Feature Story

23-24 Another Impressive Season

by Jason Karnosky

It will take some time for the pain from the end of the 2023-24 season to subside for the Admirals. For the second straight year Central Division champions fell in the Conference Finals to the Coachella Valley Firebirds. But upon reflection, 2023-24 will go down as one of the franchise’s very best campaigns.

Under the guidance of coach Karl Taylor, Milwaukee finished in the top spot in the Central Division. For the second straight spring, the Admirals won two playoff series (both in dramatic fashion), and for the only time in franchise history, the Admirals reached the AHL’s final four in back-to-back years.

While Milwaukee’s greatest era spanned from 2004-06, when the squad reached the Calder Cup finals twice and won the 2004 AHL title, the Admirals are now enjoying a new golden period.

“It stings that we ended up out of the playoffs after the Conference Finals, but with all of the wins, and all of the accomplishments for everyone personally, this season was one where we all can keep our heads up high and be proud,” Admirals defenseman Marc Del Gaizo said. “It was a special group that we had this season, and we had a great run in the postseason.”

Success in the current era can be traced back to the COVID-19-shortened 2019-20 season. Since that eventful campaign that ended with a canceled postseason, Milwaukee won its division twice, finished in the top three in its division in every year where they fielded a team, and won nearly 60 percent of its regular season games (168 of 283).

“The way our guys compete, the way that our guys stay with it and stand up for each other, we’ve had a team that’s been easy to like,” Taylor said.

While Coachella Valley ended Milwaukee’s playoff run one round short of the Calder Cup, it does not take away from the growth and development of Nashville’s AHL affiliate in 2023-24.

“As a team, we were really successful this year,” said Admirals rookie forward Fedor Svechkov, who finished second on the team in playoff scoring with six goals and 12 points. “We were not really that good against Coachella Valley, but our team had a lot of young guys that grew a lot from our playoff run. That means a lot for us (going forward).”

There were so many memorable moments during the 2023-24 season, and Milwaukee even made some history along the way. After a quiet start, the Admirals found their sea legs around the holidays.

“We had a lot of young guys on our team and for the first month of the year it was a little bumpy,” L’Heureux said. “We knew we had a good team, but we couldn’t really produce much offense. We kept learning, growing, and getting better. It was remarkable what we accomplished after that.”

Starting with a 1-0 victory over the Colorado Eagles on January 5, Milwaukee turned on the afterburners and proceeded to win its next 19 games, refusing to lose for nearly a two-month stretch. That remarkable run was Milwaukee’s longest ever winning streak and put the Admirals in the AHL history books with the second longest span all time of games without a loss.

“I’ve never been a part of a team that’s had a 19-game winning streak, and that’s something I’m going to remember from this season,” veteran goaltender and Brookfield, Wisconsin native Troy Grosenick said. “It was so much fun coming to the rink, and our team was like a bunch of brothers with how tight knit everyone was.”

After posting a 47-22-2-1 regular season record and winning the Central Division for the second time under Taylor, Milwaukee survived a valiant Texas Stars squad in five games, and then ousted rival Grand Rapids in another five-game classic. That second series was especially sweet for Milwaukee, as it was the Griffins who ended Milwaukee’s epic win streak three months earlier.

In the postseason Milwaukee won five elimination games, including a 7-2 Game 4 victory against the Firebirds on home ice. While a sixth elimination win was not in the cards, all that success playing with their backs against the wall is something all of Milwaukee’s players will take with them as they move on to the next stage of their career, whether that be back with the Admirals, up with the Predators, or off with another franchise.

“There was something magic about this team, and as a coach you always got that feeling that we were going to find a way,” Taylor said. “You can look at all the elimination games that our guys fought through, but there was no magic pill there. Our guys just stared it down and handled it, and our young players played like 10-year veterans for us.”

Along with the team highlights, the individual accomplishments for Milwaukee were numerous in 2023-24. Several players made huge strides forward during the season and postseason.

Agitating forward Zach L’Heureux posted the most points of any Admirals rookie during the regular season (48), and then found another gear in the playoffs. The 21-year-old led the AHL playoffs in scoring through two rounds, and even though his team didn’t make the finals, Nashville’s 2021 first round pick still finished tied with Ethen Frank of the Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears for the most goals of anyone during the 2024 Calder Cup playoffs.

