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Colorado's future will be on full display at WJCs

AJ Haefele Avatar
December 15, 2020

The World Junior Championships kick off next week on Christmas Day, the first meaningful competitive hockey most of us will get to enjoy since the end of the Stanley Cup Finals in late September.

While the NHL and NHLPA continue working their way through the complicated details of the upcoming season, the hockey world gets to kick back and for the first time (maybe ever?) make the top amateur hockey competition the sole focus of its universe.

The WJCs are the best opportunity we have to see the next wave of NHL stars compete against each other against their peer group, some for the final time ever. The tournament features the top players under the age of 20 from around the world.

Now, from an NHL’s team perspective, you always want players representing your organization at this tournament. While it’s a huge opportunity for first-time and future-draft-eligible players to put themselves on the map (Finland’s Brad Lambert, just 16, won’t be eligible for the draft until 2022, for example), the bulk of the stars at this talent-laden showcase have already been selected by NHL teams.

Most often, WJCs are a showcase of the cache of talent rebuilding teams have coming through their pipeline. A great example of this is the Los Angeles Kings and their nine prospects who are set to play in the tournament (barring more COVID removals, of course).

What’s rarer, however, is for a team in Stanley Cup contention to enjoy watching this tournament with some meaningful skin in the game. It’s not uncommon for the traditional powerhouses to have a prospect or two (the two teams in last year’s Cup Finals have three prospects combined at this year’s tournament).

To be a Cup contender with multiple star players, however? It’s the rarified air occupied by the Colorado Avalanche. Hell, of the teams to just win a single playoff round, the Avs are tied for the most representatives at this year’s tournament with four players (Carolina is the other).

But for this year’s crop of Avs, it isn’t so much about how the quantity as it is the quality. The Avs have been plenty well-represented in previous years with players such as Justus Annunen, Sampo Ranta, Nikolai Kovalenko, and Daniil Zhuavlyov representing their respective countries in recent years.

This year, however, the Avs are sending a star-studded lineup with their last three first-round selections all making Team Canada, the tournament’s heavy favorite to win the gold medal.

It’s hard not to compare Colorado sending Bowen Byran and Justin Barron, two of the players to make Canada’s eight-player defense, to 2017 when Cale Makar and Conor Timmins both made the team and then were named two of the top three players as Canada marched to the gold medal.

While Byram will have more of a starring role and Barron more of a depth job, Colorado’s “other” star on Canada is Alex Newhook, who is expected to open as one of the centers on the team. Given the talent down the middle boasted by Canada (11 players with center resumes, all selected in the first round), Newhook getting one of the gigs speaks volumes to the kind of talent he truly is.

Returning after winning gold last year, many are looking to Byram to be the Avs prospect to watch. Whenever this tournament ends, Byram should immediately head to Denver to compete for a job along Colorado’s blueline, making this more of a last hurrah than a showcase to prove, well, anything. Simply put, Byram has accomplished about everything a junior player could ever want outside of a Memorial Cup victory.

The fourth overall selection in 2019, Byram had a slower-than-expected start to last season after a disappointing showing at Avs training camp. He finished on fire, however, and joined the Avs in Edmonton in the playoff bubble as Colorado went through their playoff run. That experience was invaluable preparation for Byram’s inevitable jump to the NHL.

Now with absolutely no reason to go back to the WHL and still not eligible to play in the AHL, Byram’s obvious next step if the NHL. Should he make Colorado’s roster, he’ll be given the nine-game trial that comes with being a teenager in the NHL. The last time the Avs had to make a decision on a 19-year-old defenseman with a nine-game trial, they decided to keep Sam Girard around and he has rewarded their faith by steadily improving each year.

Even with an improved defense this year, Byram should get a long look on Colorado’s defense and his performance for Team Canada will be crucial to the next chapter of Byram’s story.

The other guys, however, still have a line to wait in.

Newhook had a starring role at Boston College last year and is one of the darlings of the prospect world right now. If teams could re-draft the 2019 class again, there isn’t a chance in hell Newhook gets to Colorado at 16 again (that he and Peyton Krebs got by Arizona the first time was already a surprise. It wouldn’t happen a second time).

