Looking back at the 2011 NHL Draft, there was every reason for Colorado Avalanche fans to be excited about where their team was headed. They had just acquired goaltender Semyon Varlamov and a mid-season trade that brought them their number one defenseman in Erik Johnson. They also held picks number two and eleven in the draft, which they used on future captain Gabriel Landeskog and bruising defenseman Duncan Siemens.
While Varlamov, Johnson, and Landeskog have all played significant roles in the various Avalanche successes and failures since then, Siemens has left a fan base and an organization wanting more. His development originally stalled in juniors before a strong finish reignited hope for him in pro hockey. That hope slowly dissipated after he appeared in 225 games across four AHL seasons. It seemed like the organization had decided he's not in their NHL plans and he watched multiple defensive prospects younger than him receive call-ups to the NHL despite him getting one game at the end of the 2014-15 season to show his chops.
Then Siemens, 23, got his own recall last week and he's appeared in the last two games for the Avalanche, giving him the opportunity he's longed for to prove he belongs at the NHL level. Thus far, he's come as advertised, playing a bruising and physical style, as evidenced by his game-high six hits tonight against the Minnesota Wild.
"Tonight was just one of those games where their team likes to get the puck in behind you," Siemens explained of his hit parade. "It's important the way that we play that we get in there, stop them from moving the puck around, and you saw tonight when they get the puck going and their feet going they can be hard to defend. It was important for me to get in there and use my body to stop the puck and give ourselves a chance to get the puck and go on the attack."
Go on the attack the Avalanche eventually did, coming back from deficits of 2-0 and 4-2 to tie the game each time, though Colorado's fourth goal of the game was ultimately called off after a confusing sequence in which the goal was called no good, reversed, then challenged by Minnesota for goaltender interference, which was upheld, leaving the Avalanche one goal short on Fan Appreciate Night at the Pepsi Center. Despite the result, Siemens was feeling upbeat about his play.
"I feel like for the most part, I've been doing really well and just trying to keep it simple and not try to do too much and be physical when I can. I think tonight my physical game came around. I had a little more opportunity to throw my weight around and that's what I've got to do to be effective."
Often times, the hardest person for a young player to sell on his NHL ability is his head coach but Avalanche bench boss Jared Bednar largely agreed with Siemens' assessment of his play, saying, "He's been good, he's been steady. I think Duncan's a guy, his style of play...he's playing well when you don't notice him much out there, he's not mistaking any mistakes. Like you said, he's been battling in the corners and winning puck battles and making simple plays with the puck."
There's nothing flashy or sexy about what Siemens does as he simply uses his impressive 6'3", 211-pound frame to physically dominate those who dare carry the puck in his vicinity, as Wild star forward Mikael Granlund learned tonight when he dumped the puck into the zone and Siemens promptly dropped him to the ice, drawing an interference penalty along the way.
"I thought maybe my initial contact was good," Siemens said of his lone penalty in his two games in Denver. "And I might have carried it a little too far but when you're playing physical unfortunately sometimes you're going to get those. He's one of their skill guys and you have to put him down and make sure you're physical on him."
The biggest hurdle in his development along the way has been the concern over what Siemens does when he actually has the puck. In those 225 AHL games, he's registered just 23 points (4 g, 19 a), numbers that are obscenely low for a player who is trying to contribute at hockey's highest level. That said, his early work with the puck drew a rave review from the most important eye on the Avalanche.
"He's not going to wow you with flashy plays but that's what he is - he's a defender," Bednar said of Siemens' puck work. "He needs to be a shutdown guy that's just steady and I think he's done that over the last couple of games. I think he's been pretty good."
Siemens agrees and recognizes that's the area where he gets himself into the kind of trouble that has thus far held him back from more NHL minutes.
"I feel like I've done a pretty good job with (the puck)," Siemens said. "It's really important for me to get the puck and get it on and off my stick as quick as possible. As soon as I try to do too much with it is when I get myself in trouble so I just try to focus on making my first read and not trying to create something that's not there and using my first option."
Looking ahead, Siemens is staring down restricted free agency yet for the second time in two years and while the Avalanche extended him a qualifying offer to retain his services last year, there's been growing uncertainty where he is worth taking up a contract spot on as the team continues to stockpile young blue line talent. With highly regarded prospects such as Nicolas Meloche and potentially Will Butcher and Andrei Mironov joining pro hockey, the waters are muddy for Siemens returning to the team that drafted him and he knows the season's final two games this weekend are the last chances he'll have to prove he's worth retaining.
"They're really important for me. Having an opportunity is something I'm working really hard for and as of right now I'm trying to make the best of it. That's all I can control. Obviously, being a restricted free agent this summer, my job is on the line just like a lot of guys around the league so I'm just focusing on seizing the opportunity and doing everything I can to push for a job next year."
If Siemens continues playing the way he has in his last two games, maybe those draft-day dreams in 2011 will still come true for both the player and the team, even if nobody expected it to take six years to happen.