The Colorado Avalanche opened their official training camp, Thursday, Sept. 23, at the Family Sports Center in Centennial, Colorado. The 56-man training camp roster includes those signed to contracts with the Avalanche, players signed to the Colorado Eagles in the American Hockey League (AHL), and other skaters invited to a Professional Tryout (PTO). The team has been broken into two separate squads, Groups 1 and 2, for practice.
Family Sports Center features two well-lit sheets of ice, the Avalanche Rink and the Hamilton Rink. The facility is home to the Arapahoe Warriors youth hockey club, as well as hockey teams from nearby Cherry Creek and Chapparal high schools.
This report is filed from the Group 2 skate Thursday, September 23 and the Group 1 skate Friday, September 24.
Thursday, Sept. 23 – Group 2 Led by Francouz
Prior to the full squad taking the ice, the Group 2 goalies—Pavel Francouz, Jonas Johansson, and Hunter Miska—worked with several members of the coaching staff. The three netminders took turns blocking close range shots from the coaches, moving from their right to left, focusing mostly on pad saves.
All eyes were on Francouz, who spent all of last season on the injured reserve list, and projects to be a strong number two goaltender behind Darcy Kuemper (acquired by Colorado in July). The 31-year old Czech native, who wears his catching glove on his right hand, looked spry in the net, blocking most of what came his way.
The full squad hit the ice a few minutes before 11 AM, led by head coach Jared Bednar. “We’re excited for this season,” Bednar said. “It’s another opportunity for us to achieve our goal. Last year’s playoff stings a little bit, and we’ll use that as motivation.”
The skaters at training camp were divided by jersey color. Defense and goalies wore black, and each of five forward lines wore, in order of team experience/seniority, navy, burgundy, white, gray, and light blue. Bednar, immediately identifiable by his trademark salt and pepper locks, whistled the entire group to take a knee by the bench and walked them through the camp’s drills. The drills consisted of a variety of two-on-one, three-on-two, and five-on-five breakout drills, the latter taking the form of micro-scrimmages.
Johnson Looks Ready to Play
Most anticipated in the Group 2 skaters was veteran defenseman Erik Johnson, who missed all but four games of the 2020-2021 campaign due to injury. The 33-year old Johnson, whose black jersey was tucked into the back of his breezers, was paired with youngster Bowen Byram. 20-year-old Byram also missed time last season, limiting him to 19 games played; he will qualify as a rookie for the upcoming season.
The pairing was clearly the class of the Group 2 defensive corps at the practice. They worked well together, and one had to imagine the coaching staff relished the opportunity for the younger Byram to learn from the seasoned Johnson.
The top offensive line on the ice, wearing navy blue sweaters, consisted of Nazim Kadri centering Valeri Nichushkin and Andre Burakovsky. All three were important parts of the Avalanche offense last season. Kadri and Burakovsky were most often on Colorado’s second line—with Burakovsky occasionally moving to the top line alongside Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and/or captain Gabriel Landeskog—while Nichushkin was a mainstay of the Avalanche penalty killing unit.
All three skated with energy and skill, moving the puck and attacking the net in mid-season form. Kadri in particular had a searing bar down shot, beating Francouz over his blocker.
Another highlight from Group 2 was forward Logan O’Connor. Wearing a burgundy sweater, the University of Denver alum played 24 games with Colorado last year, including two in the playoffs. He showed speed and tenacity at training camp, working well with linemates Darren Helm and Mikhail Maltsev (the latter acquired from the New Jersey Devils in a trade for Ryan Graves), and bringing the same level of aggression he showed in the post-season. O’Connor and the Avalanche agreed to a three-year contract extension this week, keeping the 25-year old Texas-native in an Avalanche jersey through the 2024-2025 campaign.
On the defensive side of the puck, Dennis Gilbert showed tremendous speed getting back to the defensive zone to thwart scoring attempts. The 24-year-old Buffalo, New York native spent most of last season with the Avalanche AHL affiliate Colorado Eagles, getting the call to start three games with the Avalanche. Prior to that, he split time between the Chicago Blackhawks and their AHL affiliate, the Rockford Icehogs.
