by Jason Karnosky
At the core of any successful hockey team is well-built and well-stocked roster.
That is exactly what General Manager Scott Nichol has put together with the Admirals over the course of his one-and-half-year tenure of leading the franchise’s hockey operations. Working with, and under the tutelage of, Nashville Predators G.M. David Poile, Nichol’s stamp is all over the AHL’s top team.
“Our organization is in a good position, especially for the players, because they know that if they play well in either Milwaukee or Florida (Nashville’s ECHL-affiliate) they are likely to get called up,” Nichol said. “That is the culture we’ve developed at all three levels of our organization. Guys play hard for us because they know if they play well, there is a chance to get into some games and play in the National Hockey League (NHL).”
Since Nichol took over from Paul Fenton in Milwaukee’s top management role prior to the 2018-19 season, he has added quality players throughout the organization.
Some of Nichol’s key additions included Rocco Grimaldi, Colin Blackwell, and Jarred Tinordi, who are all currently enjoying successful stints with the Predators. Top acquisitions currently on Milwaukee include Daniel Carr, Cole Schneider, Matt Donovan, as well as goaltender Connor Ingram—who just represented Milwaukee in the AHL All-Star Classic.
“Scott Nichol was one of the big reasons why I wanted to come to Milwaukee and the Nashville organization,” said Blackwell, who’s played in 26 games with Milwaukee and 17 games with the Predators this season. “He’s a guy that played the game, but also really worked at developing players in Milwaukee and Nashville over the course of his career. Some of the players Scott’s acquired have really help us in Milwaukee, and helped our organization take that next step.”
Players like Arvin Atwal, Zach Magwood, Hugo Roy, Brandon Fortunato and goaltender Cam Johnson are players Nichol added to the Florida Everblades roster, which is now stocked deep with guys Milwaukee can call up to the AHL on short notice.
“I think within our organization, as far as Nashville and Milwaukee, what kind of gets overlooked is Florida,” Nichol said. “We are fully committed to Florida, and have nine contracted players down there. We haven’t had that many contracted players in the ECHL in a long time, and having that depth is kind of where your stability as far as an organization comes from.”
With Poile’s blessing, Nichol was responsible for choosing Karl Taylor to take over the Admirals’ coaching duties after Dean Evason left to become an assistant coach of the Minnesota Wild in the summer of 2018. In his second season at the helm in Milwaukee, Taylor is emerging as one of the league’s best bench bosses.
“(As a G.M.) Scott is a very active,” Taylor said. “This is his team and he is excited to have the opportunity to run it. As a coach I couldn’t ask for anything more because he is always looking to improve our team. He’s made some great decisions, and I’m really happy with what he’s done for us.”
Nichol’s path to a hockey operations role came after a 13-year, 662-game NHL career. Considering he was drafted in the 11th round of the 1993 NHL entry draft, scoring 56 goals and 127 points at the game’s highest level was an impressive accomplishment.
Most of Nichol’s formative years came with the Predators, where he played from 2005-09 (which included a six-game stint with the Admirals). Nichol enjoyed his top offensive season with the Predators (10 goals in 2007-08), and also forged a longtime friendship with then Predators forward Steve Sullivan, who is now the General Manager of the Tucson Roadrunners.
“Scott Nichol and I go way back to our days in Chicago (2003-04) and Nashville, and we’ve stayed great friends throughout our whole careers,” said Sullivan, a 16-year NHL veteran who racked up 747 points in 1011 NHL games. “Scott was a scrappy player, who probably overachieved in his career. I’m not surprised at all to see where he is and the success he is having (in management).”
After retiring in 2013, Nichol stepped off the ice and into the role of Director of Player Development with the Predators. At the time Nashville G.M. David Poile was thrilled to bring the former Predator into the fold on the hockey operations side.
“As an organization that prides itself on developing homegrown talent, Scott Nichol plays a vital role in helping our prospects reach their full potential,” Poile said. “Scott was a player who had to work hard for everything in his career, and he brings energy, enthusiasm and work ethic to this job. He has the ability to relate to players at all levels and help in their development.”
Nichol stayed in that position until 2018, guiding the development of players that helped the Predators reach the franchise’s highest heights—notably a trip to the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals. During the summer of 2018 the Edmonton, Alberta native took over the Admirals G.M. position.
Nichol continued his work as Nashville’s head of player development, and served as a bit of a mentor to Sullivan, who’s following his former teammate on a similar career path with the Coyotes organization.