Hell, had it not been for him being drafted by a Cup contender, Newhook may not even be at this tournament. He could have just as easily been preparing for an NHL training camp of his own but Colorado’s unusual depth at center, both in the NHL and beyond, meant the Avs had the luxury of letting Newhook run it back with the Eagles in the NCAA.

How far has Newhook come since being drafted? With several of these same players, Newhook was the one forced to play wing at the U-18 World Championships back before the 2019 NHL Draft. Now, Newhook has one of the coveted center jobs and is ready to show why Colorado might have the NHL’s most dynamic one-two punch down the middle waiting in the wings with Newhook and Nathan MacKinnon as the centers of the future in Denver.

Barron, just drafted in October with Colorado’s latest first-round selection since 2002, made Team Canada despite heavy competition. He’s a big, rangy right-handed defender who was off to a strong start for Halifax in the QMJHL before leaving to joining Team Canada’s WJC training camp.

Now on the roster, Barron is likely to start on the third pairing (behind Byram, who was paired with Jamie Drysdale) next to camp partner and fellow 2020 first rounder Kaiden Guhle. We’ll see how often Barron plays and what exactly his role shakes out to be.

With time on his side from a development perspective, Barron is arguably the player to temper expectations with the most because he could be in line to play the most sheltered role. Of course, Makar had that happen back in 2017 and he was still a top-three player for Team Canada and an undeniable force of nature in that tournament.

Whatever happens with Barron is essentially gravy at this point. With Makar, Erik Johnson and Timmins all ahead of him on the depth chart and (nearly) in the NHL, it doesn’t seem likely Barron factors into this math for another year or two. What can change, however, is how aggressively the Avs look to promote him.

A strong tournament from Barron could put him on the Timmins path. Timmins, before a concussion wiped out an entire year of hockey, was putting together a fantastic D+1 season and was headed for the AHL immediately upon being eligible for the first time.

Barron’s route lines up with that of Timmins and a good WJCs could propel him to a strong QMJHL season and playoffs and that could mean Barron is a Colorado Eagle as early as next fall. Now, the Avs are in such a spot at the NHL level they don’t need Barron to develop that quickly, but if it happens, it happens. They have to be ready to throw the next challenge at Barron if he aces this one.

The “other guy” headed to WJCs this year but as a member of Team USA is 2019 second round selection Drew Helleson. Because he’s a defensive defenseman who doesn’t produce flashy offensive highlights or stand out in box scores, there hasn’t been the same kind of hype around him as a prospect.

That hasn’t stopped Helleson from having a productive freshman year at BC with Newhook and he just participated in USA’s Selection Camp on the right side of the theoretical top pairing alongside Jake Sanderson, who was just selected fifth overall in October’s draft.

Helleson represents a significant stylistic change from the other defenders hyped in Colorado’s system because he isn’t a player known for puck-moving abilities. He is a unique combination as he has great size (6’3″, 200 pounds) but is also a very good skater for that size.

While he won’t confuse anyone with any high-skilled puck rushes up the ice, he uses his good edgework and great size in combination with a physical mindset to punish oncoming puck carriers. Colorado’s system sorely lacks this type of defender, making Helleson’s development important as they look to fill out their defense with more of an edge.

When looking into the crystal ball, Helleson projects to be a very similar player as Adam Foote. With all of the offensively skilled players already pushing for time on Colorado’s defense (Makar, Girard, Toews, Byram, Timmins), Helleson is a player to keep an eye on as he continues to develop for his shutdown abilities.

While Team USA and Team Canada would only face each other in the elimination round portion of the tournament, it’s hard not to want to get a look at Helleson trying to defend Newhook.

Avs fans should enjoy this high-profile exposure as their limited draft picks in the future (Counting 2020, the Avs are scheduled to go three consecutive years without a second round selection) and their big stars aging out this year could limit the number of players representing Colorado in the near future.

It’s also one of the last glimpses the rest of the league will get at the type of talent Colorado’s already-talented NHL roster is about to get infused with to make it even younger, faster, and more lethal.

Life is good as an Avs fan right now. The NHL team is set to compete for the Stanley Cup. And, somehow, this group of kids projects to make the future even brighter.

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