by Jason Karnosky
For the Admirals and the team’s devoted fans, there is plenty of enthusiasm for the team’s return to the ice for the 2021-22 season.
Players that would have called the Brew City home during a normal American Hockey League (AHL) year, stood out all spring in other places. On the odyssey that was 2020-21, potential Admirals skated mainly for the team’s National Hockey League (NHL) affiliate Nashville, for the AHL’s Chicago Wolves, and for the franchise’s ECHL-affiliate Florida. A few others had residences in Tucson, Texas, Sweden, and Austria.
“It’s been a very weird year, but in the end lots of our players have gone on and done very well in Nashville and we are proud of that,” Admirals coach Karl Taylor said. “The team in Chicago has performed fairly well and our players there have done well there. Overall, I think 2020-21 will be seen as a success, but we all looking forward to next season and being back in Milwaukee.”
During an injury-riddled season in Nashville, the Predators got important contributions from 11 players that played in Milwaukee during the 2019-20 season. With assistance from the Admirals 11, Nashville came back from the brink of playoff elimination in March. After starting the season 11-16-1, the Predators won 20 of their final 28 games to earn the franchise’s seventh-straight trip to the postseason.
The Predators playoff clinching victory came on the second-to-last night of the regular season, as Nashville posted a 3-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes—the same Hurricanes team the Predators will be facing in the first round of the NHL playoffs. Overall, Nashville went 31-23-2 in 2020-21, finishing in fourth place in the Central Division.
“We are proud of how the guys (from Milwaukee) have played with Nashville this year,” Predators Director of Player Development and Admirals General Manager Scott Nichol said. “As an organization we do a great job in the fact that we aren’t rushing players up. We are very patient with players, we build great relationships with them, and when we bring them up we put them in situations to succeed.”
Of the 11 recent Admirals in Nashville, forward Eeli Tolvanen led the way offensively, posting 11 goals and 22 points in 39 NHL games. Other impressive contributions came from Tanner Jeannot, Mathieu Olivier, Yakov Trenin, and Rem Pitlick up front, and Alexandre Carrier, Ben Harpur, and Jeremy Davies on the blue line.
“There have been so many guys, and the good thing is the impact that the players that have come in from Milwaukee have had,” Predators coach John Hynes said. “When you’ve seen them in the games, they’ve come in and played well. Some have played more than others, and made a bigger impact than others, but they’ve all brought energy and life to our team.”
Jeannot and Pitlick, along with Carrier, were players that split time in Nashville and Chicago this season. It was a unique year for the Wolves, who featured a roster divided right down the middle with prospects from both Carolina and Nashville organizations. Milwaukee’s usual rival played in 33 AHL games, and the Wolves enjoyed a banner year. Coach Ryan Warsofsky guided Chicago to a 21-9-1-1 record (.682 points percentage) to capture the Central Division title.
“I thought the year went really well player development-wise,” Warsofsky said. “A lot guys got rewarded with NHL games, and along the way we won a lot of hockey games. We talked about the elephant in the room, the two NHL affiliations for our team, very early on and we dealt with it. We knew we had to come together right away, and credit goes to the players for doing that.”
Players that normally would have been playing Milwaukee starred for Wolves, who also got coaching support from Taylor, and his Milwaukee assistants Greg Rallo and Scott Ford.
“The challenge of working with Carolina’s staff went really well,” Taylor said. “We wish we had our own team and our own situation, and I think (Ryan) and the coaches in Chicago would say the same thing, but we’ve all made the most of the situation. There are a lot of players that started in Chicago this season that aren’t there anymore. They’ve moved on and had that success.”
It was not an easy situation for the Wolves and Predators prospects, or the coaching staffs of both proud franchises, but early on a decision was made to feature 10 players from Carolina and 10 from Nashville for every 2020-21 Wolves game night roster. The result was a surprisingly cohesive team that had a terrific year.
“I thought everything went really well between the two organizations,” Warsofsky said. “I had numerous conversations with Nichol, coach Taylor, Ford, and Rallo, and we had great communication. I learned a lot from Karl during the season. He’s a smart coach that is very good with details, and there is a reason why he’s had a lot of success in Milwaukee. I wish them all the best, except when Milwaukee plays us next year.”
The top three scorers in Chicago this season all had their NHL rights belonging to Nashville, led by second-year forward Tommy Novak. In his sophomore AHL season, Novak posted 32 points in 27 games. With the Ontario Hockey League canceled this season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 19-year-old Philip Tomasino played in the AHL this year. Nashville’s 2019 first-round pick matched Novak with 32 points and scored a team-leading 13 goals.
