by Jason Karnosky | AHL On The Beat
When it comes to National Hockey League franchises and their American Hockey League affiliates, few relationships are stronger or more beneficial to both teams than the one between the Predators and the Admirals.
Despite the fact that 568 driving miles separates Nashville from Milwaukee, the two squads have been connected for more than 20 years, starting at the inception of the Predators franchise. During that time countless NHL players started their careers with the Admirals, made a return to the NHL after signing with Milwaukee, or accelerated an injury rehabilitation process through a stint with the Admirals.
In the spring of 2017, when Nashville made its memorable run to the Stanley Cup Final, 18 of the 25 players used by the Predators had played in Milwaukee at some point in their careers. Currently, 13 members of Nashville’s playoff-bound roster, including many of the team’s top guns such as captain Roman Josi, Viktor Arvidsson and goaltender Pekka Rinne, played and developed in Milwaukee.
“There is such a good relationship between both teams, and it seems like every player that plays for Nashville goes through Milwaukee,” said Rinne, the 2018 Vezina Trophy winner who pairs with fellow Admirals alum Jusse Saros in the Predators net. “Even guys like Filip (Forsberg) and Viktor (Arvidsson), guys who have a ton of skill, who maybe could have started in the NHL right away, played there and developed there. It is an impressive track record and it is a huge part of our success having those two teams work so closely together.”
Originally selected in the eighth round of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, Rinne spent the first three seasons of his now 15-year North American professional career developing in Milwaukee. The highlight for the towering Finn was backstopping the Admirals on a magical run through the 2006 Calder Cup Playoffs.
“In my first year here we went to the Calder Cup Finals, which was an unbelievable experience and so much fun,” said Rinne, who posted an 83-49-11 record over the course of four seasons with Milwaukee. “My time in Milwaukee prepared me for the NHL and I am forever thankful for that.”
Several of Milwaukee’s top forwards groomed their games playing for the Admirals. After being acquired from Washington, Forsberg (Nashville’s third-leading scorer this year) played in 47 games for the Admirals during the 2013-14 season. His top-line wing mate, Arvidsson (who led Nashville with 34 goals) cut his teeth in Milwaukee one year later, and then moved up to the Predators for good midway through the season in 2015-16.
“Sis (Colton Sissons), Salty (Miikka Salomaki) and Gauds (Frederick Gaudreau), I played with all of them in Milwaukee, and it’s been fun to see what kind of players they developed into,” said Arvidsson, who scored 30 goals and picked up 43 assists in 87 games with the Admirals. “We all took huge steps in our careers playing there and it helped us get to where we are today.”
Arvidsson credits Milwaukee’s coaching staff as having a big impact on the current Predators squad.
“It was a really good thing to go there, learn and play as you get lots of ice time and time to work on your game,” said Arvidsson, who was Nashville’s fourth-round draft pick in 2014. “There were some really good coaches when I was there, Dean (Evason) and Stan (Drulia), and good structure as far as the hockey club. Milwaukee provides a great chance for new pros to get started, especially for European guys trying to get adjusted to the North American style of play.”
Nashville’s impressive offensive depth is due in large part to the influence of the Admirals. Forwards like Sissons, Gaudreau and Calle Jarnkrok all gained confidence in their games in Milwaukee.
“There are great people there in Milwaukee, starting right from the top of the organization with owner Harris Turer, (president and alternate governor) Jon Greenberg and (vice president of communications) Charlie Larson, and then the coaches and players,” said Gaudreau, who played in 238 games with Milwaukee racking up 66 goals and 144 points. “I had such a great time playing there and I made some friendships for a lifetime. I couldn’t be happier that I started my career in Milwaukee.”
The undrafted Gaudreau’s first real taste of Nashville came at a memorable time. Inserted into the lineup as a black ace after an injury to Ryan Johansen during the Predators finals run, Gaudreau proceeded to score the first three goals of his NHL career in that year’s finals, tying an NHL record set back in 1944 by John Harms of the Chicago Blackhawks. It marked the incredible growth of the forward, who scored just four goals in his first AHL campaign (2014-15).
Of the Predators heralded big four defensemen, Josi, P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm, only Subban has yet to dress for Milwaukee (though the defender he was traded for, Shea Weber, did). Ellis spent half of his first two professional seasons playing for the Admirals.
