by Jason Karnosky | AHL On The Beat
As the Milwaukee Admirals race to the top of the American Hockey League standings, several players are standing out for the Central Division’s first-place squad.
In less than a year and a half of playing for Milwaukee, Stastney has had an impressive rise upward with his development. After playing four years of college hockey for Notre Dame, he joined the Admirals as a 22-year-old rookie. By the end of his first year, the blueliner had earned eight games in the National Hockey League with the Nashville Predators and was one of his AHL team’s top two shut-down defensemen during a deep Calder Cup playoff run.
This year Stastney’s stock has continued to rise as he has 11 points in 24 games with the Admirals, who recently climbed into first place in the AHL’s Central Division with a record of 22-10-1-0.
“Spencer has always been a great skater and he is very elite in that department,” Admirals coach Karl Taylor said. “It allows him to play a little bit freer as he can recover and get back in case something occurs. From last year to this year we are trying to get him to be more confident with the puck and be more aggressive with his offensive reads.”
Stastney’s offensive production in the first half of 2023-24 has nearly matched his output of 13 points in 56 AHL games last season.
“It was pretty unexpected,” Stastney said of his All-Star selection. “But it will be an exciting time and it will be awesome to be a part of the game and the competition.”
Playing in Milwaukee is a special thing for Stastney and his family. He grew up in the Cream City’s northside suburb of Mequon, a short 30-minute drive from Milwaukee’s downtown.
“It definitely made that transition from college to professional much easier, knowing that I was going home and playing just down the road from where I grew up,” Stastney said. “I have a lot of family in the area which is special, and I think it has made my professional career more comfortable compared to playing someplace where I would be living alone.”
Stastney’s 2023-24 campaign started off strong, as he scored an overtime winner on opening night. The deciding goal came 48 seconds into the extra frame as Milwaukee topped arch-rival Chicago 2-1 to start the season.
While the playmaking defenseman is not exactly known for his goal-scoring prowess, the goals he scores tend to be important ones.
“Spencer has had a knack for scoring big goals and the prep he does helps him be ready for when those opportunities appear,” Taylor said. “But I think it is the opportunity he’s had here as well. The depth we have on defense allows us to roll our defensemen over the boards. It gives our blueliners a different look sometimes, and I think that has freed up Spencer a little bit offensively.”
Stastney scored his team’s biggest goal during Milwaukee’s run to the conference finals last spring. Tied late in the third period in the deciding Game 5 against Manitoba in the opening round, the Admirals were trying to find some way to avoid overtime. A collision between two Moose players sprung Stastney and forward Zach Sanford on a 2-on-1 break in the final 30 seconds of the game. Taking the defender with him, Sanford slid a perfect pass to the rookie blueliner, who beat goaltender Oskari Salminen to sending Milwaukee into the Central Division finals.
“It was an awesome moment,” said Stastney. “It was a little bit of a broken play, but I just saw Sanford going all the way and he found me at the back door. It was something that you really can’t draw up, but it worked out perfectly there at the end of the game.”
The win marked the first time Milwaukee had won a playoff series on home ice in front of its own fans since 2011. The goal, and win, sparked the Admirals on their deepest run in the Calder Cup Playoffs since 2006.
And Stastney played a huge role, playing alongside fellow rookie Adam Wilsby on the Admirals blue line. The pair helped Milwaukee oust the Moose in five games and knock out Texas in five games to reach the Western Conference Finals.
“[They] were playing 20-plus minutes a night for us last year, and they checked against the other team’s top line,” Admirals general manager Scott Nichol said. “It’s not that often where you pair two rookies together in the playoffs, but those guys impressed with the way they skated and supported each other.”
While the Admirals lost their Western Conference Finals series to the Coachella Valley Firebirds in six games, players like Stastney took huge strides in their young careers.
“We leaned on them a lot and they played a lot of hard minutes for us,” Nichol said. “When the games got more physical, and when the games got more dialed up, those two kids did very well for us. They both had great playoffs.”
Fast forward to mid-November this season, Stastney earned another call-up to the NHL. It was there when he made a memory that he will never forget, scoring his first NHL goal as part of Nashville’s 8-3 win over the St. Louis Blues.
It was a game where Predators forward Ryan O’Reilly played in his first game back in St. Louis as an opponent, but the play of recent Admirals like Stastney, Luke Evangelista and Kiefer Sherwood almost overshadowed O’Reilly’s homecoming.
“Scoring that goal and just being a part of a good run when I was in Nashville was pretty special,” Stastney said. “Getting those early two call-ups this year really helped my confidence, and it is something I hope I can continue to build on.”
Stastney stayed with Nashville until Dec. 7, and now has 17 games of NHL experience on his resume. Taylor knows it is only a matter of time and continued development before his tenure in the NHL becomes more permanent.
“Spencer is ready for his next opportunity to play in the NHL,” Taylor said. “That’s the hard part for our players here sometimes. Spencer has done the prep, put in the work, but then sometimes you have to be patient. He’s ready for the next step, and I think we have four or five guys on our team ready for that. They have to be a little patient and trust the process, continue to develop, and demand their next recall with how they play.”
With Stastney back in the fold, Milwaukee has been rolling and moving up the AHL standings. The Admirals have lost only twice since the 24-year-old returned to Milwaukee (12-1-0-1) and remain undefeated in 2024, having won five straight contests.
“I think our play as of late has been a combination of good goaltending, getting big goals, and having a lot of clutch play,” Stastney said. “We’re a good group of guys, our chemistry is good, and we are feeling like we’re in a good spot right now. We are going to keep trying to ride this hot streak and hopefully we will keep on winning here.”