by Jason Karnosky
In a lot of ways, the Milwaukee Admirals’ 2021-22 comeback season was the most important in franchise history.
After sitting out an entire year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Milwaukee overcame a slow start, roaring back to earn a top three playoff spot in the American Hockey League’s Central Division. The Admirals proceeded to win a playoff series for the first time in 11 years, and then proved they could play with the eventual Calder Cup champion Chicago Wolves in the following round.
Coming off all of that success, Milwaukee’s players and coaches are eager to start anew for the 2022-23 season. They will do so with arguably one of the franchise’s most talented AHL rosters ever.
“We like our group this season,” Milwaukee coach Karl Taylor said. “We think we’ve upped our roster a little bit. We’re excited to work with the guys that are here who will be a part of our team.”
While the Admirals will feature plenty of fresh faces this season, Milwaukee will have a few key veterans providing leadership and stability.
“There are a lot of new people here and that includes the guys that joined us late in year last year,” Taylor said. “We do have some returning players coming back. I think we have six or seven returnees, but we like our team.”
Cole Schneider is perhaps the team’s most important holdover, and he will again wear the captain’s “C” for the squad. The 31-year-old will be playing in his 13th professional season in 2022-23.
“I think we look pretty good so far,” Schneider said. “We have a lot of new guys this year and the young guys really want to work out there (on the ice). We’ve got some older guys that have been through it before, and we’ve added a few guys that have won.”
Milwaukee’s top returning scorer is coming off the most productive goal scoring campaign of his professional career. Last season the Williamsville, New York native lit the lamp 30 times, and added 30 assists for 60 points.
“We do have some returning players like Cole Schneider, and big surprise, but he’s going to be on our power play and he’s going to work net front for us,” Taylor said. “He’s elite for us in that spot.”
Jimmy Huntington is another top returning forward to Milwaukee. Huntington had a terrific second half last season with the Admirals after being acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning organization.
In addition to the returnees, Milwaukee is adding a lot of new firepower up front, headlined by Philip Tomasino. The Mississauga, Ontario native is coming off an impressive rookie season spent entirely with National Hockey League (NHL) affiliate Nashville, where he contributed 11 goals and 32 points. Still just a 21-year-old, Nashville’s 2019 first-round pick should continue to grow and develop in Milwaukee with plenty of opportunities on the team’s top lines.
Another young Nashville prospect, Luke Evangelista stood out during his training camp in the Music City. Like Tomasino, Evangelista played for Chicago during the 2020-21 COVID-19 season when the Wolves iced a split squad that included Predators prospects. Evangelista then returned to London in the Ontario Hockey League where he racked up 111 points last season. The Nashville 2020 second round pick will be making his Admirals debut this season.
“I felt great during camp in Nashville, during the rookie games, and I got really good feedback from my exit interviews up there,” Evangelista said. “They gave me some things to work on in Milwaukee, but they also told me some things about my game that they really liked. I felt comfortable up there, I wanted the puck, and I saw plays to be made. Hopefully I can get back up there as soon as possible.”
Former San Jose Sharks organization forward John Leonard impressed during training camps in both Nashville and Milwaukee. Acquired by the Predators in the offseason as part of the trade that sent forward Luke Kunin to San Jose, the 24-year-old Leonard has 58 games of NHL experience to date in his young career.
“John Leonard is a guy who we traded for that had a great camp in Nashville and was close to having an impact there,” Taylor said. “He’s a very good player and we look forward to working with him. We expect him to play in every situation for us as we prepare him for his next opportunity in Nashville.”
While a bit surprised by his offseason trade to Nashville, the Sharks’ 2018 sixth-round pick looks forward to continuing his professional career with the Admirals.
“It was a shock to get traded, but it’s been awesome to be here in Milwaukee and honestly I love it here,” Leonard said. “It’s a pretty cool spot, and there are a lot of cool restaurants in town. I played junior hockey in Green Bay for the Gamblers, so I got to know Wisconsin a little bit then. Milwaukee with the big lake is a great spot.”
Another new addition is veteran Mark Jankowski, who carries 272 games of NHL experience on his resume. The 2012 Calgary first-round pick had five points in 19 games with Buffalo last season and added another 27 with the AHL’s Rochester Americans.
On defense Milwaukee returns sophomore professional Marc Del Gaizo, who was one of the Admirals most consistent blueliners last season. Three new veterans, Jordan Gross, Kevin Gravel, and Roland McKeown will bring a wealth of experience to the Admirals. The trio have combined for 129 NHL games and will be relied on for leadership.
Gross is coming off a stellar 2021-22 season, where he won the AHL’s Eddie Shore award as the league’s best defenseman. The 27-year-old posted 65 points in 61 games to lead all AHL blue liners and should provide plenty of offense from the back end.
The 6-foot, four-inch-tall Gravel was a big part of the Stockton Heat’s deep playoff run last season and had his last NHL action in 2019-20 as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. McKeown has been a steady performer with both Charlotte and Colorado in the AHL, last playing in the NHL with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2017-18.
Joining them on the Admirals defense this season is rookie Luke Prokop, fresh off a historic and memorable junior hockey career in the Western Hockey League. The Predators’ 2020 third-round pick, expects to stand tall on the blue line in Milwaukee and learn a lot from the team’s veteran defenders.
“It’s really exciting for me coming to Milwaukee and getting to know the guys,” Prokop said. “It’s a new city for me, a new country, and a chance to get acclimated to a new fanbase. I’m really looking forward to (being a part of this team).”
Milwaukee’s biggest strength in 2022-23 will be in net, where Taylor will have two terrific goaltending options in Devin Cooley and rookie Yaroslav Askarov. It took Cooley some time to get comfortable in the AHL, but by the end of 2021-22, the 25-year-old was one of Milwaukee’s most improved players. In the postseason Cooley won two games for Milwaukee as the Admirals upset Manitoba in the Calder Cup playoffs. The Los Gatos, California native then backstopped Milwaukee’s Game 3 victory over the Wolves in the Division Finals.
Super prospect Askarov will be in line for many starts in Milwaukee. Selected 11th overall by the Predators in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, the netminder already has three years of professional hockey experience as a member of St. Petersburg SKA in the KHL.
With a roster stocked with young talent, gritty veteran leadership, and solid goaltenders, Milwaukee expects to contend again this season. The Admirals should be one of the AHL’s top teams, and competition for jobs and opportunities in the Cream City will be fierce all season long.
“Hopefully we learn from our start last year, and we’ll have a better start this year,” Schneider said. “Last year we had a lot of young guys learning a new system early on, and that makes it a little bit harder. But a lot of these guys are here after going through Nashville’s camp, so we should be ready to go (on opening night).”
The Admirals will begin the 2022-23 season facing the Chicago Wolves on Saturday, October 15. Milwaukee’s home opener will come one week later against the Manitoba Moose at UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena.