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Expectations soaring high for 2019-20 Colorado Eagles

Entering its second season in the AHL, the new-look Eagles are poised to make a Calder Cup run

From left to right: Shane Bowers, Ty Lewis and A.J. Greer watch on during an Eagles practice at Budweiser Events Center
Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The Colorado Eagles are no strangers to success. In fact, success is something that has become expected of the organization.

Since the team’s inception in 2003, the Eagles have won four championships across three different leagues. Now proud members of the American Hockey League, minor league hockey’s highest echelon, those winning expectations aren’t changing.

Last year, in what was Colorado’s inaugural season in the AHL, maybe expectations were a little tempered. After all, the AHL is a tough league; it’s just one step below the National Hockey League, and there were a lot of fresh faces, a new coach and an entirely new league of NHL-caliber players to play against. Yet still, the Eagles qualified for the AHL postseason in its rookie year. It’s an accolade the organization is very familiar with.

Across three different leagues of hockey, spanning 16 seasons, the Colorado Eagles have never failed to qualify for the playoffs, and they don’t expect things to change this season. In fact, the expectations are higher than ever and they’ve got their eyes set on adding another trophy to their collection.

When I asked fourth-year Avalanche pro and second-year Eagle A.J. Greer about the team’s expectations, he cut me off.

“Calder Cup, for sure,” he said before I had finished asking the question. “Definitely Calder Cup. We have NHL D-men, we have forwards that are a good mix of rookies and vets; and the vets have played a long time in the NHL. And then you got guys like TJ Tynan, (Jayson) Megna, OC (Logan O’Connor) — you know, all guys that can put up points, so I’m excited. We have the potential to do really special things this year.”

Colorado Avalanche take on the Winnipeg Jets
Greer will more than likely earn some NHL call-ups, however, he’ll be a top-line player for the Eagles when he’s in Loveland.
Photo by Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Excitement is permeating the cool, crisp fall air of Northern Colorado. As a matter of fact, there is a lot of buzz around this Colorado Avalanche team and its supporting cast of depth players down in Loveland that are playing with the Colorado Eagles. This is the deepest, arguably most talented team the Avalanche organization has had in over a decade. The excitement has all but engulfed Budweiser Events Center, as well.

While there are a few key returning members and familiar faces, like Greer’s and Martin Kaut’s and Logan O’Connor’s and Michael Joly’s, to name a few, Eagles general manager Craig Billington and the rest of the Avs front office staff had a busy offseason of adding additional depth and maturity at the AHL level.

New to the locker room this season is a wealth of veteran presence and experience. Take for example, Erik Condra, a 33-year-old vet whose resume includes nearly 400 games of NHL experience, another 300-plus contests played in the AHL and a Calder Cup trophy. Condra leads a cast of vets that include the 29-year-old Jayson Megna, another forward with NHL and AHL experience who was more than impressive during the Avs pre-season exhibition action and was among the last to be cut from Avs camp.

Add to the list the fleet-footed T.J. Tynan, who tallied 71 points and a team-high 59 assists on a Chicago Wolves team that fell in the finals to the Charlotte Checkers. And speaking of, defensemen Dan Renouf was brought in to help bolster Colorado’s blueline and is fresh off a Calder Cup win with Charlotte this past season. He, along with Kevin Connauton, will be just a couple of new names and veteran guys that will reside on the backend for Colorado.

“There’s no doubt we’re a little more mature,” said second year head coach Greg Cronin. “We’ve got guys that played in the NHL, whether it’s Megna or Connauton or Condra. We’ve got a lot of veteran guys in the room. Again, talent doesn’t mean anything unless they play as a group. I think our challenge as a coaching staff is getting them to play at a pace we played at last year…

“We had a great team, we had a team that pushed each other, that held each other accountable, that really focused on detail. If we can take that mentality and put it with this group, the sky’s the limit with them.”

