Before the season, Milwaukee Admirals head coach Dean Evason said he and his coaching staff outlined the roster on a white board, looking at the combination of lines they could run out on the ice, the skill level of some of the young, high Nashville Predators draft picks and the mix of veterans, it looked … good.
It looked like there could be success, but not just playoff success – like that special type of mix, the needed depth, to make a deep Calder Cup run.
Now, rosters in the American Hockey League can change in a moment’s notice, with any kind of transaction, but as currently constructed, there was plenty of promise for the Admirals at the start of this season.
"Coming into the year, you know kind of what you guys look like on paper, but you don’t know how it’s going to translate on the ice," Admirals (defenseman) Joe Piskula admitted.
"Like, who’s going to compete? Who’s going to play their role?"
Another natural question was whether or not this group of disparate personalities that included a bevy of players with NHL experience, rookies and players lacing them up in the United States for the first time could come together quickly enough to realize the potential seen on paper.
A six-game winning streak to start the year answered that question relatively quickly.
"Absolutely," Evason said. "Coaches, we can talk until we’re blue in the face about a good team and coming together an all that kind of stuff, but if it’s not backed up by your leadership group within the room, then there’s no sense in us just talking."
And the coaches the reason for that is clear – the leadership in the locker room from Piskula, the team’s captain, and the veterans on down.
"Our guys have really helped out the younger people, the transition," Evason said. "The transition off the ice is tough, too. Some guys have never lived on their own. Some guys have never found an apartment. Some guys have never had bank accounts. So, it’s all a learning process but our leadership group has led in that direction and has allowed us to come together quick."
Piskula saw early that natural cliques could develop. As with many hockey teams, the Admirals have groups of players from Canada, from Sweden, from North America, players who have been teammates in Milwaukee and Nashville for years.
He and the veterans set out to prevent them from forming.
"When you have a young group like we do and a lot of new guys you have to try and break cliques," said Piskula, an Antigo native and University of Wisconsin alumnus. "You’ve got to try to separate those groups and get everybody together. I think our leadership group, the veteran guys, as well as the coaches, addressed it right away.
"We do things to get people together and try to get that bond going. With language barriers it could be difficult, but everybody speaks English so I think we’ve done a good job of getting that ball rolling."
Added (left-winger) Austin Watson: "From day one we’ve had great leadership. Obviously our captain, Joe Piskula, is a great pro and a really awesome guy. (Mark) Van Guilder. (Colton) Sissons. (Tristen) Grant. Those kind of guys that just do a good job at making everybody feel comfortable. When that happens it helps everybody out on the ice and everybody starts to play well together soon as possible."
The end result was a chemistry off the ice that has translated on it.
"That’s exactly it. We feel pretty good about ourselves and starting the year with six straight wins is pretty awesome," said Watson, who has scored five goals and contributed seven points in the first nine games. "(Chemistry) is a huge deal and we know that coming into the season that you gotta get comfortable with your teammates and you’ve got to find that chemistry."
At 7-2, it has been a promising start for the Admirals, and as the season wears on and the roster begins to shift, the foundation laid early may pay dividends going forward.
"If the group has success, and we’re a good team, then the individuals will have success as well and we’ll get to where we want to go," Evason said. "To do that, you don’t do it on your own. You do it together. And in the process hopefully we’ll have a chance to get there."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.