Forging and fostering a winning environment is something all NHL general managers strive to do. And not just in the locker rooms of the NHL team’s facilities, but also down in the minor leagues, where the next generation of NHL talent is developing. If we truly are products of our environments, it would make sense to surround ourselves with positive influences. In sport, it is no different. Colorado Eagles
For Avalanche GM Joe Sakic and Avs assistant/Colorado Eagles GM Craig Billington, they understand the importance and benefits of having their players perform in a competitive environment — even down in the minor league systems. Take for example signings made through the first week of free agency. Aside from completing a trade for veteran top-six forward and two-time Stanley Cup winner Brandon Saad, the slurry of moves and signings Sakic made last week were not necessarily for his NHL roster, but rather adept depth signings for his AHL team down the I-25 corridor in Loveland.
“Everything we did last week was make sure we put together a competitive team there (in Loveland) and have good leaders to help our young guys,” Sakic said of his free agency moves. “We want to have a good team there. We want our prospects to be in a winning environment.”
Work your way down the list and you’ll notice a few things about Sakic’s and Billington’s Eagles additions.
Michael Vecchione provides a cagey veteran presence on the wing down in Loveland. The 27-year-old led San Antonio with 21 goals and finished second on the team in points with 36 in 61 games.
Sakic then signed another hulking 27-year-old winger in Miikka Salomaki. At 5-foot-11, 203 pounds, Salomaki is a sturdy option on the wing for the Eagles. He’s skated in 167 games in the NHL with Nashville, but has struggled to find a fit in the last couple of years. He brings 173 games of American League experience with him to Colorado. Salomaki has scored 37 goals and 92 points and a healthy plus-29 through his six years of AHL experience.
And then there’s Kiefer Sherwood, who finished second in goal scoring on a solid San Diego Gulls team with 16 goals, finishing with 23 points in 37 games. He also brings 60 games of NHL experience with him to Colorado.
Sakic added size and age to the Colorado Eagles roster this season. Nearly all of his free agent signings are at — or over — 200 pounds. He also brought leadership into the system in the form of trades.
The Eagles acquired Denis Gilbert, a young shut-down defenseman from the Blackhawks as part of the Saad-for-Nikita-Zadorov trade. Colorado then flipped former second-round selection (2015) A.J. Greer for another D-man, Bridgeport Sound Tigers captain Kyle Burroughs.
“We think Burroughs is going to come in as a great leader and help our young guys there,” Sakic said. “We believe he may be able to play some games here (in the NHL).”
“You lose A.J. — we were happy for A.J. — and he’s hopefully going to get an opportunity in the Islander organization,” Sakic added of trading away his embattled prospect. “It’s something he was hoping for — maybe a change and a different start.”
Sakic then dialed Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello’s phone once more and traded two second-round picks (2021, 2022) for another young puck-moving D-man Devon Toews to add to Colorado’s pipeline, one that’s already bursting out the seams with young dynamic defensemen.
In addition to those moves, Sakic re-signed other AHL depth guys like T.J. Tynan — the leading scorer for the Eagles — in addition to Sheldon Dries and Jayson Megna, keeping the Eagles’ scoring core from last season largely intact.
Billington’s and Sakic’s smooth moves ensure prospects like Martin Kaut, Shane Bowers, Logan O’Connor and Conor Timmins all have solid veteran leadership to help further their development, while also adding some scoring help and physicality that should result in a few more W’s for the Eagles, to boot.
Most recently, Sakic re-signed AHL standout goaltender Hunter Miska, who all but stole the starting job from then-top goalie prospect Adam Werner. Sakic recently revealed his 2020-21 plans for the goaltending down in Loveland.
“We like the situation we have with the Eagles. We thought Adam Werner did a real good last year and Hunter Miska is there as well,” the Avs GM said. “Just like last year, we’ll see what we have to do and make the best decision possible at the right time when we feel we need that.
“We do want Adam Werner playing a big role with the Eagles as well.”
From goaltending all the way up to the depth signings in Loveland, the Eagles now have 28 players signed to contracts. That is, assuming top prospects like Kaut and Timmins aren’t in the NHL next season and remain members of the Colorado Eagles. It’s also not accounting for Toews, who remains unsigned with a scheduled arbitration date on Halloween Day.
The roster will need to be reduced to 25 by the end of training camp — whenever that might be — in order to meet the requirements of the AHL. That said, it’s probably safe to assume there will be no more moves at the AHL level, though Sakic isn’t afraid to surprise his fanbase. We should all know that by now.
It’s also worth noting that pretty much every free agent signing and re-signing is tendered on a one-year deal, allowing for much roster turnover next season. That, too, is intentional.
“That’s something in another year, we’ll have to sign some other players to come in and have some more youth and prospects in the Eagles organization,” Sakic added. “We want to make sure we have room for them.”
Such is life in the American Hockey League. C’est la vie. Players come and go. At the end of the day, it’s a league meant for developing young talent. You want to see your prospects rise through the rankings as quickly as possible. It means something is going right in Loveland with the Colorado Eagles. And that can only be done when you’ve fostered a healthy, competitive, successful environment for prospects to learn under. It requires a balance of talented veterans to help teach the young kids, plus a pipeline replete with promising prospects, draft picks and acquisitions. So far, it seems Sakic and Billington have done that, and their savvy moves through the first few weeks of October are further proof of that.
But as always the case with developing prospects…only time will tell.