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Admirals, Predators strike balance

Mark Dekanich was great for Milwaukee this year and his replacement has filled the void left by his injury in the playoffs. (Photo by Scott Paulus/Milwaukee Admirals)

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Mark Dekanich was great for Milwaukee this year and his replacement has filled the void left by his injury in the playoffs. (Photo by Scott Paulus/Milwaukee Admirals)

The Nashville Predators and Vancouver Canucks are the only two NHL organizations that saw the parent club and farm team both extend their seasons past the first round.

But the Predators challenge a few schools of conventional hockey thought.

In advancing at both levels, the Preds challenge one of the most contentious areas of debate in player development: whether prospect growth and winning can co-exist in a mutually beneficial fashion. Some American League clubs churn out NHL-ready players, while others are annual contenders, but few manage to marry the two agendas.

A Milwaukee club (Nashville’s affiliate) has not posted fewer than 91 points and 41 wins in the past eight seasons and this year’s club hit the 100-point mark for the second time in three seasons.

Now the Admirals are blending regular season success and player development with a potentially deep playoff run, something that would provide valuable extracurricular experience and playing time for yet another deep crop of prospects.

Nashville has used exceptional scouting and strong AHL coaching staffs to consistently provide NHL-ready talent to the Predators. Before coach Lane Lambert, proven developer Claude Noel manned the Milwaukee bench.

Veteran defender Scott Ford works under an AHL contract, but he has been in Milwaukee three seasons, long enough to have a sense as to why the Nashville-Milwaukee formula works.

“I think it’s just a credit to the organization as a whole,” Ford said. “We have a great coaching staff. Lane just pays attention to details. He’s a hard-nosed guy. He expects a lot out of our guys. Every time we come to the rink, we work hard and we are focused.

“I think that’s why guys are constantly turning over and going up to Nashville because of what they’re learning through the coaching staff and the great organization we have.”

Milwaukee finally put away a tough, hard-nosed Texas Stars club Monday night to set up a second-round date with the Houston Aeros. When Milwaukee faced the possibility of going down 3-2 in its series with Texas, the Admirals tied Game 5 at one with 4.4 seconds to play in regulation before winning the contest in overtime. In Game 6, the Admirals used overtime again to finally nail shut the Texas coffin back in Wisconsin.

Tight contests became the norm for the Admirals this season and they handled the challenge quite nicely: Milwaukee’s 23 one-goal wins ranked second in the league.

When stout goaltender Mark Dekanich went down with a late-season injury, the Admirals barely flinched. In stepped young netminder Jeremy Smith, a 2007 second-rounder with only 29 games of AHL experience before this post-season. Smith posted a 1.89 goals-against average in six games against Texas.

Smith has prior playoff experience, though. He was awarded co-MVP honors in helping to guide Nashville’s ECHL affiliate, the Cincinnati Cyclones, to a Kelly Cup last season.

Rookie Gabriel Bourque was another difference-maker for the Admirals with his crucial tying goal in Game 5. The left winger was a fifth round pick of Nashville’s in 2009 and stepped into the pro game this season with 18 goals. In the playoffs, Bourque’s five goals in six games have him tied for second in the league with the likes of established veteran Nigel Dawes and top prospects Bobby Butler and Sergei Shirokov.

Bourque has teamed with Chris Mueller - the latest in a long line of unheralded Predators farmhands that has included Rich Peverley and Vern Fiddler - to push the Admirals to the second round.
   
Defensively, the Admirals bring a little bit of everything. NHL veteran Aaron Johnson joins experienced AHLers Ford and Brett Palin to form a deep foundation that will help the development of intriguing European youngsters Roman Josi and Teemu Laakso.

The Milwaukee blueline may also gain the services of yet another top prospect, Ryan Ellis, the Ontario League’s top defenseman this season. Ellis and the Windsor Spitfires exited the post-season this week.

“We’ve got a really youthful team,” Ford said. “We have youthful exuberance. The guys come to the rink everyday (and) if we are supposed to be there at 9:00, they are there by 8:30. They are there early, working out, working hard. We just have a good group.

“We have a really tight group of guys. We laugh - sometimes it feels like we are running a mentorship program.”

ELSEWHERE IN THE AHL

• Hamilton took out Oklahoma City in six games to set up a meeting with Manitoba. The Moose rallied from a 3-1 series deficit against Lake Erie to take that series in seven games.

• Back in the Eastern Conference, Binghamton finally outlasted Manchester in a grueling seven-game series and is playing Portland, who won a six-game series with Connecticut. The Senators took Game 1 by a 3-2 count.

• Wilkes-Barre/Scranton survived a first round scare from the Norfolk Admirals. After the Admirals won Games 1 and 2 on the road, the Penguins rolled off four consecutive wins. Now the Penguins will meet the Charlotte Checkers, a high-scoring outfit that denied the Hershey Bears’ bid for a third consecutive Calder Cup.

THIS & THAT

• Hershey’s playoff ouster leaves the 1960-1962 Springfield Indians as the only AHL club to assemble three straight Calder Cup-winning teams.

• Portland will have the services of sniper Mark Mancari (32 goals in 56 regular season contests) and goaltender Jhonas Enroth after the parent Buffalo Sabres were knocked out of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

 

From THN.com American League correspondent Patrick Williams, Around The AHL keeps tabs on the world's second best circuit, details all the news and notes and profiles prospects destined for the next level. It appears every Thursday only on TheHockeyNews.com.

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