While the institution of sport may be guised as just a game or a vessel of entertainment meant for the consumption of watchful fans’ eyes, to the athletes — the product in which we enjoy and cheer for on the ice — it is so much more than that. For the athlete, it is their life. It is a dream they’ve been working towards everyday for years on end. It is a representation of the hours upon hours spent perfecting their craft and the numerous sacrifices made along the way. It is their body, mind and spirit they’ve put on the line — all for just a chance, an opportunity, at achieving their life-long dream.
But sport is fickle — it doesn’t care about dreams. It truly is survival of the fittest. One must fight for the right to be among the game’s elite. It is depth chart Darwinism, if you will. Sport doesn’t care about your dream or how hard you’ve been working toward achieving it. And to make it in sport, to make a team, often times you have to sacrifice others’ dreams along the way.
For an athlete, it all boils down to where they stand on a depth chart. It doesn’t matter where you played juniors or how high of a draft pick you were, it matters where you are on that team’s organizational roster ranking. It’s a dog-eat-dog world on the depth chart. For an athlete to get to where they want to be, they have to scratch and claw their up it, or risk losing it all to a superior being. Survival of the fittest. Depth chart Darwinism.
For third-year pro Nicolas Meloche, he finds himself smack dab in the middle of one of these depth chart dogfights.
Taken in the second round (40th overall) by the Colorado Avalanche in 2015, as a high draft pick, the table had been set for Meloche to enjoy a bountiful career. Now four years removed, the Avs have selected 10 more defensemen in the drafts following Meloche’s. Fresh, young NHL-ready talent like Cale Makar, Conor Timmins and, most recently, Bowen Byram have joined the mix through subsequent drafts. And since Meloche came aboard, the Avs have also acquired such young talent like Sam Girard, who is locked up for the next eight years on the Avalanche’s backend, and Calle Rosen, another young and offensively-gifted blueliner who is knocking on the doorstep of an NHL roster spot.
It’s safe to assume that each of the aforementioned players have all but springboarded over Meloche on the depth chart.
See, the Avs are now very deep on the defensive end of things, something that couldn’t really be said when Meloche was drafted in ‘15. Colorado’s depth chart is now bursting at the seams with bright, prospective superstars that will man Colorado’s blueline for many years to come. There’s only room for a select few on the defense’s side of the bench, and it’s safe to assume half of them are guaranteed a spot through the next half-dozen seasons or so. For Meloche, the question now becomes: where does he fit in?
“It’s a little bit of pressure, for sure, when they draft other defensemen,” Meloche said. “But it’s not the same style of hockey that I play. Every guy plays a little bit different [of] a role.”
Meloche’s role would be viewed as what the hockey world calls a “two-way defenseman.” Meaning, he plays sound defense while also having a penchant for puck-handling, skating and providing some added offense on the ice. Recently, however, since taking Meloche in the ‘15 draft, general manager Joe Sakic and his staff have shown an inclination towards drafting more and more of these two-way defenseman who all play a similar role as Meloche, i.e., Makar, Timmins and Byram.
“My development may be a little bit slower than those guys,” added Meloche of his recently-drafted defensive depth partners. “I’m going to take it year after year. This year I feel way better physically and skating-wise too. I’ll get more experience and maybe crack the lineup in a couple more years. I’m not in a rush, I’m just trying to get better every day.”
While he may not be in a rush, time is never on anyone’s side, and with the Avs front office adding more and more talent akin to Meloche’s, it speeds up his ever-ticking clock just a bit more.
Second-year Colorado Eagles head coach Greg Cronin has now gotten to see first hand what Meloche is capable of after spending plenty of time with him over the last two seasons in Loveland. Cronin concurs with Meloche’s sentiments that he is developing at his own pace.
“You know, it’s funny, some guys develop later than others,” Cronin added. “Everybody wants a kid to come in his first year and create visibility and show an identity and then his second year he builds on that...Melo [Meloche], during his second year, in his own words probably underachieved his goals.”
With so much pressure to improve, especially with the abundance of talent being added to the pool, underachieving and underperforming is really not an option. The time is now for Meloche to carve out his niche and find his place in this organization.
Eagles captain Mark Alt has been in Meloche’s position before, and frankly still is. Being around the game for some time now, the 27-year-old defenseman has been in a few depth chart battles himself. He understands what it feels like and how it is survival of the fittest.
“Being around the game now for — this will be my sixth or seventh year — it’s something you start to see, it’s part of the game,” Alt said. “There’s always someone bigger and better than you coming in, it’s kind of just the name of the game. For a guy like Meloche, I’ve been in shoes, you do see the young guys come in.”
Alt adds that rather than getting down on himself, it should motivate him.
“It’s good though,” Alt adds of the added competition. “It should propel you to push you in your own game and to look around and say “hey, I got to step it up.” If I want to get noticed I need to find ways to get visible out here. I feel for Meloche, I’ve been in that spot too. It just depends on how you take it. It should encourage him to get even better.”
That is Meloche’s goal, to get better, it always is. That’s what development is all about. And entering the final year of his entry-level contract, Melo will be due for an extension after this season concludes. Whether or not the Avalanche gives him one remains to be seen. With so much stockpiled talent, the 22-year-old D-man will need to have a break-out year in order to prove he deserves a spot in the organization. For Meloche, he says if he keeps doing his thing, he’s certain he’ll get that extension.
“Just play my style: two-way defenseman,” he said of what it’ll take for him to earn a contract extension. “I mean, last year I had a good year here and trying to do the same and [going] on another deep run in the playoffs will help everyone for next year’s contract, not just me.”
A peak performance from Meloche this season will be a necessity. He has been steadily improving in his first two years of AHL experience. In 2017-18, playing with the San Antonio Rampage, the Avalanche’s former affiliate before the Colorado Eagles turned AHL, he tallied five goals and 17 points in 58 games. Last season, Meloche tied for the most goals (6) among Eagles defensemen and was second on the team among D-men in points (21) in 55 total games.
This season will be a very big, “prove-it” year for a player who is now one of the more “veteran” defensive prospects in the Avs organization. His head coach thinks it’ll be a big year for Meloche to figure out what his identity is as a player.
“Ultimately, he needs to find out what he is as a player,” said Cronin. “He’s not an offensively-gifted guy like a Girard or a Makar; Timmins is a dynamic, offensive player...So where does he fall on the bracket and his use on the team?
“This is a year for him — I wouldn’t say it’s a do-or-die, desperation year — it’s a year where he’s got to take what he learned the first two years and construct an identity for that. At least whatever happens — even if he doesn’t come back [to Colorado] — he can take that with him wherever he goes. That, to me, is what it’s all going to boil down to for him.”
This will be a very big year for Meloche, perhaps the biggest of his young career. To keep his dream alive, Melo needs to decide who he is as a player and where he fits on a depth chart replete with Meloche-like two-way defensive talent. After all, the Avalanche will also be facing a difficult decision come next offseason — keep Meloche or let him go?