In the National Hockey League, maybe more so than most sports, a team’s depth, at every level, is of the utmost importance. Injuries, COVID protocol, the impact of a condensed schedule and the rest required because of it—it all puts pressure on a roster, challenging the team’s depth and requiring the need for someone else to be able to step up to the plate from time to time.
For the Avalanche, their depth has been challenged at various points throughout the season. In fact, the Avs have already lost nearly 250 man games to illness or injury—only a handful of teams have lost more—yet, Colorado still stands atop the NHL standings.
A healthy portion of those man-games lost to injury have come from the team’s defense. So far, the Avs have had 14 different defensemen dress in an NHL game this year, with a large percentage of those coming from their AHL affiliate, the Colorado Eagles.
“It’s been huge,” Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar said of the D call-ups. “We’ve tried different guys in different spots, and they’ve done an admirable job.
“When you’re talking about trying to make a deep playoff run, you’re gonna have players get banged up and not be healthy all the way through and you’ve gotta have the depth…the playoffs is a totally different animal.”
“You can never have too much depth,” echoed GM Joe Sakic recently.
The Avalanche GM has done a superb job in building up the team’s depth over the years. Because of this, his team has thrived this season, as a result of the well-stocked pipeline that’s running from Denver to Loveland.
“We’ve really liked what we’ve seen from some of those young guys coming up in their first NHL opportunities, some guys in their second, a lot of guys that haven’t played in a lot of games,” Bednar added. “We have guys coming into the lineup with zero, three, five NHL games and they’re doing a nice job.”
Kyle Burroughs, Jacob MacDonald, Conor Timmins, Dan Renouf, Dennis Gilbert, Greg Pateryn and Keaton Middleton have all stepped up at various times as call-ups from the Colorado Eagles, contributing some significant minutes for the Avalanche while replacing some injured key members on the backend, like Erik Johnson and Bowen Byram.
Ryan Graves, a mainstay on the backend for the Avs, and a fellow Eagles graduate, knows what it’s like to be a young AHLer and to step in.
“I love to see it, as someone that did it myself. You just need a chance,” Graves said of the Eagles D-men. “You see guys like Middleton and Burroughs who just haven’t gotten a chance, but have played quite a few AHL games. It’s a credit to the Avs for giving them a chance and just letting them play their game like they did with me.
“I love to see it. I think everyone that’s had a chance up here so far has played well. I think it’s been a credit to the organization and it’s definitely helped us win some games.”
From Ryan Graves to Keaton Middleton, the most recent D-man to make his debut for the Avalanche, their abilities to step up for the Avs stems from the development and attention they receive down in Loveland with the Colorado Eagles.
Eagles head coach Greg Cronin has created an environment that has incubated strong development for these players. He says he’s taken parts of his coaching style and teachings from his past coaching jobs, where he learned alongside the likes of University of Maine legends Shawn Walsh and Grant Standbrook, or Mike Milbury and Jack Capulano while he was in New York, and Randy Carlisle while in Toronto.
“They all have different ways to coach defense,” Cronin told Colorado Hockey Now. “I think we’ve taken those ways and I think that we’ve streamlined them into principles, fundamental athletic principles that a defenseman has to build into his game habitually to be a good defender…We have these developmental practices that allow players to get more reps in those and I think we do some innovative things that promote awareness from our defenseman that come in here.
“Whether it’s someone as recent as Dennis Gilbert or as veteran as Gravy, they learn and that foundation has to be present and visible in everything they do on the ice. It just makes the game easier. We’re fortunate that those guys have learned it and have been able to observe it, and they’ve taken those principles and they’ve integrated them into their game.”
The environment up in Loveland is really where it all starts. When you think of the word “depth,” it’s not merely the four forward lines and three D-pairs on the 23-man NHL roster. Sure, that depth is important, but really the depth at the AHL level might be even more crucial.
The number of defenseman that have been called up and have stepped in and contributed significantly so far this season is a testament to that, and it’s a testament to the work being done with the Eagles to quickly develop NHL-ready talent.
“When I talk to Jared (Bednar) and he says how impactful Jacob MacDonald is, it’s another example of what we’re doing here is working. Keaton Middleton, when he goes up and plays well, that again reflects what we’re doing here,” Cronin continued. “It’s really led by (Eagles assistant coach) Aaron Schneekloth, he’s got the D and he’s really vigilant about the habits in practice. To add Clarky (Avs development coach Brett Clark) to the staff and Brian Willsie and Steve Reinprecht, those guys are totally invested in it, so the language we’re speaking is consistent across the board.”