On Tuesday night I donned my blue "Cleveland" jersey, grabbed a notebook, and caught a bus down to Rosemont, Illinois to watch the visiting Monsters take on the Chicago Wolves. I catch a decent handful of Monster's games every year, but not enough to speak to the season long play of anyone in Lake Erie. If you want that kind of insight, Earl06 and the always awesome From the Monsters Desk is the place for you. The disclaimer here then, is that this a completely isolated, one game scouting effort specifically of the Monsters defensive group (I barely watched the forwards). So with that said, here's what we're going to look at: Defensive coaching, pairings, player usage and minutes, and of course on-ice performance.
Unfortunately the AHL doesn't track Time on Ice for us, but since that's such an important piece of measuring a defenseman's role, I decided to improvise. Here's my best attempt at a "Shift Count" for the Monster's defensemen on Tuesday night. A few caveats; shift counts are an imperfect measurement here because some players take much longer shifts than others. Specifically the Mat Clark and Ben Youds pairing regularly played marathon shifts and or double shifted over whistles. Sometimes it's difficult to decide whether or not to count those post-timeout or post-whistle shifts as a continuation of the first shift or a distinct second one, so bear in mind these numbers aren't perfect. I'm not listing Marcus Lauridsen here because he barely played and when he did, it was as a forward. I'm also not listing Cody Corbett because I didn't see him play a shift through the first 55 minutes of the game. Last caveat, I left the game with just under 4:00 remaining because I had to catch my bus, so the shift counter only goes that far.
Pairings, Minutes, and Usage:
|Player||1st Period||2nd Period||3rd Period||Total|
In this carousel of too many defenseman, Dean Chynoweth went with the following.
Clark - Youds ____ Siemens - Elliott ____ Bigras/Geertsen - Gervais
Youds - Elliott ____ Bigras/Gervais - Elliott
Clark - Gervais ____ Siemens - Elliott
Player usage in this game was a big, big mess. There's nothing inherently wrong with Chynoweth's pairings, with rotating the rookies Bigras and Geertsen, or with giving Youds and Clark the most ice time (those two were extremely effective). The problem was coach Dean's double, triple, and quadruple shifting of the players he trusts most to the point where they were visibly tired and ineffective. That side of this game was extremely frustrating to watch. Chynoweth shorted his team once by dressing so many defensemen, then he shorted them again by sitting so many defensemen on the bench while playing his favorite pairing in so many minutes you'd think he only had four to work with. That's shooting your team in the foot 101.
To Chynoweth's credit, Chris Bigras seemed to earn more trust from the coaching staff as the game went on, taking power play and even strength shifts with Stefan Elliott as his partner in the latter half of the contest. The double edged sword of course though, is that Bigras' increasing ice time at even strength came at the expense of Duncan Siemens and Mason Geertsen, while Mat Clark and Ben Youds continued to play almost half the game. That's "ok" for now, since Bigras and Geertsen are just starting to get their feet wet at this level, but by next season Lake Erie needs a solution for managing their defense that does not include the Avalanche's top prospects being shorted on ice time.
Stefan Elliott: Let's start with the guy who is without a doubt closest to the NHL. Plain and simple, Stefan Elliott has nothing left to learn at the AHL level. He was dominant offensively and the mistakes he made defensively are acceptable at both an AHL and NHL level because of what he brings in transition and in the offensive zone. We've all seen Elliott play at the NHL level and his best tools are the same in both places. He's a quick skater who's very effective moving north-south with the puck, he's a great passer with an eye for the O-zone, and his shot is absolutely wicked. On the power play, all of the Monster's players look to feed Stefan Elliott on the right point or pinching in from the right side, he's very good there at popping in and out of open space to give his teammates an outlet. Based on what I've seen of Elliott in the NHL and what I saw Tuesday night, he's a guy who needs a real opportunity in the NHL next season, even if it's as the 7th defenseman. There's just nothing left for Elliott to accomplish in the AHL.
Duncan Siemens: The much discussed and debated former 1st rounder for the Avalanche. Where to begin... All of the tools that were hyped up when Duncan Siemens was drafted in 2011 are on display in the AHL. He's a very smooth skater, especially in transition. He's got size he's not afraid to use it (that includes between the whistles), and he makes a decent first pass from his own zone. So what's the problem? Why isn't this guy in the NHL? Well... Nothing about Siemens screams "dominant" at the AHL level, and that's a big issue. He's a guy who's not bad and not great but with flashes of both and too often, he's a guy that's "just there."
Siemens started off the game with a bad defensive miscue in his own end which gave the Wolves a quick 2-0 lead. At another point in the game Siemens lost the puck in his own skates, froze, and surrendered a high quality scoring chance to the Wolves' oncoming forecheckers. That was kind of the theme all night for Siemens. A lot of solid but unspectacular play lowlighted by some troubling mistakes and lacking in "big plays" that scream "put me in the NHL." Siemens made lots of good passes from his own zone, but he often struggled when the forechecking pressure increased. He's not a big offensive presence, but he's talented enough with the puck to make some good plays to keep the puck in at the blue-line.
