WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah — Being drafted by an NHL team is a huge milestone in a young player’s life. It’s a dream-come-true moment and validation of the effort and the countless hours and sacrifices it took to get there. The reality is, however, for the vast majority, it’s really only a small step in the beginning of an otherwise perilous journey to the National Hockey League.
After a player is drafted, it may take years in the pros — whether it be the AHL, the ECHL or otherwise — to crack an NHL team’s 23-man roster, if at all. It’s a reality that Colorado Avalanche 2018 fifth-rounder Brandon Saigeon is facing in small town suburban Salt Lake City, Utah.
For Saigeon, he’s still waiting for his entry-level NHL contract. For now, he remains on an AHL deal, although he resides a league lower with the Utah Grizzlies, the Colorado Avalanche’s ECHL affiliate. Many expected the former OHL stud to start the year with the Colorado Eagles of the AHL, but a repletion of depth in Loveland, mixed with some inexperience in the pro game on Saigeon’s part has the 21-year-old forward grinding away in West Valley City instead.
“It can be a tough transition from major junior to the pro level,” said Grizzlies head coach Tim Branham of his rookie forward. “He’s learning his way. He’s got the ability, he’s got the skill...He’s got an ability to score goals, but he’s just got to continue on in that progression. For some guys, it’s not a sprint, you know, it’s a marathon. Some guys, it takes a little bit of time to get going.”
It was a tough start to the pro game for the offensive-minded Saigeon. After all, he averaged over a point per game over the last two seasons as an assistant captain with the Hamilton Bulldogs. He scored 63 points in 40 games with Hamilton last year before he was traded to the Oshawa Generals late in the season. There, he tallied another 12 goals and 29 points in 28 contests while helping the Generals to the conference finals.
That scoring prowess he developed in the OHL didn’t immediately translate over to the Grizzlies, however. It took Saigeon nearly a dozen games to notch his first. It came on Nov. 30 against the Florida Everblades. He then scored his second career goal later that game. The following night, he scored another and then slid one past the Everblades netminder for the game-winning goal in the shootout. He also earned himself the game’s 1st Star honors in his heroic effort. It’s starting to appear that he’s found his game and is starting to hit his stride in the early parts of his pro career.
When I spoke with him after his 1st-Star performance over the Everblades, it was clear a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. I asked him what’s been so different about those last two games.
“It’s nice to get the first 10 games out the way and get the feet wet and now I’m feeling a little bit more comfortable now,” Saigeon told me. “Obviously working with the linemates and the teammates, I owe a lot of credit to them too.”
Since his slow start to the season, Saigeon has slid into a groove as the calendar flipped to December. The Utah centerman has recorded four goals in his last seven games and sits tied for fifth on the team in scoring as of mid-December.
Colorado Eagles general manager Craig Billington is in constant contact with Tim Branham, as he is always checking in on his Avalanche, Eagles and Grizzlies prospects on a near-daily basis. Billington even jots on his office whiteboard at Budweiser Events Center all of the forward and defense lines that Branham rolls with in practice and in games over in Utah. The lines are written right next to the ones he observes and puts together at Eagles practices.
“How is Timmy?” he asked me after I told him I made the drive out to Utah to catch up with him and a few Grizzlies.
“He’s doing well,” I respond, before asking the Eagles’ jovial GM about how he feels Saigeon has developed thus far.
“I think for Brandon, he needs to learn the pro game. He’s working at doing that with Tim and (Avalanche player development coach) Brett Clark,” he said. “Most recently, the last couple weeks we’ve seen an upside in his play and his direction and focus of that and that’s terrific.”
As both Billington and Branham said, much of the slow start was a credit to the tougher transition from OHL to ECHL. Saigeon is learning the differences between the two levels of hockey pretty quickly now, and he says he’s starting to let his innate hockey skill take over.
“I think it’s just stopping on pucks, winning battles, all the little things and getting all those little things right,” Saigeon said of the biggest difference from the junior to pro game. “And then you can let your skill take over a little bit once you get back to the basics and you’re doing all those little things right.”
He is starting to get those little things right and he’s looking more and more like a legitimate pro player. Billington and Branham have certainly begun to take notice.
“He’s done a really good job. Like I said, it can be a really, really tough transition depending on what player you are, going from major junior to pro,” added Branham. “Some guys handle it quicker, some guys it takes a little bit of time,” said Branham. “But he’s sticking with it, he’s working really hard and he’s starting to figure out the pro game.”
If he continues on the upward trend he’s on, the likelihood he gets a call from Billington and sees some AHL time can only increase.
“We just continue to monitor and look at him,” added Billington. “Every player has a different path, a different story, a different road map. For him to work at his game, to be consistent and bring the elements that we saw at junior to bring it into the pro world and adapt some of the pro qualities will be important.”
For Saigeon, the hope remains he’ll soon be making the ride down Interstate-80 towards Colorado to re-join some of his pals over in Loveland. For now, it’s putting his nose to the grindstone and keep working hard.
“I’m just working towards being up there and being like those guys,” he said of his AHL potential. “I talk to (the Eagles) quite a bit, I talk to the players quite a bit just to keep in touch see how they’re doing. Obviously the goal is to be up there, but right now my focus is on the Grizzlies and helping them win.
“...Just [carrying] the momentum I have now and keep working hard. Like I said, the first 10 games, it was nice to get those out of the way, and now just focusing on the future and working hard and doing what I can to have a good impression on management and coaches.”