By Jason Karnosky
After 50 years of professional hockey in Milwaukee, the 2020-21 winter features plenty of snow and ice, but no team competing in the Brew City.
The Admirals, champions of the COVID-19 pandemic shortened 2019-20 American Hockey League (AHL) season, will not be joining 28 of the league’s 31 teams that drop the puck this weekend on an abbreviated campaign. The other two teams joining Milwaukee in taking a pass on the season are the Charlotte Checkers and Springfield Thunderbirds.
“It’s going to be a very different AHL season, with each division getting to choose how many games they want to play, and many teams not even competing this season in their own buildings,” Admirals president Jon Greenberg said. “At the end of the day, the decision not to play was important for the long term viability of our organization, and I believe that this was the case for Charlotte and Springfield as well.”
The Admirals certainly have good company, as Springfield and Charlotte are both proud franchises and cities with rich minor league hockey histories. The Checkers still retain ownership of the Calder Cup, having won the AHL’s latest playoff championship back in the spring of 2019. With Milwaukee and Charlotte not competing, this year’s AHL season will be played without its last two league champions.
“There are several travel, safety and player-supply challenges to consider,” said Checkers owner and CEO Michael Kahn, who shares Milwaukee’s disappointment in not playing this season. “Those, coupled with the increasing number of new cases in our area, make it very unlikely that we will be able to host fans at our games in the near future.”
All three franchises plan to again take the ice for the 2021-22 AHL season, which is just eight months away. Milwaukee’s management is certainly chomping at the bit to get their squad back on the ice this fall.
“When they heard the news that we were not going to play in the 2020-21 season, I’m sure our fans were very disappointed,” Admirals owner and CEO Harris Turer said. “If there was any way we could have played, we would have done it. We all would have loved to see the Milwaukee Admirals play, but it just didn’t make any sense for us.”
Prior to the 2020-21 season, Admirals coach Karl Taylor was likely grinning at the prospect of coaching another talented squad. However, the 2019-20 AHL Coach of the Year winner is willing to wait a year in order to ensure that the franchise he guides stays on solid financial footing. Taylor is staying plenty busy in 2020-21 by helping players that could have played on a 2020-21 Admirals squad continue with their development.
“Our focus (as a coaching staff) this year is to continue the development in a support role for Nashville’s prospects, helping the players build their careers and get better,” Taylor said. “Next fall we are all planning on being back in Milwaukee and having a great season to build on the success we’ve had here.”
The lack of arena revenue, plus the absence of a practice arena facility that was up to AHL safety standards in the Milwaukee area, made the choice not to play the right one for the Admirals.
“Some of the other AHL teams were able to move into their practice facilities, which means their cost to compete was significantly lower with those places are already operating,” Turer said. “The reason we can’t do that is that there are no practice facilities in our area with curved glass, which is an American Hockey League rule. UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena has that, but none of the other local rinks have it in place.”
If the Admirals would have played this season, Milwaukee’s roster that would have featured several prospects that had already played in games in the ECHL as part of the Florida Everblades. That includes talents like the Admirals’ top rookie scorer from 2020-21 Tommy Novak, Tanner Jeannot, and Josh Wilkins. Some of the organization’s prospects remain with the Everblades, including the team’s leading scorer Michael Huntebrinker and defenseman Arvin Atwal.
Competing in his first professional season, Patrick Harper got off to a terrific start in the ECHL this season. In just five games for the Everblades, Nashville’s 2016 fifth-round draft pick racked up five goals and nine points.
“Patrick is a very skilled, dynamic young player, but I’m still getting to know him just like the other first year pros who we didn’t have here in Milwaukee last year,” said Taylor about Harper, who earned the ECHL’s December Rookie of the Month honor. “(Patrick’s) made his mark early on and he’s got a lot of skill, but he’s also very into his career and bettering himself. He’s very coachable.”
These players, and many others like team’s leading rookie goal scorer from a season ago Rem Pitlick, were expected to join Milwaukee for the late-starting AHL season. Disappointment was a feeling shared by everyone involved with the Admirals, as the franchise that didn’t get the chance to build on everything it accomplished in 2019-20.
“We will always remember that the 2019-20 Admirals squad was one of the best we’ve ever had here,” Greenberg said. “We have the trophies in our office from the success we had last year.”
With the Admirals deciding not to compete, Harper, Pitlick, and their fellow Nashville prospects needed another avenue for opportunities to play professionally.
For the unique 2020-21 campaign, the NHL made some rules adjustments to allow a few of the Predators prospects to be kept with the team on a taxi squad, in case of COVID-19 outbreaks or other difficulties that would result from a compressed 56-game NHL season. Current Nashville taxi squad members include 2017 first-round pick Eeli Tolvanen, Cole Smith, Mathieu Olivier and goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo. All four would likely have played at least part of the season in Milwaukee.