Bednar’s Skating Test
Coach Bednar ended the practice by having the players skate goal line sprints. Five players lined up on the goal line, sprinted to the opposite goal line and back, making the round trip two and a half times, finishing on the opposite end of the ice. Each group of five skaters did the drill twice, including all three goalies. Bednar kept his eyes on his stopwatch with each group, timing their efforts.
The players were visibly exhausted at the end of their second set of sprints, many dropping to the ice as they tried to catch their breath. Two players stood out in this drill: Left wing Kiefer Sherwood, who has spent time between the AHL and NHL with both Colorado and the Anaheim Ducks; and right wing/center Callahan Burke, who is under contract to play with the Colorado Eagles this upcoming season. Both showed stamina and grit in a drill that was laying waste to many of the more seasoned pros.
Friday, Sept. 24 – Group 1
When Group 1 hit the ice the following morning, the 50 fans in attendance the day before had swelled to more than twice that number as the players entered the rink. Everyone’s attention was drawn to the navy blue jerseys as Mackinnon, Rantanen, and Landeskog did their warm-up laps.
When the whistle blew and coach Bednar called the first drill, it didn’t take long to see what makes Colorado’s number one line—arguably the number one line in all of hockey—special. MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Landeskog were, simply put, electric.
MacKinnon—who took the ice with several stitches on his chin, the result of a puck to the face on day one of practice—said of his linemates: “We’ve been together four or five years now, so even today, first day back…the chemistry’s there. It’s easy reading off each other. It’s a lot of fun.”
The three veterans, all still in their twenties, worked as a cohesive unit, dishing passes, crisscrossing skating lanes, and setting up one-timers and deflections. MacKinnon demonstrated his superior skating skill at both ends of the ice, deking teammates to get to the net again and again. Rantanen blasted a slapshot from the right faceoff circle, and later put a puck past Kuemper, diving to complete the shot. And Landeskog played the aggressive, physical brand of hockey he’s known for.
In fact, the entire skate was more dynamic and physical than the previous day. Contact was closer, body checks were harder, and the overall pace was faster. Only one skater wore a red, non-contact sweater, and that was last year’s Norris Trophy finalist, Cale Makar.
Paired with defenseman Sam Girard, the 22-year old phenom, who begins his third full season with the Avalanche, wasn’t skating at 100 percent but still looked sharp. In one drill, Makar and Landeskog scrummed for the puck in the corner, Makar winning the battle with a deft poke check. Recovering “from a small procedure,” Makar is expected to be ready for the start of the season.
Bednar and the coaching staff shouted encouragement at the 26 skaters throughout the practice – he banged his stick against the boards when he was especially pleased.
Other players who had a strong showing during the session, and who are vying for spots on the roster, included:
6-foot-5 defenseman Kurtis MacDermid, who had complete command of the puck every time it touched his stick. The 27-year-old former member of the L.A. Kings was selected by the Seattle Kraken in this year’s expansion draft and later traded to Colorado in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick in 2023. He was an imposing presence on the ice.
Left wing Sampo Ranta, who wore a white jersey, was one of the stronger skaters on the ice and handled the puck well. Ranta, selected in the third round of the 2018 draft, started two games for Colorado in the 2021 playoffs.
22-year old Shane Bowers and 24-year-old Andreas Wingerli, both wearing gray sweaters, demonstrated sharp writs shots. Bowers was a first-round draft pick of the Ottawa Senators in 2017; Wingerli played the last six years in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL), where he tallied 104 points in 222 games.
Forwards Matej Kaslik and Benjamin Tardiff on the light blue line, the lowest in the pecking order of the five forward lines, also demonstrated skill. Kaslik in particular showed poise under pressure and leadership on the ice.
Four members of the team missed the first two days of camp due to injury, including defenseman Devon Toews, who is recovering from off-season shoulder surgery and will likely miss the start of the 2021-2022 campaign. Also absent were forward Stefan Matteau and defenseman Roland McKewon, both out for Covid protocols, and amateur tryout invitee Tarun Fizer.
The Avalanche will face the Vegas Golden Knights in the club’s first pre-season game Tuesday, Sept. 28.