The Milwaukee Admiral’s season has been full of ups and downs, ultimately leading to their demise as they finish out 33-28-15 in 74 games with one game remaining, just on the outside looking in in the playoff race.
The Admirals had a great first part of the season, finishing second in their division and fourth in the Western Conference with a 24-12-5 record as of January 28. Afterwards, things quickly fell apart as they lost several key players to injuries and trades. Miikka Salomaki and Felix Girard sustained season-ending injuries, and Brendan Leipsic was part of the package that brought Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli in from Toronto. These losses, along with other factors, would result in a 9-16-8 record for Milwaukee in the latter part of the season.
While it can’t be easy missing the playoffs after 12 consecutive appearances, having so many exciting young players on your team with so much potential and talent it makes things a little easier. According to Elite Prospects, the Admirals had so much youth on their team that they started out as the youngest team in the AHL. That has changed since then but they still have 18 players on their roster page under the age of 24. For better and for worse, those players have stepped and played various roles in all four lines and all situations.
With the Admirals being such a young team it was extremely important for the veterans to step up and, for the most part, such has been the case.
Captain Joe Piskula has been steady for the team in the games he has played with the Admirals this season. Nothing epitomizes that more than his + 20 rating which leads the team and is among the top in the AHL. Regardless of your view of the +/- stat, for a defenseman to have that positive of a rating he has to be doing something very right.
Another thing Piskula provides the team is leadership. You saw this in the game against the Lake Erie Monsters on April 1 when Kevin Fiala decided to taunt a Monsters player after scoring the game winning goal in overtime. Before Fiala could even get to goalie Marek Mazanec to give him the traditional congratulations, Piskula pulled him aside and presumably told him to cool it. With all of the still-maturing youngsters on the team, it is very important to have good leadership to make sure no one steps out of line. Piskula provides that to this team.
The Journey Begins
The Journey Begins
Bringing more veteran leadership to the team, NHLers Rich Clune and Viktor Stalberg cleared waivers and were sent down to the AHL. Even though they might not have desired the relegation, they helped Milwaukee greatly in providing leadership and knowledge of what it takes to be an NHL player. Stalberg was also one of the leaders offensively in his time in Milwaukee, putting up 11 goals and 17 points in 20 games. This high-level point production in his time at the AHL level provided for easily the most exciting moments of the seasons, according to Daniel Lavender.
"Our game on March 6th at home against the Grand Rapids Griffins was the most exciting game of the season," Lavender said. "Only five games prior to that the Griffins won a game in Grand Rapids by Andy Miele scoring with 0.4 seconds remaining in regulation to force overtime and then he won it in overtime."
"The game in Milwaukee in March saw the Admirals give it right back. Fiala’s work in the literal dying seconds set up Viktor Stalberg’s second goal of the game – which was scored with 0.4 seconds remaining (no joke) – and then Stalberg completed his hat trick almost directly off the faceoff in overtime. The Bradley Center exploded for those goals. It was awesome."
Because of the large amount of young guys on the team, youth was scattered throughout the roster. On any given night you could look at the Admirals lineup and find them on virtually every single line and on both sides of special teams. All of this youthful exuberance really provided a lot of excitement (both good and bad) for the Admirals; much like it has for the Predators with players like Filip Forsberg, Seth Jones, Roman Josi, and Matthias Ekholm.
Kevin Fiala, Viktor Arvidsson, and Brendan Leipsic were three such players that injected a ton of energy and skill into the lineup, and put up copious amounts of points. In their own right, Austin Watson and Colton Sissons proved to be fantastic snipers and were the top two goal scorers for Milwaukee.
Beyond the points, it is good to see some youngsters settling into positions that they are expected to play at the NHL level and play like veterans on such a young team. Sissons was voted team assistant captain by the team in the beginning of the season and he, Watson, and Salomaki played in almost every situation for the Admirals.
Sissons is a guy that has always been a leader, but him stepping into a role that is reserved for the most influential players on the team at just 21 years old really speaks a lot about him as a player and as a person. Watson has also really stepped up this season, providing consistency in all of the situations that have been tossed at him, especially on the penalty kill.
As for Salomaki, while his point totals might not be where they were last season, Lavender has seen a lot of great things from his game this season. "He plays the game smart on both sides of the puck and works both ends of special teams."
Defensively, Taylor Aronson and Anthony Bitetto were catalysts for the team leading all defensemen in points while Jonathan Diaby and Johan Alm provided stability from the red-line back in recent games, as they found their game. Aronson had a very good breakout season offensively for the Admirals, and by the end of March he was tenth in the AHL for assists and third in the AHL in power-play assists.
