The Colorado Avalanche offseason is, for the most part, complete after the signing of defenseman Ryan Murray to a one-year, $2 million deal. General manager (GM) Joe Sakic was correct when he stated last season that the Avalanche will have as deep of a team as they were going to have in a run for the Cup. There is no doubt the current team has gotten a pretty good-sized face lift and looks quite different from the team that won the Presidents’ Trophy last year.
Gone are key players like Joonas Donskoi and Philipp Grubauer to the Seattle Kraken. Ryan Graves was moved via trade to the New Jersey Devils, and unrestricted free agents Brandon Saad and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare signed with the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning, respectively. The Avalanche even lost their workhorse in Matt Calvert to retirement.
Even so, the Avalanche are still a favorite to win the Stanley Cup this season. When you have a top line consisting of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog along with budding superstar Cale Makar on the blue line, things will always look up. So, the question goes beyond what impact the depth players the Avalanche added through free agency will have. The question that needs to be asked is how much will the team allow their young prospects to be part of that depth?
The Avs have done very well over the past few seasons in creating a deep and talented prospect pool and on occasion those prospects have been given an opportunity to show their skills at the NHL level. The Avalanche have had the luxury of sampling some of their up-and-coming players for bits at a time while playing with the expectation that they should be part of a winning team and mentality.
This season the Avalanche could ask more of their youth and expect them to make the next step in taking on more responsibility. Any championship-caliber team needs depth and this team might need to lean more on some unproven American Hockey League (AHL) players than usual. There are a couple reasons why.
Why the Avalanche Could Need Their Prospects Now
Any fan knows this team is no stranger to injuries. It’s nothing anyone can predict, but injuries are part of the landscape of an NHL season. The Avalanche have had their fair share of them, but through it all they have continued to keep themselves at the top of the standings. So, the excuse that injuries play a part in not winning games is not on the table for them. Assuming there will be injuries the Avalanche inevitably need to play through, we can expect the need to dip into the AHL Colorado Eagles roster to bring up a prospect or two during a full 82-game season.
Then there is the salary cap. It is easy to see the Avalanche are setting themselves up for two years from now when MacKinnon becomes an unrestricted free agent. A simple glance at the salary cap info for the team shows few players signed beyond the 2022-23 season, MacKinnon’s last year of his current contract.
That isn’t by mistake. The majority of players that are signed beyond that season are part of the team’s core (Rantanen, Landeskog, Makar, etc.). You will see several Avalanche prospects whose entry-level contracts are also running out at the same time as MacKinnon’s deal. Clearly, they will not be as high on the priority list as him, but the Avalanche need to prepare for extending contracts for them as well. So, seeing what they can offer the team at the NHL level will be necessary.
This Avalanche team already has a much different look than last season. With new names and faces comes an adjustment period. Guys like Darren Helm, who played 14 years for one team in the Detroit Red Wings, will take a handful of games before getting comfortable to a new team and a new system. The same went for Brandon Saad when he came to the Avalanche last year.
This is where Avalanche prospects could be called upon in some instances. Another year with the franchise and another year understanding their role while being more comfortable with the system and coaching staff. That minor leg up against incoming veterans will even itself out as the season goes on, but the first few weeks might be beneficial to the younger players.
So, who are these prospects that could be given more playing time with the Avalanche? Let’s take a look at some of the names you know and a couple that might sneak their way into a role depending on how the season plays out.
Chances are you have been waiting for Bowen Byram to join the defensive unit along with Makar, Samuel Girard and Devon Toews and you would be right in thinking he could take on a much larger role on the blue line. It’s not a certainty, however. Byram has a bright future with the Avalanche and thanks to some of the offseason moves the team made, it will all come down to what style the team wants to play.
The Avalanche did a good job of addressing the glaring knock on them that they were not physical enough on the defensive side by acquiring guys like Kurtis MacDermid and even Murray to an extent. If the Avalanche feel like they need that physical aspect consistently, then Byram might be on the outside looking in to start the season.
Make no mistake, Byram will get playing time this year. Once he was given the opportunity last season, there did not seem to be many growing pains for him. He looked comfortable right from the start and if not for a hit from Vegas Golden Knights forward Keegan Kolesar, would have continued the solid start to his career. The question of will he be a starter on Day 1 this season might not even get asked if not for that hit and the time it caused him to miss.
The Avalanche could take a “wait and see” approach with Byram to start the season. They could get a feel for how things are going overall and if a defender is underperforming, slot him in for some needed energy. All signs, however, point to Byram being a mainstay on the Avalanche roster. Expect him to be a key contributor to the team’s success this year.
There’s nothing like getting thrown to the wolves when your name is called. For Alex Newhook, that meant a debut spot centering the second line alongside Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky, and he held his own.
