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An Insider's Perspective: AJ Haefele Part 2

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Welcome back for the second set of questions that the one and only AJ answered for us! This set is more Avs-centric. Let's see what he had to say!

Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports
Hey guys.  Sorry this is a bit late, but those of you who know me know how busy I am right now.  This is truly the last article of this series, so thank you all for the support and praise.  I'll be more than happy to bring this back next year.  This one is a doosey, so let's get to it!  Huge thanks to AJ Haefele of BSN for answering these questions for us.

What were your overall impressions of the Avs off-season?
Overall, I liked it. I thought they made solid, safe moves that will help the team in this sort of transitional period they are in right now. I thought the Avs did a great job with the O'Reilly trade, with their follow up of trading the 31st pick for 2 second rounders and a 6th being an extra cherry on top. That's great asset management. I loved their work on draft day (I'm an enormous Nicolas Meloche fan) and think the Mironov pick could be the real sleeper pick of the entire draft. If nothing else, it shows the Avs are taking the draft seriously and even willing to approach it from an out-of-the-box angle. 

I have a slightly irrational like for Carl Soderberg so I'm really excited to see him in Denver. His numbers weren't that great but neither were the players he was playing with. He's going to get every opportunity to be a 60-point player in Colorado and I think he could do it if everything goes his way. His presence on the PP is also something I think is going to be extremely positive. His ability to camp out and effectively play in front of the crease should help the Avs get back into the top 10 in PP scoring. 

They did an excellent job building up the farm system and their AHL team should finally be competitive this time around. There are still issues to be figured out, like who takes the tough defensive assignments, MacKinnon's position, and where all the new guys find their grooves but overall I love the upgrades made. No matter how you look at it, a Beauchemin-Johnson Zadorov-Barrie top 4 is better than anything the Avs ran out last season. It's a step in the right direction and it allows the team to be more competitive this season while still buying time for the glut of defensive prospects to continue developing.

The Avs have made some coaching changes over the off-season.  They parted ways with Andre Torigny and Mario Duhamel.  Tim Army was named an Assistant Coach, Mark Farrish was named the other Assistant coach and Brett Heimlich was hired to replace Army as the Video Coordinator.  What types of impacts do you expect these coaches to have?
Without actually getting to see practices and talk to some of the personnel about it, I really can't give an educated answer to this question. From what I know about them, I'm most excited about Heimlich because of his long history as a video coach and the Avs have just been rotating randoms in there for years. Now they went outside of their little bubble and got a guy with experience in the position he's been hired into and I'm excited to see what kind of difference it makes in game prep. 

Who is coming to training camp with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove?
This has to start Mikhail Grigorenko. Buffalo jerked him around for three years and then put the onus on him to deal with the consequences. Colorado's gain, honestly, because this kid's skill level is ridiculous. He flirted with the KHL before being dealt to Colorado and then he signed a contract that told everyone paying attention that he was good and pissed off and ready to roll. I have no doubt Zadorov turns into at worst a good NHL defenseman so I think Grigorenko is where the Avs are going to extract their over-the-top value in the deal. He has special talent, he has all the motivation imaginable, and he has the right coach in place to get his career turned around in a big way.

The other two guys who I think should come into camp angry are Duncan Siemens and Joey Hishon. Siemens looked good in his 1 NHL game last year and Colorado looks set to go to battle with mostly the same defense as last year and a lot of the attention in the organization has turned to Chris Bigras, who looks to be a star in the making, leaving Siemens kind of stuck in an awkward in-between spot where he's experienced and ready-ish for the NHL but has too many bodies that are coach favorites to jump. Siemens needs to come into camp and make smart decisions with the puck while playing the kind of physical defense he has shown he's capable of playing.

Hishon displayed a wide array of abilities in his NHL stint last year and his defensive ability means he should absolutely be given a long look at training camp. The Avs went out and picked up a Roy favorite in Grigorenko, signed Comeau to bolster the bottom 6, and still have enough holdovers from last year that it would also appear Hishon is set to be the victim of a numbers game just when his game was finding a rhythm in the NHL. If he's able to display the skill and defensive acumen he showed at the end of last year, Hishon still likely won't make the team but he should take the confidence to the AHL and dominate like he did at the end of the year last year. If he does that, he positions himself to be the first forward call-up. Both Siemens and Hishon just need to keep working hard, focus on what they were given in their exit interviews last year, and allow their talent to take over. If both do that, they will be permanent NHLers sooner than later.