“(Scott’s) been a huge help for me, especially early on when I decided to move on to the other side of the business and get involved with player development,” Sullivan said. “When I started with Arizona Scott had been working in that role for a couple of years. He’s probably the guy who I speak to, and bounce thoughts off of, the most. I can’t thank him enough (for his help with my career).”
Nichol values the relationship he had with Sullivan as a teammate and friend, and now as a peer in the hockey operations world.
“Sully and I have had a good relationship after our playing days,” Nichol said. “It’s nice to have somebody as a peer that you played together with and were teammates with, especially with both organizations doing well. We stay in touch whenever we can and throw some ideas off of each other.”
Nichol did not waste time getting down to the business of bringing in players during the 2018 offseason to stock up the cupboard of a Nashville organization depleted from years of contending for a Stanley Cup. Donovan, Grimaldi, Blackwell and Tinordi were all signed that summer, bolstering overall organizational depth and providing the Predators with additional NHL-ready talent they could call up to the Music City at a moment’s notice.
Since signing with Nashville or Milwaukee, all four players played in NHL games for the Predators. To date Grimaldi’s played in 99 games for Nashville (plus five playoff games), while Blackwell’s dressed for 23. Tinordi’s been in a Predators uniform for 10 games and while Donovan has two Nashville contests on his resume.
“Guys like Rocco Grimaldi and Colin Blackwell, who we’ve picked up in free agency, are guys that have gone up and done a good job with Nashville,” Taylor said. “They are older guys (Scott added) that weren’t drafted here, but I think we’ve done a good job with giving those guys opportunities.”
When injuries struck throughout the organization during the 2018-19 season, Nichol scoured the NHL and AHL for players that could assist in the short and long term. From Hartford, Nichol acquired Cole Schneider. The former Wolf Pack captain racked up 22 points in 24 games with Milwaukee after the trade. The Williamsville, New York native currently ranks second on the team in scoring with 30 points in 2019-20.
“Scott has done a really good job of getting players for us,” Admirals defenseman, and 2020 AHL All-Star, Alexandre Carrier said. “He’s picked up some guys with some leadership and some mileage in the league, but who are also still young and can still develop. He’s done a really good job with our team.”
About a month later Nichol worked with Sullivan on a trade that sent Milwaukee’s then leading scorer Emil Petterson to the Roadrunners in exchange for Adam Helewka and Laurent Dauphin.
“At the time we needed that trade, and Tucson needed it (too),” Nichol said. “Petterson, Helewka and Dauphin were all really skilled players that just needed a change of scenery. I think the trade worked out well for both teams.”
Schneider, Helewka and Dauphin helped turn around the Admirals ship and sparked Milwaukee’s remarkable 14-game point streak to end the 2018-19 season. In 24 games with Milwaukee, Helewka scored 19 points. Dauphin had 15 points in 27 games, and added another 16 in 33 games with the Admirals this season before being traded to Laval.
Under Nichol’s watch Milwaukee is in enjoying an epic 50th anniversary season. At the midway point of the 2019-20 campaign, the Admirals sit in front of the Central Division with a 31-8-4-2 record, which is good for a league-leading 68 points.
In the bigger picture the Admirals are in extremely tight race with Sullivan’s Tucson Roadrunners for the top spot in the Western Conference and the AHL. As of January 30, 2020, the Admirals hold the edge for the top spot in the AHL with a point percentage of .756, while Tucson ranks second at .713. Milwaukee and Tucson are currently the only two AHL teams above .700.
Each squad has spent significant time in the top spot of the AHL during the season, and it is a race that the two friends, Nichol and Sullivan, continue to keep tabs on as the year progresses.
“We both understand exactly where we are as far as the standings,” Sullivan said. “It’s great to see that their organization is having the success that they are having, and we are fortunate to be where we are at. We are excited to see where each organization is going to finish in the second half of the season.”
Nichol’s Admirals are trying to hold off both the Roadrunners and win the franchise’s first Calder Cup in 16 years. Right now they are arguably the favorite to do so.
“It’s great for Sully in that Tucson is doing great and been playing well,” Nichol said. “But Sully puts the work in (to help them win). We’ve both put the work in, and we both hired great coaches. Both of those guys (Taylor and Jay Varady in Tucson) are All-Star coaches this year.”
After the AHL All-Star Classic break, Milwaukee returns to action on Friday with a visit to Central Division rival Chicago. Nichol’s squad will be looking to get right back to their winning ways.
“In Milwaukee we have really nice balance of skill, size, and grittiness,” Nichol said. “All the pieces are kind of coming together and there is such great competition here to get into games. All of the guys are playing well, and it is fun to watch.”