“The last few months are something that I’m going to remember for a long time and I’m pretty proud to say that I did that (leading the AHL in playoff goal scoring),” said L’Heureux who scored 10 times during the postseason. “It was tough the way it ended for us, but our run was something that was a lot of fun to be part of.”

Fellow rookie Joakim Kemell also shined in the postseason. While the goal scoring didn’t come as easily for the 20-year-old as it did last spring, the explosive Finn contributed eight assists and 11 points in 15 playoff contests.

Another important cog in Nashville’s future plans, forward Phil Tomasino, scored five timely playoff goals this spring.

“(Winning five straight elimination games), that was something special that we did here this year,” Tomasino said. “The margins in the postseason are so slim, but we all believed we could win four straight games against Coachella Valley.”

Through a player loan from the San Jose Sharks, and later this summer via trade back to Preds organization, general manger Scott Nichol found a gem in talented young forward Ozzy Wiesblatt. The 2020 Sharks first-round draft selection contributed nine points for Milwaukee in the playoffs.

“It was a privilege to be able to put on an Admirals jersey, and to be here and play here this spring,” Wiesblatt said. “I can’t say enough good things about this organization, and it was unbelievable to be able to go that far with this great group of guys.”

Another rookie, defenseman Ryan Ufko also stood out this spring, posting 10 points in his first ever professional postseason. The 21-year-old Smithtown, New York native, played in only nine regular season AHL games prior to the Calder Cup playoffs. But Ufko then went on to play in 15 postseason contests and scored an insurance goal in Milwaukee’s clinching Game 5 victory against Grand Rapids.

“The staff, the older guys, and all of the younger guys did a really nice job of welcoming me into the group,” said Ufko, who left UMass-Amherst in March after three stellar NCAA seasons. “Milwaukee helped me fit right in, and I never felt like an outsider here. They did that with the way they play, and the coaching staff made it simple for me. They wanted me to play my game because that’s why I was brought here.”

Defenseman Spencer Stastney took a huge next step and emerged as a solid National Hockey League player with Nashville. Stastney returned for 10 games of Milwaukee’s playoff run, and Ufko and Statsney were supported on the Admirals blue line by a quartet of solid veterans, in Del Gaizo, Roland McKeown, Adam Wilsby, and captain Kevin Gravel.

“We’d love to still be playing, and we feel like we had the group to continue to be playing, but sometimes it doesn’t work out in your favor,” Gravel said. “It’s hard to win the whole thing, and only one team gets to do it every year, even if other teams deserve to be champions. We had an unreal group this year, and I was happy to have been a part of it. I’m really going to miss playing with these guys.”

In his second professional season in North America, Yaroslav Askarov emerged as one of the AHL’s best goaltenders and one of the league’s top prospects. The 22-year-old, Omsk, Russia native played in 44 games for Milwaukee in 2023-24, posting a record of 30-13-1, with a 2.39 goals against average and .907 save percentage.

His tandem partner Troy Grosenick also played well during the season and was clutch in the playoffs. Grosenick backstopped his team’s reverse sweep against Texas in the Central Division semifinals, making 29 saves in Milwaukee’s 5-3, clinching Game 5 victory over the Stars. The 34-year-old followed that up with some stellar play versus Grand Rapids and was in goal for Milwaukee’s only win against the Firebirds.

“It was a disappointing way to end our season, as we thought we had something really special going with our team,” said Grosenick, who posted a 30-save shutout victory in the winner-take-all contest against the Griffins. “If a few things and bounces went more our way against Coachella Valley, we could be having a different conversation about our team.”

While Milwaukee’s roster will look different four months from now, the squad will be in good hands with many of its young players, and even some of the veterans like Gravel, coming back. The Admirals captain can’t wait for the puck to drop on the 2024-25 AHL season.

“I’m excited to be coming back, and we are going to use this postseason’s experience to grow both as players and as a team,” Gravel said. “We’ve played in a lot of high stakes moments during the last two springs, high pressure moments, and we did well in those moments. The players who have been through these runs that come back next year will be better off for it.”

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