Back in October, the Milwaukee Admirals opened their season to the media at the rink on the campus of the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Much of the talk centered around the National Hockey League lockout and how many teams in the American Hockey League – the Admirals included – would be stronger than usual due to the large number of NHL players that were sent down before work stopped at the NHL level.
The goal for every NHL organization was to keep some of the young members of the team playing and in shape so that when, or if, the lockout ended there would be some game-ready talent on the ice.
The NHL returned to action in mid-January, and former Predators first round picks Jonathon Blum and Ryan Ellis along with Gabriel Bourque were called up immediately.
"Putting guys in the right position so that we had them ready to step in after this lockout was a key situation here," said Predators assistant general manager and Admirals general manager Paul Fenton.
"The way I look at it is if you have the ability to play all season you’re hockey IQ, you’re hockey game is more in tune. I think a lot of times what we’re seeing in the National Hockey League is you’re seeing some guys who hare having some peaks and valleys with the game, but our guys that have been able to play for the three plus months before the lockout ended have been able to excel."
For their part, the players felt it was the right move for not only for the Predators, but for their advancement as individuals. Veteran NHL players had nowhere to play if they wanted to stay in the United States, or they had to pack their bags for leagues in Europe. Or, they could try and stay in playing shape on their own.
Instead, Ellis, Blum and Bourque were given more time together in a league that suddenly found itself full of young NHL talent.
"Anytime you get to continue playing and develop it’s a good thing for every player," Ellis said. "Obviously the level of competition was higher down there during the lockout and it gave us an advantage in developing further on in the progression. It was good for all the guys that started the year there. As you can see, there’s a lot of guys that are called up now and they’re doing fairly well."
As a defenseman, Ellis has six points in 29 games. Blum, also a defenseman, is tied for the team lead with a +4 plus-minus in road games. Borque has 11 points in 27 games on the left wing. Their stats aren’t exactly setting the NHL on fire, but Fenton has seen progress in their games due to the decision to have them play a full season.
"I believe so. I believe that they did," Fenton said. "Each team (in the AHL) was a notch or two up because of the young guys that could’ve started in the National hockey League that played there. It certainly was a benefit for everybody to play against better competition and we’re no different. There were people that looked at is, ‘This is unfair, they’ve got their five guys that they’re going to have on their first line in a particular situation,’ but the way we looked at it was I’d rather have my guys playing against better competition because in the long run it’s just going to make everybody better.
"It’s going to make you elevate your game, it’s going to make you become better as a player and you’re even more used to it when you do get to the National Hockey League level because you’ve already played against this competition and you know how you can fare against them."
Three other Admirals have gotten the call up recently, center Chris Mueller, defenseman Victor Bartley and forward Taylor Beck.
While most of the players on the Predators roster has come through Milwaukee at some point, the extended playing time together at the start of the season has raised the comfort level of many of this season’s call-ups.
"Anytime you get to play with players for a longer period of time it obviously benefits you and your team," Ellis said. "Being able to play with them, go through summer camps with them the past few years, I wouldn’t say it’s an advantage but it’s allowed us to know each other a little more out there, have a little more experience and confidence in each other."
The Predators hope that familiarity and confidence can turn into a playoff appearance.
Heading into tonight’s game against Columbus, Nashville sits in 11th place in the Western Conference, but just two points out of the eighth and final playoff spot. They are four points behind the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings for the sixth seed.
The top of the conference has pretty much been decided by the Chicago Blackhawks (23-2-3) and the second place Anaheim Ducks (20-3-4).
"They obviously got off to a hot start and played very well," Ellis said of the Blackhawks, who have clinched a playoff spot already. "They earned their seeding right now. Right now, we’re trying to catch all those teams. Whether they’re uncatchable or not, we’re still working towards getting as high as we can in the playoff race here. Each game we’re starting to get better and better. Hopefully we can continue to move up the ladder."
There are 19 games remaining in the shortened regular season, and the goal is to just get into the postseason. Then, anything can happen.
"It doesn’t matter what the other guys are doing," Fenton said.
"It doesn’t matter that Chicago has gotten off to this great start. We have to worry about ourselves. We have to play our own game. The L.A. Kings proved to you and the rest of the world, and me too, last year that if you finish eighth, get into the playoffs, you can win everything. That’s how we look at it. Let’s get into the playoffs in this shortened season because there are so many ups and downs and see how we can fare."
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.