When you look at what we accomplished this season, it was very special and I think our group understands that,” said the Admirals second-year bench boss, who compiled a 77-38-19-5 record in 139 games as Milwaukee’s coach. “But when the finality came of this scenario, it stung. There are no guarantees (that we’d) win a championship, but I think it is extremely disappointing to not get a chance to chase it down regardless with how the playoffs would have played out.”
Anchored by the AHL’s top goaltending tandem of Troy Grosenick and Connor Ingram, Milwaukee stifled opponents all season long. The pair, who each made 33 appearances in 2019-20, shared the league’s Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award, presented to the goaltender or goaltenders with at least 25 games played on the AHL team that allows the fewest goals per game in the regular season.
It was the first time in franchise history that the Admirals won the award.
“It’s a cool award and I’m glad that Connor and I get to share it,” Grosenick said. “We had two goalies that we were really confident going into the season with, and we kind of got on a roll rotating each game. When it comes to allowing goals against, a lot of that comes from the guys in front of us, boxing out and letting us see shots, and then playing as much we did in the offensive end.”
Ingram went 21-5-5 this year, ranking third in the AHL in both goals-against average (1.92) and save percentage (.933). The Imperial, Saskatoon native also made his second straight All-Star game appearance.
“The guys made our job pretty easy most nights,” Ingram said. “We had a really good team and I think we would have had a really good shot at the Calder Cup if we ever got back at it. It was just a weird set of circumstances with how the season ended.”
Hometown hero Grosenick, who grew up in Brookfield, continued to get better with age. The 30-year-old AHL veteran posted a 20-9-3 record and .920 save percentage. For the third consecutive season Grosenick lowered his goals against average (2.29). He capped an outstanding 2019-20 campaign by earning the AHL’s Yanick Dupre Memorial Award in recognition of the netminder’s outstanding community work.
“It’s been an honor for me to play for the Admirals and to comeback home to a community that gave so much to me growing up,” said Grosenick, who’s family owns Milwaukee season tickets dating back to before Troy was even born. “I had great coaches, mentors and teachers, and I thought it was important as an adult to give back. It is my way of saying thank you to them for all of the opportunities I’ve had.”
At times Milwaukee’s offense overwhelmed opponents, coming from many different sources. 10 different Admirals finished the year with 10 goals more. 2019 AHL Most Valuable Player Daniel Carr led his squad with 23 goals and 50 points. Carr’s line mates, Cole Schneider and Tommy Novak, each had terrific years. Schneider finished with 46 points, while the River Falls, Wisconsin native Novak led all Admirals rookies with 42 points.
“(Daniel and Cole) have such high hockey IQs, and they both really know to score and how to play in this league,” said Novak, the AHL’s rookie of the month for November 2019. “It was definitely beneficial for me to get a chance to play with those guys throughout the year.”
Budding National Hockey League (NHL) talent Yakov Trenin scored 20 goals in just 32 games with Milwaukee, before earning plenty of ice time with Milwaukee’s NHL-affiliate Nashville this season. 2017 first-round pick Eeli Tolvanen continued his development by scoring 21 goals in his sophomore AHL campaign.
Another bright spot up front was first-year forward Rem Pitlick, who piled up 20 goals to lead all Admirals rookies. The University of Minnesota product was especially dangerous when Milwaukee had the man advantage, leading his team with 10 power-play goals.
“It was definitely an adjustment transitioning from college to play at this level, but I think by the end of the season I was starting to come into my own a little bit as far as making plays, scoring goals and doing different things like that,” Pitlick said. “Our team had a really good year, and it was a lot of fun to be a part of the winning culture we had.”
Milwaukee got plenty of offense from its blue line as well. Fourth-year veteran Alexandre Carrier (just 23 years old), drove the Admirals transition game, leading the squad with 32 assists and posting 37 points in just 55 games.
