Old friend Jesse Montano is down in Scottsdale for the Rookie Showcase, and filed this report. Follow Jesse @jessemontano_
By Jesse Montano
SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. – It’s so funny, a weekend that in past seasons has felt like something you somewhat have to get through before training camp officially opens and marks the start of the new NHL season, this year’s Rookie Faceoff was a sight for sore eyes, after skipping it last year due to COVID concerns. And having the ability to watch high-end, professional hockey live in-person is something I have learned not to take for granted. Even still, the Colorado Avalanche prospects didn’t give a ton to be super excited about in their first game of the weekend.
Before even seeing the Avs’ youngsters hit the ice, I was reminded what a proper NHL facility should look like. When I arrived at the official practice facility of the Arizona Coyotes, The Ice Den Scottsdale, I couldn’t help but be impressed. For a market that has long been criticized for it’s lack of interest in hockey, they have a fantastic venue right off Highway 101 that seems to be engaged in all the right ways with the community (and some very friendly, helpful staff to go along with it). I was also impressed by the amount of fans that turned out for an event like this, perhaps it’s a sign of the times and people feeling deprived of live entertainment. So many fans turned out, in fact, that the venue actually had to limit the number of tickets sold, and completely sold out for the entire weekend.
As Bowen Byram, named team captain for the young squad, led his team out for warm-ups ahead of their matchup with the best the Los Angeles Kings prospect pipeline has to offer, the stands filled up with fans, media and scouts. Lots and lots of scouts. A few general managers made an appearance as well, Vegas’ George McPhee, and Colorado’s own Joe Sakic turned up in Arizona to do some evaluation of their own.
Now let’s get to what happened on the ice. LA brought a team that has plenty of professional experience to the desert, with players like Quinton Byfield, Sean Durzi, Tyler Madden, goaltender Matt Villalta all taking the ice, and it showed. The Kings shut-out the Avalanche 4-0, as their group very clearly had more cohesion and looked like they had more than one single week of practice under their belt. But as is the case with all preseason games.. the result is whatever. How did they LOOK?
Well, that part wasn’t great either for the Avalanche prospects. Just a lot of sloppy play and bad mistakes. Holding the puck too long, forcing passes where lanes don’t exist, passing up on shots from the home plate area, and questionable step-ups in the neutral zone. Now keep in mind what I said above, LA rolled out most of an AHL team. Many of Colorado’s players were getting their first taste of professional speed and physicality. It wasn’t that they were “bad”.. they just looked like they were learning how to make decisions a step quicker.
But it wasn’t all newbies, The avalanche had the likes of Bowen Byram, Sampo Ranta, Alex Newhook, and Shane Bowers all in the line up. So let’s talk about them for a second. All four of the players I just listed were.. fine. Looked good. They were a clear step ahead of their peers, and each of them made multiple plays where you had the thought “if the player they were passing to was better, that would’ve been a perfect play”, and they each had flashes. But my only real gripe with all of Colorado’s “veterans” was that they didn’t do enough to impose their will on players that they are meant to be a tier above.
Byram stood out the most among Colorado’s skaters. He made several individual plays with the puck that really made you sit up, including an impressive skate-to-stick keep at the offensive blue line to keep a power play alive. He had several dashes up the ice where he created his own space and lanes to the net. The former 4th Overall pick also had the Avs’ best scoring chance of the day when he walked down the left wall, stepped by an LA forward, and ripped on off the short side crossbar.
Bowers looked like he was trying to demonstrate to coaches that the message of needing to get bigger was heard loud and clear. His moments that stood out was when he was driving wide and using a big frame to protect the puck and make plays.
Alex Newhook and Sampo Ranta were the two Avs forwards that disappointed me the most. Neither of them were bad, neither of them did anything that was egregious. I just expected more. I thought Newhook was so good in his role with the Avs last year, and while his skating really seemed to be a step above most others, I know that he is a much better player than what he showed yesterday. I expect him to be the best forward on either team when they play again on Sunday.
Ranta was another that I liked last year in the playoffs. Was he in a little over his head? Of course, but I thought he held his own, and didn’t do anything that hurt your team. Which I consider an accomplishment for a rookie being dropped into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But he just purely looked like he didn’t have it yesterday. Everything that has made him a dynamic offensive threat in the NCAA and the AHL was seemingly MIA yesterday. But again, not too worried about one game. I expect him to be another one that takes over at some point this weekend.
Justus Annunen was totally fine. The four goals were fine. The only one that makes you throw your head back was when he fell for the oldest trick in the book… an opposing player calling for the puck when you aren’t looking up. He didn’t take a look before sending a soft backhand pass right to the tape of a Kings forechecker who threw it to the front of the net, leading to a goal.
Oh, also there’s a reason I haven’t even mentioned Oskar Olausson so far in this article. Let’s just forget this one happened for him, yeah?
The Avs take back to the Ice on tomorrow (Sunday) at 5PM MT against the Prospects from the Anaheim Ducks season who are coming off absolutely smoking the San Jose Sharks 7-3. The game will be streamed on the the Colorado Avalanche website. I’m expecting a bounce back game from the Avs top prospects against what will be another tough opponent, and finally get on the board.