For the past week the Avalanche prospects have gone through coaching, drills and the first ever Rookie Showcase while also serving as the test case for the organization’s change in coaching and strategies. Subjectively they have looked good on the ice and shown improvement as the days went by, objectively they won both games they played last weekend and the Showcase title overall. We’ll see the effects of the new staff tomorrow when main training camp opens and the prospects work side-by-side with their more experienced peers.
The Avs prospects reported to camp last Thursday for physicals and later a long coaching session outlining strategies, which drills would be implemented for on-ice practice and how they were to be run. The following morning they hit the ice with new San Antonio Rampage coach Eric Veilleux and immediately changes from previous camps were apparent. Speed and competitiveness in every aspect were emphasized. It was tough, the players mentioned it was as difficult a practice as they had ever been involved in, and the coaches had a lot to cover in a short period of time. Not only were they implementing a brand new system but they were preparing for two real games over the weekend in just a couple of hours on the ice.
The Rookie Showcase
Craig Billington mentioned that the idea for the Showcase had been around for a couple of years and started coming together last fall with the development staffs of the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks. It says a lot about Joe Sakic and the Avs organization that they were the team hosting it without ever having attended one much less organizing an event like this.
The format was three games in three days, each team playing the other two, with the Avs getting the spots on Saturday & Sunday. The good guys overpowered a less experienced Sharks club in the first game 4-1 with goals from Bigras, Greer, Compher and Zadorov. The Ducks had a bigger and older roster but the Avs came through 3-2 with goals from Nicolas Meloche, Gustav Olhaver and Chris Bigras once again. Spencer Martin started both games and went the distance in Sunday’s game, winning both and giving up only 2 goals in 90 minutes.
The exploits of the guys with NHL experience are well documented, I wanted to record the info of our amateur prospects and some others that probably won’t make headlines once main camp begins. The future if you will. I enlisted the help of some folks who attended the event and have a good eye for the complete game, our managing editor here at MHH, Ryan Murphy, and contributor here and at the Talking the Avs podcast, Jackie a.k.a. tigervixxxen
Nicolas Meloche & Jean-Christophe Beaudin - How did they stack up against the younger pros with an eye towards next year?
Ryan: Meloche and Beaudin, of all the junior invites, probably got the best opportunities. Meloche started Saturday on a pairing with Chris Bigras and those two played plenty of very effective minutes. Beaudin also started the game on a line with Mikko Rantanen and AJ Greer. How did they do? Well, first and most importantly, they didn't look out of place among the organization's top prospects.
Beaudin skated well, made crisp passes, and contributed to the best o-zone cycling fans would see during the event. When I watch him play, I see a versatile player that doesn't have any clear deficiencies to his game. Guys like that can make the NHL with the right amount of determination. I'm looking forward to seeing if can assert himself as a scorer in his overage year in the Q, because I'd love to see him get a shot at a pro contract.
Meloche? Watching him next to the near-impeccable Bigras makes you realize how much development occurs in just three years. Meloche has a lot of qualities you look for in a young defenseman: he's naturally big, skates with his head up, and seems to have good positional awareness. He's just not on the same level in skating abilty, reaction speed, or offensive prowess—and that's ok! No one is expecting him to outplay a guy who spent time on Colorado's top pairing last season. He hung in there and they shut down every shark prospect who climbed over the boards.
Jackie: Meloche was paired with Bigras all weekend and they made quite a nice pair together. Meloche always displays good defensive acumen with good gap control and stick work, there really isn’t a question of if he can continue success in that area at a higher level. He can also be imposing physically without really having to land a big hit. The question for Meloche will be what his offensive game and upside will look like at the next level. On Saturday he struggled a bit with the puck at times but Sunday came back much calmer and poised handing the puck, moving and shooting well and was rewarded with the team’s first goal on Sunday off of a nice wrist shot on the power play. Knowing that Rampage coach Eric Veilleux was Meloche’s coach in his rookie year in Baie-Comeau, I wonder if there was anything communicated between the two or just that familiarity which lead to the improvement. Meloche was an overall standout for me on Sunday, showing how dominant he can truly be as an all-around defenseman with that top 4 upside if he can keep growing and refining his offensive game.