Fellow Predators prospects Anthony Richard, Frederic Allard, Cole Smith, and Patrick Harper each played in at least 15 games with the shared AHL squad, while in goal Connor Ingram played in five contests for the Wolves after sharing the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award with Troy Grosenick last season in Milwaukee.
Despite only playing in 13 games for the Wolves, Jeannot still ranks as the team’s third-leading scorer. Warsofsky, who is on his way to Carolina to join the Hurricanes staff for the NHL playoffs, knows his now first-round playoff opponent Jeannot firsthand. He had the unique experience of coaching him for part of the season in Chicago.
“I thought Tanner was our best player, and if you were to name our MVP for 2020-21, he would be it,” Warsofsky said of Jeannot, who scored 10 goals and 21 points with the Wolves. “He plays a 200-foot game, is heavy and physical, and is always engaged and focused every single day. He was awesome to coach and great for our young guys to see play. I think he has a bright, bright future in the NHL.”
Pitlick racked up eight goals in as many games for the Wolves, and then saw action in 10 games with the Predators.
“My experience of playing in Chicago was very pleasant, and the guys from Carolina’s organization were great to us,” Pitlick said. “It was a younger group, but everyone did the best as we could with respecting each other. We were also trying to do the best that we could with furthering our careers.”
Carrier saw action in three games in Chicago, before making Nashville his permanent home.
“With every game (in Nashville) I’m feeling more and more confident,” said Carrier, who played in 19 games with the Predators this season and who expects to have a big role in the postseason. “I know what it takes to stay in this league, know how to make good plays, be consistent, and to also enjoy myself.”
Davies saw action in nine games with the Wolves, and played in 16 for the Predators, taking an important step forward in his career.
“Guys who I created friendships with during my first professional year playing in Milwaukee, like Carrier, Harpur, Tolvanen, we are all now spending time here with the big club,” said Davies, who paired Carrier in his first NHL game. “We have been really playing really well, so everything here in Nashville is super positive. It is a great atmosphere to be a part of as a young guy on this team.”
A few players, including Michael Carcone and Josh Wilkins, played for other AHL organizations in 2020-21, while defensemen Matt Donovan and Frederic Allard, played at least part of the season in Europe.
“Before the season I didn’t expect to be coming back over here to Sweden,” said Donovan, who had seven points in 12 games with HV71 Jonkoping in 2020-21 after putting up 32 points in Milwaukee in 2019-20. “I didn’t really want to take up a valuable spot in Chicago from a young guy trying to make the NHL.”
Jeannot’s remarkable rise to the NHL this season actually started with Florida in the ECHL, which began play before any other league in 2020-21. Forward Michael Huntebrinker and defenseman Arvin Atwal are playing a full year with the Everblades, who currently lead the league’s Eastern Conference with a record of 37-18-3-2 (.658 points percentage). Huntebrinker currently ranks as the team’s second leading scorer with 23 goals and 45 points. Novak, Harper, Smith, and Wilkins are other potential Admirals who spent time at the beginning of season in the Sunshine State.
Overall, players that could have played in Milwaukee continued their strong development despite the difficult 2020-21 season and the pandemic circumstances. Some players, like Tolvanen might never return to the Admirals, having firmed up their place in NHL with strong play. Others will be eager to get the chance to show off their skills on a fulltime basis in Milwaukee, or play in the AHL for the Admirals for the first time.
“I think the best part of 2020-21 has been the player development,” Admirals coach Karl Taylor said. “Our focus has been trying to help the players get better, and build relationships with them so that when we do get our team back next year, we will be off to the races.”
Taylor is ready for the challenge that will be putting together a mostly new team on the ice for 2021-22.
“There is going to be a lot of turnover from 2019-20 for next year’s squad,” Taylor said. “We’ve been dormant, and guys gone on to other places, and that’s part of the business. But we are prepared to build that new foundation and start things over again.”
Taylor’s optimism has spilled over to the front office, where team President Jon Greenberg is itching for professional hockey to return to Milwaukee.
“Everybody here in Milwaukee is just so excited about getting started again,” Greenberg said. “We’ve done a lot of planning over the past year, and we are ready to go. We just need to get some games on a schedule.”
The first scheduled Admirals game of 2021-22 has yet to be set, though the AHL is working toward a tentative October 15, 2021, start date for next season. Team Owner/CEO Harris Turer is very appreciative of fans sticking with the team throughout everything over the past year, and could not be more ready for the puck to drop at UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena in October.
“I want to thank all of our fans and business partners who have stuck with us through 2020-21,” Turer said. “They’ve been part of what we’ve done in the past and are investing in our future. They’ve stuck with us through these difficult times and we look forward to seeing them all again.”