The Milwaukee Admirals have one of the youngest lineups in the American Hockey League — with nine first-year pros and 15 players 23 years of age or younger, including both goaltenders. Three of those rookies are among the scoring leaders for the Admirals while both goalies have been impressive at times.
Despite the team’s youth Milwaukee has been competitive on a nightly basis and currently sits second in a tight Midwest Division and sixth in the Western Conference. Earning a playoff berth with such an inexperienced roster would be proof that Nashville has excellent depth both available and developing positively at the minor league level.
Magnus Hellberg, G, 23
One impressive story has been Hellberg’s bounceback season. Expected to challenge for the starting role in Milwaukee and possibly back up Pekka Rinne in Nashville when the 2013-14 season started, the second round pick from Sweden was injured during training camp and lacked consistency thereafter. He finished the year backing up minor league veteran Rob Madore with Cincinnati during the Cylcones’ run to the ECHL‘s Kelly Cup finals.
Hellberg began this season backing up Marek Mazanec, but had a great run in November, putting up a .950 save percentage over seven games, including a shutout of Grand Rapids. He has been solid in limited action since, posting a .924 save percentage over four December starts and one brief relief appearance. He now leads the AHL in goals-against average and save percentage.
The first goalie taken in the 2011 NHL draft, Hellberg clearly has the size and technical ability to be an NHL goalie one day. The fact that his production appears to be matching that ability is encouraging.
Brendan Leipsic, LW, 20
Leipsic put up big numbers in his final two seasons in the WHL but since he played on a dominant Portland Winterhawks team there were doubts whether he could translate that offense to the pro level. There were also concerns that he could play with the same reckless energy given his relative lack of size.
So far he has answered those concerns in his first pro season. He has struggled to score goals, but has had seven multiple-point games this season and leads the team in points. Leipsic has also been more disciplined, amassing just 14 penalty minutes thus far. In his junior career he topped 80 penalty minutes in each of his last three seasons.
With the success the Predators are having, Nashville can afford to let Leipsic continue to develop with the Admirals, adapting to the pro game and adding the strength and technical elements necessary to play at the NHL level.
Pontus Aberg, LW, 21
Aberg became an immediate fan favorite in Milwaukee with his first goal for the Admirals, a highlight-reel effort. While such plays are less common against NHL defensemen, Aberg’s skill level and creativity are top-rate and could fit in with the high energy, fast-paced game the Predators play.
Like Leipsic and Arvidssson, Aberg is small by NHL standards and needs to add strength and bulk to compete on a nightly basis. Aberg, as with many young offensively-gifted players, must also refine his positional game.
Aberg is second on Milwaukee with 11 goals and 17 points despite missing three games at the beginning of the year due to injury.
Viktor Arvidsson, LW, 21
Arvidsson passed through three previous NHL drafts, largely because of his lack of size, and was the oldest player taken in the 2014 NHL Draft when he was chosen in the fourth round last June. His performance in last spring’s SHL playoffs, when he had 16 points in 14 playoff games for Skelleftea, made him too tempting to pass on this time.
In his post-draft comments Nashville general manager David Poile mentioned that Arvidsson would likely return to Sweden to continue developing. Instead Arvidsson was signed to an entry-level contract by the Predators after attending development camp and he has not looked back. Arvidsson has scored seven goals with eight assists in 28 games and is the Admirals’ fifth-leading scorer.
While his defensive game is still a work in progress, Arvidsson has displayed the offensive ability that was his calling card in Sweden. His size is a limiting factor, but his performance so far has drawn positive attention around the league.
Austin Watson, RW, 22
Nashville’s first round pick in 2010, Watson does not turn 23 until January but has yet to arrive as a player. The star center for the Peterborough Petes has been a streaky scorer for the Admirals so far this year.
He scored five goals in the first seven games of the year, including goals in each of the Admirals’ first four games, before cooling off. In 28 games he has eight goals and two assists.
Watson has the size of a power forward but is not an overly abrasive player. Also, he may not have the skating ability to play in Nashville’s new up-tempo system. But the fact that he is versatile and has a bit of offensive ability could make him a positive contributor in the right situation.
