New look, similar results for Admirals

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

The Milwaukee Admirals are just doing their job, though that can sometimes come with a cost.

That’s what the Nashville Predators’ one and only AHL affiliate always has done – contend for a Calder Cup while refining and churning out talent to send on to Nashville.

The catch is that all of that talent has to be replaced. Admirals head coach Karl Taylor calls the process “growing pains.”

This calendar year has been no different. Coming off a season in which they advanced all the way to the Western Conference Finals, the Admirals have seen turnover that is considerable by any standard.

Forwards Luke Evangelista, Michael McCarron, Kiefer Sherwood and Phil Tomasino all have graduated to full-time positions in Nashville. Former captain Cole Schneider departed for the rival Chicago Wolves. Jimmy Huntington (Hershey), Isaac Ratcliffe (Chicago), Austin Rueschhoff (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton), Zach Sanford (Tucson) and Devin Cooley (Rochester) also found opportunities elsewhere.

Milwaukee general manager Scott Nichol, who also doubles as Nashville’s director of player development, had a lengthy summer to-do list to build out a new roster for Taylor and his staff. Overall it was a rare time of transition across the Nashville organization as David Poile, the Predators’ only general manager since their founding as an NHL expansion team in 1997, retired and former Predators head coach Barry Trotz took over.

In came Denis Gurianov, a 2015 first-round pick by Dallas who has played 280 NHL games. Former Admirals Troy Grosenick and Cal O’Reilly came back to Milwaukee. They joined a group of returnees led by Egor Afanasyev, Joakim Kemell and Mark Jankowski up front, along with goaltender Yaroslav Askarov. Liam Foudy, a Columbus first-rounder in 2018, joined the Admirals earlier this month.

And add in a new batch of rookies beginning their way on the well-traveled Milwaukee-to-Nashville pipeline that has produced so much talent for more than two decades. Fedor Svechkov and Zach L’Heureux were both first-round draft choices by Nashville in 2021. Jake Livingstone was twice named the CCHA conference’s defenseman of the year at Minnesota State-Mankato. Reid Schaefer, acquired from Edmonton in February, was a first-round pick by the Oilers in 2022.

But all of those names actually coming together as a team takes time, and it showed early. A 5-1 home loss to the Wolves on Nov. 18 dropped the Admirals’ record to 6-6-0-0, a lackluster start by organizational standards. Since then, however, Milwaukee has gone on a 7-3-1-0 surge that has put them into second place in the Central Division as they prepare to host Iowa tonight.

Svechkov grabbed a pair of goals in last Friday’s 5-1 win at Manitoba. Afanasyev duplicated that performance a night later, giving the 2019 second-rounder a team-leading 12 goals in 23 contests. Kemell, a 2022 first-round selection by Nashville, arrived in Milwaukee down the stretch last season and took on a key postseason role; he has 17 points (six goals, 11 assists) in 23 games in 2023-24.

L’Heureux can play in all situations and has been working to walk the line between playing a disciplined game and utilizing the feisty style that makes him successful.

“I think out of our young group, he’s been the most pro-ready,” Taylor said of the 20-year-old L’Heureux. “Right from the get-go, he’s had the biggest impact for us. He’s a young man that plays with energy. Sometimes people look at that in a negative way, but he can really drive a line. He’s been our most consistent young player on our roster.

“You don’t want to take away from a player what their strengths are, so I think there’s a balance there. He’s playing disciplined and playing hard. We’re really focused on building his game at the American League level.”

L’Heureux is fifth in the AHL with 65 penalty minutes to go with his 12 points, but Taylor says he’s OK with that as long as they’re not retaliatory penalties.

“He’s going to take some penalties you don’t like sometimes, but you don’t want him to change to a point where he’s not competing at the level that you’re looking for. He is a driver for us, and we’re going to live with some of the damage and make sure that we’re reinforcing his strengths and allowing him to play freely enough to demand his energy and what he brings to a game.”

Svechkov, 20, is a markedly different player, but that same growth process continues with him as well for Taylor and his staff.

“As of late, he’s been really growing his game,” Taylor explained. “He’s a very skilled player who makes plays. That’s something as a group we’ve been looking for a little bit, so we’ve elevated him, and his playmaking has grown. But also he’s learning to do it with pace.”

Overall, there is a lot to like for Taylor even if the start had some challenges.

“We like how coachable our group is,” Taylor said. “From junior hockey or from college, the American Hockey League is a very big leap, and it just takes a little bit of time. You have to be patient and you have to help them, but you also have to push them at certain times.

“It’s just a lot for these young guys, but they’re learning on and off the ice.”