Goalies Magnus Hellberg and Marek Mazanec, while good at times, were also inconsistent, thanks to up and down team play.
To cap off the success of the young-guns, Leipsic and Hellberg both represented the Admirals in the All-Star game back in January where Leipsic recorded a hat-trick.
Youth, though, hasn’t come without its drawbacks, says Lavender. "I feel like there have been a lot of speed bumps for many players this season, veteran and youth alike, that are all part of the learning process that comes with playing AHL hockey. According to Elite Prospects, at the start of this season the Admirals started with the youngest team by age in the league. The downside of that is these sort of speed bumps like we’ve seen this season."
1st NHL Goal
This combination of youth and skill led to a lot of success early in the season (at certain points in time they led their division and/or conference) but it has led to a lot of streakiness, as well. The Admirals started off with a six game winning streak but they also had a streak from late November to mid-December when they went seven games without a win. Through that stretch, Arvidsson and Watson only had 1 point and Leipsic and Sissons only had 3 points. Brendan Leipsic and Pontus Aberg were also healthy scratches at various points in the season because they were making too many individualistic plays that were leading to turnovers.
Frustrations boiled over with Dean Evason after the seventh loss when he was quoted by Admirals Roundtable saying, "Different ways we’re losing hockey games. I guess we have to be better. We can talk about our group being young and learning but we’re deep enough into the season that we should know what we’re doing."
Untimely Losses and Injuries
Youth has not been the only problem for the Admirals. On February 15 Brendan Leipsic was traded to Toronto, along with Olli Jokinen and a 2015 1st round pick, for Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli. Later that night in the game against Lake Erie both Felix Girard and Miikka Salomaki would sustain injuries that would put him out for the rest of the season.
For the Admirals, losing their leading assist-getter really hurt and, even with the recall of offensive dynamo Kevin Fiala, they would never quit be the same offensively. The loss of Girard, a two-time Guy Carbonnaeu Trophy Award winner (defensive forward of the year in the QMJHL) and a very key defensive player and faceoff guy, didn’t make it any easier for the Admirals. The absence of Salomaki proved to possibly be the most key one of them all.
"The loss of Miikka Salomaki this season has hurt this season. He adds a lot to all aspects of the team. It’s a shame that his season ended the way that it did after having made his first ever splash in the NHL."
Throughout the rest of the season for the Admirals, it really felt like when the other team scored a goal the rest really poured in and that can probably be heavily attributed to the subtractions of those two very good defensive forwards. When a team loses three very important guys like that they are almost never going to be successful and, resultantly, their absences coincided with a stretch of five games where Milwaukee didn’t record a single win. Recently, when asked about those players being gone from the lineup, Dan Evason said that it led to a ton of instability in their team with late season free agent signees Eric Robinson and Gary Steffes trying to fill their roles and the lines never getting set for the rest of the season.
Milwaukee also dealt with injuries on both their roster and the Predators roster late in the season which led to the losses of Alm (injury, Dec 6- Feb 27), Bitetto (callup, Jan 17-Feb 24), Oligny (injury, Jan 21-Feb 27), Piskula (injury, Feb 8-Mar 6), Liambas (injury, Mar 1-Mar 14), Diaby (injury, Mar 4-Mar 10), Arvidsson (call-up, Mar 20-April 1), and Fiala (Mar 24-Mar 26). As mentioned with the prior losses on February 15, the absences of key players have led to a lot of players being signed or called up from Cincinnati.
Along with a lot of younger players, many were forced into bigger roles on the team which led to a miserable 4-14-6 record in between February 17 and April 17. However, it has also led to a great learning experience for some Admirals players with Jonathan Diaby being one such example.
"It really felt at that time that Jonathan Diaby was thrust into the top defensive role for the Admirals. Considering how he started the season that says a lot of how rough that patch was in February and also a bit of how far along Diaby has come" Robinson and Steffes have also been bright spots on the team, coming in and successfully playing top nine roles.
A Bright Future Forged in Times of Instability
With the success this team showed at the beginning of the season, Max Görtz (definitely) and Juuse Saros (rumored) joining the squad next season, and a healthier roster, you have to believe they are in a good position to make it into the post-season when next season comes around.
Furthermore, with the experience the players have gained through the trials and tribulations of the 2014-2015 season, Daniel Lavender believes Admirals' fans have even more reason to believe in a bright future. "The upside is that there are a ton of players on this Admirals team that could be here the next two seasons as a group and that should make this team a huge threat to the AHL down the road thanks to the learning process this season has provided."