📝 by Patrick Williams
One of the first impressions that Milwaukee Admirals forward Egor Afanasyev makes is how quickly he pivots discussion about himself toward his team instead.
Like they have for nearly a quarter-century, the Nashville Predators have another round of prospects brewing in Milwaukee. Afanasyev’s team-first inclinations fit in well with an NHL organization that has long prioritized a slow, steady approach to player development and finding prospects willing to embrace that philosophy.
This season’s prospect crop has found quick success. The Admirals, in first place in the Western Conference with 16 points (8-4-0-0), are preparing for a weekend home-and-home set with Iowa.
“Guys are very close,” Afanasyev said, “and I think we’re playing for each other, and that’s why we’re successful right now.”
The Nashville-Milwaukee affiliation dates back to the NHL club’s first season in 1998-99 and has produced a bounty of talent. Filip Forsberg, Roman Josi, Pekka Rinne, Juuse Saros, Scottie Upshall, and Shea Weber are just a handful of past and present Nashville stars who apprenticed with the Admirals.
The latest bunch in Milwaukee features a group of promising forwards. Phil Tomasino, a 2019 first-round pick, is with the Admirals to fine-tune his game further after playing 76 games in Nashville last season. Rookie Luke Evangelista, a second-rounder in 2020, leads the Ads in scoring through the first month of play. Fourth-year pro Tommy Novak continues pushing for a full-time NHL job; he played 27 games with Nashville last season. Markus Nurmi is an intriguing prospect, a 24-year-old winger who already possessed five seasons of high-level European experience in Finland before making his move to North America this fall. Juuso Parssinen, a 2019 seventh-round pick, had an excellent start in Milwaukee and scored a goal in his NHL debut with the Predators last week. Goaltender Yaroslav Askarov, the 11th overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, is taking on the AHL for the first time in a tandem with fellow prospect Devin Cooley.
And then there is Afanasyev, a second-round pick by Nashville in 2019 who has embraced the development process in Milwaukee and become a fan favorite there as well.
Immediately engaging, insightful, and analytical, the 21-year-old Afanasyev possesses a willingness to take a long-term view, and he has never been afraid to put himself into uncomfortable situations if doing so is best for those long-term ambitions. He moved to the Detroit area as a 15-year-old to begin the acclimation process to North America, playing in the Detroit Little Caesars youth program. From there, he went to the United States Hockey League for two seasons with Muskegon, shifted to the Ontario Hockey League with Windsor for another year, and then returned to his native Russia for the 2020-21 season.
Last season brought him to Milwaukee for his first AHL season. His second go-round has been even better.
Recalls and other roster shuffles have meant that Admirals head coach Karl Taylor has used Afanasyev on the left side on several top-six lines so far. Afanasyev scored a goal in four consecutive games between Oct. 26 and Nov. 2, and most recently picked apart the Chicago Wolves this past Sunday with a goal, two assists and five shots in a 6-3 road victory.
Last season, his first in the AHL, Afanasyev finished with 33 points (12 goals, 21 assists) in 74 games for the Admirals; he already has five goals and three assists through 12 games in 2022-23.
Nashville views Afanasyev, at 6-foot-4, 211 pounds, as a future big-body forward. To that end, Afanasyev has prioritized using that size more effectively with his board work and winning battles, and that effort is showing in his second AHL season.
“I think personally I’ve improved my game to the next level from last season,” Afanasyev said. “I talk a lot to [the] coaches, and I feel like I’m moving in the right direction.”
Winning those board battles, establishing a net-front presence: those are some of the areas of his game that eventually can send him to Nashville to stay.
“That’s what I [tried] to work as much as I could, because I feel like [those are] very underrated skills,” Afanasyev continued. “I’m trying to work on my all-around game so I can be that complete player when they need me.”
Nashville management has noticed as well. Assistant general manager and director of player development Scott Nichol also serves as Milwaukee’s general manager, and he continues to be impressed by Afanasyev.
“Every game he’s first on pucks, he’s using his body, he’s protecting the puck, and he’s using his frame,” Nichol told the Predators team website last week. “Last year, his first year, was figuring the league out, but now this year he’s kind of jumped in the deep end with both feet right from rookie camp on, and he’s been really good.”
Last season provided plenty of teaching for Afanasyev, and he came away with one lesson in particular on life as an AHL prospect. It is an education that he has embraced, much like all of those Admirals alumni in Nashville once did.
“Probably how hard it is to play the full regular season,” Afanasyev explained.
“Every day you’ve got to prepare. There are no days off. Even on your day off, you’ve got to do stuff, because if you’re not, someone else is doing it.”
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports, and is currently the co-host of The Hockey News On The ‘A’ podcast. He was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.