Grimaldi showcasing skills in Milwaukee

Photo: Nicolas Carrillo

📝 by Patrick Williams

Control what you can control.

That message has been hammered into the heads of American Hockey League players for decades. The quicker a player absorbs those words, the better the chances of breaking through the crowd and landing a National Hockey League job.

Certainly Milwaukee Admirals forward Rocco Grimaldi is living that mantra. He is back in the AHL after nearly three full seasons as an NHL regular.

“I’m just trying to play the same way that I’ve been playing to showcase what I can do, showcase my skills,” Grimaldi said Tuesday. “I think I’ve done that.”

What can Grimaldi do to earn a return trip to Nashville or elsewhere?

“Honestly, I don’t think I need to do anything differently,” Grimaldi asserted. “I’m doing everything that I can right now. I think I’m playing well, helping our team right now.”

After dressing for only five of the Nashville Predators’ first 14 games this season and going scoreless, the 28-year-old Grimaldi found himself assigned to Milwaukee on Nov. 12 after clearing NHL waivers. Save a three-day NHL recall in mid-December in which he played two more games with the Predators, Grimaldi has been in Milwaukee ever since.

Before that November assignment, Grimaldi had established himself as an NHL regular, playing 159 regular-season games and nine Stanley Cup Playoff contests with Nashville since 2018-19. He contributed a 31-point season in 2019-20, and followed up with 10 goals in 40 games during the shortened 2020-21 NHL campaign ― including a four-goal night vs. the Detroit Red Wings last Mar. 25.

Establishing himself as an NHL regular came after a long path through the AHL. A 2011 second-round pick by the Florida Panthers, Grimaldi turned pro in 2014 following three NCAA seasons at North Dakota. He split the next four seasons between the AHL and NHL with the Panthers and Colorado Avalanche before landing with Nashville as a free-agent signing in July 2018.

But Milwaukee’s productive prospect pipeline crowded the Nashville roster and eventually squeezed Grimaldi out of his regular role with the Predators.

So he is controlling what he can control now in Milwaukee. Grimaldi was named the AHL Player of the Week on Monday after he piled up 10 points (five goals, five assists) in three Admirals wins. The 5-foot-6 Grimaldi is up to 30 points (17 goals, 13 assists) through 24 AHL games since arriving in Milwaukee, and he has at least a point in 18 of those 24 outings this season.

After a 3-9-1-0 start, Milwaukee has climbed out of last place in the Central Division and improved to 16-18-2-2 (.474) going into tonight’s road game with the Grand Rapids Griffins, a rematch of Saturday’s 5-2 Admirals win in which Grimaldi notched a hat trick and an assist.

Grimaldi saw time on a line with Cody Glass and Tommy Novak, and when Matt Luff recently returned from Nashville for the first time in six weeks, he and Grimaldi quickly reconnected. The duo had four points each in Milwaukee’s 4-3 overtime win over Texas on Jan. 19.

One particular goal showcased the Grimaldi-Luff chemistry and displayed some of Grimaldi’s best assets ― speed, vision, and creativity.

What did Grimaldi see on that play?

“[Defenseman Dylan Blujus] kept it in at the blue line,” Grimaldi explained, “and I went up the right wing, and their guys did a good job angling me off, so I spun back and started walking the blue line. [Texas forward Will Merchant] stayed on me, and I knew it was a forward, so I just tried to go at him because I know how uncomfortable it can be as a forward skating backwards against a guy with speed.

“So, I just went at him and put [the puck] under his stick quick, then tried to go around him, and drive to the to the post. [I] drew a couple of guys to me, Luff did a good job just getting over on the backside, then [I] threw it across to him, and he scored. So it was a nice goal.”

Grimaldi is relishing the opportunity to play heavy minutes with top-tier talent like Glass, Luff, and Novak.

Said Grimaldi, “I just think it’s guys [who] process the game at high levels, NHL-type guys. We think the game well. I think just the way that we play, you can tell that we’re thinking a couple plays ahead, which is great.

“When you get two and three guys doing that on one line, it can be really fun and really special, and definitely really tough to play against on the other side of it.”