The Admirals made the playoffs yet again this season, and many players on the team had a part in making that happen. Today we will look at some of the players that really stood out this year as well as some of the moments that are hard to forget.
Biggest Surprise: Marek Mazanec
When the season began, Marek Mazanec was the backup goalie, playing his first season of professional hockey in North America. The incumbent Magnus Hellberg was expected to get a bulk of the load in net, but callups, injuries, and solid play eventually led to Mazanec taking the reins for Milwaukee.
Mazanec played in 31 games this season, posting a 18-10-3 record. He finished 17th in the AHL in save percentage and goals against average. Mazanec also played in 25 games with Nashville while Pekka Rinne was injured.
His season was far from perfect, and was a bit streaky in the last third of the season. That isn't all that unusual for first year players, who aren't used to playing as long of a season. But he wasn't alone in his struggles. Hellberg seemed to take a step back this season, as well as suffered an injury that kept him inactive or down in Cincinnati for the home stretch of the season. The way this year went, it's very likely that Mazanec is the favorite to be the starter out of the gate next season for Milwaukee.
Top Rookie: Tie between Colton Sissons and Miikka Salomaki
I just couldn't pick between the two.
Colton Sissons didn't have much trouble adjusting to the professional game after making the jump from Canadian juniors. He finished the season with 25 goals and 19 assists, good for fourth in points as an Admiral. He was the only Milwaukee player chosen for this year's All-Star roster and got a pretty good look at the NHL level as well. He played 17 games for the Predators, notching a goal and three assists.
Sissons could start next season in Milwaukee again, but he's definitely one of the players at the front of the line to be heading to Nashville. He made an impression pretty fast, and likely already passed some players in the organization.
Miikka Salomaki led the team in points with 50 (20+30) in 75 games. His smash mouth style is the type that makes fans smile, although at points he went a bit over the edge when it came to dangerous hits. He made a reputation for being the type of player that not only can score on you, but he can get in the gritty areas too. He's shown he can do it at the AHL level in year one. There's a strong possibility that he makes his NHL debut in 2014-15 with Peter Laviolette's squad.
Most Improved: Mike Liambas
Mike Liambas was a fringe AHLer. Before spending 27 games with Milwaukee last season the 25 year old had spent the last four seasons between the Cincinnati Cyclones and Orlando Solar Bears in the ECHL. But this year he got more of an opportunity and carved a spot out for himself. His 60 games more than doubled his total from last season and his eight points put him around his average yearly ECHL total.
No, we aren't talking about a Wayne Gretzky in training or anything, but Liambas served a solid checking role for the Admirals this season. He's one of the first to stand up for his teammates and obviously isn't afraid to drop the gloves either.
Best Moment: Van Guilder gets first call-up to Nashville
Mark Van Guilder became one of the oldest players to make their NHL debut this season when he was called-up to play in Nashville's March 30th game against Washington. In his fifth year with the Admirals, Van Guilder has become a fan favorite. This year he was able to make a dream come true, as he became one of the oldest rookies to debut in the NHL. At 30 years old he's not likely to progress much further, but after putting in a few very productive seasons down in the farm he'd earned at least one night on the big stage.
Best Fan Experience: Pekka Rinne returns to Milwaukee
One of the most exciting weekends for Admirals fans this season was seeing Rinne return to where he started it all. One of the most popular Admirals of all time, it was a nice to witness his homecoming. Fans take pride in seeing the players graduate to the NHL, it's almost like watching one of your own kids grow up. The Milwaukee players (and I won't lie, the media too) were also pretty excited to get a chance to talk to the decorated Nashville goalie during his weekend with the team. The fact that he won all three games was just an added bonus.
Team MVP: Taylor Beck
Beck finished one point behind Salomaki this season, but played ten games less. Despite having a few cold streaks, Beck was one of the veteran forwards that helped a unit that featured many younger prospects. Some of his best nights came late in the season, when he found great chemistry with new linemates Austin Watson and Francis Wathier.
When Beck is at his best, he dominated play. Honestly based on his production he probably should have gotten a bit longer look with Nashville this season.
However at age 23 the Predators should be worried that this is all he will be, a top line player in the AHL. Coach Dean Evason called him their most talented player a multitude of times during the season, but has he hit his ceiling? He's been playing in the organization at a professional level since the 2011-12 season, yet has only scored three goals and four assists in 23 NHL games. He's a very solid player in the AHL and was a vital part of the Admirals this season, but in the grand scheme of things that isn't really what Nashville hoped for. I didn't want to end the awards on a damper note, but it is something to consider.