Evason Looking for Big Things this Season


by Jason Karnosky

For three straight seasons, the Milwaukee Admirals have been building toward the future. Despite incredible stretch run play punctuating their past three seasons, Milwaukee’s playoffs hopes were dashed in the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs each spring.

However, there is a considerable aura of optimism surrounding the American Hockey League franchise with the longest active streak of playoff appearances (12). The new look Admirals (2013-2014: 39-24-6-7, 91 points, 3rd place Midwest Division, 6th place in the Western Conference) are young, hungry and possess their most overall talent since coach Dean Evason took over the reins in the summer of 2012.

“We are very optimistic about the makeup of our squad,” Evason said. “The skill level we have this year is (likely) more than we’ve had the last couple of years, but even more than anything we really like the mix of players here.”

Milwaukee’s lofty expectations are based around a solid group of players at every position. To start the season Milwaukee returns its two dynamic offensive sophomores, Colton Sissons and Miikka Salomaki, who led the team in goals (25) and points (50) respectively last season. They are joined by an emerging three-year veteran in Austin Watson who is coming off of back-to-back 20-or-more-goal campaigns. All three may factor into Nashville’s plans this season.

“As far as the Nashville Predators and Milwaukee, we’ve always had great defenseman here and been on the heavy side as far as their skill level,” Evason said. “This year with our forwards we are excited about what we have on paper as far as our skill level.  Now it’s our job as coaches to put them in positions where they can succeed individually.”

Along with Sissons, Salomaki and Watson, Milwaukee will feature a superb crop of rookie talents ready to make an immediate impact. 2012 Predators second-round pick (37th overall) Pontus Aberg is joining the Admirals for his first North American season after a pair of solid years in Sweden. Countryman Viktor Arvidson, a fourth-round pick this past summer, should also impress in Milwaukee.

Another first-year forward worth keeping an eye on is forward Brendan Leipsic. The 2012 third-round pick will likely become a fan favorite with his overly intense style that led to 120 points and 103 penalty minutes in 2012-2013 and 91 points and 111 penalty minutes last season with the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League.

“We’ve been focusing the last two or three years on player acquisitions and trying to get more offensive players into our organization,” Predators General Manager David Poile told reporters at the end of last season. “We got a couple of kids coming out of juniors (joining our organization) like Brenden Lepsic, who was one of the leading scorers in the Western Hockey League and Aberg from Sweden who (we want) to get started in Milwaukee.”

Stepping in to provide guidance for Milwaukee’s youth movement are fellow 30-year-old forwards Mark Van Guider and Triston Grant. Van Guilder represents one of the league’s consummate professionals, a repeat AHL Man of the Year Award contender, who stands out at both ends of the rink with his offensive and defensive tool set. Last season Van Guilder hit an historic milestone by dressing for his first ever National Hockey League game.

Meanwhile, Grant is returning to Milwaukee after impressing with the Admirals from 2008 to 2010. The gritty veteran with a nasty streak (1,565 penalty minutes in 561 AHL contests) is coming off of two successful years with the Grand Rapids Griffins, where he helped capture the 2013 Calder Cup. Grant also has 11 games of NHL experience on his resume, including three with the Predators back in 2009-2010.

“We will miss Scott Ford’s leadership as he really was an extension of the coaching staff,” said Evason of his departed captain. “(However), we are excited about is his influence on this organization, and what he taught players on this team. We feel very comfortable going forward with our leadership core of Triston Grant, Joe (Piskula) and (Mark) Van (Guilder), who we are going to rely on.”

Milwaukee’s other 30-something, Piskula, who hails from Antigo, WI and won a National Championship as a member of the Wisconsin Badgers in 2006, will be counted on to lead a young, but deep group of blue liners, which may include up to six AHL rookies—Johnathan-Ismael Diaby, Mikko Vainonen, Garrett Noonan, Jimmy Oligny, Johan Alm and Jaynen Rissling.

“We have a steady core of defensemen,” Evason said. “Anthony Bittetto has been here for a couple of years, Piskula has been a (solid) veteran influence on our club and Alm is a young player that plays like a veteran. Beyond that we have a really young mix of skilled puck movers and also some physical guys. We are excited about their abilities.”

One place where Evason won’t have many concerns is in goal where two 23-year-old veterans will be relied upon. Already with 25 games of NHL experience, second-year goaltender Marek Mazanec likely will start the season as the de facto number one option. He posted a solid 18-10-3 record in his first AHL campaign, along with a 2.44 goals against average and .914 save percentage.

Challenging him will be Magnus Hellberg, now in his third AHL season. The former 2011 second-round pick starred in 2012-2013, posting a 22-13-0 record, along with a .924 save % and 2.14 G.A.A. Hellberg was in net for Milwaukee’s only playoff victory over the past three years, backstopping a shutout in a 2-0 victory over the Texas Stars.

“We have a good mix on our roster from the goaltending out,” Evason said. “Mazanec played a stretch in the NHL, while Magnus has been here for a few years now and also had a game in the NHL.”

The biggest question mark involving Milwaukee this season has more to do with its NHL-affiliate. For the first time in Nashville’s 17-year history, Barry Trotz is not the Predators’ head coach. In the offseason Peter Laviolette replaced Trotz, who has since moved on to coach the Washington Capitals.

The Predators’ new bench boss brings an impressive track record to the Music City, having guided the Carolina Hurricanes to the franchise’s only Stanley Cup title back in 2005-2006, and then later stepped in midseason to steer the Philadelphia Flyers within two wins of a title back in 2009-2010. Before that Laviolette picked up a Calder Cup crown as the coach of the Providence Bruins.

Therefore, there are sure to be changes in the relationship between Nashville and Milwaukee this season. Evason, who prospered while working with Trotz, is looking forward to fostering a relationship with the Predators’ new front man.

“I think the communication between the two teams will be similar to when I was working with Barry,” Evason said. “Both guys are very personable, very intense, very organized and communicate extremely well. (Peter’s) won a Stanley Cup, so (assistant) Stan (Drulia) and I can continue to learn from him and why not learn from a guy who has been at the highest level in our sport.”

With Laviolette at the Predators’ helm some big changes are in store as far as Milwaukee’s blue prints.

“Peter’s systems (for Nashville) are different . . . way different,” Evason said. “(But) we are (again) going to mirror what Nashville does because it will be easier for our guys to transition when they get called up.”

With Laviolette in place in the Music City, Milwaukee’s goals remain the same. Evason is ready to get to work developing Nashville’s prized prospects, while molding them into a cohesive unit capable of big things in 2014-2015.

“Our ultimate goal is to win the Calder Cup,” Evason said. “Along the way it would be awesome if we can elevate our players to be ready to play in the NHL. We are excited about the optimism here and now we just have to wait and see how everything plays out.”

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