Last season’s call-ups to the Nashville Predators from Milwaukee included the likes of Taylor Beck, Austin Watson and Kevin Henderson. How have they looked in Milwaukee this season? Like the team: hit and miss.
Editor’s note: Today’s piece is courtesy of Daniel Lavender and Admirals Roundtable. This post is part two of two, catching Nashville Predators fans up on the club’s minor league squad, the Milwaukee Admirals. Read part one here:
Taylor Beck: You’ve had a taste of Beck but possibly haven’t seen his best stuff yet. At the time of his second call up this season, everyone around the Admirals organization stated that it was the most deserving call up that they’ve seen in ages. I am in that boat and this is why: In the Ads black, white and Lake Michigan blue this season he has done everything. He has double-shifted and played extra minutes when the team dresses an extra defenseman. He plays vital roles on the power play and penalty kill. At even strength his skating and creativity made offensive opportunities unfold around him – no matter what line he was thrown on.
Austin Watson: Watson has had an up-and-down season with the Admirals so far. Defensively, he has looked fantastic – especially working on the penalty kill. It’s his offensive consistency that has been lacking this season. In some part I feel it comes down to the amount of line combinations he has been paired with. For the majority of last season he was on the same line, with Juuso Puustinen and Daniel Bang, and they all thrived together. This season it’s almost a mystery as to who his wingers will be at game time. But the numbers are somewhat there for him despite the mix-and-match linemates. Defensively, where stats may not tell enough of the story, he’s been a machine when it comes to blocking shots and taking away time and space around the defensive zone. His comfort level defensively will always be great. His comfort level offensively, at least so far this season, looks unsettled. He has not taken quite the step forward this season that some may have hoped.
Kevin Henderson: Henderson was a call up late last season and managed to score his first career NHL goal against the Chicago Blackhawks. His season in the AHL at that point was phenomenal to watch. He was scoring plenty of goals, crafty in all zones and was a stable player to put on the second and third lines: where both sides of his two-way game could shine. This year, things reached the point where the Admirals benched him because they didn’t feel he was doing enough of the right things. Since Henderson has always been more defensive minded, the dip in offensive production hasn’t concerned me that much this season. What has concerned me this season is seeing lapses in concentration when it comes to his defense. He’s slowly looked better as the games picked up through January, but he is still far away from the player that was recalled late last season.
Defensemen this season that have stood out for me are Joonas Jarvinen, Anthony Bitetto, and Charles-Olivier Roussel.
Joonas Jarvinen: Jarvinen is simply a mountain of a man. Last season, I think there was a need to engage more in the physical and fighting antics of the game and it disrupted his ability to play stable defense and avoid the penalty box. This season, he has quietly been one of the best defensemen on the team. It’s never about offense for him and that’s what the Admirals need. Despite having a month of January where he was a negative player six times out of 13 games – he still leads the entire team with a plus/minus of +9. While I can agree that it is never the most reliable statistic (I know, I know) it still says a lot about his focus on the ice. He’s a no nonsense, sit back and “hit you into next week” type of defenseman. His lone issue this season has been the penalty bug. He has 57 penalty minutes with only three fighting majors. For someone looking to sit back and defend – he can cost the team by taking poor penalties. It’s a year for him to learn to tone down the fighting and aggression and let his size and strength just play out naturally. He might not be a Nashville product this season – but he has the ability to be in the NHL with the right maturity in the near future.
Anthony Bitetto: Bitetto, a.k.a. “Mr. New York,” started the season shot out of a cannon. He had nine goals and 10 assists through the month of December. Since? No goals. Eight assists. His defense was an issue for him early and, at times, you can still find him struggling skating backwards or being aware of how far forward he’s skated into the offensive zone. He worked incredibly hard last offseason to improve his fitness and skating ability. In truth, that remains one of the most impressive things from Bitetto this season – frequently he can skate his way out of disaster or into high quality offensive spots for himself. His offense has cooled. His defense is still a work in progress. But this has been a stand out season in his development.