The biggest problem to me: Away from the play Siemens was content to wait for something to happen. A player his skill-set and ability playing at the AHL level should always be looking to MAKE things happen. That 2nd guy is the kind of player who shines and earns work in the NHL.
Chris Bigras: Boy oh boy was I excited to see Chris Bigras on the ice for warmups in this one. What a treat to show up and catch his first game of professional hockey. When Bigras jumped over the bench for the first time I got ready to wax poetic on twitter about his first shift and then? DISASTER. In the first 10 seconds of his professional career Bigras found out the hard way that hockey here is a lot faster than hockey in Owen Sound. Yannick Veillieux skated down the right wing and absolutely blew past the rookie dman before cutting in to the net untouched and scoring. Welcome to the big leagues Chris. On his next shift, Bigras, the guy ranked #1 in his draft year for skating, caught an edge and fell over backwards at center ice. That mistake almost gave the Wolves an odd man rush, but the Chicago forward bobbled a pass and gave Bigras time to regain his feet and catch up to the play. After watching Bigras dominate some of the Avalanche's best players in skating drills at camp two years ago, I was obviously surprised to watch him make two big skating rooted errors so quickly. Lucky for us? It was all nerves.
Bigras came out for his third shift and made one basic defensive play to squeeze his man off the puck along the boards and all of a sudden he was a different player. His skating is an absolute joy to watch. He's smooth and efficient in every movement down to the smallest adjustment, and the result is a player who's a lot harder to disrupt than his size would suggest. Bigras' superior skating helps him recover from occasional positioning errors, but that's a bit of double edged sword because in the even faster NHL he'll have even less room to recover. The place where Bigras' game really stood out, however, was his ability to make an outlet pass. He sees the game so well from that part of the ice and makes creative tape-to-tape passes from his own zone, to be honest, I can't think of one time in the game where he had the puck in his own zone and didn't get it out with possession. As the game wore on Bigras got opportunities on the power play and at even strength with Stefan Elliott and he showed more in the offensive zone that I personally expected. He's never going to be a 50 point offensive stud like Tyson Barrie, but he made some very savvy pinches to extend offensive possessions for the Monsters without exposing his partner to undue risk defensively.
Mason Geertsen: It's a little hard to evaluate how Mason Geertsen is really translating to the AHL because his shifts were so few and far between, and his play-style is meant for big tough minutes. That said... none of the Avalanche's defensive prospects impressed me more than Mason Geertsen did on Tuesday night. The first thing you notice about Geertsen, even at an AHL level playing against men, is his size. He's a towering defenseman who skates really well and is almost impossible to knock off his skates. Estimating from my game notes, I would say that when Geertsen was on the ice, the Monster's spent about 80% of the time in the offensive or neutral zone. I never once caught him trapped in his own zone for an extended shift because when they were in the defensive zone Geertsen would aggressively take the puck, make it his own, and make a simple but effective breakout pass up ice. This guy, unlike so many "defensive defensemen" never looks to punt the puck first, and that's awesome.
Geertsen showed every tool in his toolbox on Tuesday night. He skated well, he was strong positionally, and he did a great job with his gap control (something I imagine is tricky when you sit on the bench so much and lose the speed of the game). Twice on Tuesday night Geertsen lined up MASSIVE open ice body checks that made Wolves' fans boo and call for penalties and made me swoon in my seat. When trouble came looking for him after the whistle Geertsen didn't cause problems for his team by taking a bad penalty, but he didn't back down either. His puck skills are decent (he's got a hard shot) and at one point in the second period he made a sweet little deke while breaking the puck out through the neutral zone, the move spun his forechecker around and gave Geertsen a wide open lane to advance the puck. Beautiful. Here's the thing about Geertsen though that really struck me. You watch this guy play this past year in the WHL and now in the AHL and you can tell that he is used to dominating games and that he expects himself to be involved and make a difference. When Geertsen is away from the play his head is on a swivel and he is constantly adjusting and working to preempt the play in front of him. It's the exact thing that was lacking in Duncan Siemens' game to my eye. Waiting, watching and reacting, vs constantly looking for opportunities to dominate the play. Geertsen clearly has a great mind for the game and that's a really important tool for moving to the next level. The next step for Geertsen is to show that he can play like that in an increased role in the AHL with bigger minutes and penalty killing.
Mat Clark and Ben Youds: These guys were both solid AHL acquisitions for the Avalanche. Clark can play big minutes and while he contributes almost nothing offensively he's not a possession sinkhole like Gervais. Youds meanwhile is Stefan Elliott-lite for the Monsters and had a number of really impressive moments in Tuesday nights game. These are the kinds of solid AHL players, with very limited NHL upside, who are important for the health of your organization and the Avs did well to flip some expiring assets for them.