by Jason Karnosky
When the final buzzer sounded on Game 6 of the 2023 Western Conference Finals, the Admirals memorable postseason run came to a crashing halt.
On that June 6 night in Palm Springs, California, the Ads attempted one last valiant comeback during their first Conference Finals appearance in 18 years. However, Milwaukee could not overcome a pair of two-goal deficits, falling 4-3 to the first-year Coachella Valley Firebirds.
“It was a great playoff run, but we were just disappointed with how it ended,” said Admirals rookie forward Joakim Kemell, who led Milwaukee with eight goals in the Calder Cup playoffs. “But every year you are learning, and this was something new for (a lot of us). We want to keep moving forward.”
While Milwaukee fell just short of its goal, the deep postseason run should pay dividends for both the Admirals and their National Hockey League affiliate Nashville going forward.
“There were such valuable lessons to learn from the 2022-23 season with Nashville and Milwaukee,” Admirals general manager Scott Nichol said. “We won three elimination games and had two series that went to the brink. We were behind in both of those series. Those moments galvanized our team, and the guys pulled through by battling for each other.”
With time, the scars and disappointment from that 6-game series loss to Coachella Valley started to dissipate. With the calendar turning to August, players and coaches can look back fondly on a terrific postseason that ended one round too short.
“Our playoff run meant a lot to the players and the organization,” Admirals coach Karl Taylor said. “Seeing the look on owner Harris Turer’s face after our Game 5 win in Texas, those are the things that matter and those are the things you remember. As a team, Milwaukee hasn’t gone this far in 18 years, so it was overdue, and it was needed. Unfortunately, we still fell a little short.”
The Calder Cup playoff run marked a big moment of overall growth for the Predators organization, and it proved just how brightits future is because of how Nashville’s prospects are developing in the AHL.
“We had 42 guys that played in Milwaukee this year, and we had 14 of those 42 guys earn NHL call ups,” Nichol said. “Four of those 14 players played in their first NHL games, so a lot of our guys had lots of opportunities to make their NHL mark, and I thought they all did fantastic. They all brought different things to both Nashville and Milwaukee.”
Many of those players who were called up from Milwaukee earned roster spots in the NHL late in the season as the Predators retooled and made an incredible late season push. Seven of those players, including forward Philip Tomasino, then returned to the Admirals to bolster Milwaukee’s postseason prospects.
“Looking back, the year was a lot of fun, and a lot of learning for me,” said Admirals forward Philip Tomasino who played in 38 games for Milwaukee and 31 games for Nashville during the regular season. “We thought we played well against the Firebirds, and we thought we played well enough to win. But even with the loss, a lot of our guys played outstanding and there are a lot of positives for us going forward.”
Adding the Nashville seven back into the fold for the postseason meant heavy competition for jobs in Milwaukee. However, the Admirals were quickly able to come together, and that chemistry helped the squad advance past Manitoba and Texas, before falling to the Firebirds.
“There were lots of difficult decisions and a lot went into putting our roster together,” Taylor said. “The playoff run, especially the Conference Finals and the Central Division Finals, but really the whole playoff run presented us with lots of challenges. However, it also resulted in a lot of individual and team growth.”
The most memorable moment of the 2022-23 Admirals season came in the deciding Game 5 against the Moose in the Central Division semifinals. Leading 1-0 late in the third period, Manitoba scored the game-tying goal with under two minutes left. However, Milwaukee caught a massive break when a pair of Moose players collided, setting up a 2-1 that resulted in Spencer Stastney’s rink shaking goal at Panther Arena.
“When we were facing elimination against Manitoba, we were resilient,” Nichol said. “Instead of feeling down, we were like here we go, let’s go win Game 4 and then go on and win Game 5. It shows the maturity that we had on our team, and it shows the leadership we had. Our guys controlled what they could control, and then you need to get a few lucky bounces sometimes to advance. We got that against Manitoba.”
Still just a professional rookie, Statsney paired with fellow defenseman Adam Wilsby to form Milwaukee’s surprising shutdown defense pair. The unexpected rookie duo made their presence felt in the playoffs.
“Adam Wilsby and Spencer Stastny were playing 20+ minutes a night for us, and they checked against the other team’s top line,” Nichol said. “You don’t get that too often where you pair two rookies together in the playoffs. Usually, you insulate them and pair them with a veteran guy. But those guys with the way they skate and support each other, their game grew and grew and they had a great playoff. We leaned on them a lot and they played a lot of hard minutes for us.”
The pair certainly opened some eyes during the postseason. While Statsney had the biggest playoff highlight, Wilsby showed why he was a steal as a fourth-round selection in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. The 22-year-old was Milwaukee’s only player to play in all 72 games during the regular season. The talented Swede found another level and contributed eight points in the playoffs.
“In the second half of the season I found my game more and more,” Wilsby said. “Then in the playoffs I thought I played my best hockey. Playing with Spencer, we were usually playing against the other team’s best players. I liked playing in that shutdown role for us.”
In that Manitoba series, Milwaukee was on the brink of elimination twice. Then in the Central Division Finals the Admirals faced another winner-take-all contest against Texas. In that game Milwaukee crushed the Stars 4-2, but most notably rookie goaltender Yaroslav Askarov had the best game of his young career, ensuring the potent Stars never got close.
“We have a very young high prospect in Asky, who had a great season and played more minutes this season than he ever has in his life,” Taylor said. “Game 5 in Texas he played outstanding for us, and he rose to the occasion at a difficult moment. Asky is so young, and all of the different things he went through this season, the pressures of the play, are just a part of his development process. He was exactly where he needed to be this season.”
Many young players, like Askarov, took big strides forward. Kemell, who spent the 2022-23 season playing in Finland for JyP HT Jyvaskyla (alongside former Milwaukee forward Juuso Puustinen), joined the Admirals late in the season. Nashville’s 2022 first-round pick (17th overall) then went on tear in the playoffs.
“Joakim coming in late, and then continuing through the playoffs to lead our team in goal scoring, I think that is a pretty big accomplishment for a young man who just turned 19,” Taylor said. “Kemell has taken on those pressures, those big moments, and continued to perform.”
Rookie forward Luke Evangelista was a surprising call up late in the season for the Predators, and then proceeded to stay up in the Music City until Nashville was eliminated. Evangelista finished as Milwaukee’s points leader in the playoffs with four goals and 15 points.
“I thought Luke had a really good start to the playoffs, and he led our team with 15 points in the post-season,” Nichol said. “As the playoffs went on, he had a target on his back. He is a competitive guy, and he found ways to get points, but (against Coachella Valley) he probably wasn’t as consistent as he was in the first two rounds. These playoffs were a huge growth moment for him, and he has a really bright future. He is really a special talent.”
Going into next season, the Admirals are likely to have significant roster turnover. That is just part of life in the AHL and some of the team’s younger players, like Kemell, Evangelista, Statsny, Wilsby, Askarov, and Tomasino may earn some of the open jobs in Nashville to start the 2023-24 NHL campaign.
There should be plenty of opportunities for those youngsters, as Nashville will have a new coach in Andrew Brunette and a new general manager in Barry Trotz for next season. Doors will be open, and the playing field should be level. But for those players that do return to Milwaukee, next year’s AHL squad should be even hungrier for success, knowing just how close they came to the league’s ultimate prize in 2022-23.
“We are excited about what we accomplished this past season, but our roster is going to change a lot next year,” Taylor said. “When we get there in September and October, we will do everything we can to maximize the results of next year’s team and its potential.”
The puck drops on the 2023-24 Milwaukee Admirals season on October 14, 2023, in Chicago.