Head coach Greg Cronin enters his sophomore season behind the bench with the Eagles
Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Martin Kaut was apart of that talented Eagles roster last season, too. The second-year pro and former Avalanche first-round pick likes the new additions, as well; and he is well aware of this year’s expectations.

“For sure, this is our goal...This year we could win the Calder Cup,” Kaut said. “We have a lot of good guys, a lot of older guys like Condra [and] Megna. So this year we will be much better, I think so.”

With addition comes subtraction, however, and Kaut was quick to mention the loss of his best friend, goaltender Pavel Francouz, who graduated from the Eagles at the end of last season and will serve as the backup to Philip Grubauer in net for the Avalanche this year.

“...but we don’t have Frankie (Francouz), so it will be tough,” Kaut said with a smile.

Jokes aside, in place of the lost Francouz leaves a big question mark in his stead. Avs 2016 fifth-round pick Adam Werner will join the Eagles as an unproven 22-year-old from Sweden, who will need some adjusting to the North American game. Antoine Bibeau, who was recently acquired from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for defenseman Nicolas Meloche, will likely bear the brunt of the load in net this year.

Logan O’Connor (left) skates by a resting Martin Kaut (right)
Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

“I don’t think there was a better person to be in the net behind that team like Francouz,” added Cronin. “He was a terrific person, a great goalie, he had a high standard for himself, great work habits. He personified the rest of that group.”

Another question mark and a needed area of improvement for this season’s Eagles squad will be special teams, particularly the power play. Colorado’s power-play unit finished dead-last in the AHL last season, converting on just 13.8 percent of the man-advantage chances.

“Yeah we’ve got to get that going,” said Cronin of the power play. “If you think about it, we made the playoffs and our power play was dead-last in the league. Even if you have 10 more goals, you might finish third or second instead of fourth in our division. It’s a weapon, right? And not only when you’re scoring goals, but it’s also when you have possession time — it just breathes life into your offense and it builds believability that you can come back and win games if you get on the power play.”

One player in particular who may help the Eagles’ power-play woes is Shane Bowers. At just 20 years of age, Bowers nearly cracked the Avalanche’s opening-night roster fresh out of college. Bowers technically turned pro last season, but only appeared in eight games (four regular season, four playoff) after joining the Eagles during its late season playoff push in March. It’s clear he feels much more comfortable heading into his first full season in the American League.

“Obviously there was a little bit of an adjustment period, coming from college to here,” Bowers said of his brief AHL stint last season. “Just getting here, not knowing the guys, not feeling as comfortable as I was; to now coming back here, I’ve had a full summer under my belt and kind of knowing what things are like. I’m definitely feeling more comfortable and I’m ready for it.”

Colorado Avalanche Development Camp
Bowers will bring a dynamic offensive punch to the Eagles lineup this season
Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Bowers figures to factor into the top two lines and his speed should generate plenty of offensive opportunities. Even just being with the Eagles in Loveland for just a few days, Bowers can see the Calder-Cup potential.

“Everyone thinks that we can win and that should definitely be the goal,” Bowers said. “We have a lot of veteran guys, a lot of guys that are really good players in this league and a lot of really good players in the NHL, too. I think we’re a really experienced team and I’m just excited to be a part of it.”

Greer agrees that this team has the potential to do some damage in its second season and he’s eager to get going.

“We have a great team right now. You can just tell in the practices and the chemistry we have off the ice, too,” Greer added. “I’m really excited to start the year and I think it’s going to be a really fun time with these guys.”

Coach Cronin couldn’t contain his excitement either.

“I’m actually excited to watch them play,” he said with a smile. “I’ve watched them in training camp…[but] it’s going to be a hell of an environment and we’ll see how our team responds to it.”

The Colorado Eagles’ take flight on Friday, opening up the 2019-20 campaign at home for a two-game set against the Stockton Heat. It’ll mark the beginning of an exciting journey that hopes to last well into the summer.

“I think everyone’s just excited to get things going, get back in battle, play in front of the great fans here — it’s probably going to be packed,” Bowers finished. “That’s what I’m most excited for.”