Who are you most intrigued about watching at training camp and why?
It sounds funny but I'm most excited to see how Colorado's bottom 6 shakes out. The top 6 is loaded with a silly amount of talent and the Avs have consistently struggled to win games in recent years when their stars weren't carrying the load and I think the team finally has the kind of depth at the start of the season that can be a difference maker night in and night out. The addition of the solid but unspectacular Blake Comeau is a downgrade in offensive ability from Jamie McGinn but I think he's going to be a good player on the PK and a solid enough player all around to justify his contract and help the team quite a bit. The return to health of Jesse Winchester and Dennis Everberg is an important development because that's going to push some of the borderline players down the roster totem pole a bit. If Mikko Rantanen manages to make the NHL roster out of camp, there's even more reason to be excited about the bottom 6 because an opening night third line of Comeau-Grigorenko-Rantanen would be an awful intriguing group to go to battle with.

The other big training camp "battle" that has me pumped up is the young guys like Bigras and Siemens pushing for time on the Avs 3rd pairing right out of the gate. Patrick Roy has stated he doesn't intend to miss the playoffs again and if his roster decisions jive with that mentality, then at least one of Nate Guenin, Nick Holden, or Brad Stuart does not make the opening night roster. If they don't, it will likely be one of the two kids who pushes them out. 

Do you think we see any surprise cuts this year?  If so, who and why?
Every year at least one guy makes the team that nobody really sees coming. It's easy to look at Andreas Martinsen, who at 25 is older than most of the younger guys who come over from Europe, and think that if he plays an effective hair-on-fire style with skill and physicality, then Patrick Bordeleau's roster spot would appear to be in serious jeopardy. If reports Winchester are healthy turn out to be true, Marc-Andre Cliche's job is also going to be very much up for grabs. Sakic and Roy didn't spend so much of their summer beefing up the top of their AHL forward corps and bottom of their NHL forward corps just to watch the same bad players chew up all the minutes if everyone was healthy.

Guys like Hishon and Siemens, as mentioned above, should be knocking on the NHL door all season and Freddie Hamilton and Stefan Elliott are the kind of very good AHL players (I'm buying Hamilton's stock this year) that should help push the real prospects to stay focused and keep at it. With the talent those guys have, you just never know. I think Nate Guenin and Zach Redmond should be real nervous going into training camp this year because they have a ton of competition behind them dying to take their job. I expect Roy to lean towards his familiarity with "his guys" but as Dennis Everberg showed last year, if you go in with a good attitude and get after it everyday, you can win Roy over.

The Central Division has had an interesting off-season.  Some teams got better, some teams think they got better but didn't fix glaring holes (looking at you Dallas), some teams got worse, and some teams may get even worse pending investigation.  Where do you see the Avs ending up, and do you think it will be good enough to make the playoffs?
I think it's going to come down to goaltending to determine the division hierarchy. If Minnesota gets last year's Dubnyk, they'll be fine. If they get .916 goaltending from both of their guys, they could be in real trouble. Dallas decided to go with two mediocre starters to fix their issues and it could certainly work. If Winnipeg gets another good year from Pavelec, they could be too good defensively to keep from the postseason. Every team seems to have the same question marks in goal. Colorado has an elite netminder (at least in my eyes) but their backup situation is as shaky anybody else has. Reto Berra finished strong but was otherwise a trainwreck and there's very little reason to believe Calvin Pickard is going to provide .932 goaltending again (mainly he's not Carey Price or in-his-prime Dominik Hasek). I'm going to cheat avoid placing the Avs anywhere specific but say that I think goaltending will be the big deciding factor in the Central Division this year. The teams are just too good and too close together.


Last but not least, what has you most excited for this season?
Nikita Zadorov. The Avs haven't had a player that size, that young, and that skilled along the blue line....maybe ever? He's such a special combination of size and talent that 2 years from now Erik Johnson might not be this team's clear-cut best defender anymore. I advocated for the Avs to center an O'Reilly deal around Zadorov going as far back as last year and when they did it, it certainly didn't hurt my excitement for him as a player. Zadorov could be a special, franchise-changing blueliner for Colorado if he reaches his absurd potential. I don't really care if Colorado makes the playoffs this year or not but I expect Zadorov to be a significantly improved player come March than the one we will see at training camp. He's the linchpin for them not only this season but moving forward. Colorado has to have gotten it right with Zadorov.