Welcome back to Part Four of our Five Part Training Camp Preview. This afternoon we're taking a look at some of the players with the most to prove and lose at next week's Training Camp. Here's the rest of our preview series:
Thursday PM - Stories to Watch (This one ;D)
Friday - MHH Staff Picks
For this preview, I'm going to take a look at a few guys who are at various crossroads in their careers and then tack on 2 additional guys who I think are darkhorses to make the NHL team out of camp.
Because I'm the guy doing this preview, I get to start with my long-time favorite Avs prospect. By now, I imagine most of us are familiar with Elliott's plight and struggles to prove himself capable of regular NHL duty. If you're not, it goes something like this: exciting prospect makes it to the show, lights it up early, struggles, gets confidence decimated by the franchise's worst coaching staff, struggles to win over new coaching staff despite being one of the more prolific goal-scorers at his position in the minors.
Elliott's brief appearance at the end of the NHL calendar last season lent some hope that the team might finally be believing in him again. Then the off-season came around and the Avalanche seemed to hedge their bets on Elliott finally proving himself NHL-ready by signing similarly skilled players in Zach Redmond (more on him later) and Maxim Noreau (no more on him later) to compete for the 3rd pairing RD spot (I'm assuming the top 4 is some combination of Hejda, Johnson, Stuart, and Barrie and the days of Guenin/Barrie are over). Because Nate Guenin sucks quite a bit at hockey, I would hope Elliott has a leg up on this competition here but with EJ, Barrie, and now Holden as potentially reliable offensive producers, the coaching staff might view Elliott's greatest strength as a redundancy.
With his waiver eligibility used up and only signed to a one-year deal, Elliott is looking at this training camp and pre-season as his final shot to secure a place along the Avalanche blueline. There's no doubt Elliott would be given a shot elsewhere (Redmond's old spot in Winnipeg would make sense) should the team remain unsold on Elliott but I hope he finally breaks through and wins over this coaching staff. Elliott's up-tempo playstyle would be a welcome addition to a third pairing that often found itself stuck in neutral last season and his ability to move the puck quickly and efficiently would be night and day from Guenin's turnover-heavy habits.
A 7th round pick in the 2008 draft, Redmond's entire pro career has been considered a long-shot. Despite developing quickly and rapidly rising through Winnipeg's farm system, peaking as a consistent top 10 prospect for an organization with a bevy of quality prospects, Redmond's odds grew even longer when he suffered a devastating freak injury during a morning practice on February 21, 2013. Shortly after falling, a teammate accidentally skated over his thigh, cutting his femoral artery and vein in the back of Redmond's leg. The gruesome injury could have cost Redmond his life but a short six weeks later, he was back skating and trying to earn a place on the Jets blueline.
Unfortunately for Redmond, those plans never came to fruition and this summer he chose to take an opportunity to bolster the Avs blueline over remaining in Winnipeg. Many, myself included, have viewed the addition of Redmond as "this year's Nick Holden", the guy nobody has really heard much about coming in and not only making the team out of camp, but thriving. Redmond, age 26, has exhausted his prospect clock and will struggle to find a better opportunity on a quality team so this camp only serves to set him up for the rest of his career.
Should Redmond thrive and push the aforementioned Elliott and Guenin out of the lineup, it will give the Avalanche 5 defensemen at least 6'2" and 200 pounds and will allow the Avalanche to ice 4 offensively-inclined defenseman on various power play units. That kind of versatility and depth is something the team has sorely lacked in recent years. Should Redmond struggle to elevate his game to the expected level, his career will likely continue to play out in the AHL.
I'll allow a few seconds for many of you to stop swearing, groaning, throwing objects, or slamming fists on your desks. I know...but we still have to talk about it. The much-maligned Berra and his completely inexplicable contract extension have drawn a significant amount of ire from mostly everybody, save the "small sample size" and "WELL WE'LL JUST HAVE TO WAIT AND SEE, WON'T WE?" soothsayers. Berra's professional career on North American ice has been nothing short of a nightmare, with unsightly NHL numbers that I'd rather not repeat here for fear that children might be reading this. Suffice to say that Berra's age-25 season in the Swiss-A league where he posted a .906 save percentage would be a significant upgrade over what he's done in the big leagues so far.
THAT SAID...it was only 31 games, 29 of which were behind the awful Calgary Flames. After spending a full month with Avs goalie coach (and hopefully miracle worker) Francois Allaire, there is reason for optimism because if anybody is going to turn around Berra's career, it might as well be one of the top 2 goaltending coaches in the NHL (Mitch Korn being the other, obviously). Berra only needs to toss up a .913 save percentage to equal Jiggy's solid-but-unspectacular backup work last season so it's not as if there's an impossible bar to clear here.
