Tomorrow night, the Milwaukee Admirals will play regular-season hockey for the first time since March 11, 2020. 19 months after their dominant 2019-20 season came to an abrupt end due to COVID-19, head coach Karl Taylor’s team will host the Grand Rapids Griffins at their home rink.
“We’re all excited: our staff, our front office here in Milwaukee...we’re very excited to start the season and about the new future and the players we’re working with,” said Taylor when we sat down to talk this week.
Earlier in 2021, Nashville’s prospects were dispatched to Chicago, Tucson, and Cleveland as the Admirals sat out the season. Karl Taylor joined most of his players with the Wolves, serving on their coaching staff and running the team’s power play. Ahead of the 2021-22 season, with around a dozen Admirals from the 2019-20 roster returning, Taylor emphasized the stability the organization has moving forward:
“I think every team and every season is a new journey. We did bring some guys back that were on that team, but this is a new journey for this group. The season is always going to be determined by how it goes. There are call-ups, injuries, all the different things that occur. But we’re very excited about having our returning players and some guys that understand how we like to operate here.”
So what does the coaching staff expect? Taylor walked me through each position group, the competition around their division, team goals, and more.
At the forward position, Milwaukee is returning the likes of Cole Schneider, Tommy Novak, Michael McCarron, Cole Smith, and Patrick Harper. But they lose what the coaches viewed as a key piece to their lineup in Rem Pitlick:
“Losing Rem was disappointing. We’re excited that he’s going to get an opportunity somewhere else on a full-time basis, and we wish him the very best, but it’s a big loss. To say we were disappointed is probably an understatement in Milwaukee, but we’re also excited for the opportunity that’s been presented to him.”
Taylor expects his team will need an all-hands-on-deck approach to replace Pitlick’s offensive production: “He had 20 goals for us two years ago, and we were anticipating that if he was with us for the season, he would be a 25-30 goal scorer at this level. That’s a big hit. But it’s also a great opportunity for the next person up and how we are going to fill that and find someone to get those goals for us. It’s probably going to be a little bit by committee.”
When asked if this was a make-or-break year for Anthony Richard, Taylor said, “When you have players that start getting one-year contracts, I think every year becomes that. Richie’s been here for a while, and he’s comfortable in Milwaukee, but he wants to be in the NHL.”
“I would say the finish of his last season in Milwaukee...he was probably a little disappointed with how it went. He seems a little more mature in his approach this year, and we have great expectations for how he plays here,” added the coach. “I’d like to see him be a guy that knocks on the door and reopens people’s eyes, gets another look, and makes people reconsider him.”
The Admirals are also injecting some fresh faces into their forward lineup, including Grant Mismash, Zach Solow, Egor Afanasyev, Joseph LaBate, and Bobo Carpenter. Taylor admitted that there’s a learning curve for those players both in training camp and throughout the season.
“I think they’re all just trying to get their feet under their bodies here...trying to get their apartments sorted out...Where do they eat in Milwaukee? Where’s the arena? Where’s the practice rink? Our foundation guys that are still here have helped them with that, but there are going to be ups and downs because it’s pro hockey.”
The head coach added some detail about how he handles these younger players: “Something we speak to the group about a lot here is we’re not going to treat you like you’re in the minors, so please don’t treat yourself like you’re in the minors. We expect the same performance, the same effort, and the same dedication to this team we would if they were playing for Nashville.”
On the blue line, the Admirals are welcoming veteran Matt Tennyson and returning Josh Healey, Matt Donovan, Frederic Allard, and Jeremy Davies. The latter three will be relied on heavily to play hard minutes and score from the point, but Karl Taylor will also be using them in a teaching role for David Farrance and Marc Del Gaizo.
“There are always growing pains and understanding,” said Taylor. “Jeremy Davies went through that when he was a rookie. He had to learn how to play without the puck, how to play harder, how to kill plays...Not that he didn’t have it in him, but we just had to explain that he needed to add those things to his game.”
In singling out Davies, Taylor added, “Now he’s a guy that’s right on the cusp of an NHL opportunity. He gave [Nashville] a lot to think about, so hopefully, Farrance and Del Gaizo can learn from him. That would be a great thing because he’s gone through it already.”
