Milwaukee’s Optimistic About Next Season
By Jason Karnosky
Optimism is something many teams enjoy prior to an upcoming season, when records are erased and the standings start fresh.
However, few teams that don’t reach their goals the prior year are as an enthusiastic about the near future as the Milwaukee Admirals, who after missing the Calder Cup playoffs for the first time in 13 years this past spring, are chomping at the bit for the upcoming campaign. Milwaukee is a key part of a Nashville Predators organization that as a whole feels like it is maturing into something truly special.
“It’s hard to say when you miss the playoffs that it was a good year, but we had some really great times throughout the season,” Milwaukee coach Dean Evason said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t get the results that we wanted, first of all making the playoffs, and second advancing with the ultimate goal of winning a Calder Cup, but there was lots of great progress with this group.”
Milwaukee’s optimism revolves around the success last year of its parent National Hockey League club, Nashville. The Predators enjoyed a remarkable turnaround season under first year coach Peter Laviolette. After a two-year postseason hiatus, Nashville (47-25-10—104 points) returned to the playoffs this past spring as the second seed in the NHL’s Central Division.
The stacked Central was easily the toughest division in professional hockey last year, and was home to the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, which eliminated the Predators in six games last spring.
“Nashville had a tremendous year last year, and certainly the success the Predators had was due in large part to how people developed here (over the years) in Milwaukee,” Evason said. “When your parent club does well, like Nashville did last year, our club has to take pride in doing our job as an organization. We want to prepare and fit people to play at the highest level (for the Predators).”
Milwaukee’s finger prints were all over the Nashville’s success, as the Predators’ 2014-15 roster featured several Admirals graduates, including rookie sensation Filip Forsberg and perennial all-star goaltender Pekka Rinne (who played in two contests with Milwaukee as recently as 2014).
Many 2014-15 Admirals got shots to play key minutes with Nashville this past season as the Predators ran into injury troubles in the year’s latter months. Those opportunities were valuable experiences for prospects like forward Viktor Arvidsson (Milwaukee’s leading scorer with 55 points) and defenseman Anthony Bittetto, both of which are preparing for extended tenures in NHL in the not so distant future.
“If you talk to a guy like Colton Sissons, (Anthony) Bittetto, or even Arvy (Viktor Arvidsson), just to get into those games helps you feel more comfortable at that level,” said Admirals forward Austin Watson, who has six games on NHL experience on his budding hockey resume. “(With that experience) going into training camp the following year you have a little more feel for the NHL level which is a positive thing.”
Another element of Milwaukee’s optimism for next season has to do with the youthful core of its roster. After fielding the American Hockey League’s youngest team last year, the Admirals’ 2015-16 locker room will be filled with many familiar faces.
“It’s a tough thing not making the playoffs,” Watson said. “But from a development standpoint to see guys getting more comfortable with the pro game, not only the rookies but also the veterans here like myself is a huge thing.”
In the fall of 2014 Evason took special note of his team’s offense. Though inexperienced, the group had the makings of its most explosive set of forwards since Milwaukee’s 2005-06 season, when the Admirals scored 268 goals en route to a berth in the Calder Cup finals.
“Last year we talked a lot about the unusual nature of just how young our club was,” Evason said. “Clearly we will have more experience next year, but some of the individuals (on this team) had some great seasons and we’ve seen our group grow. That is definitely positive to take away.”
There were several Milwaukee forwards that took big strides during the year who will be relied on for even more production next season.
“The AHL is definitely a development league and we had a developing team this past year,” Watson said. “Rookies like Kevin Fiala, Arvy (Viktor Arvidsson), Pontus (Aberg), and the veterans here all grew a lot last season. All of the guys made a lot of progress.”
Watson himself made great progress in his game, setting a career high with 26 goals and finishing second on the team with 44 points. The 23-year-old will be returning to the Predators organization after signing a two-year deal on Monday after going into the summer as a restricted free agent.
“This summer is definitely a big step in my career and I feel like I’m ready to play at the NHL level,” said the 2010 first-round pick. “When camp comes around, it will be time to see if that comes to fruition.”
In net the impressive tandem of Marek Mazanec and Magnus Hellberg started off last season in a groove. Ultimately both faded in the year’s second half.
“I think our goaltending followed exactly how our season went,” Evason said. “If you looked early in the year, Magnus Hellberg was an AHL All-Star and Maz was playing incredibly well. But then, for whatever reason, they hit a wall. Down the stretch they didn’t play as well as we expected them to play, and neither did the group in front of them.”
Considering the prior success of the Admirals’ netminders, along with the likely arrival of highly-touted 2013 fourth-round pick Juuse Saros, Milwaukee anticipates being strong in goal in the coming AHL campaign.
“Going forward with (prospect Juuse) Saros coming in to compete with Maz, who will be back, we are going to be in a really good position there,” Evason said.
Where Milwaukee needs to take a big step forward is on its defense. The 2014-15 the Admirals suffered the enviable fate of having too many of its recent top prospects advance to and then succeed in the NHL. The current Nashville blueline, which is stocked with arguably the league’s best defensemen one through six, contains six Milwaukee developed players, including Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Cody Franson, Mattias Ekholm and Victor Bartley.
“Nashville’s strength (last year) was their goaltending and defense, which included (a bunch of) guys that played here,” Evason said. “Everybody in the organization talks about how the road to Nashville goes through Milwaukee, but the evidence of that goes from goaltender Pekka Rinne up to captain Shea Weber.”
Milwaukee’s immature and developing blue line struggled at times to contain the Midwest Division’s explosive forwards. Evason envisions them improving rapidly thanks to hard lessons learned in 2014-15.
“At the start of last season we were concerned that we had too much youth on our backend, and at the end of the day we maybe did,” Evason said. “But that suits us well for the future because of the experience they will bring with them to next season.”
With Milwaukee (2014-15: 33-28-8-7—81 points, six points out of the playoffs) sitting on the postseason sidelines last spring for the first time since the franchise’s inaugural AHL campaign 13 years ago, the Admirals will be hungry to right their wrongs in 2015-16. Led by impressive cast of developing players, the pieces are in place for Milwaukee to compete again for a postseason slot.
“My first two years here we put together some strings of games at the end of the year that helped propel us into the playoffs,” Watson said. “For whatever reason we weren’t able to pull it off last season. It definitely was a good learning experience for our young team to go through that stretch of missed opportunities last year and learn how to handle that adversary.”
Evason is just as optimistic for the 2015-16 season, which can’t come quick enough.
“We are excited about our team next year,” Evason said. “Anytime you have a year like we did this past year, a fun year, an exciting year, but in the end a disappointing year, you want to get right back at it immediately. We all want to get going on turning things around.”