With an expected regression from Vezina-finalist Semyon Varlamov, it's easy to say that this is Reto Berra's most important training camp and regular season (I'm assuming he won't start a playoff game for the sake of my own sanity). He will have some competition from youngsters Sami Aitokallio and Calvin Pickard, both of whom have shown flashes of being potential NHL backups themselves one day, so it's not as if the job is just being given to him (right? RIGHT???). Berra will have to show a pretty big improvement over what he showed in an Avs uniform last year (this...will not be difficult) but you can bet an awful lot of eyes will be on him as camp unfolds. If he gets lit up early and often, he may force the Avs to make a decision they weren't prepared to make.
Drafted with the St. Louis Blues' 11th overall pick in the 2011 Draft, Siemens has been slower to develop than expected (he is the highest drafted and one of only 10 of the 30 players picked from that 1st round yet to appear in the NHL) as injuries and some maturity issues have stunted some of his development cycle. While the maturity issues seem to have been worked out during his days at Saskatoon, the injuries that limited him to just 46 games last year probably cost him a legitimate shot at making the NHL roster this year (and potentially served as an impetus for renting Brad Stuart for a year).
That said, Siemens comes into this training camp as one of the team's top defensive prospects (Chris Bigras being the only guy ahead of him right now) and the team will hopefully take a much longer look at him than they did last year (I remember my roommate being particularly upset the day he was cut so for her sake let's not do that again, Avalanche). Should he perform up to his talent level, he just might force the Avalanche to keep him as their 8th defenseman, although getting him big minutes as a top pairing guy in the AHL would probably be better for his long-term outlook than sitting in the stands for weeks on end.
Siemens' playstyle fits the exact need of the Avs blueline as he's physical, mean, and still talented enough to not be overwhelmed by the concept of puck movement (lookin at you, Nate Guenin). He's a tremendous skater, especially in transition, and while he'll likely never score more than 10-15 points in a season, is still a talented enough passer that he could reliably be the Avs best left-handed defenseman by the end of the season. The potential is still very much there, especially for him to become Thunder to Barrie's/Johnson's Lightning. Besides, we've waited four years for a Siemens/Johnson pairing. A dominant training camp performance and we might finally realize The Dream.
Any day he spends out there on the ice will always be considered a victory, whether it be in the AHL or NHL. I don't feel I need to add anything to this.
Below are my two darkhorses who will probably make me look dumb when I look back on this in a few years.
A talented but undersized center who works really hard and has flashed plenty of offensive talent in the AHL, Street fits the Avalanche profile perfectly. While the 4th line is a mega competition between all the guys not looking like top 9 guys (this is great analysis, isn't it?), I think Street's game intrigues me the most. Personally, I'm done with the uber tough guy routine served by McLeod/Bordy because we finally have significantly more talented players to take their spots. We can either use our 4th line to "send a message" for 3-5 minutes every night or we can put players with actual talent on the ice out there and maybe put in some quality shifts that have the potential accomplish more than chewing up minutes.
Street is a guy who I think has the chance to impress this coaching staff because of the multi-faceted game he brings. As the Avs have gotten bigger and meaner all over the roster this summer (Iginla/Stuart/Briere are more physically imposing forces than the players they're replacing), you could do worse than taking a flier on a 4C who profiles as John Mitchell Lite and could easily be 4LW if you really love Jesse Winchester (this is the outcome I hope for).
(gulp) Bruno Gervais
I'll admit this: When we signed Gervais, I mostly waved it off as AHL filler and thought almost nothing of it. As camp has crept ever closer and I've been given plenty of time to over think things, I've become deathly afraid that the Avs annual tradition of doing something I think is dumb will continue when they decide to keep Gervais on the NHL roster. I was there watching Gervais all those years when he was floundering on terrible Islander teams. Sure, those teams had a lot of problems but one of them...was Bruno Gervais. He's not a good defenseman but he's right-handed and so is Nate Guenin so the Avs took a jello-at-the-wall approach when it came to bringing in some competition to overtake Guenin (Redmond, Elliott, Noreau, Gervais...how much do the Avs dislike that Guenin extension already my gosh).
Still, for an organization that occasionally values things other than "ABILITY TO PLAY HOCKEY" as the number one desirable trait, the veteran Gervais and lifelong best friend of Max Talbot would fit the team's mantra of adding "veteran leadership" to the roster as they gear up for a return trip to the playoffs. The flaw in this plan is that should Gervais see significant playing time, he might have a hand in either preventing the Avs from making the playoffs or certainly advancing in them. Should he have a steady, veteranny leadershippy type of training camp and all the younger, more talented prospects ahead of him falter, I could absolutely see the Avalanche bringing upon doomsday when they announce Bruno Gervais as one of the men to make the opening night roster.
Guh. The more I think about it the more I talk myself into this totally happening. Please, Avalanche. Don't do this to us.
Part Five of the Training Camp preview comes tomorrow morning as the MHH Staff picks a handful of guys from a couple different categories to watch for one reason or another. It shall be glorious and not at all embarrassing.