Miikka Salomaki, C, 21
The Admirals’ leading scorer as a rookie last year, Salomaki struggled offensively along with the rest of his teammates in early December, recording three assists in seven games. For the season he is sixth on the team in scoring, with four goals and ten assists in 26 games.
While his offensive numbers are lagging relative to last year, the 2011 second-round pick has shown a more complete game in his second season. Salomaki’s strong two-way play and thick frame suggest he may be NHL-ready sooner rather than later, even if he is overshadowed by some of the higher profile scorers in the Nashville pipeline.
Anthony Bitetto, D, 24
Bitetto is at a crossroads in his third pro season and has struggled during December, registering just two assists. The Admirals’ fourth-leading scorer and top offensive defenseman a year ago has 13 points in 28 games, having scored just one goal.
The former Northeastern University standout has improved his defensive play this season — his +10 plus-minus is the top mark amongst Milwaukee skaters after he finished -13 last season.
With the defense corps in Nashville playing so well, Bitetto must wait on an NHL opportunity. His improved two-way game is a good sign and suggests he has potential to be more than just a top AHL defenseman.
Marek Mazanec, G, 23
Mazanec, a sixth round selection in 2012, played 25 games for the Predators last year in Rinne’s absence but underwhelmed. Nashville turned to veterans Carter Hutton and Devan Dubnyk and returned Mazanec to Milwaukee. He finished the year as the starter in the AHL playoffs.
Now in his second season in North America, Mazanec won the starting job for Milwaukee with a strong run in October where he put up a .924 save percentage and a 6-1 record. November saw the entire team struggle though, and Mazanec carried sub-par play into December. A 29-save shutout versus Lake Erie on December 16th led to a series of solid starts, but he still sports a mediocre .908 save percentage on the season.
Mazanec is a fiery competitor who relies on his athleticism but he must become more consistent in the tactical areas of the position if he is to return to the NHL.
Taylor Aronson, D, 22
California native Aronson was a third round pick in 2010 but spent most of the last three seasons with Cincinnati. He is finally playing in a full-time role with the Admirals and leads Milwaukee defensemen in points.
Still a work in progress, Aronson turns 23 at the end of December. With several young defenders in the Predators’ pipeline he has a tough task ahead of him to crack the NHL club. His play during the ECHL playoffs last year was a key to the Cyclones’ run to the finals and if nothing else he has established himself as a solid offensive defenseman at the AHL level.
In 27 games for Milwaukee he has three goals with 13 assists and is -1 with 10 penalty minutes.
Garrett Noonan, D, 23
Noonan is in his first season of pro hockey after spending four seasons at Boston University. Currently leading Admirals defensemen with four goals, he has made a smooth transition from college. But like some players making that adjustment he has appeared to wear down a bit with the heavier schedule. Long-term, Noonan projects as a two-way defenseman capable of providing some offense.
In his first 23 games with Milwaukee he has scored four goals with four assists and is plus-1 with 13 penalty minutes.
Colton Sissons, RW, 21
In his first pro season, Sissons led the Admirals with 25 goals, represented Milwaukee in the AHL All-Star game, and appeared in 17 games with Nashville. Whether it was the disappointment of returning to the AHL after playing with the Predators last year, the change in philosophy with Nashville’s new coaching staff, or the prominence of the three AHL rookies, Sissons struggled out of the gate this year.
Sissons had just one goal in his first eight games and did not register an assist until December 16th. In 28 games he has eight goals and two assists, but his all-around game as well as his lack of production are sources of concern. He has plenty of time to figure things out and refine the elements of his game and still projects as a decent two-way forward at the next level.
Johan Alm, D, 22
Alm was at the center of a bidding war following the SHL playoffs last year with the Predators ultimately procuring his services with an entry-level contract. Alm is very active in his own end and his size makes it difficult for opposition attackers to create scoring chances, though he could be even more aggressive. Some scouts feel he is just beginning to scratch the surface of his potential.
His play was somewhat uneven this season, though he made progress adapting to the North American style of play, before suffering an upper body injury in early December.
In 21 games he has five assists and is -3 with 10 penalty minutes.
