The Colorado Avalanche launched into full training camp mode Friday. Rolling out a roster of 54 players, the skaters were split into two sessions.
Coach Bednar Sets Direction
Coach Bednar stated his goal was to teach his structure to everyone during the four days prior to the Avalanche’s first preseason game. In order to accomplish that goal, Colorado eliminated the traditional Burgundy and White game in favor of working on special teams.
The first day of camp consisted of a lot of drills. The players practiced 3-on-2 scenarios, odd man rushes, battling for turnovers, even strength and short-handed scoring chances, and the infamous bag skates, where groups of players raced each other down the rink in timed drills.
Both sessions had six defensemen in black jerseys handling the blue line work, aiding and opposing five separate forward groups of three skaters (each set of three in their own distinctive jersey color). Three goaltenders backstopped the first session and two worked the net in the second group.
After a week of watching rookies, the first thing that stood out was the speed of the NHL players. It’s amazing how much quicker and more precise they are. The next difference was the players’ improved agility, the ability to shift from offense to defense in a flash. And finally, the intensity. Even when the players were waiting for their next shift, they were watching and learning. No moment was wasted.
For the Avalanche, coach Bednar kept reinforcing the need for speed and intensity. In his post-camp interview, he stressed the importance of players already being in peak physical condition. He wanted camp to be difficult both physically and mentally so the skaters are prepared to play a quick and tenacious style of hockey.
The new Colorado Eagles head coach, Greg Cronin, was there, too, as were a host of other Avalanche and Eagles staff.
Return of the MacKinnon Line in Session 1
The first session ran out a forward line combination of Gabriel Landeskog-Nathan MacKinnon-Mikko Rantanen. Needless to say, they dominated their matchups. MacKinnon, in particular, came into camp feisty, pushing players out of his way and swatting away defensemen’s sticks. Both MacKinnon and Landeskog led by example in the bag skates while Rantanen lumbered a bit.
The other story from the first session concerned the two players who entered the rink in ‘no-contact’ jerseys, Nikita Zadorov and Patrik Nemeth. Both blueliners are coming off shoulder surgery so the Avalanche appear to be guarding their recovery. Even so, both men managed to show some spunk. Nemeth slid down on the ice to block a shot and then popped right back up. Zadorov led the way in the timed skates, making them look easy. One has to respect their offseason work ethic if they can handle everything but contact at this point.
All three free agent signings made an appearance in the first session. Forward Matt Calvert skated with J.T. Compher and Logan O’Connor. Defenseman Ian Cole spent a lot of time as Nemeth’s compatriot and Philipp Grubauer rotated into the goaltending slot. All three looked like they were getting comfortable with the players and the system so hopefully, they will transition seamlessly onto the roster.
During the timed skating drills, rookie Ty Lewis led the way in the race between burgundy and grey jerseys, beating out Compher, Calvert, and fellow rookie Igor Shvyrev. It will be interesting to see if he can duplicate his performance tomorrow.
Erik Johnson Leads the Way in Session 2
The second session featured a pair of interesting line combinations with a couple of rookies vying for an NHL spot. Marin Kaut rolled out with Tyson Jost and Alexander Kerfoot, keeping pace with last year’s talented rookies who are now “grizzled veterans”. Meanwhile, Vladislav Kamenev centered a line with Colin Wilson and Sven Andrighetto. Watching Kamenev speed down the ice to just the right spot, proved he came to play. Both Kaut and Kamenev received a little one-on-one coaching from Bednar during the drills. The coach indicated he wanted to see how they performed with skilled linemates.
The only all vet line in the second grouping consisted of Carl Soderberg centering Gabriel Bourque and Matt Nieto. With Blake Comeau’s departure, finding an effective line combination for Soderberg will be one of the key stories of the preseason.
The blueliners included Erik Johnson, Mark Barberio and Sam Girard. Johnson returned to form; he looked solid, skated effortlessly and made everything look easy. By far, the best defensive moments were when Johnson and Girard played together. They were quick and smooth. It’s too early to tell if they will be paired together in the regular season but that’s another interesting story to follow.
The skating drills featured Mason Geertsen leaving all the other defensemen in his dust, with Johnson and Mark Alt chugging to keep up. The best competition, however, was watching Pavel Francouz and Semyon Varlamov race each other, in full goalie gear, neck and neck down the ice. Francouz finally started to pull away on the third drill. One has to appreciate the competitive nature of the two goaltenders.
The bag skate finished off Kerfoot as he sprawled behind the net, made a feeble attempt to rise, then promptly laid back down. Kaut slouched against the rink wall like a big teddy bear. Both Kaut and Kamenev had a hard time keeping up with the veterans during the skating drills. The offseason conditioning work the returning NHL’ers put in was impressive.
Nikita Zadorov Returns as Injury List Grows
Aside from Nemeth and Zadorov in the pumpkin ‘no-contact’ jerseys, two other key players were missing due to injury. Defenseman Conor Timmins is still recovering from his concussion symptoms and did not participate.
But the absence of defenseman Tyson Barrie raised some eyebrows. After both sessions ended, the coach explained Barrie had pulled a muscle during Thursday’s testing and said it was a lower body issue. For those scoring at home, that’s four defensemen not yet ready for the season. A couple of rookies should pay attention as they might have a shot to start the season with the Avalanche until the other players recover.
Training camp just started and there’s still a good amount of work ahead. However, watching which rookies will make the team, what the defensive pairings will be, and who will make up the second, third and fourth line combinations will be the stories of the Avalanche preseason. For the players, the competition for positions has already started. For everyone else, the Avalanche season starts in three weeks.