In his first AHL season, Martin Kaut played on a line with Andrew Agozzino and 22-year-old rookie, Logan O’Connor. Their paths first crossed here and though their journeys have been very different, in the end it always comes back to what O’Connor represents. Let’s start from the beginning.

Kaut’s path to the NHL was never conventional, but nothing was going to stand in the way of his NHL dream. Not even a congenital heart condition that was discovered in the medical testing ahead of the NHL Scouting Combine.

The relationship between the Colorado Avalanche and Kaut began in good faith. Upon learning of his condition and the subsequent surgery, the Avs still selected him 16th overall in the 2018 draft. The organization was assured by their medical personnel that the issue was resolved and he was cleared to play.

Despite being selected 24th in the 2017 CHL draft, Kaut wanted to forgo major junior and report directly to the American Hockey League to “play among men.”

He plays a complete, two-way game. We really like the way he competes, he’s strong on the puck,” Joe Sakic said at the time.

He spent the prior two seasons in Czechia’s pro league with the HC Dynamo Pardubice – the club Lukas Sedlak recently left the Flyers to rejoin. In the Czech pro league, he earned nine goals and seven assists in his final season before the draft.

At 18 years old, he joined the Colorado Eagles in their inaugural season as an AHL hockey team. In addition to the adjustment to North American ice, Kaut was challenged with the hurdle of overcoming a language and cultural barrier. His friendship with Czechia-native and Avalanche goaltender Pavel Francouz is well-documented. Francouz’s presence helped to ease him the league.

Now in his fifth season, he’s yet to make the NHL roster full-time. He had his first crack at it during his sophomore year. He played nine games with the Avalanche and earned two goals and an assist through February and March.

His next stint happened in the COVID-19-interrupted season. He was given a chance in late April right as the Avs clinched their playoff berth. In five games, he went pointless and registered two shots and two minor penalties.

Last year, he spent six games with the Avalanche early in the season. He went pointless again, this time suffering a shoulder injury in the final Columbus Blue Jackets game that sidelined him for a month. 

In his return, he reported back to the Colorado Eagles and would not receive another call-up. Even once the Eagles were eliminated from the Calder Cup Playoffs, Kaut was not among the Black Aces with the Avalanche.

Through all of this, he held a top-six role in the AHL. He’s gradually taken on more responsibilities including his emergence on their penalty kill unit last season. It was a career year for many Eagles players last year, and he was no exception. He had a career-high 31 points in 46 games. That step forward made his case most compelling at the start of this season.

His comments in training camp sparked concern.

“It’s always hard here for young guys or prospects because Colorado is probably the best team in [the] NHL, and will be for [the] next five years,” he said. “So I will be happy if I can make it, I don’t care what role or line. I just want to be here and play in the NHL.”

The remarks came on the heels of a tough first day. He left the group session early and did not complete the final leg of the skate test. “I think there’s been a step that he’s needed to take for us,” Jared Bednar said. “And for me, it’s going to be showing it when the opportunity is given to him in exhibition games and regular season games.”

During the exhibition games, he talked about being a fourth-line player like Logan O’Connor. “My ideal is OC because he’s a good defensive guy, good on the PK. I’m going to be like him. It’s my last shot here, so I need to improve my game. I need to focus on the d-side. That will be my strong side.”

He did not make the opening night roster. He cleared waivers and began the year in Loveland. With two goals and an assist, he had a strong weekend in his return to the AHL.

“It’s a mystery why some games he’s skating, he’s flying around, finishing checks, blocking shots, killing penalties, and scoring goals and other games it’s not the same visibility,” Greg Cronin said following that weekend. “It was a great statement game for him.”

Then the injuries hit. Ben Meyers was reassigned to the Eagles and Kaut was recalled. At that time, Jacob MacDonald had yet to play a game due to injury. The announcement of Gabriel Landeskog’s surgery came about a day after, and Darren Helm was in a similar boat.

As we know, a string of even more injuries to their forward group would follow. Val Nichushkin, Shane Bowers, Evan Rodrigues, and eventually Artturi Lehkonen and Nathan MacKinnon.

