The Colorado Avalanche were a nightmare last season. Filled with aging veterans slogging their way around the ice, the NHL club managed to string together both the league’s most impotent offense and generous defense. The playstyle was slow, methodical, and flat out boring. Most games were a test of sanity of the observer who could have spent their time doing almost anything else that would have been potentially productive as opposed to watching a broken record continue to scratch on all the same notes.
All across the hockey world, the Avalanche scouting staff was hard at work putting eyeballs on the future of the Avalanche in a mold they felt would play well in today’s NHL and ultimately change their playstyle at the highest level. Under the guidance of director of amateur scouting Alan Hepple, they were to find players who excelled as skaters, could think the game as quickly as they skated, and possessed a certain amount of raw skill for them to focus on. The process, beginning in July of 2016, resulted in the seven-player class the Avalanche drafted last week.
The focus on skating first and foremost is what led the Avalanche to become enamored with defenseman Cale Makar of the Brooks Bandits of the AJHL. When it came time for Colorado to make their selection with the fourth overall pick, there was only one name on their list: Makar.
“One of the things that jumped off the page when you went to watch him was he had the puck all the time,” Hepple explained. “His skating was extraordinary. I would say top three in the draft as far as skating. His ability to move the puck and create offense was something that attracted us to him. That’s the new generation of defenseman in the NHL that has puck ability, offensive ability, and can really skate.”
Hepple emphasized the way the game was changing and Colorado’s need to change their approach in order to stay current with the NHL, saying “I think it’s getting to the point where it’s the new generation but it’s been coming for a couple of years now. The puck moving, the ability to manage the game from the back end, the ability to see the game. That attracted us to him and that’s been coming for a few years now.”
Sitting atop the second round with the 32nd overall selection, the Avalanche fielded a number of calls for the pick. Given their need for more selections for a system thinned by rapid graduations in recent years, it was a difficult call but Colorado felt the player at the top of their board was simply too good to risk missing out on. To begin draft proceedings last Saturday morning, the Avalanche made defenseman Conor Timmins their second selection, further bolstering their blueline prospect ranks. What made him the priority over stockpiling selections?
“It was the hockey sense,” Hepple recounted. “It was the ability to move the puck. It was the puck management. He’s a one pass guy out of his own zone. Again, it was the ability to control the game out of the back end and have some offensive ability. Both these guys have offensive ability. For a defenseman nowadays, if you can find them, it’s tough to buy them.”
The lack of movement on draft day meant there was a long wait for the Avalanche between the 32nd and 94th picks, where the Avalanche led off the fourth round by selecting a guy they felt fortunate to land in right wing Nick Henry, who they expected would be a third-round selection. A late-season shoulder injury, which will require surgery after this week’s development camp, may have played a role in Henry falling down the board.
“It might have helped,” Hepple admitted with a smile. “I always thought he was going to be a third rounder. Our fourth round pick is basically a third round because it was so high so I wasn’t too worried. We talked to [Matt Sokolowski, head athletic trainer], talked to trainers, talked to doctors. They’re going to go fix him up and he’s going to miss three or four months of development. At the same time, he’s here. He’s going to skate, he’s going to do all the stuff and he’s going to learn how to be a pro and that’s the big thing.”
Instead of pushing him down Colorado’s board, Hepple admitted the Avalanche may have been intrigued even more by Henry because he simply refused to allow the injury to stop him from pushing forward through the postseason with the Regina Pats and then the NHL combine. Long term, however, they’re more excited about the player than worried about the injury.
“I’m not worried about the shoulder. We talked to [Sokolowski] and the doctors and it was fine. He’s going to be better after he gets it fixed. One thing I will say is he had to be fairly tough to play through the playoffs with it, to go through the combine with it so that really was one of the things that kind of attracted us to him. Again, offensively skilled. He has the ability to play with smart players. He played with two other good players in Regina. He sees the game, he’s on the puck, he’s tenacious. He’s one of those guys you’re going to win those playoff games with when those games get tough. He had the playoff run this year and next year he’ll get to play in the Memorial Cup in Regina.”
A result of a post-draft deal with the New York Rangers in 2016 gave the Avalanche a second selection in the fourth round and Colorado was deciding between two players. Ultimately, they landed on Czech goaltender Petr Kvaca, who had a strong end to his season and marked the second consecutive season the Avalanche drafted an overage goaltender from Europe in the middle rounds. That was certainly no accident.
“I think the advantages are obviously you get an older player but you get a two, three-year window and he’s already playing against men,” Hepple articulated. “He’s in that development set where he’s got the net and it’s a better game sometimes than the junior game because it is men. It’s faster, he’s getting harder shots. There’s only so many nets out there. To take someone in Europe who’s already got a net makes it a little easier to take a goalie there.”
