The basic formula is that the American Hockey League prepares players for success in the National Hockey League.
Well, for the most part, that’s how it works.
With the Nashville Predators not involved in the postseason for the first time in five seasons, though, it seems that time spent in the NHL will serve several Milwaukee Admirals players well in the AHL playoffs. At least that’s the hope of franchise leaders.
Nashville’s top developmental team breezed through its first-round playoff series with four straight victories. In so doing, it got big contributions from several who spent time with the Predators during the 2008-09 season.
Six players had at least three points in the sweep of Rockford, and five of those six played at least two games with Nashville this season.
“You want to see them play with the same commitment and passion — all the things they gave them an opportunity to play for us — and win a championship,” Nashville Coach Barry Trotz said. “It’s real important to go deep and win championships, especially in the minor leagues because that really breeds a sense of pride and tradition and confidence because you’ve played those hard games.”
Milwaukee has a long way to go to win a championship. It opens the second round of the playoffs, a best-of-seven division final series against the Houston Aeros, Thursday at home.
It has, however, developed a bit of a tradition since the Predators began to supply the bulk of its roster.
The Admirals won the Calder Cup in 2004, and with a record of 49-22-3-6 this season became the first AHL franchise ever to win at least 40 games and to have at least 90 points in six straight seasons. They also won the West Division title in 2008-09, their third in the past six seasons.
“The road to Nashville is through Milwaukee for all of our younger players,” Nashville General Manager David Poile said. “We believe strongly in the development process, and winning is part of development.”
The path between Nashville and Milwaukee became well worn during the latter part of the NHL season when injuries led to multiple recalls of players such as Cal O’Reilly, Mike Santorelli and Patric Hornqvist.
O’Reilly led the Admirals with six points (two goals, four assists) against Rockford. Santorelli had a hat trick in the series clincher and finished with five points (three goals, two assists). Hornqvist and Jed Ortmeyer each had four points, and Ryan Jones had three.
All five had at least one goal and two assists, and each was a plus-3 or better.
“The biggest thing is that they really step up their game and be important difference-makers down there,” Trotz said. “…They’re going to be playing under pressure in the playoffs and you’re going to get to see the best people have to offer down there. If they’re dominant players, then that really gives them a little bit of confidence and a little bit of a foundation to carry that forward.”
O’Reilly, Santorelli, Jones and Hornqvist all made their NHL debuts during the 2008-09 campaign. It was Jones’ first full season as a pro after a four-year college career at Miami (Ohio), and Hornqvist’s first season outside of his native Sweden.
Prior to last week, O’Reilly was the only one of that group who had been a part of a team that won an AHL playoff series. He turned pro following the completion of his junior career in 2006 and joined Milwaukee in time to play two games in the regular season and participate in 10 postseason contests.
“The experience of playing when a guy like Jones or Hornqvist comes up here for any length of time and then they go down there, they become pretty strong players down there and it’s nice to see,” Trotz said. “Vice versa, a player who plays very well down there and then comes up can sort of have an immediate impact.”