By Jason Karnosky
One of the hardest days of Milwaukee Admirals President Jon Greenberg’s professional life was the day that his team decided to opt out of the 2020-21 American Hockey League season.
Yet even then, Greenberg had optimism. He knew there was a least one place where Admirals’ fans could watch recent Milwaukee players play this year.
“The beauty of this season is that we are still going to get see a lot of our prospects and alums play in Nashville,” said Greenberg on a call with reporters on January 4, 2021—the day the Admirals opted out. “A lot of them, whether they are playing on the Predators roster or are on the taxi squad with a chance to jump in, we know that their road (to career success) started here. Come fall it will continue here.”
When Greenberg made that statement, he likely had no idea just how many 2019-20 Admirals he would get to see this season dawning a bright gold Predators sweater. That number has been staggering, and how that group of players would influence Nashville’s 2020-21 campaign would have been impossible to imagine.
As of April 30, forwards Eeli Tolvanen, Yakov Trenin, Mathieu Olivier, Tanner Jeannot, Rem Pitlick, and Michael McCarron, alongside defensemen Alexandre Carrier, Ben Harpur, Jeremy Davies, and Frederic Allard, have all played in games with Nashville this season after spending at least part of last year in Milwaukee. In addition to those 10 players, 2019-20 Admirals captain Jarred Tinordi dressed in seven games for Predators this winter, before getting claimed on waivers by the Boston Bruins.
“It just goes to show how good a team we had last year in Milwaukee, how hard we worked, how well we were coached, and how well we were developed,” said Davies, a rookie member of the 2019-20 Admirals, who finished with the best record in the AHL at 41-14-5-3. “To have so many players from last year’s Milwaukee team play in the NHL this season is super cool.”
The Admiral 11’s impact on reversing Nashville’s fortunes has been staggering. On March 13, 2021, the Predators suffered a 6-3 loss to defending champion Tampa Bay, which left the 2017 Stanley Cup finalists sitting with a record of 11-16-1. Nashville had lost six of their last seven games at the time and were far out of the playoff picture.
Taking full advantage of the taxi squad available to him, Predators coach John Hynes gave more ice time to his younger players, including many of those recent Admirals mentioned. Rather than sink further down in the Central Division standings, Nashville started reeling off win after win. By the end of the month, the Predators climbed the mountain and moved up into a playoff spot.
At present Nashville sits in fourth place in the Central Division with a record of 27-22-2—still holding on to a precarious playoff position with the Dallas Stars nipping at their heels.
“I think all of those guys (who played in Milwaukee last year) brought great attitudes, brought energy, and made it a more competitive environment here for ice time and playing situations,” Hynes said. “They’ve helped us become a more competitive team, as we weren’t at the level we needed to be at prior to having a lot of those guys in our lineup. They’ve come in, found their footing, and are a big part of our team.”
Predators 2017 first-round draft pick Eeli Tolvanen, who played all of the 2019-20 season in Milwaukee, played a huge role in the turnaround. After managing just one goal in his first eight games this year with Nashville, the Vehti, Finland native now has 11 goals and 21 points in 35 games.
“I think from day one in our organization, Tolvy’s had a great attitude and was very coachable,” said Nashville Director of Player Development and Milwaukee General Manager Scott Nichol of Tolvanen. “He’s been put in a role that he is comfortable with, he’s playing well with top line players and also on Nashville’s top power play unit. It’s been fun to see him develop at our level, and he’s really appreciative of his time in Milwaukee.”
When the Predators started racking up victories, Tolvanen took off offensively. The recently turned 22-year-old reeled off a six-game point streak at the end of March—all Predators wins. Playing in 35 of his team’s 51 games to date he ranks as his team’s sixth leading scorer.
“I think a lot of people overlook how young Tolvy is because he is already a fourth-year pro,” said Admirals coach Karl Taylor, who is currently assisting the Chicago Wolves while Milwaukee sits out the year. “He’s still a young player, just turned 22, and he has 10-plus goals. He’s proven to be an elite player at that level when he feels comfortable.”
Further down the lineup, Nashville gets critical contributions out of three energy players, Yakov Trenin, Mathieu Olivier and Tanner Jeannot. All three forwards are difference makers for the Predators, much like they were while wearing an Admirals jersey.
“The whole identity line they have now in Nashville was something we had here in Milwaukee,” Taylor said. “Ours was Tanner Jeannot, Matty Olivier, and Josh Wilkins. (Coach Hynes) grabbed that, and Tanner and Matty are doing the same thing in Nashville, along with Yakov Tenin. Those guys really assist your team as far as zonetime and just being miserable to play against.”
Nichol has nothing but praise for the undrafted Olivier, who is now in his second stint with the Predators. The developmental strides that the 24-year-old has made in three seasons are staggering.
“This time around in Nashville, Matty’s jumped in the deep end with both feet,” said Nichol. “We (originally) brought him to development camp in Nashville, and later signed him to an American League contract. He’s done well and flipped that into an NHL contract. He’s paid his dues, and it’s been great to see his growth for us.”
Olivier tallied his first NHL goal in his sixth NHL game this season, and then scored goals in back-to-back games in late March as Nashville was racking up wins.
“It is not even Matty’s physicality that stands out,” said Nichol of Olivier, who now has 37 games of NHL experience including 29 this year. “It’s his wall play, his fore-checking, and how he keeps pucks alive in the offensive zone. But he also has that presence where he can drop the gloves if he needs to and he knows how to use them. He’s one of the toughest guys in the NHL.”
Other forwards such as Rem Pitlick are getting their first extended taste of NHL action at an early stage of their career and are benefiting mightily from it. Pitlick is a player Nashville has high hopes for after a terrific collegiate career at the University of Minnesota, followed by an impressive freshman campaign in the AHL with Milwaukee.
After a red-hot start to the season playing for Chicago, scoring eight goals in the same number of games, the 24-year-old was in the Predators lineup for nine games this spring.
“It’s been cool to be a part of Nashville’s (turnaround this year),” said Pitlick, who has two points with Nashville to date. “Nashville is fighting for their playoff lives, and we’ve fought back into a playoff spot, so it’s been fun to be a part of that process. I’ve felt more and more comfortable in each NHL game I play in this year, and I believe I can play this in league.”
At the same time Nashville started cooking offensively, the Predators started clamping down on the defensive end. On Nashville’s vaunted blue line, Alexandre Carrier, Jeremy Davies, and Ben Harpur have played big roles with the 2020-21 Predators after spending time with the Admirals last season. Not a bad accomplishment on a franchise known for the likes of Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm as its rear guards.
Prior to an injury, Carrier was logging huge minutes with the Predators, getting ice time in just about every situation imaginable. The NHL rookie defenseman picked up his first NHL goal in that fateful loss to Tampa Bay on March 13, and continued to play well in 15 total appearances before getting hurt.
“Carrier has come in and played very well for us,” Hynes said. “He’s a very good, smart player, who is very competitive and can really move the puck well. If there are three options (to go with the puck), he takes the best option, particularly offensively. He’s also been a big part of our penalty kill when he’s in the lineup.”
Perhaps the Quebec City, Quebec native’s most impressive game came on March 21. On a night where the Predators picked up an important 4-3 shootout win over a Dallas, Carrier played alongside Ekholm and logged over 26 minutes of ice time—second only to the big Swede.
“Alex has been fantastic (with Nashville),” Nichol said. “You had Ryan Ellis out for an extended period of time and Alex just kind of stepped in there and before you know it he was playing 16, 18, or 20 minutes a night. You saw him jumping into plays, and his reads and skating were fantastic. Our coaching staff in Nashville has all of the confidence in the world in him.”
When Carrier got injured on April 1, some of his extensive ice time went to Davies. The 24-year-old NHL rookie, who played in just his first professional season in 2019-20 with Milwaukee, now has dressed for 15 games for the Predators.
“Getting into my first 15 games in the NHL is something that I dreamt about my whole life, and something I’ll never forget,” said Davies, who also has nine points in nine game with Chicago this year. “Everything I learned in Milwaukee last year, and in Chicago this year, really helped my transition to the NHL game. It’s been really fun to have an opportunity to play and to win a lot of games when I was in the lineup.”
The Sainte-Anne-de-Belle, Quebec native logged a career high 22 minutes and 19 seconds during Nashville’s March 11 contest in Carolina. During the Predators’ hottest stretch of games, Davies played a big role on the squad, skating alongside many former Admirals friends like Pitlick.
“Jeremy Davies and I actually played together with Waterloo back in the USHL, and we’ve kind of had a bond from there that’s lasted through our time in Milwaukee,” Pitlick said. “Now we are here, are in it and playing together, and it’s been really fun to be a part of. Jeremy brings some very good skills to the Predators.”
Harpur is the unsung hero of the group of recent Milwaukee blue liners. The 26-year-old joined the Admirals midseason last year, after playing in over 100 NHL games over the course of four years with Ottawa. He is spending all of 2020-21 with the Predators.
“I think the guy you forget about, out of all of these guys from Milwaukee, is Ben Harpur,” Nichol said. “He’s been a fantastic anchor for us, and been a pleasant surprise in Nashville. I don’t think he gets enough credit as a guy who has a big body who can make plays. He’s physical and he’s really helped solidify our backend.”
Hynes agrees, and has dressed the towering blue liner for 32 games to date this year.
“Ben Harpur is another guy who moves the puck simply, and helps us get up and out of our zone,” Hynes said. “He’s really fit in well here, and he’s another guy that can help your penalty kill. He’s a guy with size that can bring some edge to your team.”
Harpur is certainly not the only former Milwaukee player to bring an edge to the Predators, and that additional edge is giving Nashville a great shot at making the playoffs.
“Our staff is really proud of what we’ve seen this year out of the guys who recently played in Milwaukee,” Taylor said. “It is impressive to see how well they’ve done there, and it is great to see the guys, and it’s a wide range of guys, have success.”
Nichol agrees with Taylor, and he feels the impact the former Admirals are having this season validates all of the time and effort the developmental staff puts in with their players.
“If you look at the roster that we had in Milwaukee (in 2019-20), it is like 13 to 16 guys who have played in the NHL this season—including guys like Frederick Gaudreau and Colin Blackwell, who have moved on to other organizations,” Nichol said. “It is exciting to see all of these young guys going up there to Nashville, do what they are doing and help that team go on an incredible run.”