Feature Story

Expectations High as Season Starts

by Jason Karnosky

For the 2023-24 season, the winds of change have rushed in on the Admirals, and much of that has to do with what is going on with the team’s National Hockey League affiliate, the Nashville Predators.

The franchise’s first ever coach Barry Trotz is back with Nashville, returning to the Music City as the Predators’ second ever general manager. As part of the change, Trotz brought in Andrew Brunette, the player who scored Nashville’s first ever NHL goal, as the team’s new head coach.

With the regime change, Trotz is retooling the Predators and ushering in a youth movement throughout the organization. That process started last season, as 14 Admirals earned NHL call ups during the 2022-23 season. Seven of those players returned to Milwaukee for the American Hockey League (AHL) playoffs, where Admirals enjoyed a deep postseason run that ended two wins short of the Calder Cup finals.

“2022-23 was a great season, and we had a great run in the playoffs, but we fell short of our ultimate goal,” Admirals defenseman Kevin Gravel said. “To fall a little bit short last year, that left us all with something to chew on during the summer. We were left with a sour taste in our mouth and that is something to motivate us this year.”

This fall young prospects like Luke Evangelista and Philip Tomasino earned jobs with the Predators, while veteran forwards such as Kiefer Sherwood and Tommy Novak also look comfortable in Nashville jersey. That means for the 2023-24 season the Admirals will rely on some new prospects and several veterans to pick up the missing offensive production.

Two headliner additions, Cal O’Reilly and Denis Gurianov, should be dangerous threats offensively for Milwaukee. O’Reilly, and his younger brother Ryan, each joined the Predators organization in the offseason.

For the older O’Reilly, returning to Milwaukee marks a special homecoming, as the 37-year-old started his career with the Admirals. O’Reilly played in parts of five seasons with Milwaukee from 2005-2010 before moving on to Nashville on a full-time basis in 2010-11. Now in his 17th year as a professional, O’Reilly is just two years removed from a 53-point campaign with Lehigh Valley.

“It feels great to put on the Admirals jersey again, be back in the city, and to see all of the familiar faces,” said O’Reilly, who had 18 points with the Phantoms last season. “I feel like I can still play and be a good player. I want to help this team win and contribute as much as I can. I know last year they had a great year, so we want to build on that and go deep in the playoffs.”

While Admirals coach Karl Taylor didn’t know O’Reilly personally prior to the season, he is all too familiar with how the Toronto, Ontario native can take over games, especially in the playoffs. The Predators’ 2005 fifth-round pick had three goals and six points for Iowa in their five-game playoff series victory over Milwaukee back in 2019.

“Cal is an older player, but he has a long history in this organization and in the league as a whole,” said Taylor about O’Reilly, who has 145 NHL games on his resume. “I’ve watched him play in this building in the playoffs for Iowa and light us up, so I know what he can do as a player. Cal is very invested in what he does. He’s a real pro and hopefully our young guys can learn a lot from him.”

Starting in 2019, Gurianov was mainly a full-time NHL player with the Dallas Stars, before moving on to Montreal last season. This year the veteran of 280 NHL games will be looking to retool his game in Milwaukee to earn another callup to the NHL. With Gurianov, goalie Yaroslav Askarov, rookie Fedor Svechkov, and veteran Egor Afanasyev all a part of their roster in 2023-24, the Admirals will have a four-player Russian contingent for the first time in franchise history.

Another overseas talent likely to provide a lot of offense for Milwaukee is Joakim Kemell. Still just a 19-year-old, Kemell starred for the Admirals during a short stint at the end of the 2022-23 season. After posting 13 points in 14 games, Kemell led all Milwaukee players with eight goals in 14 postseason contests.

While Kemell is representative of Nashville’s youth movement within its organization, late season veteran additions Anthony Angello and Tye Felhaber are looking forward to playing full seasons with Milwaukee in 2023-24. Talented forward Mark Jankowski also returned to Milwaukee after a successful 50-game stint with Nashville during 2022-23. Jankowski started that season with Milwaukee, contributing 10 points in nine games.

