by Jason Karnosky
The 2022-23 NHL trade deadline marked a crossroads for the Nashville Predators organization. Facing injuries and an uphill climb to the playoffs, the Predators chose to significantly turn over their roster and move out some longtime NHL players.
Yet, a funny thing happened during their extensive retooling. Rather than slide back in the standings, the Predators started winning and winning a lot. Freshly stocked with players who started the season on the Admirals, including standout forwards Tommy Novak, Philip Tomasino, and Luke Evangelista, Nashville is making a stunning end run and have their postseason hopes still alive.
“The guys who have come up from Milwaukee have brought some life and energy to our team,” Predators coach John Hynes said. “They’ve stepped up and played big roles, and they are playing with a lot of confidence for us. Most importantly, they are playing the right way—the way you need to in order to win hockey games.”
Hynes’ squad currently stands at 88 points with 79 games played, sitting three points behind the Winnipeg Jets who currently have the final Western Conference playoff spot with three games remaining for each team. Calgary has 90 points with two games remaining, so they also have a chance to get the final postseason spot in the West.
With many of the players who attended Admirals’ training camp currently up with the Predators, Nashville’s undermanned American Hockey League (AHL) squad could be forgiven for letting things slide. However, Milwaukee, stocked with a bunch of fresh faces of their own, also kept on winning. Starting with a 2-1 victory over Grand Rapids on March 18, the Admirals reeled off a remarkable stretch of six victories in a row, clinching a spot in the Calder Cup playoffs in the process.
“We definitely know how to adapt to change,” Admirals coach Karl Taylor said. “Our roster has changed a lot since the deadline, and we’ve had to change how we play based on all of the movement. But even though the pieces have changed quite a bit in the locker room, our core leadership guys have really done a very good job with welcoming everybody in and setting the standard for all of the new people that have been joining our team.”
Currently Milwaukee is 40-23-4-2, good for 86 points, and stand just two points behind first place Texas in the AHL’s Central Division. Perhaps more importantly, the Admirals have clinched a top-three seed and will avoid the play-in round.
Nashville’s organizational synergy is something that any NHL franchise would be proud of, and a prime example of how the Predators’ well-stocked system has paid dividends. With longtime NHLers like Mattias Ekholm, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, and Tanner Jeannot, all traded to other teams, and key players like Roman Josi and Filip Forsberg missing significant games due to injuries, several players who spent time developing in Milwaukee this season have recently moved up and played in big roles for the Predators.
“Good organizations have the depth, and you want to have some cohesion between your American League team and your NHL team,” Hynes said. “Sometimes when you have a group of players that come up together, they bond together, which I think is important too. The guys that are up (from Milwaukee) have had big impact on us, and they are playing in big roles. It is nice to see them come along in maturity and in their mindset about being a pro at the NHL level.”
While it was not an easy decision to transition toward the future at the 2022-23 trade deadline, Predators assistant General Manager/Admirals GM Scott Nichol is thrilled with how his entire organization responded to the challenge.
“I think the coaching staffs in both Nashville and Milwaukee have done a fantastic job,” Nichol said. “It was not the best scenario when we went down that road and traded some of our guys, but it opened doors for other guys to play. It has been nice to see our young guys play in meaningful games down the stretch, and they’ve went out and beat teams like the Boston Bruins. They make their mistakes and maybe their consistency isn’t at the NHL level yet, but they are working hard and learning on the job.”
The headliners up from Milwaukee include the impressive trio of Novak, Evangelista, and Tomasino, all of whom followed up great starts with the Admirals with fantastic performances for the Predators.
“I’m really grateful for everything Milwaukee has done for me this year,” said Tomasino, who piled up 32 points in 38 games for the Admirals this season. “A lot of the guys that started the year in Milwaukee have been given opportunities and we’ve been able to take advantage of it. We’ve been playing really well over the last 15-20 games and we are making a big playoff push.”
Following a strong AHL postseason run last spring, Novak was disappointed to start his fourth professional season back with Milwaukee. But Admirals coach Karl Taylor challenged the 25-year-old to find another gear with his game, and Novak has done that and more.
“When Tommy was assigned to us during training camp, I challenged him to lead the AHL in scoring,” Taylor said. “Early in the season he was on pace to be a top 10 scorer in the AHL, and he was chasing it down and doing a great job. Tommy is a very calm player, but I loved his energy and the urgency that he brought to us. He’s now a point a game guy in the National Hockey League, and there are a lot of guys in the NHL who would love to have those stats. I’m very proud of him that he has gone and done it.”
After a hot start in Milwaukee, Novak was called up in mid-December and never looked back. The 2015 third-round draft pick has contributed 17 goals and 41 points as a member of the Predators this season while logging huge minutes over the past couple of months.
“Our postseason run this year is something that has been really unique with the kind of a mass exodus of players from Milwaukee that are up here due to all of the injuries and the trades,” Novak said. “There has been a lot of opportunities for guys from Milwaukee and we’ve been proving ourselves pretty well. It has been really fun to see everyone get chances and to see everyone play well.”
Novak scored 11 goals and 26 points in 25 games for Milwaukee to start the season. That was such a torrid pace that the St. Paul, Minnesota native still ranks 10th on his former team in scoring.
“Tommy Novak has had a fantastic year after starting in Milwaukee,” Nichol said. “He’s a fourth-year pro, so it has not just been the young guys who are making an impact in Nashville.”
Tomasino played all of 2021-22 in the NHL but started the 2022-23 campaign in Milwaukee. Called up in mid-February, the 2019 first-round prospect has solidified his position on Nashville’s top two lines. To date, the Mississauga, Ontario native has 18 points in 28 games for the Predators.
