Fans of an NHL team have only the most tenuous ties to their ECHL affiliate, if they even have one. Usually they harbor a marginal prospect or two and play games far away in both physical distance and relevance to the big club. For the Avs that changed this season with an affiliation with their long time neighbors in Northern Colorado, the Eagles. Thanks to another appallingly unsuccessful AHL campaign under development guru Craig Billington the Eagles had access to several promising prospects in the Avs system along with the fine team that Chris Stewart and the Eagles staff put together over the season.
Even then it’s still hard to care, but it shouldn’t be. Sure, the Eagles don’t play on (free and easily accessible) TV and when all is said and done they’re 2nd-tier minor league but they’ve got something special this year and it’s worth looking into.
Since this is an Avs site and you, dear reader, care most about the guys that have a future in the organization, I’m going to reintroduce you to these fellows and show what they’ve done to bring the Eagles all the way to the championship round.
Julien Nantel was drafted by the Avs in the 7th round in 2014 out of Rouyn-Noranda of the QMJHL. Last year he ended his season playing in the Memorial Cup with J-C Beaudin and AJ Greer. This year he’s among the top-3 ECHL rookies in the playoffs with 7 goals and 13 points. Three of his goals have been game-winners, including one in triple OT, good for 2nd on the team.
Sergei Boikov grew up in Russia but decided North American hockey was the way to go and moved to Drummondville, QC to play juniors. After 2 years the Avs drafted him in the 6th round. He turned pro this year and really took off. His 2G/6A in 16 games give him the highest scoring rate he’s enjoyed at any level and he’s still playing solid defensively and on the PK.
Mason Geertsen was drafted by the Avs in 2013 in the middle of a WHL career with Edmonton and Vancouver. Along with Boikov he fits perfectly into the Eagles defense that emphasizes size and mobility with all the regular Ds save Jake Marto over 6’2. Even though offense isn’t his specialty he’s been putting a point up every 4 games.
Just 2 months younger than Nantel, Shawn St-Amant is the youngest player on the team and like Nantel he has played for and lost in the Memorial Cup championship game. The two are quite similar. St-Amant was undrafted and earned a spot with the Rampage after going through various Avs camps. He spent a little less than half the regular season with the Eagles but came on strong at the end of the year in San Antonio. He’s a shot-generating machine, 2nd on the team in SOG/game for forwards at a little over 4.25. I’m looking for him to be offered an ELC by the Avs, if they don’t someone will.
At 25 years old, Alex Belzile is more vet than prospect and he’s definitely an ECHL ace. After a QMJHL career in Rimouski he’s bounced between the Coast and the A with a Kelly Cup and a lifetime 1+ pts/gm rate to his credit. This year he has 14G/12A/26pts in 16 games, more than half of those at even strength. He is definitely a big key to the Eagles success.
Along with those 5, Rampage contracted players Sam Jardine (D), Kent Simpson (G) and Avs training camp invitee Jackson Houck (F) have all seen action when needed.
Goals For: 65 (3.61/gm, 1st in ECHL)
Goals Against: 52 (2.89/gm, 8th in ECHL)
For comparison, South Carolina is 9th in GF (2.95) and 3rd in GA (2.40)
Shots For: 566 (31.44/gm, 7th in ECHL)
Shots Against: 479 (26.61, 1st in ECHL)
For comparison SC is 5th in SF (32.25) and 6th in SA (29.60)
Power Play: 22.5%, 5th
Penalty Kill: 80.3%, 9th
Minor penalties per game: 4.28
For comparison SC is 9th in PP 16.3% and 4th in PK at 86.3%, they take lots of penalties tho’, 6.8 per game.
Special Teams aggregate: 102.8
It’s so fun looking at numbers like this, the Eagles play so differently than the Avs & Rampage. They are possession monsters and suppress the living daylights out of the opponent. Goaltending is by far their biggest weakness and it hasn’t mattered. One could say that a 5-0 record in overtime is lucky to a point but that’s about the only anomaly, they’re beating teams consistently because they’re playing better hockey. They have the best defensive corps in the league from what I’ve seen and it allows them to dominate. Their top-3 scorers from the regular season (Zabotel, Garbowski, Salazar - all over a pt/gm) have nowhere near the production in the post-season, plus they lost Jesse Mychan and Josh Nicholls (also over a pt/gm) to Europe midway through the year. Adding Belzile/Nantel/St-Amant helps offset that but the way they play defensively sets up everything. It’s glorious.
/ / / / / /
The Eagles have a 2-0 series lead thanks to a couple of 3-2 victories over the holiday weekend. Two more and they’re ECHL Champs, which could happen as soon as next Monday.
The upside to this as an Avs fan is that 3 or possibly 4 prospects are playing meaningful games into the month of June while their organizational brethren have been golfing for a month and a half already. Say what you want about the talent level of the competition, playing 20+ games under playoff pressure every night will pay benefits. Everyone plays new roles as playoff runs evolve, having the success the Eagles have had so far is going to stick with these players for a while. The downside is that there isn’t much organizational “trickle-up” effect from the ECHL, but we can hope.
With any luck, Colorado won’t be playing at the Bud Center again but if they do I highly recommend catching a game if you’re in the area. While they are in South Carolina, 10 bucks gets you one playoff game on ECHL Live. Live a little.