When the Colorado Avalanche wrapped up their 2017-18 NHL season, they had two playoff teams - the NHL club and their ECHL affiliate in Loveland an hour north - and an AHL affiliate in San Antonio that finished underwhelmingly down at the bottom of the Central Division regular season standings.
Luckily, that mean that both of the AHL goaltenders were available to help the Avalanche in their playoff run - since Semyon Varlamov wasn’t available at all in the first round, and Jonathan Bernier went down as well.
Heading into next season, the Avalanche took that cautionary tale to heart. They’ve brought back two of their current depth options, added a more healthy NHL goaltender as a number two, and then picked up a promising overseas rookie to solidify their minor league depth for the year.
Last week, I looked at what their depth chart looked like at the NHL level. Now, here’s a look at the three minor league options on NHL deals*, as well:
*Spencer Martin, while still unsigned for the 2018-19 season, was qualified by the Avalanche and is expected to be back on a deal by training camp.
THE VETERAN ROOKIE: PAVEL FRANCOUZ
2017-18 season: 35 GP | .946 SV% (regular season, KHL)
The Avalanche made sure to solidify their minor league depth before the offseason had even truly gotten under way, signing KHL standout Pavel Francouz to a one-year, $690,000 deal for the 2018-19 NHL season.
Despite optimistic hopes from the fanbase that Francouz was brought on to serve as a team backup, there’s been little indication from anyone that the 28-year-old Czech national is expected to begin the year anywhere but the AHL’s Colorado Eagles - although if he makes quick work of adapting to the North American ice surface at the minor league level, it’s easy to see him being the team’s first call-up in the event of an injury. He easily fills in the third goaltender spot on the depth chart with his performance in the KHL over the last few years, and the spot is only his to lose if he shows struggles in the AHL both statistically and comparatively to both Spencer Martin and Joe Cannata.
Watching his game in tape from the KHL season, it’s clear that Francouz has hit his ceiling for play overseas; he’s got quick feet, good tracking, and does a pretty decent job of remaining engaged in the play even when there’s traffic in front of the net. For a guy who’s just 6-foot and 179 lbs, that’s about as good as it gets for KHL play, especially given that he’s got a decent grasp of post coverage (although the lesser need for strong post integration technique on the larger ice surface gives us less of an understanding of how well he’s able to utilize that in game situations) and his depth management trends towards being conservative enough for a confident and seamless North American transition.
Watching his tape, though, it’s hard to get a good feel for how well he’ll do in certain NHL game situations. He tends to prefer a lateral shuffle over a cross-ice push, which slows him down a little bit and adds some extra movement that he may not be afforded in NHL game speeds. If he starts to use a lateral slide from his knees to get across and loses his edges, the transition could hit a few snags.
That being said, there’s little reason to believe he doesn’t enter training camp already ahead of Spencer Martin. And if he does well enough, he seems like a player who could get a few looks in the NHL and then get dangled as trade bait for a team that needs a more effective backup. Both his game style and size suggest that his ceiling could be similar to that of Antti Raanta, and if he’s able to hit that - rather than falling into a similar North American style to Reto Berra, who struggled significantly more - then he’s a player teams would scramble to pick up.
THE AHL PROSPECT: SPENCER MARTIN
2017-18 season: 34 GP | .893 SV% (regular season, AHL)
Martin took a big step back last year, falling out of favor on the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage and finishing the year as a backup with a sub-.900 save percentage.
He has a few things going in his favor to kick off the 2018-19 season. The player he lost the starting gig to, Ville Husso of the St. Louis Blues, is staying in San Antonio with the rest of the Blues’ minor league development system while Martin moves to Colorado. He won’t have to fight to overtake the Finnish prospect for another year, which can only help him. He also doesn’t have to worry about Andrew Hammond, who went to the Minnesota Wild for the coming season, or Joe Cannata (at least to start), as Cannata is older and less likely to be considered the team’s future. They’ll give the younger prospect every opportunity to prove last year was a fluke before moving on.
That being said, there’s still some stiff competition he shouldn’t laugh off. Although he’s older, Francouz joins Colorado’s system with much better KHL numbers than Martin has ever been able to produce in the North American minors. And Cannata came back on board with the Avalanche this summer after the team had favorable end-of-year reviews for him; even if they hoped Martin would be their best homegrown prospect for now, it’s unlikely they’d keep Martin in the AHL and Cannata in the ECHL if the latter is significantly outperforming the former.
Martin is the biggest of the minor league players in Colorado’s system, standing at 6-foot-3 and 209 lbs. And he’s got fantastic agility, which goes along with a pretty good read of the game to help him react to high-quality second shots and unexpected bounces.
What he has going against him, though, is his execution of the game from a technical standpoint. Despite his size, he plays a fairly aggressive game, and he sometimes either sets his edges to square up to a shooter (leaving the shot itself wide of his torso) or fails to maintain his edges altogether, sliding out of position before the shooter actually releases the puck. He still finds himself having to lunge into position a little too often throughout the season, given his amount of pro experience, and that will eventually need to be fixed or considered as a weakness that may never go away.
Overall, he slates to be a tandem at the AHL level with Francouz next year, but it’s hard to imagine the Avalanche aren’t watching closely for him to take that final step forward.
THE MINOR LEAGUE MAINSTAY: JOE CANNATA
2017-18 season: 28 GP | .931 SV% (regular season, ECHL)
Cannata had been a promising player to watch develop when he first went pro in the Vancouver Canucks system, but he never quite developed fast enough to stay ahead of the incoming Thatcher Demko - so he was moved out of the system two years ago and relegated to the ECHL by this time last year.
Despite an inopportune situation, though, the former sixth-round draft pick rose up last season and helped the ECHL’s Eagles to the Kelly Cup with absolutely stellar numbers from the start of the year to the finish. He did well in his limited AHL time, as well, posting a .920 save percentage in five games with the Rampage during his 2017-18 campaign to go with an overall positive attitude in the system.
Part of that may be what his former coach described as “an exceptionally short memory”, which allows him to shrug off things that other goaltenders may let simmer. From an old appraisal of his game by Thomas Drance (current PR guru for the Florida Panthers and former Canucks Army overlord), goalie coach Brian Daccord of Stop It Goaltending said “Nothing really phases him,” adding that “If [Cannata] was in a house on fire, he would probably stop in the kitchen to make himself a sandwich on his way out.”
He’s also good at using his wider frame to fill the net, rather than worrying about trying to be overly aggressive in cutting down the angle.
Where his problems have come in in the past is difficult to pin down, because Cannata has generally favorable numbers with the exclusion of some struggles in his first year outside of the Canucks system (where getting bounced around quite a bit may have left him floundering). He’s a bit slower on his skates, though, and his agility isn’t world-class, so he may be viewed as having a lower ceiling than other goaltenders in the pro systems around North America.
Expect him to challenge for an AHL position at training camp, but if he starts off as the fifth goaltender in the system once again don’t be too surprised. That being said, any struggles from Spencer Martin - especially if he’s successful once again - could have the pair quickly flipped in the depth chart without much thought.