Beaudin played Saturday on the RW with Rantanen and Greer and then on Sunday he centered Olhaver and Houck. While it was good to see Beaudin back at center where he looks the best, having two lower skilled linemates wasn’t the best of situations. However, this line still got a good bulk of ice time and Beaudin was used quite a bit in defensive situations including taking the defensive zone draws when Anaheim had their net empty and the Avs protecting their one goal lead in the game Sunday. Beaudin also got in on the second PP unit in both games and was one of many forwards who took a turn on the PK. On Saturday, Beaudin did not look out of place with Rantanen but they hadn’t quite found their chemistry but both are smart players and it was clear they were seeing the game the same way. Rantanen did a lot the puck carrying and was forcing plays a bit but they seemed to mesh better toward the end of the game. Sunday at center Beaudin was able to generate a good amount of shots and was better at center controlling the play and using his keen vision so set others up, showing he is a player that can play with high or low skilled linemates. The contrasting roles for Beaudin were likely by design as he got a look with high skilled players at the wing position and then a heavy lifting spot at center.
It should also be noted that other than Beaudin spending the first game at RW, every other player slotted in the RW position over the two days were AHL contracts or tryouts.
Travis Barron and Josh Anderson (our 7th and 3rd round picks this summer) - What stood out? How did they look as far as fitting into the org?
Ryan: Both players stood out to me because of their size. In their draft year, they're already big like their professional counterparts. Barron, in particular, I noticed being very effective on faceoffs, an area where I thought JT Compher struggled a bit, and seemed to play the role of "defensive center" rather well. Doesn't he have enough offensive upside to make it to the show? Who know at this stage, but you absolutely need guys like this in your system. Anderson got buddied up with Nikita Zadorov and looked a little tentative on the breakout. Cross-ice passes could have been smoother and had a harder time getting the puck up-ice than say, Meloche. Again, that development thing—it's amazing to see the differences in just a few short years.
Jackie: Barron was having a great camp until his injury late in the game on Sunday when he blocked a shot with his knee while killing the five minute boarding penalty Zadorov incurred. Especially for a recently drafted player who just turned 18, Barron fit in well with those several years older than him. Barron had great chemistry with Nantel and were able to cycle down low very well and use the boards to their advantage. He also wasn’t afraid to sneak in a big hit from time to him as he plays a pretty heavy game for someone not overly large in stature. Barron was far too willing to take a backseat and take on a complimentary role at times and the wonder is how ambitious offensively he is going to be at the next level. Barron is poised for a big role and year with Ottawa in the OHL and that should restore some offensive confidence that he can bring with him to camp next year. Hopefully the injury is as minor as it has been reported and Barron can show more in this year’s camp but if not, at least so he can hit the ground running with Ottawa and continue building on with the strong preseason he was enjoying.
Anderson had a quiet camp and game, which is not always bad for a defensive defenseman. His shot is better than advertised and his mobility isn’t as bad as many fear. There are legitimate questions about puck skill however and Anderson seems ticketed for a bottom pairing role. Unfortunately for him there are several defensemen in the organization holding those spots at least at the AHL level so it will be interesting to see where he fits into future plans in that regard.
Shawn St Amant & Cole Sanford (our young AHL signings this year) - How did they fare and what roles are they looking for in San Antonio?
Ryan: Not being very vertically gifted, myself, I root for guys like Sanford, but he's going to have a hard time when a similarly-sized player like Troy Bourke is just so much more effective every time he steps on the ice. Height isn't the only physical advantage you can have as an athlete, but you have to make up for it in other areas. I didn't see it. St. Amant on the other hand looked like a guy trying out for a team. Threw his size around and made a lot of plays in the corners. Maybe we don't see him in the AHL right away, but he could be fun to watch with the Colorado Eagles this winter, and I think he has the wherewithal to make the jump to San Antonio at some point.
Jackie: St-Amant got a great look in the showcase on the RW with Compher in both games. It was easy to see the direction the organization wants his role headed, and that is a mainstay defensive player not unlike the same vein fellow former Foreur Henley is seen in. St-Amant did particularly well on the penalty kill but also meshed with the higher skilled players that he played with in Compher and Greer by making smart plays and getting the puck in their hands. There might not be a lot of offensive upside individually for St-Amant but he should help out the Rampage sooner than later.
Sanford wasn’t showcased as much as St-Amant and didn’t see the puck a whole lot on a line with Henley and Karlsson. His line ended up having their minutes cut at times. When Sanford did get the puck I was always waiting for him to shoot and show off that nice wrist shot but more often than not he looked to pass. Sanford was the only player in attendance at rookie camp who had not been at development camp or any other prior function with organization so he was definitely behind the curve as far as familiarity with the team and other players. If the idea is to develop Sanford into an offensive weapon for the Rampage he probably will need to work his way up through the ranks, probably beginning in Colorado with the Eagles.
