After missing 16 months of competitive hockey due to a pain-staking concussion recovery, no one expected Conor Timmins to play in the NHL straight out of his first training camp. It was believed he’d need some development time in the AHL to make up for those long months of lost time. That was the plan for the Colorado Avalanche prospect.
However, after an impressive showing at camp and preseason, it looked as if Timmins hadn’t missed a beat. Starting as one of the 57 players in attendance to begin Avalanche training camp, Colorado’s second-round pick in 2017 survived each wave of cuts until the final 23-man rosters were due to the NHL front offices on Oct. 1.
When the final opening-night roster was revealed, Timmins’ name was on it. He certainly shocked the entire hockey world when the news came out that he’d be starting the season as one of the Avs’ eight defensemen. It came as little surprise, however, to the stoic 21 year old.
“No not really,” said Timmins of whether he was surprised to have made the Avs roster. “I think coming from the start of camp, I had high expectations going in and I just wanted to work on improving and getting better every day. I had confidence that if I did that, I would make the team.”
Again, Timmins really may have been the only one who thought he’d have a chance of cracking the NHL lineup. The expectations were fairly low for a guy who hadn’t had played in a competitive hockey game in a year and a half. Hockey is a very fast and physical game, when you’re sporting the red, no-contact jersey at practice, you miss out on a big part of developing that game.
Even Colorado’s front office weren’t expecting too much out of Timmins in his first training camp, aside from just getting some repetitions in against some NHL-level talent and speed.
“This is from Joe (Sakic), Chris (MacFarland) and myself,” began Colorado Eagles general manager and Avs assistant GM Craig Billington. “Our expectation was for him to come in after not playing and have a training camp and let it evolve and don’t set any expectations beyond him having participated in camp and having an assessment about where he’s at. And I think it was the same for (Conor). So there was lots of dialogue, both from the medical standpoint but also with Conor himself and Joe and his agent.”
The Avalanche took its time with Timmins. With so much science and new data coming out about how dangerous concussions can be and the ensuing symptoms, you really can’t rush a player back into such a physical sport like the game of hockey. Judging by how well the 21-year-old defenseman has done since his 18-month recovery, taking his time has proved advantageous for both Conor and the organization.
“I think it was handled really well,” added Billington. “We put Conor in a place where could go try and play hockey again and see where this goes. I think everyone was very excited to see him coming through camp and getting some games at the national league level and having significant role and responsibility here (in the AHL). Again, that evolution from where he was to where he is has been very positive.”
After only playing an average of 10:26 of ice time through two games, it was decided it was probably best if Timmins spent time in the AHL playing big minutes with the Colorado Eagles. There, he’d play on the top pair and would get some more exposure on special teams.
“I think the message was just go down and continue my development,” said Timmins of the conversation he had with the Avs coaching staff upon his reassignment to the AHL. “Obviously when you haven’t played in a year and a half, it’s tough to only get 10 minutes a night up in the NHL. You want to keep developing as a young player, so I think it’s good for me to come down here and play in all situations and work at my game.”
Now developing into a mainstay on the Eagles’ blueline, Timmins is being given more opportunity to improve every aspect of his game. And while the AHL doesn’t track time on ice, it’s safe to assume as a top-pairing D-man that Timmins is logging somewhere in the realm of 18 to 20-plus minutes a night. In other words, that’s twice as much development as he’d be getting in the NHL.
Eagles head coach Greg Cronin knows there’s more development that needs to take place for Timmins, but he’s liked what he’s seen from his versatile defenseman.
“He’s a work in progress,” Cronin said. “Everybody gets excited that he starts in the NHL but he hasn’t played hockey in 18 months. That’s a long time without playing. He knows what he has to work on. He’s going to have to get better away from the puck, which he’s aware of. I think he’s from a fundamental perspective, he’s committed to it. I think once he gets confident defensively I think his game is going to grow exponentially.”
Fourth-year Avalanche pro A.J. Greer liked what he saw while at camp with Timmins. Now that they’re full-time teammates with the Eagles in Loveland, he’s gotten the chance to see his game much more intimately.
“He’s a hard-worker. He’s a good, skilled player,” Greer said of his teammate. “I think he’ll be good and he’ll be in the NHL in the next couple of years. For him to be here and be around [veteran] guys is important for him just because it sets a foundation for his pro years, because he’s going to go through ups-and-downs like everyone else.
“To be surrounded by guys who can help you through that and can help you — not even [necessarily] vocally, but just practicing hard and keep going in every situation. He’ll be fine, we love having him here and he’s a good asset to our team. I think for his development, too, it’s important for him to get top minutes and like I said be around guys who care and want him to get to the next level.”
Timmins is certainly around a lot of guys that care, up and down the organization. From his teammates that he skates with to how management handled his pain-staking battle with his post concussion symptoms, Colorado is handling his development the right way.
“I think when a player misses significant time, it’s always good to get those touch-points and get on the ice and get those situations and feels and get those ‘reps,’ as we call them, so you get comfortable and confident within them,” added Billington. “Conor has the ability. He’s going back to his youth that carried him through junior and world junior success and now he’s getting the chance at the pro level.
“I think with the coaching staff and the development staff that I talk about having those resources at his fingertips and at such close proximity is a great value for him and for us.”
Given the surprising exponential growth that took place in the time Timmins was sidelined, it should only be a matter of time before the young defenseman finds himself as a key contributing member of the Avalanche’s blueline. Conor, however, is taking the whole experience in stride.
“I’m just trying to take things day-by-day, keep improving, keep working hard down here,” he said. “And if the [Avalanche] needs someone, hopefully I’ll get an opportunity — I just got to earn that opportunity.”