Similar to parent club Chicago Blackhawks, the Norfolk Admirals have experienced great change this year. Starting with the coaching, Trent Yawney, long considered one of the best young, developmental coaches has ”graduated” to the Hawks. His replacement is Mike Haviland who enjoyed some fine success in the ECHL.
Last year the Admirals enjoyed another fine season, ultimately losing to the champion Philadelphia Phantoms. With five former Admirals (Matt Ellison, Pavel Vorobiev, Rene Bourque, Matt Keith and Brent Seabrook) making the Hawks to start the season and many draft picks a year away from eligibility, the Admirals roster will be comprised mainly of free agents in the forward position and a good stable of young defensemen looking to gain more pro experience.
The Admirals have two strong attributes: Leadership and big, talented young defensemen. While possibly being offensively challenged this year, this core should compete in most games. Below are prospects who will be impact players for the Admirals.
The 6’5, mobile Anton Babchuk with the booming shot was a late cut from Hawks camp. While not a tough guy, his size, lateral movement, demeanor and shot are his best attributes. Babchuk is determined to make it and the only thing stopping him at this point other than a strong nucleus of talented defensemen in the organization is his ability to process the game. Don’t discount the 21-year-old’s chances of playing with the Hawks at some point this year as an injury call-up. His slap shot times in around 100 MPH and that can’t be taught.
James Wisniewski isn’t blessed with all the natural tools that Babchuk has, but he does everything pretty well and plays with more of an edge. While not tall, Wisniewski is stocky, strong on his skates and plays with physical authority. The 21-year-old defenseman had a fine first AHL season last year with 25 points in 66 games with 110 penalty minutes. He will be counted on this year to be a leader — something he’s quite capable of doing.
The Hawks have many young, puck moving defensemen and while Michal Barinka makes a good first pass, he is a defensive, stay at home type. For a Czech born and raised player, Barinka plays a pretty physical game. His size and speed are NHL quality and he played decently in a call-up last year with the Hawks. Last year the 21-year-old had 11 points in 59 games for the Admirals.
A graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Nick Kuiper was a non-drafted free agent who is a bit of a sleeper. Along with Barinka, Kuiper has good size, is extremely physical and plays a stay at home style. He is the type of player who knows his limitations and plays within them. The 23-year-old had eight points in 73 games last season with Norfolk.
A huge man whose excessive weight prevented him from being drafted higher, Dustin Byfuglien is starting to drop the weight and learn to use skills to his advantage. “Bubba” needs to continue to work on his conditioning, but huge, skilled players with a mean streak are rare. Byfuglien has been used at forward and could prove to be a force at the net during power plays. Don’t expect to see the rookie in a Hawks uniform in the near term, but monitor his progress in the AHL closely. He is a sleeping giant, with two goals already on the season.
Another rookie on the blue line is Admirals free agent signee Brian Lee, who spent last season with the OHL Erie Otters before finishing the season with the ECHL Greenville Grrrowl.
Matt Keith is a strong skating, aggressive checking player who is not without some offensive skill. Whether that skill can translate to the NHL is a question, but he saw some time with the big club in 2003-04 and did not look completely out of place. The next year or two will likely determine whether he is a tweener between the NHL and the AHL or if he has enough to play in the NHL on a regular basis. The 22-year-old is a great competitor, with a lot of heart and an excellent team player. He has yet to play a game this season, but had 49 points in 80 games last season with the Admirals.
Colin Fraser plays a Blackhawks style. He is a feisty, in-your-face agitator with both decent offense and defense. Fraser isn’t big and it’s not clear how his size will hold up to his style of play as he advances in his career, but no one can doubt his heart. A rookie out of the WHL Red Deer Rebels, he played nine games with the Admirals at the end of last season, with just one point. The 20-year-old already has two points in two games this season.
Small, quick forwards were a dying breed, but players such as 5’9 Martin St. Pierre have a better chance of playing in the new-look NHL. Pierre was signed by the Admirals away from the Edmonton organization. Last year as a rookie with the Greenville Grrrowl he had 53 points in 45 games, and with the AHL Edmonton Road Runners had seven points in 18 games. He’s got a good shot, sees the ice well and is strong on his skates. For a team short on raw, talented forwards, St. Pierre is a perfect addition to the Admirals in this transition year. He’s off to a good start already with four points in two games.
No longer a prospect, 24-year-old Milan Bartovic was traded for Michael Leighton, the loser for the backup goalie spot for the Blackhawks. Bartovic probably needed a change of scenery and his type of talented, offensive minded player is a welcome addition to the Admirals.
Corey Crawford was selected in the second round in 2003 and had an outstanding junior career. The Hawks are grooming him to be a No. 1 down the road and the 20-year-old rookie will likely split time with Adam Munro this year. Crawford is a technically sound goalie who doesn’t waste much effort. He’s got good size and because he’s so smooth, can make saves look easy. With Khabibulin signed for years to come, the Hawks have the luxury of bringing Crawford along slowly.
Thus far, the soon to be 23-year-old Munro has started both games for the Admirals, going 1-1 with a .700 save percentage. A recent injury to 22-year-old Mike Brodeur has kept him in Norfolk as well. Brodeur played last season with Greenville.
This is stopgap year for the Admirals. The emphasis will be to continue to develop the talented young defensive corps while trying to make it to the playoffs. The failure of various Russian prospects to develop such as Mikhail Yakubov (in the Russian league for a year), Igor Radulov (quietly playing himself out of hockey in Russia) and Alexander Kozevnikov leave the Admirals scrambling for goal scorers. But with the leadership of Ajay Baines, Frank Morgan and Scott Thornton along with the stacked blue line, the Admirals should continue to be a competitive team.
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