By Jason Karnosky
Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back!
October 16, 2021, when the Milwaukee Admirals take the ice for their 2021-22 home opener against Central Division rival Grand Rapids at UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena, it will mark the end of the longest offseason in team history.
“It’s been 19 months since we’ve been here, but this feels like home,” veteran Admirals defenseman Matt Donovan said. “Most guys went and played somewhere else last year, but now it feels like it’s time to play hockey again and time to play for Milwaukee.”
Players, coaches, and fans have been eagerly waiting the day when the puck finally drops on Milwaukee’s 51st professional hockey season.
“We’ve all been looking forward to having our team back,” said Milwaukee coach Karl Taylor, who earned the 2019-2020 AHL’s Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award for being the AHL’s most outstanding coach that season. “There were a lot of positives for our players and team last year, but it’s a milestone for us to be back in Milwaukee.”
It was a year and a half ago, March 12, 2020, to be exact, when the COVID-19 pandemic pause began for the Admirals. At the beginning of 2021 when Milwaukee made the difficult choice to opt out of the 2020-21 American Hockey League (AHL) season, everyone involved with the team knew it would be a long wait until October.
“Each and every one of us involved with the team are excited to have a normal season and get back to doing what we do,” Admirals Owner/CEO Harris Turer said. “We are all looking forward to having a crowd in the building and cheering for our team.”
Part of that reason for optimism is the return of the team that was stranded during 2019-20. Milwaukee was on a roll prior to the pandemic pause, carrying the best record in the AHL at 41-14-5-3. If fact the talent-rich Admirals were the only league squad to reach 90 points before games were put on hold.
Unfortunately, Taylor could not capture lightning in a bottle and save all of the 2019-20 momentum for this season. Some players who could have played in Milwaukee last year have earned permanent homes with the team’s National Hockey League affiliate in Nashville. Eeli Tolvanen, Yakov Trenin, Mathieu Olivier, Tanner Jeannot, and Alexandre Carrier have all moved on to the Music City on a fulltime basis and likely won’t be back to Milwaukee.
“A lot of the guys we had in Milwaukee in 2019-20 were in Nashville last year and got great looks up there,” Taylor said. “Those players executed very well and played very well for the Predators. They got to be seen more at that level with the taxi squad and with all of the different situations that the (pandemic) season provided.”
However, there are quite a few players that were part of the Admirals’ 2019-20 Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy winning squad that returned to the Brew City this season, including veterans Cole Schneider and Michael McCarron.
Back in 2019-20, Schneider finished second on the team in scoring, piling up 18 goals and 46 points in 54 games. With Milwaukee on hiatus, the Williamsville, New York native spent last season with AHL Texas. Schneider served as the Stars captain and posted 28 points during the abbreviated 2020-21 campaign.
After playing all of 2019-20 with Milwaukee and the Laval Rocket in the AHL, McCarron spent last year exclusively with Nashville. Montreal’s 2013 first-round draft pick is back with the Admirals after playing in six contests with the Predators last season. Those six games brought McCarron’s total up to 75 games of NHL experience.
Many of Nashville’s top prospects had the unique experience of spending last season as a part of a split Chicago Wolves squad that also had players from the Carolina Hurricanes organization. Players that are back with Milwaukee after a year with the team’s Windy City archrivals include Anthony Richard, Tommy Novak, and defenseman Frederic Allard.
“I think the two organizations worked well together, and I think from a Nashville’s management perspective we found a way to maximize the experience for our players,” Taylor said. “A lot of guys in Chicago got AHL opportunities that normally would not have been there if more of Nashville’s players were in the minors. We had accelerated growth for those players.”
Richard, Nashville’s 2015 fourth-round draft pick, is back in Milwaukee for his sixth professional season. The 24-year-old center scored 11 goals and 18 points in 28 games with Chicago last season, and now has 263 games of AHL experience.
Novak is coming off of an outstanding sophomore AHL campaign, leading the 2020-21 Wolves with 24 assists and 32 points last season. The prior year the River Falls, Wisconsin native finished with the third most points of anyone in Milwaukee.
“I think we are going to have a pretty good team, and we are going to be able to win some games,” said Novak, who scored 11 goals and 42 points as an AHL rookie. “We have a lot of creative guys, a lot of skilled players, and a lot of tougher players, so I think we will be tough to play against.”
Now in his fifth professional season, Allard earned his first NHL action in 2020-21. The St. Sauveur, Quebec native dressed for Nashville’s March 13, 2021, contest against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
“It was crazy year for me playing in three different leagues,” said Allard, who had 18 points in 25 games with Chicago and played in 25 games in Austria in 2020-21. “But getting a chance to play in my first NHL game last year was special. I had been dreaming of that moment for four years.”
New forwards Admirals fans should expect to see a lot of this season include Joseph LaBate and Patrick Harper. LaBate played four years of hockey at the University of Wisconsin (2011-2015), before moving on to stints with Utica and Belleville in the AHL. The 28-year-old power forward, who has 13 games of NHL experience on his resume (with Vancouver), posted 13 points and 64 penalty minutes with the AHL’s Senators last season. Harper is looking forward to starting the season in Milwaukee after splitting last year with the Wolves and the ECHL’s Florida Everblades.
Milwaukee fans will likely be keeping an eye on young forward Philip Tomasino, even if he does not play for the Admirals all season. Just a 19-year-old when he entered the AHL last year, Nashville’s 2019 first-round draft pick matched Novak with 32 points for the Wolves and scored 13 goals. Tomasino may bypass Milwaukee altogether, as the top prospect made the Predators’ initial roster this fall.
Milwaukee’s blue line will have an influx of new faces to go along with a solid set of returnees. A pair of impressive young defensemen, David Farrance and Marc Del Gaizo, expect to make their Admirals debuts this fall. Farrance, who was the Predators’ third-round selection in 2017, played in two games last season with Nashville. Del Gaizo, Nashville’s 2019 fourth-round pick, posted five assists as an AHL rookie with the Wolves last year.
After wearing Admirals jerseys in 2019-20, Allard and fellow prospect Jeremy Davies, as well as veterans Matt Donovan and Josh Healey, are all back in Milwaukee this season and will join Farrance and Del Gaizo on defense.
Davies split 2020-21 with Nashville and Chicago, earning his first 16 games of NHL action during his second professional season. Now a 24-year-old, Davies had a 28-point rookie campaign in Milwaukee the year prior.
Donovan spent the 2020-21 season skating overseas, playing in Swedish Hockey League for HV71 Jonkoping. The talented 31-year-old is eager for his third season in Milwaukee, having already posted a pair of 30-plus point seasons with the Admirals.
“With the sudden stoppage in 2019-20, and the year and half we haven’t been here, it’s extra special to be back,” Donovan said. “We are all happy to be back here and are excited for the new season.”
In goal, Milwaukee will look a little different compared to previous years, as the retirement of Admirals and Predators legend Pekka Rinne affected the whole organization. Netminder David Rittich, who was signed by Nashville in the offseason, is set to take Rinne’s place at the NHL level behind budding star and Admirals alum Juuse Saros. However, Rittich will face intense competition from goaltender Connor Ingram who returned to Milwaukee this week.
Ingram is coming off a tough 2020-21 personally. However, the 24-year-old starred in Milwaukee the previous season, going 21-5-5 for the first place Admirals while ranking third in the AHL in both goals-against average (1.92) and save percentage (.933). The Imperial, Saskatoon native made his second straight All-Star game appearance that season, and shared the league’s Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award with Troy Grosenick.
Former University of Denver goaltender Devin Cooley will challenge Ingram for playing time, after splitting time in Florida and Chicago a year ago. Nashville 2017 fifth-round selection Tomas Vomacka will start the season in Florida, but will get the chance to earn games in Milwaukee as well.
The Admirals first regular season game in 19 months will take place at 6:00 p.m. against Central Division rival Grand Rapids.
“It would have been very easy for our fans to move on to something else, but we are grateful for the enthusiasm that remains and the fact that our fans and our sponsors have stuck with us over the last year,” Milwaukee President Jon Greenberg said. “Everybody here is very excited about getting started again, and we are ready to go for Saturday.”