Charles-Olivier Roussel: Another player who has really been coming on strong lately for the Admirals has been Charles-Olivier Roussel. At the start of training camp it wasn’t certain he would even have a role in the AHL – possibly ending up with the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL where he played plenty of games the previous season. He earned his place. Patiently waited and worked as the team’s seventh defenseman. Right now, he has forced the team to play him.
“[Charles-Olivier Roussel] has been real good right from the start,” said head coach Dean Evason. “Coming out of training camp we didn’t even know if he would be with us. He was battling for a job to stay here. Basically, as our seventh [defenseman], he has forced us each and every night to put him in and not take him out. He plays hard every night. Very well respected with this group.”
Roussel has picked up where Bitetto’s game has left off. Both play a similar game and, entertainingly, have been paired together often this season as a third defensive pairing. Of the two, Roussel is the one with a better defensive ability to go with his offensive game. He skates extremely well. He has managed and quarterbacked the power-play frequently this season. And, despite only scoring his first career AHL goal this past week, has done a great job creating chances when skating up ice. I think of him as a “Ryan Ellis Lite.” He might not reach that high of a ceiling – but the playing style is eerily similar.
The Admirals goaltending this season has been fascinating to see when compared to last season, when it was all Jeremy Smith and Magnus Hellberg. What we’ve had this season is Hellberg, Marek Mazanec and Scott Darling. Hellberg goes up. Mazanec shines. Hellberg and Mazanec rotate and Hellberg struggles. Darling steps in and wins the AHL’s Goalie of the Month award for December. Darling gets injured. Hellberg gets injured. Mazanec returns and plays every single game since.
Yeah, it’s been like that.
Magnus Hellberg: Hellberg’s season might be one to forget at this point. He came to Nashville’s preseason camp and picked up an injury on the opening day of camp. When he’s played, I’ve actually classified him as fighting himself. Last season, he was great at allowing the game to come to him, made the right decisions, and played very calm – something that rubbed off on the whole team once he picked up the starting gig this exact time last year. Before getting an ankle injury in January, it felt like a lot of that dissolved into a goaltender that was hyperactive and trying to fight the puck too much. I do think the time out will allow him to refocus his own approach to the game. He can still be a really good NHL caliber goaltender in my book. He just needs to slow himself down – something this injury might actually help him do.
Marek Mazanec: You all have seen Mazanec this year and, I’m guessing, you know what he’s all about. He has a calm playing style in net. He reminds me a fair bit of how Hellberg played last year in his approach. He takes what his own defense gives him. In Nashville, that seemed to work out pretty nicely for the most part. In Milwaukee, it’s been a bit on the trying side. Since his reassignment to Milwaukee he has literally played in every single game for the Admirals in net. That includes two scenarios of starting two games in two days and one scenario of three games in three days. He has been tasked to do a ton of work since his reassignment. He’s been holding up to the challenge pretty well. I only wish that the team rotated him more – because he has told me after some of the multiple start scenarios that he was absolutely exhausted. The team’s current backup is Hannu Toivonen – whose lone appearance for the Ads includes his relief effort for Hellberg when he was injured – and he actually lost in a shootout having not faced a shot in regulation or overtime. Had Hellberg not been injured, the tandem with Mazanec would have been a big boost for the team and the two goalies. I feel as if Mazanec wants one of the two injured goalies back just as badly as they want to return to the team.
Scott Darling: A real bright spot for the Ads this season came in the form of Scott Darling. His performances in net, particularly in the month of December, have been the best for the team all season. He even got into a goalie fight against Sami Aittokallio of the Lake Erie Monsters. Sadly, right after that great month of work, he was injured early in January during a team practice. It sounds like he will be back before Hellberg and, if so, the real fascinating thing for Darling will be just how he bounces back from an injury and while playing in a backup role to Mazanec. I highly doubt he would unseat Mazanec in the way that he did Hellberg. What I don’t doubt is just how brilliant the organization’s goaltending depth remains. If all goalies were healthy, the Ads would be forced to make a difficult choice of who goes to Cincinnati of the ECHL. At the start of the season – I never would have thought Hellberg could be the guy of these three who could be the most likely candidate down.
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