The Admirals were one of the strongest clubs in the AHL last season, riding some veteran forwards and a top-notch blue line to the Western Division title. Only the Calder Cup finalist Manitoba Moose managed as many regular season points as Milwaukee, and the Admirals may well be poised for another outstanding year.
Although the club is set to lose Mike Santorelli and Patric Hornqvist to the parent Nashville Predators this year, Nick Spaling and Cal O’Reilly return and provide decent offensive contributions. Also gone is Antti Pihlstrom, who left the team after a contract dispute.
Added up front this off-season were AHL veterans Ben Eaves and Peter Olvecky while Ryan Maki, Andreas Thuresson and Hugh Jessiman return. Eaves is a 27-year-old journeyman who has played in the AHL and Finnish Elite League the past several years, although he has been limited to just handful of games each season due to ongoing injury concerns. Olvecky is a former third-round choice of the Minnesota Wild with 31 NHL games under his belt. The 25-year-old scored six goals and 23 points in 41 AHL contests last season.
It remains to be seen if college stand-out and former first rounder Colin Wilson will join the Admirals at some point this year. The 20-year-old center appeared in just a single pre-season game for the Predators before being felled by injury. Currently on injured reserve, NHL CBA rules prohibit the Predators from demoting Wilson while he remains in the infirmary. If he joins the Admirals, Wilson will be a powerful addition to the first line and power play.
Also in the mix are Wacey Rabbit, Mark Van Guilder, Mike McLean and Bryan Leitch. Rabbit, a former Boston draft pick, is entering his third AHL season after scoring career highs in goals (16) and points (34) for the Providence Bruins last year. Van Guilder was a better than point-per-game scorer for the ECHL Cincinnati Cyclones last year and will be pushing to make the Admirals full-time after appearing in just three AHL games in 2008-09. McLean is an undrafted minor-league journeyman and a long shot to make the team, while Leitch collected impressive totals for Quinnipiac University of the NCAA last year (12 goals, 59 points in 39 games).
With Santorelli and Hornqvist being promoted and Pihlstrom bolting for Europe, the Admirals aren’t as deep or offensively talented as they were last year. That said, the addition of Colin Wilson would go a long way to filling the gaps.
The back end is undoubtedly Milwaukee’s strength. Alexander Sulzer and Cody Franson return after failing to stick with the parent club, while WHL defenseman of the year Jonathon Blum turns pro. AHL veteran and former Washington Capital Nolan Yonkman returns for his fourth season with Milwaukee, and Mark Matheson, Robert Dietrich and Scott Ford fill out the depth chart. The only deletion of note is that of Teemu Laakso, who played 42 games for the Admirals last year and appears to have beaten out Sulzer and Franson for a spot on the Predators.
The Admirals boast youth, defensive acumen and offensive firepower from the blueline. Franson was the third highest scoring defender in the entire league last season, while Sulzer managed eight goals and 34 points in just 48 games. Although a rookie, Blum is a high-impact talent and should make immediate contributions to the Admirals transition game and power play.
Mark Dekanich, the AHL’s fifth best puck stopper in terms of save percentage in 2008-09 will be joined by Nashville’s former 18th overall draft pick Chet Pickard. Pickard boasted the second-best save percentage in the WHL last year behind Dustin Tokarski (TB) and won 35 of the 50 games he played for the Tri-City Americans. Also in the mix is Jeremy Smith, but he is likely destined for Cincinnati.
With a quality duo like Dekanich and Pickard behind an imposing defense corps, the goals against should be kept to a minimum.
Assistant Ian Herbers will join returning head coach Lane Lambert, replacing Brad Lauer who was hired by the Ottawa Senators in the off-season. Herbers, who will direct the Admirals defense and penalty kill, was previously the head coach of the ECHL Johnstown Chiefs.
The Admirals have excelled under Lambert during his three seasons as head coach. The club is an impressive 42 games above the .500 mark with Lambert at the helm and more than 11 players have progressed to the NHL during that period. A former player for the Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers, Lambert began his coaching career in the WHL for the Prince George Cougers.
Part-time goaltending coach Mike Valley was hired by the Dallas Stars, and replacing him is Ben Vanderklok. Vanderklok was Jeremy Smith’s goaltending coach at Niagara. He will travel to Cincinnati for five days a month as well.
Juniors in Predators camp
None of the younger prospects made much of dent in training camp this year, with the minor exception of first rounder Ryan Ellis, who managed to see one pre-season game despite being one of the youngest players in camp. The hopefuls split a back-to-back series with the Thrashers prospects at the start of training camp, losing the first match 6-3, but taking the second by a score of 3-0. Spaling and Taylor Beck had two points apiece in the loss and both added goals in the follow up victory. Wilson also managed a goal and assist in the two contests.