Honestly, just assume that I’ll be talking about Gabe Landeskog at some point in this piece every week until he comes back.
This week I saw probably the most significant progress in Landeskog’s rehab since he returned to Colorado to resume skating. He was skating with Shawn Allard and Artturi Lehkonen, and was putting the most pressure on that right leg that we’ve seen so far.
Running through start and stop drills, Landeskog was digging in and his strides, and actually looked pretty powerful exploding out of his stops. Earlier in the week, he skated in a couple practices with the team, and even took some reps during drills. Adding passing, shooting, and transitioning to the rehab routine
The only caveat to all of this was, on the day he was working on starts and stops, he wouldn’t (or couldn’t) stop leading with his right leg, which is the leg he had surgery on. So make of that what you will.
Up until I saw him on the ice this week, I was skeptical that he could make it back. After seeing this week, I feel pretty confident in saying I think he’s going to give it a go, at bare minimum. In my opinion, he looked just shy of about 50% this week. Give him the three more weeks you have until the playoffs start, and I wonder if he could get to about 90ish percent? If he can, I think he goes in Game 1.
Two weeks ago, Jared Bednar told us that he put Val Nichuhskin with Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen to try and jump-start his production. Safe to say… mission accomplished.
He’s been one of the Avs best players over the last three weeks and is absolutely earning that contract he signed last summer.
Regular Season winding down
What a season this has been. Regardless of how you feel about how things have gone for the Avs this year, it has absolutely been entertaining.
This has been such an interesting year to follow for the Avalanche. A title-defense season is very different from a season in which you’re searching for your first Cup. Your summer is short, your routine is out of sorts, and you’ve never had a larger target on your back.
At Jared Bednar’s own admission, this season has been tougher on the team mentally than anything else.
“It felt like we never stopped playing,” he said, referring to how quick of a turnaround the team had following the Stanley Cup Final.
Well now here we are with fewer than 10 games to go, and the sentiment I’m getting from the team is disbelief.
“On one hand, it feels like a blur. On the other hand, it feels like we’ve played 500 games,” one player told me.
I’m so interested to see how this team handles the start of the postseason. I do believe that this regular season has been hard for them to get fired up for, and I think you’ve seen that in their results at times.
There’s a part of me that truly believes we are going to see the Avalanche shift into a gear we haven’t seen out of this group once the puck drops on Round 1.
There’s another part of me that worries the mental fatigue may be too much to overcome after how grueling this season has been with the constant rotation the roster has seen due to injuries.
Playoffs start April 17th.
This is my favorite thing that is currently happening in the NHL and you can’t stop me from liking it.
Cale Makar voted Top Defenseman
Six hundred and twenty six players were polled through the NHLPA earlier this season. When asked to vote on the league’s top defenseman, Cale Makar emerged as a clear favorite with 63.9% of the vote.
“There’s nobody like this guy,” said E.J. Hradek.
“When you’re respected by your peers like that, I’m very humbled and honored for that,” Makar said. “At the end of the day, for me, it’s just a poll, but it’s cool to see that recognition and know that the league sees you like that.”
Cale Makar said the poll happened much earlier this season. “To be completely honest with you, I don’t even remember my answers but because I think we did that like our first road trip,” he laughed.
There’s something special about Makar getting the recognition before this season really got going. He’s earned the respect and has the hardware to match. Avalanche fans are probably not surprised that he’s zeroed in on his point-per-game pace from last season even after missing 15 games over different stretches from concussion protocol to lower body tweaks.
At points, he’s even exceeded it, so we’ll see how these last few games shake out. He sits presently with 66 points, 17 goals and 49 assists.
When asked what’s been working for him offensively, Makar had an expected response given what we’ve come to know about him.
“I don’t know if it’s me individually,” he said. “I think it’s just guys in general. I feel like every line is giving us (opportunities.) Especially on the back end, we’re trying to give them opportunities to score. Guys are just in good spots.”
Jared Bednar had a little more to add following his recent three-point game against Arizona.
“I mean, he’s being modest,” Bednar started. “You see what he does. He just kind of starts taking over the game when we need one or it’s a close game. He starts to push offensively, he can make things happen on his own and for his linemates. The other four guys that are on the ice, he helps to drive that. Him getting 19 points (in the last 10 games), it’s just him pushing to help our team to have success and pushing offensively to make things happen.
College Free Agent Frenzy
There’s a lot to catch up on here. To start, read AJ’s primer on the latest batch of college free agents Colorado signed last week.
On March 29th, the Avs signed former Western Michigan captain, Jason Polin to a one-year entry level contract beginning the 2023-24 season. He will close out the year on a professional tryout with the Colorado Eagles. The 23-year-old right-shot winger led the NCAA in goal scoring, recorded five hat tricks, and finished a top-10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.
The quality I like about Polin related to Western Michigan’s identity: heavy, physical play with an emphasis on team defense coupled with a high-octane forward group in particular.
WMU’s scoring was fifth-best in the league in their teamwide goal share, and their margin for goal scoring and goals allowed was respectable at seventh in 60 teams. Polin led the team on their top-line and top powerplay unit, but he has two-way capabilities as well.
On March 30th, Colorado signed two more college free agents: Sam Malinski and Ondrej Pavel.
24-year-old defenseman Sam Malinski agreed to a two-year contract for the 2023-24 and 2024-25 seasons. He also joined the Colorado Eagles on a PTO for the remainder of the year.
The right-handed defenseman out of Cornell also captained his team. At 5’11”, 190 lbs, he bills as the mobile puck-moving archetype Colorado is no stranger to and finished first on his team among defenseman in points. He played a top-four role with ample time on the top pairing.
Cornell received excellent goaltending from Ian Shane this year, but they also had the fourth-best overall margin for goal scoring and goals allowed thanks in part to solid defending as well.
