By Jason Karnosky | AHL On The Beat
It might be 2016 and not 2015, but this season the Milwaukee Admirals are heading back to the future.
In the offseason, the Admirals had to make like a tree and leave their home of the past 28 years, the BMO Harris Bradley Center, and relocate just down the street to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panther Arena—which was the team’s home from 1973-1987.
“This is an exciting new chapter for our franchise and our fans,” Governor and CEO of the Milwaukee Admirals Harris Turer said about the relocation. “We look forward to creating a great home ice advantage for our players.”
Leaving their long-time base was a bittersweet moment for the franchise, but thanks to $6.3 million worth of improvements to UWM Panther Arena, the Admirals are in good hands in their new/old digs.
“It’s awesome to return to (UWM Panther Arena),” said Admirals coach Dean Evason. “What Harris Turer, Jon Greenberg, and the whole organization have done is given our team a chance to compete. It is an older building, but with the changes that were made it is really a brand new building. We are so excited to get over there and start the season.”
The arena upgrades include a gorgeous new locker room, work out gym, additional facility updates and spacious new office space. Evason could not be more impressed with this summer’s improvements.
“What the organization has done with the arena is absolutely first class,” said Evason. “The new dressing room is just beautiful and the gym is huge. The upgrades to the offices, the boards and the benches are phenomenal.”
Fans won’t have to wait for long to see an American Hockey League contender in their new facility, as the Admirals carry a roster ready to compete for a second straight Central Division crown.
The backbone of the team will be in goal. Last year’s AHL All-Rookie Team member Juuse Saros returns as the team’s anchor between the pipes after posting a 29-8-0 record in his first North American season. Saros will be pushed for playing time by free agent signees Jonas Gunnersson and Mark Visentin.
“It was eye opening to play over here last year for the first time,” said Saros. “I really liked playing in the smaller rink and this is a good organization to be a part of.”
This year’s offensive arsenal might just be the best group of offensive players ever assembled in Milwaukee. Both of last year’s AHL All-Stars, Frederick Gaudreau (15 goals-27 assists—42 points) and Vladislav Kamenev (15-22—37) return to the squad, as well as the team’s second leading scorer Max Görtz(18-29—47) and its top sniper Pontus Åberg (team leading 25 goals).
“It’s going to be nice, but different playing in the new arena,” said Gortz. “We will have to adjust to how the puck is bouncing and how the boards are, especially during the first couple of games (to get used to it).”
Newcomers Anthony Richard (Nashville’s 2015 fourth-round draft choice) and Justin Kirkland (Predators’ third-round pick in 2014) are expected to make an impact right away. Joining the team’s top prospects are several capable veteran forwards, including Austin Watson, Adam Payerl and newcomers Harry Zolnierczyk and Justin Florek.
“I’m really excited to be here,” said Florek. “The first professional hockey game I ever saw as a kid was an Admirals game, so it’s pretty cool to get the chance to play for Milwaukee. That’s a special memory to look back on, and it’s a great organization to be a part of.”
All four players have NHL experience on their resumes and will be counted on for leadership and professional guidance.
“We have a really nice mix of a veteran presence as well as prospects,” said Evason. “(Nashville Predators Assistant) General Manager Paul Fenton has done a really nice job filling the holes of our prospects with veteran players that are not only good hockey players, but good people too.”
As last season progressed, Milwaukee’s young defense matured and improved, led by impressive rookies Trevor Murphy (leading scoring defenseman with 37 points) and Jimmy Oligny, as well as Jonathan Diaby.
“I think it’s going to be a good year for me and our defense,” said Diaby. “We are a little bit older as a group this year, and have lots of good defensive guys, guys that like to stay-at-home and be physical.”
Stabilizing veteran Matt Irwin (155 games of NHL experience) should be a fine addition to the crew, while talented prospects like former Wisconsin Badger Jack Dougherty (Nashville’s second-round draft choice in 2014) and Alexandre Carrier (Predators’ 2014 fourth-round pick) should make the their presence felt right away.
After capturing the Central Division title a year ago, the Admirals will be once again be swimming with the sharks this season. Defending 2016 Calder Cup champion Lake Erie, 2013 champ Grand Rapids, and up-and-coming Rockford are all expected to push Milwaukee. Therefore, the Admirals might need a hover board, some automatic lacing skates, or this year’s Sports Almanac in order to repeat as the division winner.
“We had a great year last year,” said Evason. “We were disappointed at the end and things didn’t fall into place during the playoffs, but we have to build on what we did well last year. We were excited about how we played. We were very consistent and that’s what we are shooting for this year.”
But no matter the outcome of the 2016-17 campaign, much like a flying DeLorean or a flux capacitor, this year’s season, the first at the Admirals new/old rink, should prove memorable.
“I think the move to (UWM Panther Arena) great for everyone involved,” Gaudreau said last spring. “I remember in junior hockey playing in the smaller rinks and they always had a great atmosphere. That’s what we are looking forward to here. Sure it was fun to play at the Bradley Center, but I think it’s going to be even more fun to play here.”