“Mark’s a very good player, and our organization really appreciates what he does as a player,” said Taylor of the 29-year-old Hamilton, Ontario native. “He’s probably very disappointed to start out here, but he did the same thing last year, had five goals in nine games, and then went up to the NHL for the rest of the year.”

Milwaukee’s biggest strength will be its blue line, where several veterans will be charged with slowing down opponents. Defensemen Kevin Gravel, Rolan McKeown, and Jordan Gross all split time with both Nashville and Milwaukee last season and will all start the 2023-24 season with Milwaukee.

Gravel wore a Predators jersey for 23 games last year, while Gross and McKeown combined for 21 Nashville appearances. Gravel, Gross, and McKeown bring 173 total games of NHL experience to the Admirals.

“There are a lot of guys back in Milwaukee on our backend, which is a good thing,” said Gravel, who was recently named the team’s Captain for the 23-24 campaign. “It’s nice for us as defensemen to have a lot of familiarity with each other. For me this is my first time back in the same place since my entry level deal, so it is nice to come back to a spot where I’m comfortable. We spent so much time together last year with the playoff run, so it is nice for us to get back here and get this season rolling.”

As solid as those veterans are, Milwaukee’s top pair in the playoffs last season was two rookies, Spencer Stastney and Adam Wilsby, who are both back with the Admirals. Milwaukee’s shutdown duo logged big minutes and kept opponents in check with their superior skating and checking. A couple of other blue liners likely to make an impact with Milwaukee are Marc Del Gaizo, Keaton Thompson, and the physical Jake Livingstone.

“Our defensive core is really strong and our goaltending should be strong,” Taylor said. “Our forwards are very talented, but we have a younger group. That will be a group that will have to grow a little bit, and that group will be better in the spring than they are in the fall.”

In goal, Milwaukee will rely heavily on Omsk, Russia native Yaroslav Askarov, who impressed during his first year in North America. The 21-year-old had a bit of a slow start but continued to get better throughout the 2022-23 season. Askarov’s best performance came in the Central Division finals, when the rookie goaltender made 39 saves in his team’s series clinching 4-2 victory against Texas.

Now a 34-year-old professional veteran, goaltender Troy Grosenick returns to Milwaukee to provide guidance and support for Askarov. To date the Brookfield, Wisconsin native played in parts of three seasons for his hometown team, racking up 33 wins in an Admirals sweater.

“It’s great being back here, and to be close to my family,” Grosenick said. “In Milwaukee we’ve got some young skilled guys that like to move fast and want to play fast. But we have a nice influx of veterans and (an established) coaching staff, who have been around to support those young players.”

After leaving Milwaukee, Grosenick went on to play for the Los Angeles Kings, Ontario Reign, and Providence Bruins. Most recently Grosenick played in six games for Lehigh Valley last season.

“Troy’s a great individual and we had him for two years, but let’s not forget that he’s a great AHL goaltender,” Taylor said. “He’s won an AHL goalie of the year award playing alongside Connor Ingram, and what a great player for Askarov to learn from. In Troy, we are bringing back a local player who wants to extend his career, and we’re really happy to have him.”

Taylor’s new look roster will be looking to build on last season’s success and reach the ultimate goal of bringing another AHL title to Milwaukee.

“We got close last year, and there are high expectations every season here in Milwaukee,” Taylor said. “We’ve improved every season that I’ve been here, and now we are just one more step away. Hopefully we can climb that mountain this year.”

The 2023-24 Milwaukee Admirals season will begin this weekend in the Windy City as Milwaukee will take on the only team in the AHL without an NHL affiliate, the Chicago Wolves. It will be a big challenge for the young Admirals to face such a veteran team, led by their former captain.

“We are going to go to Chicago to start the season, and there we will play Cole Schneider, who is a great leader and someone we appreciated during his time here,” Taylor said. “We know how hard he plays and what he brings every day. Cole’s age 33, and he’s going to be playing against all of the young kids that we have. That will be a learning experience for us right away.”

The Admirals’ 53rd season, and 22nd season in the AHL, begins Saturday, October 14 against the Wolves at Allstate Arena. Milwaukee’s home opener comes one week later as the Admirals host Texas at UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena.

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