Malinski already demonstrated an aptitude to score at the next level with a goal in his professional debut. He was set up by none other than the newly added Polin.
Another free agent add, coming in as the youngest of the bunch, is 22-year-old centerman Ondrej Pavel. He agreed to a two-year, entry-level contract for the 2023-24 and 2024-25 seasons. Like Polin and Malinski, he will finish the year on a PTO with the Eagles.
He has yet to make his professional debut. The 6’2”, 204 lbs forward played with another free agent addition from last season, Wyatt Aamodt. Aamodt captained the Minnesota State Mavericks to the Frozen Four and led them to the title game against the University of Denver.
This year, Pavel played a middle-six role with the Mavericks earning himself a second-line opportunity by the year’s end with 15 points in 39 games. Pavel’s freshman year was limited to 11 games during the pandemic, but he had a breakout sophomore season. In just three years of college hockey, he remains quite an unknown, but the professional experience will surely help to gauge his ceiling in time.
Wyatt Aamodt is evidently getting many friends. On March 27th, another Hermantown, Minnesota native and Minnesota State player joined the Colorado Eagles. 24-year-old right-winger, Ryan Sandelin signed a two-year AHL contract, which begins this season and extends through the 2023-24 season.
Sandelin spent the past four seasons at Minnesota State University and earned 43 goals and 33 assists in his college career.
In other news, though not a college free agent, Colorado Avalanche prospect Matt Stienburg made the leap and signed an amateur tryout agreement with the Eagles for the remainder of the season. The 22-year-old right-shot centerman was taken in the third round of the 2019 draft. He closed out his senior year at Cornell with five goals and two assists in 18 contests. He was an alternate captain alongside Sam Malinski (who wore the C).
An additional college free agent add of note is 25-year-old LHD out of the University of Denver: Kyle Mayhew. Mayhew signed an AHL two-way contract beginning with the 2023-24 season. He started on a PTO for the remainder of this season with the Eagles, but he has already been reassigned to the Utah Grizzlies.
Mayhew notably was Colorado Avalanche prospect, Sean Behrens’ d-partner the past two seasons at DU. The two found great chemistry and though both profile as compact players, they never let their size restrict them at the NCAA level.
For Mayhew specifically, the path forward is challenging. As an undrafted free agent, he bills as a late bloomer in the truest sense. At 5’8” 161 lbs, he completed five college seasons to maximize his development. Greg Cronin has spoken about the challenges of dropping into the American League pace even with players like Wyatt Aamodt as recently as last year.
As for Sean Behrens, I’ve been told he will complete another year at DU. It would be nice if there’s a way for their paths to cross again at the next level one day, but we’ll have to wait a bit longer to find out.
The influx of college free agents to the organization depth and otherwise may seem uncharacteristic.
An Unprecedented Season
Looking at the number of PTO’s attempted in-season with the Colorado Eagles, it has been a very weird season. The Avs don’t just need to bolster their depth after siphoning off prospects and picks in time, but the Colorado Eagles also just need to ice an AHL team. The Colorado Avalanche have 421 man-games lost and have relied heavily on AHL call-ups at points. Eagles captain, Brad Hunt, has played just two games with the Eagles since the New Year.
Recently recalled on an undisclosed emergency loan, a college free agent signee himself, Ben Meyers briefly talked to Avs media about his theory surrounding the uptick in college signings. “Quite honestly, it’s probably just (that) they traded away a lot of their prospects in recent years and stuff like that,” he said. “But other than that, I think guys here (know it’s) just a great place to play, not only here but with the Eagles as well. The way the organization is run, that’s the reason why both teams have been winning recently too.”
They’ve had fourteen PTO’s with Cedric Pare and Alex Galchenyuk emerging as success stories and four which are related to the recent college signings. Ondrej Pavel’s PTO has not been added to the AHL transaction log just yet, but I’m counting it. I’ve heard Pavel is still sorting out some things related to immigration and has yet to join the team.
“It’s almost (as if) the abnormal becomes the normal,” Greg Cronin said of the season. “It’s bizarre to spitball the number of players that have been out. One thing that sticks out in my mind was that we went to Texas Back in October, opening weekend. They were like 12 or 13 guys that are no longer on the team (today).”
“Steven Petrovek has been our MVP this year,” Cronin explained. “Kevin McDonald’s juggling a lot of balls.” Petrovek is the Eagles’ Director of Business Operations for the Colorado Eagles, though he wears many hats including a lot of video work. “He does everything.”
Cronin added that Tim Branham and Aaron Schneekloth’s wealth of knowledge and experience in the ECHL has helped to facilitate the PTO’s with the help of Petrovek’s video work. When new players arrive, Petrovek helps to bring new players into the fold by preparing video introductions to systems.
Among all the PTO’s you may wonder if there has been more consideration for players within the Utah Grizzlies.
“Tim Branham coached there, and he knows [Utah head coach] Ryan Kinasewich really well. I’ve talked to Ryan several times, and we use Ryan as a resource to try and understand the rest of the league because he knows the other players. Tim and Ryan are like best friends, so there’s a really good relationship there. We trust each other and we work together to try and find the best available options.”
Enter the college free agency signings. Some of them may be long-term projects who max out at the American League level, and some might unearth Logan O’Connor potential. It’s a benefit to all involved.
These players won’t have to grind it out at development camps this summer in hopes of earning a tryout. There’s still much to prove, but they’ll have a chance to immerse themselves in the pro-culture immediately and begin getting acclimated.
The Colorado Eagles need the support right now as they embark on their own playoff run, and if Sam Malinski can continue to show out, perhaps with some time under Cronin’s regime, the Eagles can turn out an NHL-caliber player.