Anyone else stand out, god, bad or further along than you expected?
Jackie: Nantel was definitely a standout both days in the Rookie Showcase. He’s been remarkably consistent since day one of development camp on through the games this weekend. He’s always making something happen with the puck and is really good at using his speed when the other team isn’t expecting it. He’s a hound on the forecheck and always seems to try and make something happen in the offensive zone. Nantel made a great pair with Henley as the first duo of forwards out on the PK and was rewarded with some extra time on a regular line with Henley as well. Nantel looks ready for pro and ready to take the next step after a very nice junior career. Sergei Boikov also looked poised and ready to take on the pro game. He displayed a smooth yet physical and aggressive game while also not taking too many risks that lead to mistakes. He was paired with Zadorov on Sunday and did not look out of place.
Other guys with pro experience such as Henley, Bourke and Martin had good weekends as well. Maybe it was a bit expected that their experience would shine through but still it was good to see them deliver in a real game setting. Henley’s skating looked much quicker and he seems to really relish leading and setting an example for the younger guys. Bourke had a lot of energy and tenacity with some improved confidence. Martin was very solid in both games while only letting in two goals he didn’t have any chance at all on.
Corbett had the toughest time of the group, which is particularly disappointing because he is one of the oldest and with quite a bit of pro experience. It is hard to see some of the younger players improving and even passing him in these camps. His confidence seems low and he has a tough time with the puck and didn’t make a great pair with Geertsen, who at times seems to try and make his mark by being the big guy on the ice and not through his defense. Corbett however did get two assists on Sunday and still displays one of the better natural puck moving abilities of the group of bottom pairing defensemen in the organization.
Aside from the players, the Rookie Showcase itself needs a good look. I haven’t heard anyone say it was anything but a rousing success and a great idea that’s been needed for a long time. As a fan from far away I want to see this be successful and grow, perhaps next time the Avs see the benefits to streaming it from their site like other clubs do. I asked Ryan and Jackie about their impressions of the event:
Ryan: I'm confident no attendee could describe the Rookie Showcase as anything but wildly successful. The Westminster Promenade was the perfect venue for the event, featuring plenty of parking and a great deal of surrounding cemented walkways on which the Avalanche staff set up puck-shooting stations, blow-up rides, and a dozen food and merchandise vendors to keep everyone eating, buying hats and jerseys, and goofing around until puck-drop. The entire area was absolutely crawling with miniature hockey players and they all looked like they were having a blast.
How was it for curmudgeonly adult-ish people such as myself? Pretty great too! Though I was terrified, even after arriving an hour early, upon seeing the line around the block that I wouldn't get in. Fortunately the venue provided plenty of bleacher space—far more than exists at Family Sports Center—and it's right on top of the ice. Easily the best sightlines of high-quality hockey I've ever experienced, and that's including some very expensive seats at the Pepsi Center. Joe Sakic, Adam Foote, and Craig Billington were cruising around between periods, as well as new coach Jared Bednar. For years we've been screaming for greater fan outreach and everything exceeded my expectations.
I'm sure the Avalanche will need to reciprocate in Anaheim or San Jose next year. Can't wait until they get to host again.
Jackie: The Rookie Showcase went about as well as one could have hoped for. I would have enjoyed it regardless but the way it was set up worked out very well. The venue was just about the right size and packed but not to where anyone couldn’t get in and find a good seat. Plus, having the Westin hotel basically on-site must have been a nice perk for the Sharks and Ducks organizations. It was so neat to see all the prospects in full Avs gear and all playing together against a different color jersey and common enemy. There were added fun touches like the Avs goal song and even some of the typical music that’s played at the Pepsi Center during power plays, penalty kills and just after the opponent scores. The game set up, physicality and pace was incredible. It was advertised as going to be the full game experience but you never know until the puck drops. The Avs should get a lot of evaluation and analysis out of the experience and it is a really big step that they took to ensure their prospects get to play in this type of high competition environment against their peers. The sheer number of scouts in attendance should also be a nod to how serious of a competition the games were.
There wasn’t much I was disappointed with. Having to stand in line and get wristbands turned out to be an excessive step but understandable with the Avs not knowing how many people would show up and how to control the crowd. I’ve also long wished that the Avs would consider a type of fan fest to bring fans more interaction with the players because those connections really help grow a fanbase. With the close quarters of the venue and relatively intimate audience for this event plus the fact that there were not many marquee names in attendance, it’s too bad that the Avs don’t see these types of events as opportunities to market the brand to an already interested audience with a little extra thought and effort. As far as from a game standpoint I don’t think there is much improvement to be made, it was as close to the real thing as it can get in September. It’s too bad that it sounds like the Showcase won’t be back in Colorado for several years but it’s only fair for each organization have their turn at hosting and I’ll certainly be back when it returns.