At the top of the fifth round, the Avalanche made the kind of selection they’ve rarely made in their recent history when they selected Russian center Igor Shyvrev. He’s a highly skilled player who scored 70 points in 40 games in the MHL, equivalent to Russian juniors. There was no doubt he was a draftable prospect in the eyes of the industry but there was significant concern about his desire to ever come to North America. It’s a situation the Avalanche feel confident they can manage.
“I think if the situation is right, he’s got skill,” Hepple said. “We’ve talked to the agents, we’ve talked to all that….yes, he wants to come. I guess if the situation is right, he will come.”
What are the circumstances to make the situation right?
“Maybe he comes to juniors first,” Hepple suggested. “The CHL Import Draft is this Tuesday. We’ve had calls whether he wants to come. We told them they have to talk to the agents and find out whether he wants to come play junior in Canada which I always think is a plus. He comes over, learns the language, learns the culture, gets a little better as far as getting used to things. So it’s a bit of a leap of faith but with the skill level and the hockey sense…and we’ve got [Andrei] Mironov here, we’ve got [Semyon] Varlamov here. We’ve got some other Russians here that might help along the way.”
Of all the selections made by Colorado, Shyvrev was most intriguing simply because the Avalanche have long eschewed drafting kids from Russia in favor of sticking to North America. Two years ago, the Avalanche bucked that trend in selecting Mironov in the fourth round when he was fresh off a KHL All-Star appearance. That seemed to pave the way for Colorado to begin making consistent inroads into the Russian hockey establishment.
“I think it’s getting the Russians,” Hepple said of feeling comfortable taking a chance on a guy like Shyvrev. “I think it’s getting a Varly, getting a [Nikita] Zadorov, getting a Mironov to come. We took a chance with Mironov. He was an older guy, we let him play in the KHL and develop and now I think he wanted to come. (Shyvrev’s) a good player, he’s an offensive player. If you hit on him, that’s great. Sometimes it’s better than the project you’re going to draft in the fifth round. The big guy that maybe doesn’t have any skill, can’t skate, you’re taking a chance on him. Why not take a chance on a skilled Russian that maybe one day says he wants to come?”
Colorado selected Shyvrev with the 125th selection and he was the second player they were considering at the spot they selected Kvaca, 114th, but in the end, they got both of their guys.
“70 points…so we’re pretty happy with him there,” Hepple beamed. “We were trying to push it there so we said we’d take the goalie and then him. You know sometimes it is a leap of faith but we have to take those chances to get a skilled player like that.”
Next on the list was sixth rounder Denis Smirnov, a forward who was in his third year of draft eligibility. While also Russian, Smirnov had spent the last three years working his through the USHL, eventually becoming a point-per-game player in 2015-16 before leaving for his freshman year at Penn State last year. Once there, the diminutive Smirnov, generously listed at 5’10” and 190 pounds, blossomed, leading the Nittany Lions in scoring with 47 points in just 39 games.
“We knew about him and obviously for him, it’s always about his size,” Hepple explained. “But the goal-scoring ability, the NHL now, small guys are playing. Smaller players are playing. With him being able to put the puck in the net and the fact that he is smart, he is super skilled. That was one thing his coach said. He sees the ice better than anybody the coach at Penn State had ever seen anybody play for him before.”
Given his age, Hepple expressed disappointment he won’t be able to see Smirnov matchup against some of Colorado’s older prospects to gauge where his level really is thanks to an archaic and complicated system that makes NCAA players attending NHL training camps a tricky situation.
“It’s kind of funny because he can’t come to training camp,” Hepple said, not actually finding it funny at all. “I wish I could see him against our AHL guys and see how he is. I’m looking forward to him down the road. If he keeps at the pace, and I say this all the time, but if we don’t draft him, next year down the road everyone is chasing him because he’s a free agent. Now we have him and we can bring him into the Avs organization. He’s ours.”
Heading into the team’s final selection, 187th overall, the Avalanche used a bit of good fortune to find their man. When it became apparent Colorado would have a very high selection this season, they put additional resources into scouting Eden Prairie High School star forward Casey Mittelstadt, who eventually went 8th overall to Buffalo, and discovered his teammate, defenseman Nick Leivermann. To close out their draft, they landed on the captain of the Eagles squad that fell in the semifinals of the state tournament.
“Our scout, John Funk, liked him in Minnesota,” Hepple said of Leivermann. “He played in the high school championships in Minnesota and our guys jumped on him and loved him. We talked about it and again, I don’t think you can have enough puck-moving, kind of skating defensemen. Is he going to have to learn to play defense? Probably. But it’s like all these guys have to learn to play defense. Cale Makar always has the puck. Conor Timmins always has the puck. Now all of a sudden they’re going to have to come here and learn how to play without the puck. He’s going to have to learn to play both sides of the puck. Again, you can’t teach what he has.”
