Expectations High for Admirals

By Jason Karnosky

For the Milwaukee Admirals and Nashville Predators as an organization, 2016-17 represented a breakthrough year.

The National Hockey League (NHL) franchise, which started play in 1998-99, advanced past the second round and all the way to Stanley Cup finals for the very first time—missing out on a first NHL title by just two victories. Milwaukee played a vital role in that success, assisting in the development in the careers of 18 of the 25 players used by the Predators during their lengthy playoff run.

“Those are the moments you kind of dream of as a kid, being part of a team that was going through a Stanley Cup run,” Admirals veteran forward Harry Zolnierczyk said. “We fell just short of the ultimate goal as a franchise, but it was such a thrill and an amazing experience last spring.”

In 2017-18 Nashville should be well-equipped with players who matured with the Admirals. The Predators opening night roster features star goaltender Pekka Rinne, newly-minted captain Roman Josi, as well as assistant captains Filip Forsberg and Mattias Ekholm. All four played games in Milwaukee to start their careers.

Expectations are on the rise for the Predators this season, with the coaches, players and fans all looking to build on a fantastic end to last season. That feeling has permeated to every level of the organization, as players dressing in Milwaukee sensed plenty of optimism in training camp.

“This year it is kind of like unfinished business (for players in Nashville and Milwaukee),” said Zolnierczyk, who picked up 16 points in 24 games for the Admirals in 2016-17. “You are always looking to take that next step, and sometimes you have to lose one before you can win it to understand the sacrifices needed to win one. We will be raising a Western Conference champion banner in Nashville, but the next step is to raise a Stanley Cup banner.”

Frederick Gaudreau is the clearest example of an Admirals player that has big things predicted of him this season. The 24-year-old finished as Milwaukee’s third-leading scorer a year ago with 25 goals and 48 points.

Gaudreau found his way up to Nashville for nine regular season games last season, but the Bromont, Quebec native lifted his game to another level during the Stanley Cup Finals. There, dressing in a makeshift stall in the middle of the locker room, Gaudreau scored three goals in his team’s six-game Stanley Cup Finals series loss to Pittsburgh.

Another standout up front will be Vladislav Kamenev. Milwaukee’s leading returning scorer piled up 51 points in 2016-17. Like Gaudreau, Kamenev was one of Nashville’s final cuts at training camp. The Predators second-round draft choice in 2014 also earned his first NHL action last season, skating in a pair of games.

Gaudreau and Kamenev will be complimented up front with further seasoned talents like the recently resigned Zolniercyk, Cody Bass and Bobby Butler, who all have over 74 games of NHL experience.

Captain Trevor Smith, a veteran of 107 NHL games, should also be a key contributor after leading Milwaukee with 35 assists last year.

“Led by Trevor Smith, our older guys like Butler and (Pierre-Cedric) Labrie, you can already see the excitement for those guys being in this city and playing here,” Admirals coach Dean Evason said.

Young talents like Justin Kirkland, Tyler Moy and Tyler Kelleher also have the talents to impress this season.

Milwaukee’s defense will be younger overall, but Petter Granberg, who has 45 games of NHL experience on his resume, should provide a stabilizing presence.

"I was up in Nashville for a bit, but I was with the team here most of last year,” Granberg said. “It’s a great group of guys here that came back and the staff is good. I’m just kind of excited to start playing games. It’s going to be a fun season.”

Alexandre Carrier will be expected to shoulder a larger load after an outstanding rookie season with the Admirals, which included a pair of NHL contests. Now in this third campaign, Trevor Murphy (at just 22 years old) is a seasoned American Hockey League (AHL) veteran. Same goes for Jimmy Oligny, who is starting his fourth AHL year.

Milwaukee fans should also see plenty of former Wisconsin Badgers defenseman Jack Dougherty and Finnish prospect Joonas Lyytinen along the blue line.

“I think the caliber of players Nashville brings in here is really, really good,” Murphy said. “There are a lot of talented individuals, who are very skilled and coach Evason really gets us to come together as a group. I have no doubt in my mind that we will be a good team.”

In goal the Admirals will look much different than in past years, with Marek Mazenec departing in the offseason and Juuse Saros earning the number two goalie slot for good with the Predators. Towering veteran Anders Lindback should provide the anchor in between the pipes for Milwaukee as he tries to play his way back into the NHL.

The Gavle, Sweden native is a bit of a blast from the past for the Nashville franchise, having been drafted by the Predators in the seventh round of 2008.

“Lindback is certainly going to be our guy,” Evason said. “He’s very familiar to Milwaukee Admirals fans and Nashville fans should know him. He’s mature, big and strong, and had a tremendous camp in Nashville.”

In 2010-11 and 2011-12 Lindback saw action in 38 games for Nashville, and dressed for six in Milwaukee, prior to a trade to Tampa Bay. Eventually the now 29-year-old made stops in Dallas, Buffalo and Arizona in the NHL, as well as Syracuse, Texas and Ontario in the AHL, all-in-all amassing 130 games of top-level experience. Matt O’Connor, formerly of the Ottawa Senators franchise, will provide support for Lindback in goal.

“It’s nice to be back with a familiar organization,” Lindback said. “It’s been tough moving around, but I got a lot of experience because of it. I haven’t played a lot recently, so that’s what I’m hoping to get back to while playing here. I want to prove myself as a goalie.”

For Evason, now in his sixth season of coaching Milwaukee where he is the franchise’s all-time winningest AHL coach, the goal will be to continue to fuel Nashville’s rise up the NHL ranks, while overcoming the hurdles that prevented the Admirals from deep playoff runs over the past few seasons.

“A lot of our guys felt like they were part of Nashville’s run to the finals last year,” Evason said. “We want to build on that success as an entire organization this season.”

Milwaukee will kick off 2017-18 on the road Saturday night against division rival Iowa. The Admirals home schedule will launch on October 20 with a rare contest against perennial contender Hershey.

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