On how he plans to use Farrance and Del Gaizo, Taylor was frank:
“We expect our D to carry the puck, we expect them to join the rush, and we expect them to be dynamic in the offensive zone. Those two guys are going to add to that, but there are going to be days where they’ll need to sit back, watch some tape, and understand and learn how to play a more positionally sound game, how to be a little more patient, how to not force offense, and how to let the game come to them a little bit.”
In net is where most Predators fans’ eyes will be focused on the return of Connor Ingram. The AHL All-Star had a difficult season last year playing in Sweden, enrolling in the NHL/NHLPA Player Assistance Program, and starting just five AHL games. Regardless, Karl Taylor is confident in his ability to bounce back.
“I’m excited for Connor. I think he’s done everything he needs to do to get his situation organized and straightened out,” said the head coach. “He spent a long time in Nashville this summer recommitting himself and really pushing through. I think he looks the same as when the season got canceled on us [in 2020]. I think he’s right on track, and we’re going to support him. We expect big things from him both on and off the ice in a leadership role.”
Behind Ingram, Devin Cooley—who posted a 0.911 save percentage in 22 ECHL games last year—has won the backup job, and Tomas Vomacka will start the year in Florida with the Everblades.
“I think Cooley might have been the plan [for the backup job], but we were open to someone knocking him out of the chair if that’s what occurred,” noted Taylor. “We have two good goalies in the east coast league in Vomacka and Gahagen, so both of those guys are fighting for the opportunity to come back here.”
Taylor’s philosophy on position battles is clear: “We love internal competition in this organization. We’ve rewarded merit because it keeps players believing that they can control their future, and that’s an important thing. A player must feel like they can gain more ice time and more opportunity by their effort.”
In an effort to reduce costs, the AHL schedule for each team this year is mostly in-division, and the Admirals are no different. They’ll face Manitoba, Rockford, Chicago, Grand Rapids, Iowa, and Texas in all but seven games, and the Wolves and Stars should provide the biggest threat to Milwaukee.
“I’ll speak to Chicago...that’s Carolina’s organization, and if you watched Carolina play Nashville, they’re a tough team to handle with their pressure, how much they chase down loose pucks, and how they really try to take time and space away,” said Taylor. “I anticipate Chicago doing the same thing.”
Taylor, who spent four seasons as an assistant coach for Texas, noted the Stars “look like they’re going to be a stronger club.” He added: “They always play an upbeat, aggressive style, and I anticipate that will continue.”
“We’re going to get to know every team [in our division] very, very well,” said Taylor. “And we’re anticipating a tough challenge all season.”
In August, the AHL announced an expanded playoff format beginning this season which will include 23 total teams. The top two seeds in the Atlantic, top three in the North and Central, and top seed in the Pacific will each receive a first-round bye while the 14 other qualifying teams compete in a best-of-three series. Rounds two and three will be best-of-five series, and the conference and Calder Cup finals will be best-of-seven series.
When asked about the new playoff format, Taylor wasn’t exactly enthusiastic.
“Well, they didn’t call me to ask for my vote,” quipped the head coach. “I’m embracing it. A lot of times the AHL gets used for the NHL to look at some rules, so I think that’s one of these things that they’re trying out. All of the experimentation happens at our level, which we welcome. More teams in the playoffs mean more opportunity. So we’ll see how it plays out, and hopefully, we’re not in the play-in round.”
With all that’s been said about the sour taste left in the Admirals’ mouths over how the 2019-20 season ended, I asked Taylor bluntly, “How hungry is this team to win a championship and put that season to bed?”
“We’ve already buried it,” replied Taylor. “It’s about 20 feet under the ground. We’ve moved on from the season that was to be because it’s over, and there’s nothing we can do about that. We’re very excited and eager to get going again and to see the Admirals logo out there. Are we focused on winning a Calder Cup? Yeah, that’s always there. We always want to win our last game, but it’s not related to how that season ended. That’s over and done with.”
Taylor emphasized that even with several Admirals returning, this roster is here to strike out on its own.
“We have 25 guys here right now, and they’re going to pave their own path,” said Taylor. “There will be different challenges during the season, and we’ll hit them straight on like we always do. We want these young guys to understand the standards and sacrifices that it takes to win.”
The head coach was resolute on the season ahead: “We do have large aspirations in this room. We win here, and that’s a huge focus of how we develop.”