Yours truly: From my perspective it was also a great success. I’ve been skeptical in the past about rookie tournaments but this allayed my fears of wasted time and missed practices. That might change a bit with travel time to California involved but what the players themselves have said about playing their peers in a competitive situation really hit home. This seems like an really good way to prepare the youngsters for the battles in main camp. Playing revisionist historian here for a minute, it looks like whatever Dean Chynoweth did in the past absolutely did not get the prospects ready to compete for NHL roster spots or worse, didn’t inspire the confidence from the NHL staff to call these guys up mid-season. That’s bad for everyone.
The Avs prospects returned to the Family Sports Center on Monday for the scheduled end of Rookie Camp but logically it didn’t end there and they’ve had sessions the past two days. I like this because it gets the usual 4 days of drills and coaching with the Showcase as a bonus. These kids are going to be all set for Friday’s 59-player mayhem on the Main Training Camp ice.
Highs and Lows
Starting with the positive, it was really good to see the more experienced players like Bigras, Mikko and Big Z (to an extent) have good showings so far. Also 3rd year pros like Sam Henley and Troy Bourke have done well and are in position to be leaders in San Antonio and compete for callups. JT Compher and AJ Greer lead a new crop of prospects that could be ready for a callup sooner rather than later.
The downside starts with injuries. It would be nice if there would be none but realistically that doesn’t happen. Mikko Rantanen was set to challenge for an NHL spot and perhaps even in the Avs top-6. That’s on hold while he recovers from an ankle injury sustained in the 1st Rookie Showcase game, timetable is 2-4 weeks per the Avs. Also prospect Travis Barron injured his knee blocking a shot in the 2nd game and the team hasn’t given any guidance on a return date. I’m going to throw Nikita Zadorov’s boarding penalty and ejection in the 2nd game in here too. Maybe it was a freak thing, maybe not. He had some very careless incidents in San Antonio last year and it’s just not something you want to see more of.
The Avalanche have done a bang-up job getting interviews with all the signed or drafted prospects up on the website as well as highlights from the Rookie Showcase games. Even though he’s a bit of a dry speaker I found Assistant GM Craig Billington’s interviews some of the best of the bunch, and definitely the most informative. Check out his spots from Friday, Saturday, Sunday & Monday. Think of your favorite prospect and there’s video on him there too.
Just for posterity I wanted to put up the rosters and scoresheets from the Showcase but they’ve been lost temporarily while the Avs are reconfiguring their site. Such is life.
If you’re looking for audio, AJ & JJ focused on the rookies in their latest BSN Avalanche Podcast. Our good friends Robin, Evan and Jackie recapped the youngsters in their latest episode of Talking the Avs.
Minus Filip Karlsson who’s back with Rogle in Sweden and Chase Marchand who’s back at St Francis Xavier University, the remaining 23 prospects move on to main training camp tomorrow, joining 33 NHL vets, AHL vets, older prospects plus a few Pro Try-outs on the pre-season roster. Instead of being the focus they’re going to be underdogs competing for attention with more experienced players. Perhaps foolishly, I always gave the young Avs prospects a good chance to compete for jobs and playing time with the vets in past camps. Looking back, that wasn’t the case. The talent wasn’t really there of course, but the major flaw was the preparation and the disconnect between what was coached into the youngsters and how versus what the NHL staff was looking for.
As fans and observers we still don’t really know how Jared Bednar will run his training camp or what he expects from youngsters to get a shot at NHL time. We also don’t know if what new Rampage coach and Rookie Camp head honcho Eric Veilleux taught in the last week is totally in line with Bednar’s philosophy, although it’s a pretty good guess that it is. Bednar was seen overlooking the ice during practices at FSS and at the Showcase games and seemed pleased with what he saw. I want to believe that the organization is all on the same page, more importantly the right page, but it’s smart to be cautious. The next 23 days will tell us much and the real test starts on October 15th when the Avs and Rampage begin the regular season. Who is playing where on that day and in which role will be the ultimate indicator of how effective this past week has been.
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I’d like to thank Ryan and Jackie for their help here. Covering prospects from a distance is a situation that everyone deals with but the Showcase was something that really needed a boots-on-the-ground perspective. I’m indebted to both for their thoughts and especially their time.