Milwaukee Admirals 2011-12 season preview

By David Thicke
Photo: Ryan Ellis will have to prove this season he is physically able to handle the rigors of North American professional hockey. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

The Milwaukee Admirals are clearly the engine that continues to develop solid NHLers for the Nashville Predators. The Admirals were still able to advance to the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs despite starting with only two of their eleven top scorers from the previous season returning to the team for the 2010-11 season. They have an incredible streak starting on January 15, 2011 to present with zero regulation losses on the road. Milwaukee finished in first place of the tough West division of the Western conference while getting their rookies to step up the level of their play, playing solid team defense and receiving excellent goaltending down the stretch.

The Milwaukee Admirals will return most of their core, rookies and second year players returning from last season. The Predators will have at the very least 30 players who could play in their starting line-up at different times, if needed, during the 2011-12 NHL season and competition for jobs will be pushing the players to perform their best all year long. The Admirals will be looking to improve on last season's success while advancing farther into the playoffs towards winning the Calder Cup Championship.

Forwards

The Admirals will have their scoring leader with 24 goals and 26 assists last season, Chris Mueller, back for another year but he could always be called up to the NHL Predators if he fills the oppositions' nets with pucks.

Milwaukee will be looking for improved goal scoring from returning AHL forwards, Gabriel Bourque, Ryan Thang, and Mark Van Guilder. Kyle Wilson signed as a free-agent this summer after playing 32 NHL games with the Columbus Blue Jackets last season. He has always been a very good scorer at the AHL level which will help the teams' offensive output but Wilson has not materialized as an offensive factor at the NHL level.

Juuso Puustinen signed a two-year entry-level contract with Nashville on June 16, 2011, will start his professional career playing for the AHL Admirals. He was a solid offensive threat during his two years playing for the WHL Kamloops Blazers before returning to play in Finland for the next three seasons.

The Admirals should receive more scoring from their rookies, Taylor Beck and Michael Latta who were highly skilled scorers at the junior level. Jan Lajunen will need to adjust to the North American physical style and the smaller rink surfaces over his rookie season in the AHL.

Joel Champagne signed an AHL contract back on May 31, 2011 with the Milwaukee Admirals after being left unsigned by the Toronto Maple Leafs organization. He is a larger centerman who can play the power forward game when using his 6'4 220 pound frame to drive the net, is excellent in the face-off circle, has soft hands with a hard shot and must be highly motivated after being let go by the Leafs.

Defensemen

The Admirals will be looking to Tyler Sloan, Scott Foss, and Scott Ford for veteran leadership on the blue line while the AHL rookies get their bearings at the professional level. Victor Bartley signed as a free-agent this past summer after playing last season in Sweden, will give the Admirals another puck-moving, offensive defenseman.

Ryan Ellis must show that his smaller stature will not hinder his excellent offensive game while playing solidly in his defensive zone at the AHL level.

Scott Valentine went unsigned by the Anaheim Ducks this summer but was invited to the Predators training camp. He was released from camp on September 25 but five days later signed a three year entry level contract with the Predators. The young defenseman has started the 2011-12 AHL season with the Admirals.

Roman Josi will be returning for his sophomore season with the AHL Admirals when he recovers from an upper body injury suffered at the Predators' training camp and comes off the injured reserve list. He could be another call-up when he is healthy and playing at last season's AHL level.

Goaltending

The Admirals have lost veteran goaltender, Mark Dekanich to the Columbus Blue Jackets this past summer when he signed as a free-agent. They will need the apparent starting netminder, Jeremy Smith who played excellently at the end of last season as well as this pre-season for the Predators, to continue improving while providing excellent goaltending again this season. Smith was the last goaltender cut from the Predators' roster before the start of the NHL regular season and could be one of the best in the AHL this year.

Chet Pickard will need to have a bounce-back year after a difficult season to compete for the back-up role with rookie Finnish goalie, Atte Engren who performed solidly during his four game try-out at the end of last season. Engren will continue to get adjusted to the North American Style of play and the smaller rinks but could be called on, if Smith is needed as an injury replacement for the Predators at the NHL level.

Coaching

Lane Lambert, the team's most recent coach, averaged 45 wins a season in his four years as the head man in Milwaukee before moving up to take an assistant coaching position with the Nashville Predators for the 2011-12 season. He was replaced on June 27, 2011 by the Montreal Canadiens' assistant coach, Kirk Muller.

Muller brings a lot of experience to the Admirals as a 19-year NHL player who won the Stanley Cup, was a team captain and has solid communication skills after five years as an assistant coach in Montreal. He was instrumental in the Canadiens' penalty killing units being in the top of the NHL for the last five seasons and making the Stanley Cup playoffs in four of those seasons. Muller jumped at the chance to become a head coach with the Milwaukee Admirals as recent coaches, Todd Richards, and Claude Noel, both found bench boss jobs in the NHL.

With "Captain Kirk" at the helm of Milwaukee's ship, the Admirals will make their tenth consecutive AHL Calder Cup playoffs appearance this season.

Prospects

Blake Geoffrion, Colin Wilson, Craig Smith, Jonathon Blum, Mattias Ekholm, and Anders Lindback have all made the NHL Predators' starting roster out of training camp. It is highly likely several could be returned to the AHL Admirals when Francis Bouillon and Mike Fisher return to the line-up off the injured reserve list.

Ryan Ellis was the last defenseman cut from the Predators roster. Forward Craig Smith scored six goals in two games at the rookie tournament on the best forward line with Gabriel Bourque and Taylor Beck. His solid performance helped Smith earn a starting roster spot with Nashville for the 2011-12 season. Smith has jumped out to a hot start in his rookie NHL season with two goals and two assists in his first two games. The rookie forward is a natural shooter with a quick release who has the skating speed and determination to get in the small areas of the ice to score goals. The Predators may have finally found a real sniper in Smith to complement their strong defensive game but only time will tell as two games are not a season.

Charles-Olivier Roussel was sent to the AHL before being returned to his new QJMHL team, the St. John's Sea Dogs for another season at the junior level. Tyler Aronson is still on the Admirals roster but could be returned to the WHL Portland Winterhawks when Roman Josi returns to action off the injured reserve.

Junior level prospects, Brent Andrews (QJMHL), Austin Watson (OHL) were returned early in the pre-season to their junior teams. David Elsner will start his first year in North America playing for the OHL Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds instead of returning to his native Germany.

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