The amount of pressure put on a first-round pick in the National Hockey League is a near-insurmountable mountain of expectation to climb.
Colorado Avalanche 2018 first-round selection Martin Kaut is learning the struggle of dealing with those lofty expectations. As he’s well into his second season with the Colorado Eagles of the American Hockey League. His development has been a little rocky thus far in the Rocky Mountains, some 5,300 miles away from his hometown.
After a solid rookie season, in which the Czech-born Kaut tallied a dozen goals and 26 points in nearly a full-season played, the now-20-year-old Avs prospect has had a bit of a rougher start to his sophomore season.
After failing to register a point in his first half-dozen contests of the 2019-20 campaign, Kaut was knocked out of the lineup with a concussion, forcing him to miss roughly six weeks of the Eagles schedule, and in turn, sitting out what has felt like a lifetime of development.
“It’s frustration because if you were drafted in first round and you didn’t have points, it’s something (you) did wrong,” Kaut opened up. “I think finally I’m starting to play the right way.
“It’s a long season.”
It is indeed a long year in the AHL and there’s still plenty of time to get things going. But still, it’s clear the pressure is beginning to have its effect on him. It’s been even harder for Kaut since the graduation of his fellow countryman and best friend, former Eagles teammate Pavel Francouz, to the Avalanche. Things have been a little lonelier for Kaut this season.
“It’s been tough because I don’t have Frankie here,” admits Kaut. “He was like my father.”
In Francouz’s stead, Kaut says he hangs out mostly with the European guys. Namely, Igor Shvyrev, Anton Lindholm, Calle Rosen and then a few of the Americans on the team, in his linemates Sheldon Dries and Jayson Megna. They often go to dinner together and bond in that way off the ice. But, still, he feels he’s missing a piece of his family.
It’s been a tough transition for Kaut in this new “Frankie”-less world, and it’s been even tougher for him since he’s not producing on the score sheet. For Kaut, it seems he puts a lot of weight on his statistics to determine his individual worth as a player. In reality, however, hockey is a team game and stats are really just an added individual bonus in addition to the team’s success. The Avalanche and Eagles brass see it a little differently than Kaut.
“His statistics aren’t there yet, but I do believe there are clips and times within games where he is doing the right thing,” said Eagles general manager Craig Billington. “And he’s getting a chance and maybe it’s not going in, but to stay on the process and understand the persistency you need as an individual and us as coaches and mentors to help him along that path.”
Billington compares Kaut to a former Avalanche player in Claude Lemieux. He points at Lemieux as a guy who’s storyline and trajectory of success can change in just a short period of time.
“You have to go back and check the stat, but the year Claude Lemieux won the Cup in the lockout year, I’m not sure he had more than a few goals. He had a terrible run. But then he won the Conn Smythe and the Stanley Cup, but no one talks about the three or four months he had prior to that,” Billington posits.
“Things in our business can change really quick. And sometimes you don’t know how close you are to the peak because you’ve been climbing so much, then all the sudden, boom, you’re right there.”
Lemieux posted just six goals and 19 points in the lockout-shortened season of 1994-95. Then when the playoffs started, he notched 13 goals — three of which were game-winners — in the 20 games to help the New Jersey Devils capture the Stanley Cup. As Billington mentioned, Lemieux also earned the Conn Smythe trophy as the playoff MVP for his postseason heroism.
At the start of the 1995-96 campaign, Lemieux was traded to Colorado, where he scored a total of 44 goals and 83 points en route to helping the Avalanche to their first Stanley Cup in their first year in Denver.
Indeed, things can change in a very short period of time. That remains the hope for the young Kaut.
Eagles head coach Greg Cronin is the man in charge of preparing and molding the Avs first-rounder into a role and fit in the NHL. He admits it’s been a tough year, mostly given his six-week concussion-related absence.
“It’s hard to judge him because he’s been out so long. He played, what, six games I think? Then he gets hurt and those six games he didn’t have the same pop, the same visibility he had last year,” Cronin said. “Then he gets hurt and he’s out for six weeks, so it’s very difficult to judge this year for him so far.
“He’s an interesting player because he can score. He has really good skill; he has good sense; he’s long; he can skate…he’s more of a finesse player, who is going to need to be responsible defensively. That’s going to have to be his core identity.”
What’s his place on this team? And looking down the road, where does he fit in an NHL lineup? Those are the questions that are answered during a player’s time developing in the AHL. So far it seems the Eagles staff and Kaut himself are on the same page as to where he might fit in.
“He’s a hybrid third or fourth-line guy,” says Cronin.
“If I want to play in the NHL, I need to play like third or fourth-line guys,” agrees Kaut. “Because if you look at the Avs and their first two lines, I don’t have chance to play on first two lines.”
He’s right. With guys like Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabe Landeskog all contracted for at least the next few seasons, and the added depth of a very strong second trio, the Avs should be set for at least the next couple of years.
Kaut attends Avalanche games on a pretty regular basis, taking mental notes and scouting his future club and teammates. Most recently, Kaut attended Colorado’s matchup against the Carolina Hurricanes just before the Avs’ and Eagles’ holiday breaks.
“It is so much faster than it is here (in the AHL). It’s unbelievable,” said Kaut.
He says he watches guys like Matt Calvert as a player he models himself after. In order to play at the caliber Calvert does, however, Kaut understands he needs to be a little more physical.
“I’m still learning to play in this league. It’s so much harder playing here (in the AHL) than in NHL,” Kaut says. “When I played NHL preseason game, for me, it was so much easier. I need to play the right way, be patient and hit the guy.”
Coach Cronin says in order to get to where Kaut says he wants to be, he’ll need to play with pace and energy, which a player like Calvert does noticeably night-in and night-out.
“When he’s not visible, he’s not moving his feet, he’s not getting inside bodies to get pucks. Whether he’s doing it physically or with his finesse ability is up to him how he’s going to create separation from people,” Cronin says of Kaut’s play. “When he’s not skating and he’s not competing, that’s not giving him the visibility he needs in that role.
“Honestly, I’d love to see him play with more pace and energy...be ‘fast twitch,’ go, get on top of pucks. Martin’s got to get that. The irony is that he has talent. He’s motivated with the first-round status. But he has to mobilize it and play with that energy, that passion.”
Last season, Kaut sat with Cronin in his office for roughly two hours after each practice to talk and learn. This season, Billington adds that the organization — both the Avalanche and Eagles — work with Kaut constantly and they often send Avs skating and development coaches to supplement what the Eagles do. But there needs to be an understanding that these things take time.
“The coaching staff is working hard with him on playing the right way. Joe (Sakic) has spent time with him, as well; I’ve spent time with him. Everyone’s trying to help him along, but it can take time,” says Billington. “I always say, everyone has different timelines and we want them there right away — we want them in the National League right away — of course, right?
“That’s great, however, we often forget his age...And these aren’t excuses, these are facts to the file. So we’re going to keep working on it, and I know he is too...He’s invested in it, he wants to do well, he wants to get there. We just need to keep working with him and creating that environment, and he ultimately needs to do the work.”
Despite his frustration with his lack of points, Kaut is understanding that that’s not everything in this game. As long as he’s putting in the work, as Billington said, the points will eventually come.
“For me, it doesn’t matter if I have 60 points or 10 as long as I play the right way,” Kaut said. “(I want) more points for sure, but I want to play the right way, don’t make mistakes, be patient in the D-zone and go day by day.
“And my goal for this year is to play a couple games in the NHL. I know it’s hard.”