Much like Byram, the Avalanche have big plans for Newhook and you get the feeling like his training wheels will be fully removed this season. Where Byram might be a question mark as to where he fits depending on the style of play the Avalanche are going after, Newhook should be a staple at puck drop for opening day. Some might find that odd for a player who only played in 14 total games last season (six regular season, eight playoff).
The only question surrounding Newhook is which line he will play on. If head coach Jared Bednar has shown us anything, it is his willingness to change up lines whenever he sees fit. If Newhook starts the season on the third line, don’t be surprised when he is bumped up to the second line and then never gives that position away. His talent is sky high.
Newhook got the call to join the Avalanche with about a week left in the regular season on May 5. He notched his first career point in an assist during his second career game against the Los Angeles Kings and his first multipoint game with two assists against the Vegas Golden Knights. He would get his first career goal in the playoffs against the St. Louis Blues, a game-winning goal.
Newhook’s lack of experience showed in the playoffs and his time on ice plummeted to around five minutes per game while playing mainly on the fourth line. His time on ice during the few regular-season games clocked in at about three times that amount. The Avalanche are going to ask him to be one of the guys to replace all the depth that was lost in the offseason, so getting off to a solid start will be of great importance for him and the team.
Drafted 16th overall in the first round of the 2018 Draft, much has been expected of Martin Kaut. Many thought he might have been on his way to becoming more of a mainstay when he saw some NHL ice time during the 2019-20 season and performed admirably. It might have only been for nine games, but the fact the Avalanche kept him when his name was thrown around with almost any trade says a lot about the team and their intentions with Kaut.
But then last season came and Kaut seemed to have taken the dreaded step backwards. Coach Bednar even replied that Kaut played “just OK” when asked to assess him following the five games he played for the team last season. The fact he regressed in the amount of games played is telling. The Avalanche were not willing to try and let him work out any kinks due to the shortness of the season as well as the team having many different options at the forward position. If you were not playing at the level coach Bednar expected, it was easy to find someone who was.
A new season is just what Kaut might need. He is a big body at 6-foot-2 and weighs 190 pounds — something the Avalanche need on the front end. He can be that depth player on the bottom six that is physical and can provide scoring as well. In 20 games for the Eagles last season, he amassed 16 points (six goals, 10 assists).
Don’t expect Kaut to make much of an impact at the start of the season. He likely will be given opportunities if the injury bug strikes the Avalanche again. What he does with that opportunity will decide his fate for how long he remains with the club. If he can find some consistency, he can be the perfect player the organizaation is looking for this season in the depth department.
Avalanche fans want nothing more than for Shane Bowers to become a top-six forward, to be named an NHL All-Star, then unanimously claim the Calder Trophy. They would have even more gloating rights for the legendary haul the Avalanche received in the Matt Duchene deal with the Ottawa Senators. Unfortunately, Bowers still has some developing to do.
In the trade that seems to just keep on giving, the Avalanche have yet to see what Bowers can do at the NHL level. The word that has been attached to him since he came over in the trade has been “patience.” That can be a good or a bad thing. We are not close to the point yet where that patience has run out, but if he doesn’t at least make an appearance for the Avalanche this year, will we have to start wondering when he will?
The 28th-overall pick in the 2017 Draft by Ottawa, Bowers was the beginning of an Avalanche rebuild, one that didn’t take very long to turn around. Thanks to the team finding success in making the playoffs the year after their dumpster fire season of 2016-17, he wasn’t a necessity for the Avalanche and he was able to remain at Boston University until ultimately joining the Eagles in the AHL where he has played since.
Could Bowers crack the Avalanche roster this year? That would really depend on how his season with the Eagles is going. Just like prospects Newhook and Byram are expected to take the next step with the Avalanche, Bowers is expected to do the same with the Eagles. If he shows improvement in different areas of his game such as his skating and compete level, he could make a surprise roster spot later in the season on a bottom-six position to see what he can do.
We all have our favorites when it comes to prospects. For me, that guy is Jean-Luc Foudy. Selected in the third round of the 2020 Draft, he has the potential to carry the “steal” label. Under normal circumstances, we wouldn’t be discussing him as a player with the chance to crack the Avalanche roster for at least another year. But thanks to COVID-19 causing the Ontario Hockey League to shut down their season, Foudy was allowed to leave the Windsor Spitfires and join the Eagles in the AHL.
This has allowed Foudy to play with men on a nightly basis and get ahead of the curve at a faster rate than he would have otherwise, and he has impressed. He is known for his speed. Is that any surprise considering how the Avalanche play? His speed, along with his constant motor, are what can keep him involved in plays long after he should be. He is great at handling the puck, but that is what also can get him into trouble sometimes around the net. He tries to get too cute when he should just hammer home a shot. It also wouldn’t hurt him to add a few pounds to his 177-pound frame.
