Welcome back to Part Three of our Five Part Training Camp Preview. This morning we'll take a took at some of the compelling battles that will highlight next week's Training Camp. Here's the rest of our preview series:
Thursday AM - Camp Battles
Thursday PM - Stories to Watch
Friday - MHH Staff Picks
Alex Tanguay vs Jamie McGinn
There will be some line shuffling for chemistry on the Avalanche's top two lines in the coming weeks, but realistically there are five players (9, 29, 92, 90, and 12) who are all but guaranteed to start the season in the Avs' top six. After those five we get our first camp battle for a roster spot. Alex Tanguay holds a significant edge over McGinn here for a number of reasons. 1) He was extremely productive in his shortened 2013-2014 campaign, 2) Tanguay is less suited to playing a checking role on the 3rd line, 3) Roy may want to reunite Tanguay with his former line-mate Jarome Iginla. That said, Alex Tanguay is 34 years old and coming off of a major hip injury which required surgical intervention. Hip injuries can linger for players in their 20's, so it stands to reason that a guy in his mid 30's could come back to camp a step slower. If Alex Tanguay falters at the beginning of camp, Jamie McGinn will be hungry to take his spot in the top six. Last season McGinn played significant minutes on the top two lines and amassed a total of 19 goals, 1 short of his career best.
Jan Hejda vs Brad Stuart vs Father Time
The biggest hole in the Avalanche's roster is their top pairing left side defenseman. Erik Johnson is more than capable of playing those minutes on the right side, but the Avalanche have struggled to pair him with a player capable of sharing that heavy workload. Jan Hejda has performed admirably, and even capably at times, but in the second half of last season the 36 year old defenseman saw a significant dip in his quality of play. When the Avalanche added 34 year old Brad Stuart in July, it was unclear whether he was brought in to replace Hejda on the top pairing, or to provide an upgrade to the teams' second pairing. Though two years younger, Stuart has also seen a significant decline in recent years. Finding chemistry with Erik Johnson will be an important part of winning this battle, but what it really comes down to is: who can look a little younger, a little longer.
Mcleod vs Bordeleau vs Cliche vs Winchester vs Europe
After two years of really good job security, Cody McLeod and Patrick Bordeleau could be fighting for their NHL jobs this year. The Avalanche added depth in their bottom six in the form of Jesse Winchester and a number of large European forwards who could displace the tough guys on the bottom end of the lineup. Despite an ineffective season last year, Cody McLeod still has a few things going in his favor. He is an alternate captain, and a long time Avalanche player who the coaching staff will want to demonstrate loyalty to. Patrick Bordeleau, however, could see himself squeezed out of the lineup if one of these players provides Roy with a more versatile 4th line, capable of playing more minutes and tougher competition.
Bottom Pairing Right Side
Here's a list of defenseman competing for the 3rd pairing right side spot: Nate Guenin, Stefan Elliott, Zach Redmond, Bruno Gervais, and Maxim Noreau. Talk about a dogfight. (A.J. will talk about this dogfight in detail this afternoon)
Berra vs Aittokallio vs Pickard
Reto Berra has earned a major vote of confidence from the Avalanche in the form of a 3-year contract extension, but don't think for a second that he'll be the Avalanche backup if one of those rookies smokes him in camp. Even if Berra outplays the other two, there's still a battle to watch here, a war that Sami Aittokallio and Calvin Pickard have been waging for years. Those two are playing for starts in Lake Erie and for the privilege of first NHL call-up.
Joey Hishon vs "Old School Hockey"
I wish I could say that Joey Hishon had to outplay one or two specific players in order to make this roster, but that's not really the case. Joey Hishon is instead fighting against a well ingrained mindset about the way a good bottom six is constructed. It's a mindset which allows Patrick Bordeleau to play 82 games a season, despite lacking NHL talent, a mindset which gives Marc Andre Cliche 3rd line minutes in the playoffs despite his inability to put the puck on net, and it's a mindset which favors calling up "gritty" checkers like Brad Malone over skilled AHLers. To make the Avalanche roster out of camp, Hishon has to do more than outplay the other players in the bottom six, he has to impress the coaching staff to the point where they rethink the structure and function of the 4th line in order to accommodate for more talent. If the Avalanche coaching staff was watching the NHL playoffs, and specifically the Stanley Cup winning Kings, then maybe they'll finally be open to the idea.
The Last "A"
I don't think players will admit it, but earning an extra letter on the front of their jersey is absolutely a mark accomplishment that players strive for. In interviews we'll hear the same old schtick that "everyone has to be a leader whether they're wearing a letter or not," but don't think for a second that there aren't players on this Avalanche squad who look at Paul Stastny's departure and think "I want to earn that letter in camp." There are a number of players in contention for the remaining alternate captain's letter and they come from a various stages in their respective careers. Jarome Iginla is an obvious candidate having served as an NHL captain for over a decade. The Avalanche were very vocal about bringing Iginla in to provide additional leadership to the squad and as the team's most veteran player, he would be an obvious choice for the alternate captaincy. Another veteran who could be considered is Alex Tanguay. Players were vocal last season about Tanguay's importance and steadying presence in the locker room, and considering his long term friendship with Roy, he could get the nod. Another veteran with a chance at the alternate captaincy is Max Talbot. Roy brought in Talbot via trade to bring veteran presence and leadership, and now the veteran winger will have the future of the franchise living as a houseguest. The front office plays a role in deciding where players like Nathan MacKinnon live, the fact that they asked Max Talbot to share his home with the 19 year old speaks volumes about how the organization views Talbot.
In addition to these veteran players are a number of prime age players who could win the alternate captaincy in camp. When Avs fans started preparing for Milan Hejduk's inevitable retirement, we also started making lists of potential future captains. Erik Johnson, Ryan O`Reilly, and Matt Duchene were near the top of every list. Look for those three players to be more vocal in this year's training camp. Because this year's training camp is so large, and contains so many first timers, don't be surprised if these team leaders are more visible, they'll have a lot of less experienced, younger players to interact with.