Felix Girard, C, 20
Girard is also in his first year of pro hockey after playing for Baie-Comeau in the QMJHL. A fourth-round pick by the Predators in his second year of draft eligibility in 2013, he was known for his combative style and ability to play in all situations for the Drakkar. The Cap-Rouge, Quebec native has brought those same elements to his game as a rookie playing limited minutes.
As one of the youngest players in the AHL he needs time to develop, but his defensive ability makes him valuable in a checking role. In his first 28 games he has three goals, three assists and 25 penalty minutes.
Jonathan-Ismael Diaby, D, 20
The Admirals’ youngest player is also the team’s largest (6’5, 240 pounds). Some thought that Diaby might make the Predators out of training camp but the depth and experience in Nashville have allowed the organization to take its time with the former Victoriaville star.
Diaby’s size is imposing but his game is still a work in progress, and he recently spent two games in the ECHL to get more ice time. Long-term it is envisioned that he will provide a physical presence to complement the free skating style of some of the other Predators defenders. To reach that point he will need to continue to improve his own skating and get a better feel for the demands of the position.
In 17 games with the Admirals he is a +3 with no points. He is second to veteran forward Michael Liambas with 52 penalty minutes.
Patrick Cehlin, RW, 23
Cehlin underwent off-season hip surgery and made his debut with the Admirals on December 4th after a three-game conditioning stint with Cincinnati. He is still working his way back into condition and has not recorded a point in his first four games back.
A fifth-round selection in 2010, Cehlin is now in the third year of his original entry-level contract. Cehlin played some of his best hockey last season while skating with current Predators Filip Forsberg and Calle Jarnkrok but the deep group of forward prospects in the Nashville organization means he will be challenged to crack the Predators lineup.
Zach Budish, RW, 23
Budish opened the season with the Admirals, scoring a goal on opening night and recording two assists in six games before being assigned to the Cyclones. The 41st player taken in the 2009 NHL Draft, the former Minnesota Golden Gopher is in the second year of his original two-year entry-level contract.
Budish’s good size and scoring instincts made him an intriguing prospect coming out of Edina, Minnesota. Like Austin Watson Budish does not play an overly physical style despite his size. His talent has allowed him to be a consistent scorer for the Cyclones but whether his all-around game is strong enough for the next level is uncertain.
Josh Shalla, LW, 23
Shalla, like Budish, has power forward size but he lacks the skating ability of other Nashville prospects. In the third year of his original entry-level contract, he has yet to establish himself at the AHL level.
Shalla has scored a team-leading 12 goals with nine assists in his first 24 games for the Cyclones. With Milwaukee struggling to score goals, the Admirals may be tempted to give him another shot, but it seems likely that he will play out his time in the Nashville organization with the Cyclones before heading elsewhere.
Mikko Vainonen, D, 20
Nashville’s 2012 fourth round pick, Vainonen was a key member of Finland’s gold medal-winning team at the World Juniors last year and an anchor on the blueline for Kingston during two OHL seasons. His first pro season has had the ups and downs common for a 20-year-old. In 23 games he has three assists and is -8 with 12 penalty minutes.
A large-bodied defender who moves well for his size Vainonen may take time to adapt to the pro game but long-range his combination of skill and combativeness should serve him well. He will likely contribute on the offensive end as he becomes more familiar with the level of play.
Jaynen Rissling, D, 21
The Predators obtained the rights to Rissling in April 2014 following his overage season with the WHL‘s Calgary Hitmen, signing him to a three-year entry-level contract. Rissling has seen limited ice time with the Cyclones thus far — skating in 13 games — but leads the team with 46 penalty minutes. The Cyclones recently traded 26-year-old rookie Andrew Blazek to South Carolina, which could lead to more ice time for Rissling, but it is hard to see him developing into much more than a minor league enforcer.
Nashville Predators Prospect of the Month
2014 first round pick Kevin Fiala is in his second season playing for HV71 of the SHL. He scored two goals with four assists in nine games in November while averaging nearly 15 minutes of ice time and has 14 points in 20 games on the season. The talented center will play a key role for Team Switzerland in the upcoming U20 World Juniors in Canada.
Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @HockeyNJ12