“A lot of people doubt us and don’t think we have it in us to make it to the postseason,” Tomasino said. “We all love that feeling that no one really believes in us, but everyone here believes that we can pull it off.”
In his first professional season, Evangelista has been a revelation. Called up to Nashville for the first time on February 28, the 2020 second-round pick’s first NHL goal came in just his fourth game, as part of a two-goal effort in 4-3 shootout loss to Vancouver. The Toronto, Ontario native now has six goals and 13 points with the Predators and continues to get better every day.
“One of my goals this year was to get just one NHL game in, so to be able to stick around a little in Nashville and help the team make a playoff push has been a blast,” Evangelista said. “We’ve been doing pretty well, and we’re hanging on here, but we just need a couple of more wins. I think the group is really positive and confident that we can make a push.”
One of the reasons why Evangelista has fit in so well in Nashville is that there are so many familiar faces to welcome him to the Predators dressing room. That bond has helped all of the former Admirals settle in and play well in the Music City.
“We were all really tight in Milwaukee, so I’ve been lucky to come up and have all my buddies guide me and take me under their wing,” said Evanglista, who had 41 points in 49 games for the Admirals. “(That familiarity) just makes the transition to the NHL level that much easier on the ice and in the locker room.”
Mark Jankowski, Kiefer Sherwood, Michael McCarron, and Egor Afanasyev are other forwards who split time with Nashville and Milwaukee this season. On defense the Predators are getting major contributions from players that started the season in Milwaukee like Kevin Gravel (23 NHL games this year), Jordan Gross (15 games), and Spencer Stastney (five games and counting).
“There have been guys up in Nashville who started in Milwaukee like Gravel, who hadn’t played in an NHL game in a few years,” Nichol said. “Now he has been relied on to play in a lot of games for Nashville, so it has been a good mix up there. You can go through the list of players who have been called up and they are all bringing a different skill set at a different age. They are all at different points in their career, and they are all doing great for us.”
With all of those players up with Nashville, Milwaukee has relied on several new faces of their own to stay afloat in the Western Conference. A couple of key players that have joined the young squad are Isaac Ratcliffe, Anthony Angello, and Austin Rueschhoff—all of whom are players that were looking for more ice time with a new AHL squad.
“We kind of knew our organization was going to go down this path, so we kind of got out ahead of it and traded futures for Rueschhoff, Angello, and Ratcliffe—who were all guys that wanted a fresh start,” Nichol said. “Those guys have really been a big part of our group. These weren’t guys that were playing in the ECHL but were solid American Hockey League players still looking to get their opportunity in the NHL. They wanted to turn heads in a new organization.”
On February 26 Ratcliffe came over to Milwaukee from Philadelphia, while Rueschhoff arrived in the Cream City two days later from the New York Rangers organization. Angello ended up in Milwaukee after a rare March 8 post trade deadline deal that the squad made with St. Louis. Ratcliffe has 15 points in 18 games with Milwaukee after scoring just four in 26 contests with Lehigh Valley this season. Angello has seven goals and 12 points in 14 games with the Admirals after scoring only 11 points in 45 contests with Springfield. Rueschhoff has three goals and eight points in a Milwaukee uniform.
“We’ve brought in PTO guys and ATO guys, draft picks, and we made three different acquisitions through trades for guys looking for new opportunities,” Taylor said. “I tip my hat to Scott Nichol, (Predators general manager) David Poile and Barry Trotz, and the job they did putting those guys together. They’ve been getting us some bodies that can help us get through this time. The guys we’ve traded for are all playing well for us and are key components of our team.”
Another player that has found new life in Milwaukee is forward Tye Felhaber. After playing in nearly 100 AHL games prior to the season mainly with the Texas Stars, Felhaber found himself with the Fort Wayne Komets of ECHL at the start of the 2022-23 season. Now back in the AHL with Milwaukee, the 24-year-old has six goals and 12 points in 18 games in an Admirals sweater.
“As a tryout guy, Tye Felhaber has been a big part of our team since he came up,” Taylor said. “He has been executing for us, scoring big goals for us, and taking advantage of the opportunity. He is a very desperate young man who wants to stay here, who wants to secure his career, and wants to grow. There is a level of desperation in him that is helping his game.”
While it hasn’t been easy for Taylor, Nichol, and others involved with Milwaukee to retool on the fly, there is a lot of pride in seeing the players that developed with Admirals this season go out and succeed at the NHL level.
“The guys that have gone up to Nashville have done great,” Taylor said. “The proud part is to see those guys go up and not just play in games. Most of the players that have been called up have really overachieved up there. When you see players that have played for you and have paid their dues, guys like Tommy Novak, and then they have success at the next level, you are excited for them. There is a lot of pride and joy in watching those guys get that opportunity and then run with it.”
While Nashville still hopes to make the NHL playoffs, at some point a few players that are up in Nashville could return to Milwaukee for the AHL postseason. Taylor and the Admirals coaching staff know they will have to continue their lineup juggling act in order to ice the best playoff roster they can.
Taylor is thrilled to know that he gets to prepare for postseason hockey this spring with his squad—no matter what that squad ends up looking like.
“Playoffs are never guaranteed so we are going to celebrate that accomplishment, but we do have bigger goals as we go forward,” Taylor said. “Everyone starts the season thinking that they are going to win the Calder Cup. Now that we are in the playoffs and we have a chance to win it, that is exactly what we’d like to do.”