By Aaron Sims
In the AHL, player development is a top priority. – theahl.com
If you were to ask most anyone in the game, they would tell you that development and winning are co-priorities. Developing players in a winning environment is ideal. Learning how to become successful, and stay successful, is a valuable trait.
The 2019-20 Milwaukee Admirals had a special season. It set a franchise-record with a 13-game-winning streak and had the best record in the American Hockey League when the season was ended March 11 due to the Coronavirus.
While the chance to play for a Calder Cup was taken away, we can look at current NHL rosters to see how the Admirals, led by General Manager Scott Nichol, head coach Karl Taylor and assistants Greg Rallo and Scott Ford, handled development.
Milwaukee dressed 32 different players in the 2019-20 season. Only one, goalie Ken Appleby, didn’t appear in a game for the team. Of the 31 players to appear in at least a game for the Admirals, 20 have either appeared in a NHL game this season or have been a member of a NHL team’s Taxi Squad. Amazingly, 14 of those 20 players have played in a NHL game this season.
“To have that many players actually get into games, and then have success…it’s something the coaching staff is very proud of,” Taylor said.
Nichol agreed. “I think we do a good job of being very patient with our guys and putting them into situations to have success.”
Eleven of those 14 have played for Milwaukee’s parent-club, Nashville. They are: Frederic Allard, Alex Carrier, Jeremy Davies, Ben Harpur, Tanner Jeannot, Michael McCarron, Mathieu Olivier, Rem Pitlick, Jarred Tinordi (now with the Boston Bruins), Eeli Tolvanen and Yakov Trenin.
“That is a lot of development,” Nichol said, “But the players put the work in.
“These guys had the best record in the AHL last year and were one of the hottest teams down the stretch the year before. They learned how to win the close games, they learned how to stand up for each other, they learned how to block shots, they learned how to be consistent on a nightly basis, they learned how to be a team and how to play for each other.”
Allard was the latest to make his debut, playing 16:59 against the defending Stanley Cup Champs, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“He’s (Allard) a guy that hasn’t been in front of (Nashville head coach) John Hynes. He wasn’t at the camps. We haven’t had a real camp, yet. There’s a situation where I had to give a little background about the player (to Hynes).”
With Nashville ravaged by injuries, recalled players have had the opportunity to step into roles of which they are familiar. Nichol believes that is the best way for all involved.
“It’s the new way of introducing guys into the NHL now. Gaining experiences, gaining confidence and having the ability to play meaningful minutes will help these guys further develop,” Nichol said. “The NHL is still a development league as well. You have to have the ability to get better every year.”
“When you saw Jeremy Davies go out on the first power play unit, I think that was exciting for all of us,” Taylor said. “He certainly has the skill set.”
Elsewhere, Colin Blackwell is skating for the New York Rangers. Daniel Carr is with the Washington Capitals and Troy Grosenick played his first NHL game in nearly seven years when he helped the Los Angeles Kings defeat the Anaheim Ducks 5-1.
To have such a large group of players make the leap to the best league in the world during a pandemic is, perhaps, surprising. After all, the athletes really didn’t have the opportunity to work out in the offseason as they’ve been accustomed to. Taylor and his assistants did what they could to facilitate individual growth.
“We (Taylor, Ford and Rallo) split into different groups. Each coach had eight or nine guys. We dug into a lot of different things.”
“Rem Pitlick wanted to get better on face-offs,” Taylor continued. “We watched some Paul Gaustad videos together. Then, I told Rem, ‘I know Paul. Maybe you guys can connect and have a conversation.’ As a coach, you’re trying to put people together to help the athletes get what they need to improve in (what was) a different coaching-virtual environment.”
Nichol added, “The pandemic was really hard. These are young men just starting out their hockey careers. Lots of them had to move back into mom and dad’s house. We tried to keep in touch with our group by zoom calls, virtual workouts, exit meetings over zoom and just lots of communication. We had a very special group last year and a very mature group so they were diligent on keeping up on their nutrition and workouts.”
Six players from last year’s Admirals squad have been on NHL Taxi Squads without appearing in a NHL game. Nashville’s has featured Connor Ingram and Anthony Richard. Steven Santini has been on the St. Louis Blues Taxi Squad. Frederick Gaudreau has been with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Laurent Dauphin with the Montreal Canadiens and Miikka Salomaki with the Colorado Avalanche.
“We’re very proud of the team we had last year. It’s an example of what we’re trying to do in Milwaukee and of the people Nashville has given us to work with,” Taylor said.
Nichol appreciates the players from the 2019-20 Admirals are making their marks, now, in the National Hockey League.
“It is exciting to watch the youthful enthusiasm injected into the Preds line-up. They are all getting an opportunity and there are still more in Chicago developing and waiting for the phone call to be next.”