As the Colorado Avalanche try to begin their long climb back into the NHL’s ranks of respectability, Joe Sakic and his team of amateur scouts appear to have pinned their hopes - and their jobs - on a handful of college kids.
On Friday morning when Avalanche rookies take the ice for the first time this season, nine of the 28 players participating in the rookie camp and tournament will join the team after working through an NCAA development track, while five more will miss camp entirely as they start their school years and college seasons elsewhere.
After a decade of low finishes and high draft picks, that’s an unfamiliar proposition for Avalanche fans who’ve become accustomed to seeing the team’s top prospects in action at training camp and, often, jump into the NHL in short order. Historically, the team has been quick to promote their CHL and European talents, moving Matt Duchene, Ryan O`Reilly, Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, and Mikko Rantanen into professional hockey in their immediate post-draft season.
But now, after bottoming out in 2017 and fixing their eyes on the future, Colorado’s front office has embraced a longer-term development strategy. As the Avalanche hurdled toward the league’s basement over the last nine months, the front office made efforts to remove high-priced veteran roadblocks from the lineup and make way for the slow, steady promotion of developing youth.
After years of cutting corners, it appears that patience may finally have its day in the Rocky Mountains. Under Hepple and Sakic, the Avalanche have shown a degree of patience once foreign to the organization. Rather than issue a contract to Conner Bleackley right away, as many NHL teams do for first rounders, the team waited to sign Bleackley. When he failed to develop, Colorado used the value of a compensatory pick earned for not signing him in order to bolster the NHL roster at the 2016 trade deadline. The team limited Mikko Rantanen to just nine NHL games in his rookie season in order to slide his entry level contract and foster development in the AHL. Even last year, the Avs resisted the urge to rush A.J. Greer and J.T. Compher into the NHL in a bid to save their sinking ship, opting instead to bring both players along slowly in the AHL.
That virtue is reflected in the Avalanche's recent drafts as well. Though each of the NHL’s development leagues has its own advantages and disadvantages, there’s one thing that makes college hockey particularly unique; thanks to the NCAA’s strict, archaic rules around compensation, NHL prospects playing for their universities cannot participate in a team’s training camp. Those rules are why top prospect Cale Makar won’t be making his way to San Jose with the Avalanche next week. Because of those restrictions and the inability to evaluate your prospects against professional hockey players in camp, drafting from the NCAA demands a special kind of patience and trust in the development process, a trait that was missing in the Avalanche front office for many years. If Makar can't play against professionals in camp, there's no opportunity to fall in love too soon. All you can do is wait.
The abundance of NCAA talent now found in the Avs’ system reflects a change in strategy for Alan Hepple and the team’s amateur scouting staff. During Rick Pracey’s five year tenure as Director of Amateur scouting in Colorado, high-impact NCAA prospects were few and far between. From 2009-2013, Pracey used just five of the team’s thirty-three draft picks on players taking the college route, with all five picks coming in the fifth round or later. While the Avs were one of 25 teams to pursue local Denver University standout Tyler Bozak when he hit unrestricted free agency in 2009, the team missed out on him and failed to sign a single NCAA free agent not only that summer, but also each of the four years that followed.
Putting it simply - Rick Pracey’s NCAA portfolio in Colorado was a forgettable group. Only the most diehard draftnik Avalanche fans might remember names like Gus Young (184th overall in 2009) or Luke Moffatt (197th overall in 2010), both of whom were let go without signing Entry Level Contracts. 2009’s Kieran Millan (124th overall) spent two years with the CHL affiliate Denver Cutthroats before retiring from hockey altogether, while 2013’s Ben Storm (153rd overall) is attending this year’s rookie camp on an amateur tryout, but is not expected to be signed. That leaves Hobey Baker Winner Will Butcher as the lone prospect with a potential NHL future. Butcher, of course, declined the Avalanche’s advances and signed a free agent contract with the New Jersey Devils this summer.
By contrast, the Alan Hepple era has seen the Avalanche select seven NCAA track players in twenty draft picks so far. Under Hepple, the team has not only drafted more college-bound talent, but they’ve targeted college players in earlier rounds. Since 2015, the team has devoted four of their seven top 60 picks to NCAA prospects. They drafted A.J. Greer and Cameron Morrison 39th and 40th in 2015 and 2016, respectively, and even used a pair of top ten picks to select Tyson Jost and Makar in back-to-back years.
The Colorado scouting office’s work didn’t, however, stop at the draft table. In recent years, the Avalanche have further bolstered their prospect group with a trade for J.T. Compher and the dogged pursuit of several NCAA free agents including Kevin Hayes, Christian Folin, and Gavin Bayreuther, before successfully signing Alexander Kerfoot and Dominic Toninato this summer.
