The Colorado Avalanche were one of six teams participating in the fifth annual “Rookie Faceoff,” with this year’s event hosted in both Glendale and Scottsdale, Arizona. The event featured rookies signed to contracts with the NHL club, players signed to minor league affiliate clubs, and amateur tryout invitees. The other teams participating in the event were the Anaheim Ducks, the Los Angeles Kings, the San Jose Sharks, the Vegas Golden Knights, and the host team, the Arizona Coyotes.
The Avalanche went 2-1 in their three games, improving in each contest. The team lost its opening game to the Kings 4-0, they survived two late goals by the Ducks to win 5-4 in overtime of the second game, and handled the Sharks with a 7-4 victory in its final game, including 41 shots on goal. This version of the Avalanche was coached by Greg Cronin, coach of the American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate Colorado Eagles.
The entire event had the feel of a youth hockey tournament. All three of the Avalanche’s games were held at the Ice Den in Scottsdale, the practice facility for the Coyotes. Similar to the Avalanche’s practice facility, the Family Sports Center in Centennial, Colorado, the Ice Den is the kind of rink hockey parents spend countless hours watching their squirt and pee wee skaters learn the game. There are two sheets of ice with small bleachers on one side only, and team benches are on the opposite side, requiring injured players to cross the ice to gain access to the locker room.
The broadcasts for the events, shown live on ColoradoAvalanche.com, had a lone camera (the quality was that of an older model iPhone) at center ice. The camera did a good job following the puck, but it was low resolution with no view of the near boards, and no replays. The Avalanche did not send a broadcast team to Arizona, so the three games were called by the opposing team’s announcers.
The Avalanche hosted and the inaugural contest in 2016, and are one of the possible venues to host the event in 2022. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, there was no Rookie Faceoff held in 2020.
While the pace was fast and the games physical, play seemed a notch below an elite level. Skaters tried to carry pucks through two and three defenders, passes seemed less crisp, and power plays seemed disoriented. Still, there were bright spots for the Avalanche.
Top Players Perform Well
The Colorado players who have already seen time with the big club, or who project to see ice time in the coming season, were, not surprisingly, the cream of the crop. Justin Baron, Shane Bowers, Bowen Byram, Alex Newhook, Sempo Ranta, and Andreas Wingerli all demonstrated command of the ice, their edges, and the puck.
In the second game, against the Ducks, Newhook had four assists, and Bowers had two goals and an assist. But it was Byram, who saw time in 19 games last season before being sidelined by injury, who impressed the most. In addition to superior skating, puck-handling, and decision-making, the 20-year-old defenseman’s game-winning blast from the blue line during overtime of the second game against the Ducks was a highlight of the tournament for Colorado.
“We had a good faceoff win and got it set up, we had a couple plays to run,” said Sempo Ranta of the power-play goal. “Bo took a good shot, and I was just trying to take the goalies eyes away and it went in, good shot.”
Byram, a British Columbia-native, was named captain of the team. “It’s pretty cool, I think anytime you are the captain of a team it’s a huge honor and also a huge responsibility,” he said of his leadership role. “I just try to be open and inclusive to everybody I feel like I am a pretty happy-go-lucky guy, so just try to include everybody, be positive and hope to help everybody enjoy the game because it can be stressful and a lot of pressure at times. That’s kind of how I approach things, I know there’s different ways, but I am who I am, so I try to show that through my leadership abilities.”
One interesting note, in the game vs. the Ducks, Byram squared off against his former Team Canada line mate, Jamie Drysdale. The 19-year-old Toronto native, who played 24 games with the Ducks last year, had two assists vs. the Avalanche. Byram was the fourth overall pick of the 2019 draft, and Drysdale the 6th overall pick in 2020. Both players project to have long and prosperous careers in the NHL.
Bowers, Byram, Newhook, and Ranta all sat out the final game against San Jose. As often happens, the absence of the top players provided others an opportunity to step up.
Young Players Eager to Impress
The most impressive players outside the top tier included Alex Beaucage, a 20-year-old forward who is signed to play with the Colorado Eagles this year; left-winger Matthew Boucher, a 23-year-old native of California who will also play with the Eagles; 19-year-old Jean-Luc Foudy, a center who has split time between the Windsor Spitfires in the Ontario Hockey League and the Eagles; and 18-year-old amateur tryout invitee and Denver native, center Jack O’Brien.
Boucher had a goal and two assists, and sat for two penalties, including a five minute major for fighting. Beaucage had a goal and an assist, Foudy had a goal and an assist, and O’Brien had a goal and a two-minute minor penalty for goaltender interference. All four made strong contributions, showing an eagerness to prove their worth to the Avalanche and Eagles management in attendance.
“We just told them,” Coach Cronin said of the non-rostered players after the second game, “I said this is an opportunity, there’s people out here that are watching you from the organization and you don’t want to be playing hockey on your heels. They got the message.”
Special Teams Shine
While Colorado did allow a power-play goal against the Sharks, special teams were a highlight of the tournament for the Avalanche. In addition to Byram’s power-play winner against the Ducks, the team had three shorthanded goals, two against the Ducks (from Matthew Boucher and Bowers), and one late against the Sharks (from Wingerli) that proved to be the game winner. Two of their regular strength goals came just as time on the penalty was expiring, and were, in effect, power-play goals; one from Jack O’Brien against the Ducks, and an equalizer from Nick Henry against the Sharks. Overall, the Avalanche successfully killed a dozen penalties over the three games.
The Avalanche brought three goaltenders to Arizona—Justus Annunen, Peyton Jones, and Trent Miner—each getting one of the starts. All three sparkled at times, with the best performance coming from Annunen in the first game, stopping 43 of 47 shots in the team’s only loss.
Avalanche training camp opens this week at the Family Sports Center, and is open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis. The first pre-season game is scheduled for September 28 against the Golden Knights at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.