What might have seemed like a serendipitous opening became another winding road.

Through eighteen games, he recorded a goal and two assists with a notable outing in the Global Series. On a perilous road trip, he missed the first leg of the journey after getting the flu and played the final game in Philadelphia. Colorado fell 5-3 and lost Nathan MacKinnon to injury.

Back at home, the Boston Bruins game in which the Avs were shutout 4-0 seemed to be the breaking point for Bednar. “If we’re rolling over because it’s too difficult or we’re losing games, then we need new players. If guys quit and don’t play hard, then we’ll find other players.”

Even among an ever-growing list of injuries, Kaut was placed on waivers a second time the next day.

For the second time, he went unclaimed.

“Martin Kaut played some really good games for us,” Bednar said. “He played 18 games, but out of those 18 games, we saw some really good play from a small chunk of games – there might be one here, one here, a couple together. The difference with some of the guys that are here, Andrew Cogliano and Logan O’Connor, is that once they find that game it’s very small fluctuations there. They’re bringing that every night. The consistency is an initiative. That’s what he has to work on. He has a great conscience. He has the ability to play, but he needs to find that game and be able to bring that on a nightly basis.”

Bednar said the Kaut was sent to Loveland with his message. “It’s all-encompassing. It’s effort on every play. It’s playing with confidence with the puck, and it’s awareness. Take his game as a whole. It’s got to get into that window on a regular basis in order to be an everyday NHL player. That’s the difference between being a call-up player and an everyday NHL’er.”

“I knew I didn’t play great, so I knew that nobody was going to pick me,” Kaut said. “I knew right away I was going to play Friday and Saturday with the Eagles, so I was focusing on that.”

Up in Loveland, an “A” was added to his sweater. In his first game back, he scored a goal – not unlike the response he had after his first reassignment. Cronin said that the letter might inspire leadership.

“He’s got an opportunity to reboot his role,” Cronin added. “ We’re always reminding him, even though you’re on a first-line role here, you still have to be doing fourth-line things. The fourth-line weapons are going to allow him to stick in the NHL.”

“He came back from the illness and there was a flatness to his game,” Cronin explained. “That really is the gap between him being an NHL player and the AHL. He gets kind of a flat game. There’s no oomph to his game, the explosiveness is not visible. That explosiveness could be reflected in finishing checks, driving the net, cutting through the traffic, blocking shots, and doing those things that add more meat to a fourth-line role.”

Kaut said that he and Bednar talked for thirty minutes about the reassignment. He self-acknowledged many of the criticisms too.  “I didn’t skate like the games before. I wasn’t hard on the forecheck and backcheck,” he said.

Notably, his bout with the flu took a serious toll on his body. “(It was) probably because my conditioning wasn’t great. I lost 10 pounds when I had the flu. That was the reason. They don’t care. It’s my (responsibility) to be ready to play the game. I wasn’t ready, so it’s my fault.”

It wasn’t entirely new feedback.

“He probably told me this before I played my first game with the Avs. He didn’t care about the points, just play physical and play hard. I didn’t play great the last two games. I know I told him that I probably deserved to be sent down to the Eagles,” he said.

“I know I can score goals,” he added. “(When everyone gets) healthy, I’m not going to play first line. I know that. I’m gonna focus on the forecheck/backcheck, be hard, and finish my checks. I don’t care about the goals (for now).”

Consistency and pace. It’s the recurring critique that has followed Kaut throughout his journey.

“He came here as an 18-year-old and he and I had a conversation – I remember this clearly – about passion,” Cronin revealed. “Passion is (being) totally energetically invested in what you’re doing. If you’re a passionate hockey player, they skate around, they finish checks. They demonstrate energy. They demonstrate qualities that are contagious.”

Those qualities make an everyday NHL player.

“When you arrive at contact, then you’ve got to take the energy you’ve built in the open ice, and you’ve got to finish your check or get on top of the defender. That’s where sometimes when he’s not playing well, the energy is not being translated into a game-changing event,” Cronin elaborated.