Of course, the immediate fate of the franchise rests on the shoulders of their top prospects like Jost and Makar, who need to lead the next Avalanche core as impact players. The Kerfoot’s, Toninato’s and even Greer’s may never be more than role players in the NHL, but their addition to the system still marks a major coup for Sakic, who’s been forced historically to fill those roles with expensive trades and UFA signings. The steady progression of Colorado’s NCAA pool represents a larger shift towards steady, effective development and internal growth, and though they may not tip the scales for the Avalanche anytime soon, they’re sure to give it the ol’ college try.
Nine NCAA alumni set to take part in Avs' rookie camp:
#37 - J.T. Compher (C/LW)
6' 193 lbs, Shoots Right
2016-17: 21GP 3G 5Pts (NHL: Colorado Avalanche)
Compher spent three years with the University of Michigan Wolverines and served as their captain in his final season. He made his NHL debut last year, scoring 3 goals and 5 points in 21 games. Compher is expected to spend the coming season in the NHL.
#24 - A.J. Greer (LW)
6'3" 204 lbs, Shoots Left
2016-17: 63GP 15G 38Pts (AHL: San Antonio Rampage)
Drafted out of Boston University, A.J. Greer opted out of the NCAA halfway through his sophomore season and joined the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies to finish his development. Last year the rookie earned AHL All Star honors and registered his first NHL point, a lone assist, in his five game NHL debut. Greer could compete for an NHL spot this year.
#17 - Tyson Jost (C)
5'11" 191 lbs, Shoots Left
2016-17: 33GP 16G 35Pts (NCHC: North Dakota)
The Avs' top pick in 2016, Tyson Jost was a freshman standout at the University of North Dakota, scoring 35 points in 32 games played. The rookie made his six game NHL debut last season and scored his first career NHL goal. Jost is a major key to the Avs' future and figures to slide into a top six role this year.
#13 - Alexander Kerfoot (C)
5'10" 175 lbs, Shoots Left
2016-17: 36GP 16G 45Pts (ECAC: Harvard)
Just last week the Avalanche won the Kerfoot sweepstakes, signing the Harvard standout and captain to an ELC. The diminutive scorer and Hobey Baker Finalist may compete for NHL ice time this season.
#49 - Brady Shaw (LW)
6'1" 200 lbs, Shoots Left
2016-17: 34GP 8G 19Pts (H-East: University of Vermont)
Brady Shaw was never able to replicate his breakout sophomore season with the University of Vermont, but still served as an important role player in his last two NCAA years. Shaw signed an AHL ATO to play with the Rampage last season and is attending camp this year on a tryout. If Shaw earns a contract, expect it to be for one of the Avs' affiliates.
#58 - Ben Storm (LW)
6'6" 220 lbs, Shoots Left
2016-17: 29GP 0G 4Pts (NCHC: St. Cloud State)
The gargantuan Ben Storm was selected by the Avalanche 153rd overall in 2013, but struggled throughout his NCAA career to find any semblance of offensive success. Storm scored just 17 points in 121 games with St. Cloud State while shuffling between wing and defense, but was named captain for his senior year. The Avalanche's draft rights to Storm expired this past summer and like Shaw, he's attending camp on an amateur tryout after playing seven games with the Rampage last year.
#47 - Dominic Toninato (C)
6'2" 200 lbs, Shoots Left
2016-17: 42GP 16G 29Pts (NCHC: Minnesota Duluth)
The Avalanche's first NCAA Free Agent signing of the summer, Dominic Toninato joins the team after captaining the University of Minnesota Duluth all the way to the NCAA Championship game. The former Toronto draft pick is a big, competitive two-way forward with shut down potential on defense. Toninato could compete for an NHL spot this year.
#59 - Gage Ausmus (D)
6'2" 215 lbs, Shoots Left
2016-17: 38GP 2G 9Pts (NCHC: North Dakota)
A familiar face for Avalanche fans who followed Tyson Jost's NCAA career, Gage Ausmus joins the Avalanche after serving as a two-year captain for the University of North Dakota. Ausmus is playing at camp on an amateur tryout, but has already signed a contract with the Avs' ECHL affiliate, the Colorado Eagles, for the coming season.
#51 - Nolan De Jong (D)
6'2" 205 lbs, Shoots Left
2016-17: 34GP 4G 14Pts (Big Ten: University of Michigan)
Nolan De Jong took over the Michigan captaincy after teammate J.T. Compher signed with the Avalanche, then he scored a career best 4 goals and 14 points in 34 games during his senior year. De Jong is participating in camp on an amateur tryout.
Avalanche prospects Nathan Clurman (D, Notre Dame), Nick Leivermann (D, Notre Dame), Cale Makar (D, UMass Amherst), Cameron Morrison (F, Notre Dame) and Denis Smirnov (LW, Penn State) will continue their NCAA careers this season and will not attend training camp.
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