“It’s not easy to jump right into the NHL and a lot of players need that time in the American League to develop,” said Ellis, who picked up 32 points in 61 games in Milwaukee. “It’s a great developmental league and Milwaukee is a great development team. Plus Milwaukee is a great town to live in. Milwaukee is a great place to hone your skills and get up to speed with the pace and size of the game. Nashville and Milwaukee have a very good system.”
Two years ago Nashville defenseman Matt Irwin found his way up to Nashville via Milwaukee through a challenging route. Irwin, who spent all but two games in AHL during the 2015-16 season, signed a two-way deal with the Predators in the summer of 2016. After just a few standout games with Milwaukee to start 2016-17, the blue liner was called up to the Predators where he stayed ever since.
Forward Rocco Grimaldi followed a similar path this season. Looking for another shot to play in the NHL, the pint-sized speedster signed a two-way deal as free agent during the summer and began the season in Milwaukee. With the Admirals the now 26-year-old helped his new team race out of the gates in the Central Division. With all of Nashville’s injuries in the early going, Grimaldi earned a pair of call-ups. The Anaheim, California native’s second stint with the Predators is still ongoing.
“Admirals coach (Karl) Taylor and the rest of the coaching staff really trusted me and put me in a lot of places to succeed.” said Grimaldi, who had 11 points in 10 games with the Admirals in October and November of 2018-19. “I got the chance to start really well in Milwaukee and then come up here to Nashville. The coaches placed a lot of confidence in me and that allowed me to place a lot of confidence in myself.”
Recently a pair of Nashville forwards who are likely to have big Stanley Cup Playoff roles, Austin Watson and Miikka Salomaki, were sent to Milwaukee for conditioning stints, getting much needed seasoning and ice time in the AHL.
“I consider myself to be really blessed to have gone through Milwaukee as an organization,” said Watson, who now has 73 goals and 132 points in 234 AHL games. “The time I spent there growing as a human and as a hockey player enabled me to be able to play hockey at the highest level. Milwaukee’s coaching staff, and the organization, does such a great job of getting guys ready to not only excel in the AHL, but when the chance does come to play in Nashville guys are ready for that.”
Now in his first year as Admirals general manager and director of player development, Scott Nichol knew he had big shoes to fill taking over from the departed Paul Fenton, who is now GM of the Minnesota Wild. His goal is to work with Predators GM David Poile to continue to draft, find and nurture players, and carry on Milwaukee’s impressive track record of churning out NHL-ready talent.
“As an organization we are patient with our players,” Nichol said. “We preach patience, we develop them and we put guys in positions to succeed. Our kids are all in a good spot in Milwaukee.”
One of the kids that was once in a good spot with Milwaukee to start his career was Patric Hornqvist. Now a two-time Stanley Cup champion with Pittsburgh, the 32-year-old has fond memories of playing in Milwaukee for coach Lane Lambert.
“My time with Milwaukee was great, and it was probably the best experience for me to go down there and play a lot and get to know the North American style of hockey,” said Hornqvist, who had 35 points in 49 games with Milwaukee. “We had such a young and good group of guys, and Lane just let us play.”
After Evason left to join the Wild’s staff this offseason, Taylor was given the keys to continue developing prospects like Eeli Tolvanen and Frederic Allard in Milwaukee. The Admirals first-year coach found out right away just how important Milwaukee was to the Predators success.
“If you just look at the guys on Nashville’s roster, the proof is in the pudding in how Milwaukee develops players,” Taylor said.
Hornqvist, who is one of many Admirals alumni, like Ryan Suter, Brendan Leipsic and Kevin Fiala, playing with NHL teams other than Nashville, knows that the success of the Predators hinges on the Admirals’ success at growing players.
“Nashville is one of the best teams in the league at developing home grown players,” said Hornqvist, Nashville’s seventh-round pick in 2005. “If you look at their lineup almost all of their players, including guys like Forsberg, Josi, and Rinne, played in Milwaukee. I have to give a lot of credit for that to the Milwaukee Admirals. They are such a good organization that treats you so well. They give you such a good opportunity to grow as a player and as a person.”