Like that of many teams in the American Hockey League, the story of the 2008-09 Milwaukee Admirals can be broken down to who’s coming, who’s going, who’s rising and who’s falling.
In a broad sense, the Admirals are having a good season, currently one point out of first place in the league’s highly competitive West Division, with 37 points (18-9-0-1). Some of the biggest news early in the season for the Admirals was three personnel moves made in late October and November. Another big story has been the surprising play of rookie Nick Spaling.
On October 30, the Predators organization acquired 2003 first-round draft choice (12th overall) Hugh Jessiman from the Rangers for future considerations. The same day, they shipped brawler Josh Gratton, known as much for his ability to take punches as he is for giving them, to the Philadelphia Flyers for 2003 second-round draft choice (29th, Calgary) defenseman Tim Ramholt.
While these two moves, along with the assignment of Patric Hornqvist and Ryan Jones by the Predators, clearly bolstered the Ads, the loss of winger Antti Pihlstrom to a late November call-up to Nashville took away some of the club’s scoring and grit. Like countryman and contemporary Tuomo Ruutu, Pihlstrom is both a scoring threat and a vicious hitter. He started the season strongly with the Ads, leading the team in goals (eight) at the time of his recall.
Cal O’Reilly continues to show the hands and vision that have him projected as an eventual NHL pivot. He is in the top 10 in AHL scoring with five goals and 27 assists, and is playing well in all three zones. He is often paired with center/left wing Nick Spaling and Hornqvist. Spaling has been solid in all phases of the game, displaying uncommon maturity for a first-year pro. He has 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) in 28 games, and is in contention for the league’s rookie scoring lead. Hornqvist has three goals and five assists.
Center Mike Santorelli also ranks among the league leaders in scoring with 32 points in 28 games, with a 12-game point streak in late November and early December. The Burnaby, BC native has recently been paired with Ryan Jones. Former Miami RedHawk Jones, in particular, has been impressive with the Admirals, registering 14 points in 14 games and doing the hard corner and board work necessary to succeed in a power forward role.
Santorelli’s brother Mark, a winger, has been called up twice (most recently, December 21) from the Cincinnati Cyclones (ECHL) for 18 games, registering one point. Younger than Mike by three years, Mark can score and set up plays, but lacks his brother’s outstanding speed. At Cincinnati, Santorelli has three points in six games.
Jessiman, known since his Connecticut schoolboy days as ‘Huge Specimen,’ is 6’6, 230 pounds, although he has never lived up to his early billing as a prototypical power forward. On November 16, Jessiman scored one of the AHL‘s goals of the year with a blind backhand shot from his knees that beat Grand Rapids netminder Jimmy Howard to the glove side. Jessiman did see some time on the club’s first line with playmaking center Cal O’Reilly, but more recently has settled into a checking line role. He has five points in 15 games since joining the Ads.
The defense has been led by the outstanding play of Alexander Sulzer. The 24-year-old German has recovered from a groin injury that plagued him in 2007-08, and has contributed in all situations, with 22 points in 28 games and a +1 rating. Another factor in the solid overall play of the Milwaukee defense has been the maturation of Sulzer’s top-pairing partner Cody Franson. The 2005 draft pick has worked on and corrected issues with defensive positioning, while still contributing offensively, evidenced by 17 points and a +4 rating through 24 games.
Swiss-born Ramholt has been a generally positive addition to the Ad defense, though he has been an occasional healthy scratch. He is another classic European defenseman who isn’t flashy, but keeps the game simple and mistakes to a minimum.
Rookie goalie Mark Dekanich has played reasonably well behind veteran Drew McIntyre. In 10 games, the former Colgate University netminder is 6-3 with a 2.21 GAA, and a .910 save percentage. Dekanich has assumed more of the goaltending duties in December, and has responded favorably to the added work, going 4-1 for the month, with a sparkling 1.46 GAA and .940 save percentage.