When Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy took over the Avalanche front office, they obtained a team with some high end young talent, but with an alarming lack of organizational depth and very few prospects for the future. They also took over a team with only two players, Jan Hejda and Semyon Varlamov, who did their amateur development overseas. Thanks to some quality drafting and UFA signings in his two years as GM, Sakic has already taken steps to address the lack of depth, and the surprising solution for this once purely North American organization has come from Europe.
With the exception of a “twilight-years” Jarome Iginla, the new Avalanche front office has struggled to acquire any high end, established players via trade or free agency. They publicly chased after Matt Niskanen, Anton Stralman, Brooks Orpik, and their own impending free agent, Paul Stastny, but none wanted to make a deal. But when a door shuts, a window opens, and while the Avs have struggled in the traditional UFA market, they’ve done an admirable job of rebuilding their depth with UFA signings overseas.
In their first full summer at the helm, Roy and Sakic signed three European depth players from three different leagues for the Avs’ system. Goaltender Roman Will was signed from BK Mladá Boleslav in the Czech Extraliga. He spent the season with Avalanche’s ECHL affiliate, the Fort Wayne Komets and could battle for the backup goalie position in San Antonio next season. From the Finnish Elite League, the Avalanche signed Croatian winger Borna Rendulic. Rendulic played parts of the year in the AHL and NHL and scored his first NHL goal before breaking his leg near the end of the season.
Last, the Avalanche signed Swedish winger Dennis Everberg from Rögle BK in the Swedish Elite League. Everberg exceeded all expectations and played a checking role on the NHL roster for most of the season despite multiple shoulder injuries. All three players are young, promising, and figure to play a role in the Avs future at some level. Will was an honorable mention in BSN’s Top 25 Under 25 series while Rendulic and Everberg ranked 18th and 10th respectively.
Pleased with their results, the Avalanche went across the pond again this summer to open free agency. Their first, and only UFA signing of the 2015 offseason so far is Norwegian winger, Andreas Martinsen. Martinsen comes from Düsseldorfer EG in Germany’s DEL (Deutsche Eishockey Liga) and projects as a depth winger for the Avalanche’s AHL affiliate. One calendar year and already the Avalanche have recruited four European free agents from four distinct foreign leagues.
Even with Norwegian forward Andreas Martinsen following in the footsteps of Dennis Everberg and Borna Rendulic, there are already rumors of the Avalanche chasing after even more European players this offseason. The Avalanche’s interest in KHL superstar Alexander Radulov is well documented. Radulov played some of his best hockey for coach Patrick Roy with the Quebec Remparts years before abandoning his NHL contract with Nashville to play in the KHL.
Last week Mike Chambers at the Denver Post reported that the Avalanche are also exploring a contract with 5’8” American expatriate Derek Ryan from the SHL. Though Ryan did his early development in the North American WHL, he has spent his entire professional hockey career abroad. Playing with Orebro HK, Ryan led the entire SHL in scoring last season.
According to Eurolanche, there are even rumblings that the Avalanche have reached out to former Av Jonas Holøs. Holøs was drafted by the Avalanche years ago and spent one season with the team, but opted to return to the KHL. Though he’s spent the last few years playing in the KHL and for Norway in international competition, the Avalanche still own exclusive contract rights to Holos until July 1st, 2015. We profiled the Norwegian born KHL defenseman and his relationship with the Avalanche in detail here earlier this summer.
In fact, the Avalanche’s newfound interest overseas has extended beyond free agency and into their drafting habits. In their first NHL Entry Draft, the Avalanche’s new front office selected Willhelm Westlund in the 7th round. The next year, they drafted Anton Lindholm in the 5th round and Maximillian Pajpach in the 6th. In their two years running the team so far, Sakic and Roy have selected as many products of European leagues (3) as the former regime selected in total in the 5 years prior (4th rounder Joachim Nermark, 4th rounder Sami Aittokallio, and 6th rounder Jonas Holøs).
Put it all together and one thing is clear: the Avalanche’s European scouts have caught the ear of decision makers at the head of the franchise.
That brings us to the approaching NHL Entry Draft which as usual, boasts a number of intriguing European prospects. Most notably, the Avalanche could have a chance to select Finnish winger Mikko Rantanen with the 10th overall pick. In the past, fans and draftniks could quickly rule out highly ranked European prospects for this Avalanche organization because they simply didn’t draft abroad. In fact, since 2004 3rd rounder Denis Parshin refused to North America, the Avalanche have never drafted a European player in the first three rounds.
With the influence of European scouts at an all time high in Colorado it would seem as though Rantanen and a number of projected second and third round European players are suddenly back on the Avs’ radar. Today BSN will finish our series of North American prospect profiles before launching into our coverage of European draft eligible skaters on Monday. Considering the Avalanche’s newfound trust in their European scouts, the final 20 prospects from across the Atlantic could be important names for Avalanche fans to learn before the NHL Entry Draft begins on June 26th.