Even with the taxi squad, the Predators had several additional skaters that needed a place to play hockey this winter. Nashville made the decision to reach out to the Carolina Hurricanes, which just this summer affiliated with Milwaukee’s archrival—the Chicago Wolves.
For the unique 2020-21 AHL campaign, the Wolves agreed to take Nashville on as a second NHL affiliate, allowing the Predators youngsters to have another place to develop and continue their progression toward the NHL.
“We have great admiration and respect for (Nashville president of hockey operations and general manager) David Poile and Milwaukee owner Harris Turer,” Wolves owner and chairman Don Levin told said. “The Admirals can’t play this year for reasons beyond their control, so we want to help people we respect and who are our partners. We’re going to combine the best available players from both sides and have a really good team.”
Along with Harper, Pitlick, and Novak, a few Admirals that had yet to play in games in 2020-21, are likely dressing for Chicago for the Wolves’ season opener against Grand Rapids tonight. That includes talented 24-year-old defenseman Alexandre Carrier and budding prospect Philip Tomasino.
Tomasino represents one of Nashville’s most important building blocks. The talented forward is coming off a fine showing at World Junior Championships, where he scored four goals and six points in seven games while earning a silver medal for Team Canada. As a 19-year-old, Tomasino is only eligible to compete in the AHL this season because the Ontario Hockey League is not playing. Instead of dressing for Milwaukee, the Predators’ 2019 first-round pick will be starting his first professional season competing in a planned 30-game season with the Wolves.
For Tomasino and his fellow Predators prospects in Chicago, it will constantly be a numbers battle, as the Wolves are holding 10 spots for Nashville prospects and 10 more for Hurricanes prospects for every game night roster.
“Our guys are excited to play, but there is a challenging element in how the roster is put together (in Chicago),” Taylor said. “There are guys that would have been playing a big role with the Milwaukee Admirals this season, who might not play tonight or might be playing for other teams.”
Poile told Brooks Bratten (of www.nhl.com/predators) that he expects a lot of roster movement during the condensed season, meaning that someone like Carrier, who is starting the season playing in Chicago, could still see meaningful action with the Nashville later on this winter.
“I would think that we’re going to have a lot of changes in the taxi squad over the year,” Poile said. “I think you could see us making some adjustments or shifts between here and the Chicago Wolves. This year, just philosophically, I don’t think it’s the best thing, if you will, for guys not to play.”
One key position of Nashville organizational depth is at the goaltender position. Connor Ingram returned to the Predators and Admirals after a terrific 2019-20 season, where he paired with Brookfield’s own Troy Grosenick to claim the Hap Holmes Award for posting the lowest goals against average in the AHL.
Poile is hoping to give Ingram and the recently added Kaskisuo as many opportunities to play as possible in 2020-21. That is of great importance to Admirals general manager Scott Nichol, who also serves as Predators director of player development.
Nichol appreciates that Nashville’s young talent pool will still get a plenty of chances to compete and develop during the 2020-21 season—even if it means many of those prospects are playing for Milwaukee’s bitter rival.
“We want to thank the Carolina Hurricanes and Chicago Wolves organizations for the opportunity to partner with them for this coming season,” Nichol said. “With our players skating for Chicago in the AHL and others competing in European leagues and in the ECHL with Florida, we are confident about where our prospects will continue their development during this unprecedented season. We look forward to resuming our relationship with the Admirals in the 2021-22 campaign.”
Along with Chicago, some Admirals will have jobs with other AHL squads this season. That includes Wilkins and forward Michael Carcone (recently acquired in a trade for Zach Magwood), who are competing for the Tucson Roadrunners. Coming off a 46-point campaign with Milwaukee, Cole Schneider will be playing in Texas where he was recently named team Captain, while Brandon Fortunato has a roster spot on the Cleveland Monsters. Two talented defenders, Matt Donovan and Frederic Allard, took their games overseas.
While it is certainly good news that most Predators prospects and potential Admirals to have places to play in 2020-21, Admirals fans have to live with the fact that they won’t have a home team to root for this AHL season.
However, the Predators are still competing in 2020-21, featuring a roster stocked with numerous Admirals alums. Players competing for Nashville that have dawned Admirals sweaters in the past include the team’s current top two scorers Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, its top two defensemen, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis, and its top two goaltenders Juuse Saros and Pekka Rinne.
“The beauty of this season is that we are still going to get see a lot of our prospects and alums play in Nashville,” Greenberg said. “A lot of them, whether they are playing on the Predators roster or are on the taxi squad with a chance to jump in, we know that their road (to career success) started here, and come fall it will continue here.”
Turer and the Admirals brass will be ready for 2021-22, and are eager to get fans back in their seats at UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena to watch one of the AHL’s best franchises. October 2021 certainly can’t get here soon enough for hockey in Milwaukee.