Avalanche Gear up Early for Season Debut

Officially, the Colorado Avalanche start training camp on Friday, Sept. 13 and rookie camp starts this Friday, Sept. 6. But a number of players are already gearing up for the start of the season, running informal training drills at the Avalanche practice facility.

The Avalanche reserved ice time at their practice rink over the last few weeks. Last year, a number of injured players and some rookies started practicing early. This year, 13 players were doing voluntary drills without a coach in sight.

I dropped by last week to see who was working their way into game shape at the local rink.

Defenseman Erik Johnson was leading the impromptu, no-contact drills along with some assistance from star forward Nathan MacKinnon and with input from goaltender Philipp Grubauer. Johnson directed all the on-ice action, even resorting to the white board behind the bench to illustrate game plans. The group worked on passing drills, power play and penalty kill situations, and various odd-man rushes.

Avalanche Veterans Lead the Way

Johnson was busy skating and looked good for a player working his way back from offseason shoulder surgery. He practiced puck-handling, passing and even shooting. He skated backwards with ease and could pivot, a good sign for his progress towards playing.

Colorado Avalanche Erik Johnson
Colorado Avalanche alternate captain Erik Johnson directed an informal practice last week. (Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports)

If Johnson’ s not ready for the start of training camp, he should be joining the crew shortly thereafter. The only remaining hurdle rests in his ability to withstand contact, which can wait.

MacKinnon showed every bit of his competitive nature. After the forwards failed to score on their final push against the goaltender, MacKinnon slammed his stick on the ice and chided himself. In an unofficial practice, that’s the kind of intensity that forges one of the best scorers in hockey.

Feisty winger Matt Nieto skated well and did a good job pressing the forward play. He managed to make Grubauer work to defend his shots and showed his trademark work ethic.

Grubauer fulfilled all the netminding duties in the one-hour practice. Yes, it was just a practice, but he allowed only a couple of pucks past him during the training session. He looked confident and ready to prove he’s earned the number one spot. He was a man on a mission. Goalies intent to make a mark tend to have very good seasons. Hopefully, Grubauer fits the bill.

Recently Acquired Veterans Adjust

It’s always a good idea for newly acquired players to arrive in Denver early. It takes time to adjust to the altitude and head coach Jared Bednar doesn’t ease players into training camp. He’s serious about conditioning and some find it hard to keep up, especially while battling the thin, dry air in Colorado.

Newly acquired forward Joonas Donskoi hustled throughout practice. He spent a fair amount of time skating with MacKinnon and Nieto on a line. They appeared to be feeling each other out, learning how each one handles passing and shooting situations under pressure.

Joonas Donskoi Sharks
Joonas Donskoi joined the Avalanche’s informal practice, studying his new teammates. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Donskoi occasionally looked a little winded, but he never leaned over. He kept his eyes on MacKinnon most of the time. One of the few goals Grubauer allowed happened on a 2-on-2 with Donskoi and MacKinnon quickly feeding each other passes. It was an encouraging sign.

Kevin Connauton, the defenseman added in the Carl Soderberg trade, appeared to struggle to keep pace with the top line. He was winded after some drills, looking tired as he bent over to regroup after his shifts as practice progressed. Of all the players on the ice, he struggled the most with the pace. He might just be adjusting to the altitude, but it’s something to watch. He did, however, do an excellent job deflecting pucks away from opposing forwards.

Prospects Work to Improve

The most notable prospect was the Avalanche’s first-round pick, defenseman Bowen Byram. He was frequently paired with Johnson, which was promising.

Bowen Byram Avalanche Draft
Bowen Byram is taking his NHL shot seriously, playing with Erik Johnson at the informal skates. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers

Byram’s conditioning looked good, especially for a young prospect unused to Bednar’s high standards. On defense, he kept his head on a swivel, quick to follow the action and shift appropriately. He also seemed to adapt well to the speed of an NHL practice, albeit an informal one.

Forward Brandon Saigeon, signed to an AHL contract this year, also made an appearance. He seized the opportunity to practice with the veterans, an encouraging move for his future with the organization. He appeared to be learning the ropes. He stayed late, along with two Eagles players, and they practiced bag skates, again and again.

Forward Shane Bowers and Byram stood near each other while watching the drills, occasionally talking. Bowers looked solid, although he frequently skated with fellow Eagles, Logan O’Connor and Josh Dickinson. He only had a few games with the Eagles at the end of the season but he seems to be comfortable with his teammates.

Eagles defenseman Josh Anderson played most of his time with Connauton. He looks much older than his age and seemed evenly paired with the veteran. Anderson also appeared to be enjoying himself, which was refreshing.

One other player rotated in on the forward line and led the bag skates at the end of practice for the young prospects. His number didn’t match anyone currently listed on the roster. However, he worked hard and aimed to push himself, even though he had a smaller stature. His conditioning could use improvement.

More Players Coming

More Avalanche players arrived over the long weekend. Forward Martin Kaut posted pictures from the airport and expressed his eagerness to get started. Captain Gabriel Landeskog arrived in time for Monday’s practice, per Ryan S. Clark of The Athletic, as did Samuel Girard, Cale Makar, J.T. Compher, Nikita Zadorov, Andre Burakovsky and Conor Timmins.

The Avalanche players are gearing up for a more successful season in 2019-20, and seeing all the participants at these informal practice sends the message that they weren’t satisfied with their second-round exit. They are serious about pursuing more.

Rookie camp starts Friday as both veterans and prospects put in the early effort to launch a successful season. As the players continue to trickle in this week, it’s time to sing “The Boys Are Back in Town.”