Veteran Matt Donovan continued with his stellar play on Milwaukee’s defense, along with rookie Jeremy Davies, who posted the squad’s best plus/minus mark (+26). At age 28, Jarred Tinordi enjoyed a career rejuvenation in Milwaukee, earning a midseason call-up to the Predators that became permanent.
“I’ve been around for a while and I think that’s changed my mindset a little bit,” Tinordi said. “I’m a little more calm and relaxed now about my game, and I’m getting great opportunities in Nashville. I’ve been taking advantage of those opportunities and I hope I can keep doing that.”
Dominant offense, defense and goaltending made for a winning formula in Milwaukee this season. But after a terrific end to the 2018-19 campaign, the Admirals struggled a bit to start 2019-20.
“The run we’ve kind of been on all year dates back to the run we had to end the season last season (gaining points in 14 straight games),” Taylor said. “This year we started out around .500 and just got hammered when we played our first game against Iowa (a 5-2 loss to the Wild on opening night). But we had high expectations for the group, and we just stayed with it.”
It did not take long for the Admirals to gain their sea legs. Starting with a 5-2 win over Chicago on November 2, 2019, Milwaukee rattled off a franchise record 13-game winning streak, which lasted until December 3.
“The 13-game win streak was amazing, and we wish it would have been 30,” Taylor said. “It was an outstanding accomplishment for the group.”
The highlight of the run was a November 19, 2019, contest against Iowa—the same squad that knocked the Admirals out of the playoffs in a decisive fifth game last spring. In perhaps the AHL’s best game of the season, Milwaukee led 3-2 going into the third period. However, the Wild scored three straight goals to a take 5-3 lead late in the contest. The Admirals proceeded to score a pair of goals with their goaltender pulled, before finishing off the comeback in a shootout.
It was Milwaukee’s first win in Iowa since November 28, 2017.
“The way we kind of overcame our Iowa curse was a big highlight of the season,” Grosenick said. “It might not seem like it meant more than the two points we earned that night. But with the adversity we faced playing against them there, and then even the adversity in that game, for us to come out on top gave us a lot of confidence.”
The win streak (which continued on home ice until December 28) propelled Milwaukee into first place in the AHL. It was a position they would hold on to for the rest of the shortened 2019-20 season.
Though they were plenty of additional highlights along the way, including a goalie fight featuring Grosenick and Rockford’s Matt Tompkins in the Admirals’ February 24, 2020, 7-2 shellacking of the IceHogs at UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena, Milwaukee punctuated their 2019-20 campaign during a morning contest against San Antonio on March 11. In what would prove to be Milwaukee’s last game of the season, the Admirals thumped the Rampage 6-1 on home ice in front of over 9,000 fans, most of which were screaming students, during the Baird School Day Game.
“The Admirals won that last game before the league suspended play, playing in front of a bunch of kids from the schools,” Turer said. “Our team had the chance to do something special this year, but I’m also very thankful for the season we had. We accomplished a lot.”
The resounding morning victory made the Admirals the first AHL squad to reach 90 points this season. It was 12th time in the team’s 19 AHL seasons that the franchise hit that mark—an impressive track record of consistently strong play. Only a Grand Rapids victory later that day prevented the Admirals from becoming the first AHL team to clinch a 2020 playoff spot.
The abrupt end of the season left the Admirals to think about what could have been, not knowing if the franchise’s second Calder Cup title was in the cards. However, Milwaukee knows it is worth celebrating everything the team accomplished during the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 campaign.
“We did everything we could this year, and we tried to win every game we played,” Taylor said. “Now that the season is over there is not much we can do about it except celebrate the success we did have, reflect on that success, and then get prepared for whatever next season will look like.”
Despite their disappointment, Milwaukee’s players have not lost the perspective that some things are more important than hockey—which is why the 2019-20 season ended early.
“When you have a team like this, having a season end early is a little bit harder to take, because the playoff run would have been a lot of fun.” Ingram said. “But when you look back at it and you see what is going on in around the world, it is more about the world than us hockey players. It’s not something we should get upset about, and it’s something we probably won’t see again in our lives.”