Being the youngest player on the Eagles roster didn’t mean much in terms of production. Foudy finished his AHL season fourth on the team in points with 14 and second in assists with 11. What he needs to work on is all teachable aspects but those will also come naturally with experience and being another year older. With him having a season in the books with the Eagles, he will be much more primed to eventually make his jump to the Avalanche. I don’t see it happening this season, but if there is a guy I am constantly watching, it’s Foudy.
If you thought Newhook was thrown to the wolves with the Avalanche, imagine being Sampo Ranta. Not only do you finally get a shot in the NHL, but it’s in the playoffs against Vegas. Good luck, kid. From the Avalanche’s perspective, they are showing how much confidence they have in their prospect. The return was a mixed reaction.
Ranta not only came to the Avalanche late in the season, but his arrival to the Eagles wasn’t until his college season with the Minnesota Golden Gophers came to an end. Once he arrived in the AHL, he jumped right into the mix. In 14 games, he netted four goals and dished out three assists. That seemingly effortless transition to a higher league allowed him to test his ability with the Avalanche for a short two-game run.
Bringing Ranta up was a knee-jerk reaction. He wasn’t necessarily a liability on the ice, but he wasn’t a force by any means. Still, the Avalanche clearly have bigger plans for him if they are entrusting a prospect with zero NHL experience with a roster spot in the playoffs. Expect to see Ranta start his season with the Eagles and get the call-up to the Avalanche as the NHL season progresses.
If the Avalanche have shown us anything, it’s that they know how to find value in the third round of the draft. I discussed that potential with Foudy, and there is even more of that potential in Alex Beaucage. While he has yet to join the Eagles in the AHL, Avalanche fans and the franchise itself are chomping at the bit to see what this kid can do at a higher level.
Drafted 78th overall in the 2019 NHL Draft, Beaucage has been a scoring machine in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). In the 2018-19 season, he amassed 79 points in 68 games (39 goals, 40 assists). Many wanted to see what he could do the following season when both of his older linemates would be gone. He answered those questions by putting together a 70-point season with 40 goals and 30 assists. He was off to yet another great start with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies where he put up 14 goals and six assists in just 14 games before being traded to the Victoriaville Tigres. In eight games with Victoriaville, he still managed eight points (three goals, five assists).
Beaucage has continued to produce no matter the odds. It seems like each year begins with the “can he do it again” mentality, and he has answered that question every time. That’s not to say he doesn’t have work to do to smooth out some aspects of his game. His heavy skating style needs to improve and his shot needs some polish. For where he plays right now, his shot is good, but he needs to be more accurate.
We won’t see Beaucage this season for the Avalanche, but if you were ranking prospects that have zero games played for the team, you would likely put him no lower than second on that list. The Avalanche could have struck gold with this player, and the good part is they are in no need to rush him.
Many were surprised when the Avalanche drafted Justin Barron 25th overall in the 2020 NHL Draft. Not because it was a stretch of a pick, but because the organization seemed to already have addressed the defensive side of their franchise with picks like Cale Makar, Bowen Byram and Connor Timmins in previous drafts, in addition to locking up Samuel Girard to a long-term contract and trading for Devon Toews.
If not for injuries, it’s likely Barron could have been a top-10 pick, so the Avalanche were not willing to let a player like that go when he fell into their lap. However, they were comfortable, feeling like his injuries were something they could manage.
Barron is another longshot to see any Avalanche action this year. After four seasons in the QMJHL with the Halifax Mooseheads, he saw only seven games with the Eagles, scoring four points (one goal, three assists). He will be watched closely this season to see how he adjusts to a full season in the AHL, but in looking ahead one has to question where and when he will fit in on an Avalanche team loaded with defensive talent.
The Challenges Ahead
The Avalanche go into this season like they did the last one, with expectations of winning a Stanley Cup. To do that it will not only be an “all hands on deck” mentality, but if they have learned anything over the past two seasons, thanks to injuries, it will be a “next man up” approach as well. Some of the prospects discussed might have to be that next man.
We never know how a season will play out and therefore how deep the Avalanche will need to dip into their pool of prospects. There are already several players with the Eagles the Avalanche know they can call on such as Jayson Megna and Kiefer Sherwood. So, prospects like Foudy and Bowers would have to produce at a high level with the Eagles in order to leapfrog some of the already established players..
One thing you always hear with the Avalanche is that they are in a window to win now and have set themselves up nicely for the future. The players above are a big reason why the future looks so bright. Avalanche fans will get to see players like Byram and Newhook right away, but might have to wait to see the talents of Foudy and Barron. Patience is a term often used with prospects, and that is true for the fans as well.
This content was originally published here.