The 2004 Calder Cup Champion Milwaukee Admirals start their defense of the title on Friday, October 15 against the arch-rival Chicago Wolves. The team that takes the ice will feature 13 returning players from last season’s championship team. Perhaps even more worrisome for their AHL rivals, Milwaukee’s top three lines return nearly untouched, healthy, and augmented by an improved defense. Milwaukee, which lead the league in offense last season is looking to play a more “up tempo game” according to Head Coach Claude Noel.
“I was telling the Nashville people that I want to play more up tempo, more speed, and potentially more offense. We led last year in goals scored, but I don’t care. I want to play more upbeat; I want to play an energized game. We’ve got that type of team, smart players,” said Noel during camp. He added, “(Darren) Haydar looks fantastic coming out of camp. He looks like he’s picked up a stride; he’s really jumped up in the NHL eyes to me. He looks like he’s knocking at the door. I think people are going to be taking his game more seriously towards the National Hockey League this year than they did last year.”
Milwaukee returns nine of their top forwards from last season, including Darren Haydar and Simon Gamache who combined for 57 goals including the playoffs where they finished 1-2 in playoff scoring. Centering them is the crafty Vern Fiddler.
“We have a pretty good line,” said Gamache. “Darren is smart with the puck; he sees the ice pretty good. Vern brings some speed to our line, he drives to the net. He makes good defensive plays and simple plays, which makes it easier for us to make plays.”
Cagey Veteran Tony Hrkac returns for another season with Milwaukee, his fifth with the club over two stints sandwiched around seven NHL seasons. He centers Scottie Upshall and Jordin Tootoo. Upshall, a top prospect, follows up an injury marred rookie campaign playing alongside Hrkac again, but with old friend Tootoo opposite him, a prospect both players relish.
“Last year, I was playing between 5-8 minutes, here I’ll probably be playing over 10 minutes for sure,” said Tootoo. “It’s going to be a challenge for me. Personally I take it as a positive, there are a lot of things I have to work on, but having those two guys on either side of me has a positive outlook on my game, they are definitely going to help me with my game. Tony’s been around for a number of years, he’s already been giving me a few pointers. We can already feel the connection, hopefully we’ll get to do some damage. (Scottie and Jordin) have been good friends for a number of years.”
“I’ve played either with or against Jordin for a number of years now, and I know what he can do out there, and I know the way he plays. He fits in on that line,” added Upshall. “He fits in well with me and Tony.”
The third line of Wyatt Smith, Libor Pivko, and Timofei Shishkanov provides a good two-way line that did some damage in the playoff run, combining for 14 goals in 22 games, impressive numbers for a third line. Pivko opened a number of eyes last season with his impressive rookie campaign, not only chipping in 18 goals (11 regular season and 7 playoff) but playing solidly on the penalty kill and in defensive situations. By the end of the season he was a major irritant to opponents as well. Shishkanov was hampered late in the season with an injury, missing nearly 20 games, but still managed 23 goals in the regular season, and played solidly in the playoffs. Smith, a wily veteran, brings grit and playmaking to the line between the two talented wingers.
The fourth line features some more grit than in years past. Brandon Segal and Cam Severson play on either side of Jerred Smithson. The trio combined for 304 penalty minutes last season in 152 games of AHL and 39 games in the NHL competition. They also scored a combined for 30 goals last season, paced by Segal’s 13 in 57 games (including playoffs).
Rookie Paul Brown who brings 222 penalty minutes in 59 games for Kamloops (WHL) to the table, and plays an aggressive hard edged style and veteran tough guy Jeremy Yablonski are both available to rotate in as the extra forwards.
Despite losing two-time defenseman of the year Curtis Murphy to Europe, the Admirals blue line looks to be improved over last year’s squad. “Our defense looks more skilled and quicker than we were last year,” said Noel. “So there are some things to be excited about. A big factor is how good the young players are, it’s frightening. Last year I raved about our forwards and how good they were; now we’ve got two young defensemen in (Ryan) Suter and (Kevin) Klein. Both are great defensemen. Young stallions, they don’t look like first-year players to me.”
Suter, the organization’s top pick in 2003 and top prospect in the system, is coming off of a solid rookie campaign at the University of Wisconsin where he chipped in 16 assists and garnered 93 penalty minutes in 39 games.
“If you watch this young guy play, even if you’re a new fan, you’re going to be excited to watch him play, he’s a tremendous player. It’s hard to find holes in his game, he’s a 19-year-old player, he’s a year younger than everyone else. He moves the puck, he skates, and he moves laterally, he reads the play tremendously. He’ll have time to get adjusted, but I see him as being a very good player.”
“I’m excited to get going, looking forward to that first game. Pretty much all my family will be here,” comments Suter who grew up in nearby Madison, WI and played before his home town college hockey team as did his famous father and uncle. “I feel I did pretty well this camp, my first camp. We’ll see what happens.”
The Admirals also gained Dan Hamhuis due to the NHL lockout, who tied a Nashville Predators rookie record for games and finished second among NHL rookies in average ice time with over 22 minutes a night last season while playing in 86 games last season (including playoffs). He also appeared in the NHL Young Stars game, finishing +3 in the game.
“These last two years I’ve played the role of a young guy coming up, and now this year with the experiences I’ve had I can work on my leadership and bring that to the team,” says Hamhuis, “I’ve just to manage my minutes well and just work on my game. I’ve got to get better in every situation. I can’t get caught trying to do too much out there, I’ve got to keep my game simple and good things happen.”
Hamhuis, who got married over the offseason, commented on married life affecting his game. “It will make things better. It’s so nice to come home after practice and have someone there for you.”
Klein quietly had a very solid camp, getting better every day it seemed. And second year player Greg Zanon returns after making people notice him with a solid rookie campaign. Include returning defensemen Andrew Hutchinson and Brad Tiley and new comers P J Martin and Mike Matteucci, both seasoned AHL veterans, and the squad is fast, skilled and talented.
Brian Finley follows up last year’s successful season with the added burden of expectations assigned to a first round draft pick who had struggled through a couple of injury marred seasons prior to last year. Coach Noel assessed his strengths.
“He’s got great feet, good lateral movement, and goal tending sense. His composure is good and a quiet demeanor. He’s got a lot of things going for him. He’s got a lot of focus on his back. We’re setting him up to succeed.”
To compliment Finley the Admirals added 24-year-old Seamus Kotyk from the Cleveland Barons. Kotyk comes off a professional career best season (13-10-5 2.48 GAA and .925 save percentage) and will push Finley for playing time.
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