In the end, the Avalanche made seven selections, amassing three forwards, three defensemen, and one goaltender, but ultimately found themselves with an older class. Makar was a late 1998 birthday, making him old for a class of predominantly 1999 birthdays, and all of Kvaca, Shyvrev, and Smirnov had been passed over in previous drafts. According to Hepple, this wasn’t an intentional direction for their draft board.
“I think it’s just the way the draft went,” Hepple allowed. “I think it’s just the way we looked at it and said you know these guys are available, and these guys are going to school and these guys have more time to develop at school. We’re happy with that. If you leave a guy in Europe playing with men, it’s better for them. Sometimes the CHL guys, and it’s just some of the analytics we look at, that say the late-round CHL player that’s a project might not play. When you take a skilled European, a skilled goalie, or a skilled NCAA guy that’s a little bit older, maybe you have a better chance at getting a player.”
Colorado has built a group with some similarities in their last two draft classes as Makar joined Jost, who played in the BCHL, as first round selections from lower tier leagues and Leivermann, a Notre Dame commitment in 2018, will join 2016 draftees Cam Morrison and Nate Clurman as members of the Fighting Irish. Again, Hepple said it wasn’t part of a master plan to do that but good fortune.
“It’s a happy coincidence,” Hepple said with a chuckle. “I don’t know what it is. Cam Morrison, Nate Clurman, now Nick Leivermann. That’s the way it worked out. There was no method to my madness. I didn’t plan it that way. We’ve taken two tier two players the last two years with our first round picks with Tyson Jost and now Cale. I don’t worry about that stuff. I worry about taking the best player at that time at that position.”
For Clurman, there was initial disappointment in his decision to pass up playing for Tri-City in the USHL last season and return to Culver Academy for one more year but this year he will finally make that leap to the highest American junior level before going to Notre Dame and sharing a blueline with Leivermann for the 2018-19 season (Leivermann is currently scheduled to join the Penticton Vees, Jost’s old team, of the BCHL next season).
“It’s Tri-City next year,” Hepple said of Clurman’s route. “He and Leivermann will go into Notre Dame together. The guys there love it because they get two guys with coverage and help them with their development at one stop.”
Continuing with the Notre Dame guys, Hepple said he was happy with the progress of Colorado’s forgotten man from the 2016 draft class, Morrison.
“I only saw him play (live) once during the year and I was happy with his game,” Hepple said. He’s a big, skilled power forward type. Great shot, everything I think is only going to get better for him with maturity. I was happy with that. At the junior level, he was always a scorer, always putting the puck in the net so I expect big things this year. Maybe he’s with the Avs the following year, who knows. All these kids need development time. We have to be patient with all of them whether it’s Cam Morrison, even Tyson Jost is going to need patience as well.”
One of last year’s more controversial selections was the pick of bruising defenseman Josh Anderson of the Prince George Cougars (WHL), who will not participate in this week’s development camp due to injury. Of all the selections made by Colorado the last two seasons, he stands out the most as the oddball of the group. It turns out, picking him may have paved the way for Colorado’s puck-moving mania this season.
“The one thing he is, he’s a good skater,” Hepple said of Anderson. “He might not have that puck game those other guys have but he’s a first-pass guy. The offensive game isn’t there but he’s a big skater. He is a good skater. That is one thing I stress to all our guys. They have to be able to skate. Does he have the offense, the puck game? No, but I think he understands the game. I think he’s going to be fine if he plays that…he’ll be paired with Cale Makar. They need those guys to help the offensive guys. If they’re up the ice all the time, they need somebody to stay back. They can’t both be up the ice all the time.”
As development camp opens this morning, the Avalanche invited eight players who were not drafted to participate, an impressive number for a team that typically keeps their invites relatively low. For the six skaters, Hepple again emphasized a certain type of player they were looking for.
“I think we stressed the point with our scouts and our development people that they had to have the speed, they had to have the hockey sense,” Hepple said of the camp invites. “If you look at the guys we have coming in, that’s the thing we’re seeing. They’ve got skill, they’ve got hockey sense, they’ve got speed because that’s the way the game is going in the National Hockey League.”
Two of the players invited come from the Sherbrooke Phoenix of the QMJHL and one, in particular, stood out to Hepple as a player of interest.
“Jerome [Mesonero, Quebec scout] liked ’em and they were two guys that went through the draft and you look at their stats they are offensive guys. I was surprised [defenseman Thomas]Gregoire didn’t get drafted so we’ll see what happens. He’s an offensive guy.”
In the end, the Hepple was happy to shine a little light on the process he and his team went through in order to compile this year’s drafting class. After a year in which nothing seemed to go right in what will likely be remembered as the darkest season in Avalanche history, a little light was certainly necessary around these parts.