The 2017 NHL Draft was a major turning point for the Colorado Avalanche franchise.
Avs general manager Joe Sakic and his assistants, Craig Billington and Chris MacFarland, have made quick work of creating an organization replete with quality depth up and down the lineup. After inheriting what was a fairly empty, cob-webbed cupboard, Sakic and Co. have since stockpiled the team’s chiffonier with fine china and crystal stemware. And they’ve done it in just two short years.
Corey Pronman, Senior NHL Prospects Writer at The Athletic, is the guy you want to talk to about an NHL team’s depth and potency of its prospect pipeline. To show how quickly Sakic and his team turned a system of depleted depth to a replete roster, we’ll use Pronman’s yearly rankings from the past few seasons as further testimony. In 2017, the Avs came in with the 20th-best farm system in the NHL. In 2018, a small regression — believe it or not. Colorado clocked in as the No. 21 team in the prospect pool.
In Pronman’s most recent rankings for this 2019-20 season, the Avalanche now own the second-best farm system in the National Hockey League. That turnaround began in 2017. Let’s quickly recap.
Following a horrid 2016-17 campaign, which saw the Avalanche win a meager 22 games and finish dead-last in the NHL, the Avs “earned” the best odds to win the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft lottery. But following the trend of an embarrassing season, Colorado “beat” the odds and lost the lottery, falling to the fourth-overall slot. Because of course, right? All was not lost, however, as the Avalanche took Cale Makar, an eventual Hobey Baker winner and two-way defensive threat, with the No. 4 pick. Then, with the first pick in the second round (32nd overall), Sakic selected another puck-moving two-way defenseman in Conor Timmins.
Taken shortly before Timmins, with the 28th pick in the Draft, the Ottawa Senators selected Shane Bowers. Five months later, Bowers was traded to the Avalanche as part of the Great Duchene Deal. Now two years removed from that opportunistic offseason, it’s guys like Bowers and Timmins that have quickly come to the forefront of the Avs development.
Bowers and Timmins are knocking at the door of the NHL. As a matter of fact, they have all but a battering ram to the door. The fruits of the Avalanche scouting department’s labor are ripening rather quickly. For Timmins, despite taking a year and a half off of competitive hockey due to a concussion, he’s defied the odds and made the team out of training camp and will start the season in the NHL.
“I was really curious to see what he would do in training camp, because he’s another one like Bowers, he’s a confident kid,” Colorado Eagles head coach Greg Cronin said of Timmins. “They don’t disrespect the American League but they think they could play in the NHL. [Timmins] was really good in the NHL (preseason). He was a little bit shaky in rookie camp, you could see he had some rust on him, but he’s done really well in the games that I’ve watched.”
While Timmins ended up making the team, Bowers was also very close. He was among the last three sent down from camp on Tuesday, surviving until the final day of roster cuts, and will now begin the season down in the American Hockey League with coach Cronin and the Eagles. It’s a good indication of how the organization views Bowers and how close they think he is to being a full-time NHLer. It’s safe to say Bowers is now the top forward prospect in the Avs organization — sorry Martin Kaut.
Despite looking leagues above most at Avalanche training camp, when Bowers turned pro in late March of this year, joining the Eagles for its final playoff push of the season and through the first round of the playoffs, it looked like he might need some time.
“It’s always interesting, I tell their agents and the coaches of these players that come out of college and even juniors, they think it’s real easy,” coach Cronin said of Bowers. “You know, [they think] the American League isn’t a hard league and then they come in during that time of year (late March), when everyone’s fighting for playoff spots, it’s harder and then when they’re playing in the playoffs, it’s like ‘holy smokes, this is way harder than I thought.’
“Well the best thing that happens is that it kind of humbles those guys. They start to think, ‘wow, I’ve got some work to do.’ I haven’t seen too many guys play well right away... Shane struggled with that.”
In eight total games with the Eagles — four during the regulars season and four games in the playoffs — Bowers managed just one assist and a minus-2 rating. The higher speed and elevated skill of the AHL seemed to take some adjusting for the fresh-faced forward. It’s something he told me when I talked to him at the Eagles’ practice facility in Windsor, Colo., just days after he joined the team in March.
“I would just say the speed,” Bowers said of the biggest transition from the college game to the AHL. “Everything is hard; every rep, every drill, guys are going all out and they’re stronger, too. But for me it’s the speed. No one’s letting up, everyone’s going hard all the time.”
While he may have been out-gunned during his adjustment phase to the AHL game, Cronin said the biggest thing was Bowers’ confidence was unwavering.
“The one thing I identified with as a critical part in development is he had confidence and he had belief,” Cronin added. “He plays with a bit of an edge and he doesn’t change the way he’s playing and he skates, he sticks out because he’s a really, really good skater. He’s been able to convert that experience into having a little bit of a swagger in the NHL camp.
“I watched him closely — I was up [in Denver] until Sunday, I watched Sunday’s game (3-2 shootout win vs. the Wild) — and he is arguably one of the more visible players every time he plays the game. I’m happy for him, it’s a real bonus for the organization and I think he’s a good enough kid to where if he has to spend some time down here [in the AHL] and wait his turn, he will and he’s going to work everyday to get better.”
It’s not just the coach that’s been impressed with the team’s top prospects. Second-year Eagles captain Mark Alt, who also spent some time with Timmins and Bowers at Avs training camp, was most impressed with those two of all the players in attendance.
“We got a good crop,” added Alt. “... Bowers stood out to me a lot and so did Timmins on defense. I think those are two players and with some work out here or wherever they end up, they’re going to be good players and I look forward to watching them.”
Former Avs and Eagles prospect, Nicolas Meloche, who was recently traded from the organization, liked what he saw from his fellow defensive prospect in Timmins.
“He’s pretty good,” Meloche said. “You saw that goal against Minny (Minnesota). Timmins is a pretty good guy. I know he didn’t play for a year and a half but he came up strong and I’m happy for him.”
Part of the reason for Bowers’ and Timmins’ quick rising of the ranks is their maturity level and disposition.
“That’s what you like about those guys,” Cronin added of Bowers and Timmins. “If guys come down here and they have a pity party and they mope, it doesn’t do anybody any good, and fortunately both those guys are character people.”
With Timmins cracking the 23-man roster against all odds, and with Bowers not too far behind and more than likely also earning some NHL time this season, it’s further proof of Colorado’s quick turnaround at depth. The early emergence of Timmins and Bowers is just the beginning, too. With a fleet of former first-rounders like Bowen Byram, Martin Kaut and Alex Newhook, still yet to realize their potential — among others — the Avalanche have built depth as high as a Colorado 14er, and we’ve yet to see the summit.