by Jason Karnosky | AHL On The Beat
With a franchise record tying 13-game winning streak during November and December, the Milwaukee Admirals have been one of the best stories in American Hockey League this season.
One of the big reasons for the Admirals’ success is offense, as Milwaukee is scoring in bunches this season, including an average of 4.5 goals per game during the team’s record run.
Cole Schneider and Colin Blackwell, two veteran forwards having terrific seasons, are keying Milwaukee’s rise to the top of the Central Division. Blackwell posted 23 points in 26 games before earning a prolonged stint with the National Hockey League’s Nashville Predators, while Schneider leads all Admirals with 30 points in 36 games.
“(Colin and Cole) are both veteran guys, but there is no question that they both could play in games at the NHL level,” said Admirals coach Karl Taylor, whose team ranks sixth in the AHL averaging 3.38 goals per game. “Colin is currently on an NHL contract, so he’s always a potential call-up guy for Nashville and he’s there now. Cole is on an AHL deal, so he will have to earn an NHL contract before he gets that opportunity.”
There are several similarities between the two forwards. They are both American players that grew up in the northeast and played college hockey for northeastern schools, Blackwell at Harvard and Schneider at the University of Connecticut. And they are both experienced pros who were acquired last season by Admirals general manager Scott Nichol and Predators GM David Poile.
“You are always looking for players who can score and can step up to the next level,” Nichol said.
Each player contributes in their own way to Milwaukee’s success.
After being drafted in 2011 by the San Jose Sharks (194th overall), Blackwell waited until the 2016-17 season to turn professional. He was a late bloomer, taking five years to complete four years of hockey at Harvard. He never scored more than six goals or 19 points in any of his college seasons for the Crimson.
In his first year in the AHL, Blackwell managed just 11 points with the San Jose Barracuda. With Rochester in 2017-18, the five-foot-nine, 190-pound forward took a huge step forward, upping his production to 17 goals and 45 points in 61 games.
After signing a two-way deal with Nashville in the summer of 2018, Blackwell, now 26, had a terrific first season with the Admirals, scoring 14 goals in 43 games.
“When I came to Milwaukee, having an opportunity to succeed here was something that was very appealing to me,” Blackwell said. “No matter where I would play, either here or in Nashville, I knew I would get the chance to play with some good players and that usually leads to success. With this organization I think I found a place where there are people who believe in me and support my development.”
Blackwell earned his first NHL stint last year, playing in six games with the Predators.
“It was a dream come true to get that experience to play in the NHL last season, and it almost seemed like it happened so fast,” said Blackwell, who debuted with Nashville in a home contest against Florida on January 19, 2019. “Last year was an interesting year because I missed three and half months of hockey due to injuries, but I also got a taste of what it takes to go up there and what it is like to play in the NHL.”
Blackwell’s been terrific in 2019-20, scoring six goals and adding 17 assists in 26 games with Milwaukee.
“We have a lot of guys on our team like Colin, who are pretty good shooters,” Schneider said. “It makes my life easier because a lot of times you just need to get them the puck and let them rip it.”
The next step for Blackwell was to return to the NHL on a more permanent basis. On December 14, 2019, Blackwell earned his second call-up of the season to Nashville, and that is where he has resided ever since. The Lawrence, Mass., native picked up his first NHL point in a December 23 contest against Arizona. Blackwell now has three points on his NHL resume.
“Colin’s tenacious, always around puck and he’s a little engine that just keeps going,” Nichol said. “When he comes up to the NHL level he plays the exact same way. He came up to Nashville last year, and now he’s getting more comfortable at that level. He’s been very good for us.”
The 29-year-old Schneider is true AHL veteran with 525 games of experience in hockey’s top developmental league. After going undrafted, Schneider turned professional after two seasons at UConn, posting 45 points in his last campaign with the Huskies.
Schneider quickly became an impact player with the Binghamton Senators, where he played for four full seasons. There he produced his highest goal total to date – 29 tallies in 2014-15. After being acquired by Buffalo in 2015-16, the six-foot-one, 199-pound forward got into his first NHL action with the Sabres. One year later, Schneider posted a 63-point season with Rochester and finished sixth overall in AHL scoring. He picked up his first NHL point, an assist, in Buffalo’s November 9, 2016, game against Ottawa.
Schneider joined the New York Rangers organization the following summer and starred for the Hartford Wolf Pack for a year and half before he was acquired by the Admirals late in the 2018-19 season.
“Coming here was a big change because I’ve played in a lot of games in the league, but I had never played in the West,” said Schneider, who served as team captain in Hartford. “Milwaukee has a great group of guys, and it was really nice to join this group and this room. The Admirals organization likes the way I play.”
Schneider took off in his new digs at end of the last season, scoring 10 goals and 22 points in 24 games with Milwaukee and helping the Admirals finish the season on a 14-game point streak.
“(Cole’s) played in over 500 games at this level, and he is the kind of guy that does everything right,” Blackwell said of Schneider. “He always goes to the dirty areas, and most of his goals are from in front of the net. He’s a great role model and someone you want to have on your team.”
Schneider has continued his great play for Milwaukee in 2019-20. Currently he ranks first on the team in points, second in assists (20) and fifth in goals (10). Schneider had a hot hand during Milwaukee’s epic winning streak, contributing at least one point in 10 of the 13 victories, including a three-assist effort in the Admirals’ 6-3 win over Chicago on November 13.
“It’s been a lot of fun to play here in Milwaukee, and it is always more fun when you are winning,” Schneider said. “It just seems like everything is going right for us right now, and even when we don’t play our best game we are still finding ways to win.”
Nichol stressed Schneider’s effectiveness on the power play as one of the Williamsville, N.Y., native’s top assets. The Admirals ranked 23rd in power play success in 2018-19, but after acquiring Schneider it vastly improved. Milwaukee’s unit now ranks first in the AHL, scoring on 27 percent of its chances.
“(Cole’s) been huge for our power play, but I don’t think he gets enough accolades with how he competes every night and how he gets to the tough areas,” Nichol said. “He’s probably one the best net front forwards in the AHL with how he always gets his stick on pucks, gets good body position in that area, and when he has the puck he can find teammates at the back door. He’s been a great addition to our team.”
Schneider’s road back to the NHL is a little more difficult than Blackwell’s, in that he’s currently playing on an AHL contract. But if he continues to contribute on the level that he’s producing, another NHL opportunity may lie ahead.
“Cole is smart enough player, and he’s been around for a while,” Taylor said. “He has a good enough stick that he could go up and play well.”
Schneider and Blackwell are just two of the many veterans contributing for Milwaukee this season, as the team features a nice balance between older players and younger prospects. That chemistry is a big reason why Milwaukee is near the AHL lead this season offensively and in the win column.
“It is a nice thing when you get going and develop chemistry with the guys,” Schneider said. “When you are playing so well, like we’ve been lately, you don’t need to change up your lines much.”
Both players believe there is something special going on with the Admirals this season.
“We were pretty disappointed with how the playoffs ended last year after the streak we went on at the end of the year,” Blackwell said. “We thought we had a little bit better of a team as far as how far as how deep in the playoffs we went. We’ve taken that chip on shoulders and carried it over into this year.”