“Even in a minor [event] like finishing a check, getting off the boards after you hit somebody, or driving to the net and having an active stick blade for a shot tip – it’s really obvious to me, and to Jared. [The average fan may not notice] because they’re not really looking at those last couple steps on a forecheck or those first couple steps off the boards.”

“His path back is to bring those qualities. He has them, but he doesn’t do them all the time. Like, every time. These guys that play with Logan O’Connor, they know he does it every time. That’s why he’s there. He wasn’t drafted. He was signed out of development camp.”

“I know I can play in the NHL, but I need to find a way to play every game like Logan O’Connor or Andrew Cogliano,” said Kaut. “That’s what Bednar told me. He knows I can play in the NHL, but I need to find a way to play every game like an NHL player. That’s definitely my biggest issue.”

Jared Bednar and Greg Cronin talked at length too.

“Jared said he played three games where he’s like, ‘Okay, he’s figured it out. He’s here. He’s a third-line guy. He’s dependable. He’s in on the forecheck. He plays with a meanness that adds more of a threat to his skating,’ and then it goes away,” Cronin said. “There’s a carefree, kind of loose style of hockey he plays when he’s not dialed in.”

Since the reassignment, Kaut has produced two goals in four games and generated 14 shots in the AHL. On December 19th, he was recalled to the Avalanche and appeared in their shootout win over the Islanders.

He played 7:05 on the fourth line – the role he’s talked at length about priming himself for. The health of the team is still influx. Nathan MacKinnon has begun skating with skills coach Shawn Allard, Darren Helm is still in a no contact jersey, and Andrew Cogliano’s status is to be determined after sustaining an injury in the Islanders game.

The future is unclear in that respect. You might rightfully wonder what the support system is like for a player experiencing so much uncertainty and setbacks. ” It’s hard, you know? It’s my fifth year,” he said.

Thankfully, Kaut has people in his corner. Family is set to come into town for the holiday. Even from afar, his brother is a huge supporter.

“He used to play hockey, too,” Kaut said. “I talk with him a lot. Like a mental coach, I (get) check-ins.” 

“My dad is pretty hard on me, but that’s dads. I get it,” he said. “He wants to push me to be great every game. That’s what the Avs want to do with me too.”

Another advocate is Carolina Hurricanes centerman Martin Necas. “He’s my best buddy,” he said. “We played together (about) 12 years in Czechia.”

Like Kaut, Necas also started in the American League.

“He won the championship with Charlotte. Now he’s playing (his fourth full season) with the Hurricanes, He’s doing great. He’s probably one of their best forwards. We call like every day together and talk about what I can do better.”

In all of this are the undeniable attributes that require a double take.

“When he’s racing off the boards and racing up ice with his first three steps explosive, and then he finishes his last three steps on a route, whether it’s a forecheck or a net drive – explosively – he’s an NHL player,” said Cronin. “He skates really well. When you see him skate in open ice, your eye goes to him because he’s a good skater. He’s got a lot of speed.”

The path forward isn’t linear, but for Kaut, it never has been. It’s not often a former first-round pick is taking development cues from an undrafted player, but O’Connor remains a bastion of development success in an organization that has struggled to produce role players in recent years.

“Growing up, I was always a smaller player. I knew I wasn’t going to out-muscle guys necessarily, I knew enough to rely on my speed and work ethic to separate myself,” said O’Connor. “That’s sort of always been what’s given me success as a player. Throughout my life, I’ve maybe not been the most skilled on the ice, but I always try and pride myself on that work ethic, and it’s gotten me this far.”

“For the most part, you’re trying to have your A game, but some nights you’re not going to have your legs,” he added. “You can’t have that every night, and if you don’t have your A game, it’s important to focus on having your B game. You never want to drop to C or D type games. That’s where you run into trouble and the consistency aspects can hurt your overall play. That’s one thing I try and focus on: if I’m not creating chances offensively, I try and find other ways to contribute to the game to make an impact and be visible.”

Incorporating the core tenants of O’Connor’s DNA is Kaut’s mission moving forward. It is the only way forward.