The American Hockey League isn’t merely a parking garage for an NHL team’s prospects. It’s a top-tier developmental league, where young NHL talent is matured and prepared to make an impact at the NHL level.
For the Colorado Avalanche, that fact has become very evident this season. When you look at the Avs roster, you’ll notice a number of Colorado Eagles alum who are all making a big impact for NHL Colorado this season.
In total, 17 of the 38 players to have suited up in an Avalanche sweater this season have also spent time in Loveland in some capacity over the last two years. As of March 1, former Eagles players have chipped in on 10 percent of the Avs goals this season and nearly 15 percent of the team’s total points.
Take for example Pavel Francouz, who was the Eagles’ starting goaltender last season and an AHL All-Star. Francouz now finds himself performing in a starting role with the Avalanche, while maintaining top-10 numbers in key stats like goals-against average and save percentage. Defenseman Ryan Graves logged a few dozen games with AHL Colorado last season before he earned the top-pairing role with the Avs rookie phenom Cale Makar this year.
While Graves played just 32 games with the Eagles during the 2018-19 campaign, he says the impact that head coach Greg Cronin and the Loveland-based AHL club had on his development was more than one might imagine.
“Honestly more than you’d think for how much time I was there,” said Graves of the impact the Eagles had on getting him to his current role as a top-pair NHL D-man. “I was only there like half a year.
“Cronin, I owe a lot of credit to him. He was tough on me and he gives you tough love and if you respond to that the right way he can really help a player. He’s helped me.”
Playing last year in Loveland, did he think he’d be in this position as one-half of Colorado’s top-defensive pairing?
“I’d be lying if I said yes,” admitted Graves. “But at the same time, it’s what I’ve been striving for. It was my goal to play more minutes and prove that I can play here. And when you set goals and you achieve them, you set new goals. My original goal was to be in the American League and improve my game, and then it was my goal to be called up and then when that happened my goal was to prove that I belong here and then prove that you can play more minutes and play in more important situations and things like that, and more minutes and different situations.
“It’s been a growing experience for me and there’s still more growing to do. I’m happy with it and I still feel there’s more growth to my game. I’m just trying to continue trending in the right direction. It’s been a fun journey and I’m grateful for it.”
Like Graves, most players you talk to in Loveland will make mention of Cronin’s “tough love” style of coaching. Growing up less than 10 miles outside of Boston, tough love is in Cronin’s blood. For the second-year Eagles bench boss, it’s a foundation that’s built on a few requisite character traits.
“I think any relationship starts with honesty,” Cronin said. “I think if the person doesn’t construct a relationship based upon honesty and integrity, then it’s just not going to grow in a predictable way I don’t think...Trust is a big part of a relationship and you have to trust that what I’m telling you is healthy and it’s going to make you grow as a player.”
In the case of Graves, Cronin admitted to his tough love and recalls some discussions he’d had with his top defensive prospect.
“Some of those discussions are hard. Like Gravy (Graves) was kind of shocked,” said Cronin. “I said, you’re never playing in the NHL if you can’t do these things, in fact you may be in the (ECHL). That’s a shock to somebody’s system. I say it with compassion and with purpose. I think we can help you get closer to your goal if you accept the truth behind the challenge in front of you and own it. Like if you don’t own it, you’re not going to get better.”
“I’ll text Gravy every once in awhile. I really appreciate Gravy, he’s a great ambassador for our staff,” he added.
It’s not just Graves who has been the beneficiary of Cronin’s tough-loved coaching. Graves says the new de facto top-D prospect for the Avalanche has also shared stories with him about the help his coach has provided him.
“Talk to a guy like Timmins, he’ll say Cro is working with him and he credits Cro to improving his game,” Graves said.
“He really takes the time with his players and really makes sure you’re dialed in,” agreed the Eagles rookie defenseman Conor Timmins.
But what makes Cronin’s coaching style so helpful for the Avs prospects? They’ll tell you it’s his attention to detail.
“I think he just focuses in on the small details,” added Timmins. “He gives you the techniques and the strategies to go about your game and I think it’s up to you to take those and implement them into your game. A lot of coaches don’t focus on those little things.”
“For me, it was more defending well, defending in lanes, footwork, things like that that you sometimes don’t think about,” Graves said of how Cronin helped improve his game. “The way he thinks about the game is a bit different. He may go through video and he breaks it down a different way than most coaches do that I’ve had in the past. And then most coaches, it’s more ‘advance the puck, make this pass, make that pass’ but he kind of breaks it down beyond that, like how your feet look when you’re passing or how your feet look when you’re attacking someone in the corner, or when it’s time for a bit hit or when the time is to pin somebody and things like that.
“He has techniques that have helped and he has an understanding of the game that I’m very appreciative of. Again, tough love from him sometimes, but I have a lot of gratitude towards him and I speak very highly of Greg.”
For Cronin, his “tough love,” as his players like to call it, isn’t a foundation based on strategy on the ice. In fact, how he coaches has little to do with hockey at all — it’s more a matter of human psychology.
“It’s about human behavior. What you’re seeing on the ice is the fruits of that,” Cronin said. “If you can’t get into their hearts and their minds with trust and honesty then they’re not changing. They’re just not going to change. You could be the best speaker in the world and have the most information in the world but if you can’t connect with that person…If you’re always yelling at guys and being an egomaniac, the guys aren’t going to like you and it’s not going to get through.
“Not everyone is going to like you the same level but they all better respect you.”
Cronin is quick to mention how much coaching has evolved over the last few decades. The Eagles bench boss has been coaching for over 30 years — from NCAA to AHL to NHL. He’ll also mention how the generations he’s coached have changed over the years. With that, coaching styles have also needed to be adjusted with the changing times.
There is decidedly less dogmatism in sport these days. But for Cronin and his “tough love” style, he’s not changing his ways — nor would his players want him to.
“This is what I do believe, is people that are mentally tough and that are honest with themselves can handle an honest message and they’ll work at it and they will change quicker than the guy that is selective about when he’s honest with himself,” Cronin said. “In all my years coaching, if you’re not dealing with an honest person, there’s going to be very random growth.”
For Cronin, his coaching style incubates mental toughness, growth and success on the ice. But, really, at the end of the day, only half of coaching is the player development and the actual product you then see on the ice. The other half of coaching — the side you don’t see — is developing the human that’s wearing the jersey.
“For me, player development, the roots of it rest in honesty, the integrity and then the most important thing is ownership,” Croinin positted. “You have to own this stuff. Like everyone goes out and shoots puck and does these things that they do well. But if you really really want to be great, then you do the things you don’t do well more than the things you do well…it starts with starving bad habits and filling that space in with good habits. It’s easy to say but harder to do.
“It takes intense daily scrutiny — that’s what practice is. You build quality repetitions in place of poor repetitions. And I’m passionate about that as a coach.”