He bounced between forward and defenseman early in youth hockey. His coaches saw a natural fit on the backend and liked him there. Maybe it was because the Minnesota-native grew up watching players like Jared Spurgeon, and maybe his older brother who also played defense had an influence on his decision to commit to the position.
Eventually, the right-shot defender embarked on a dedicated path to hone his craft, a path which led him to the Colorado Avalanche organization: home to three-time Norris Trophy finalist Cale Makar, and a Stanley Cup caliber defense with the likes of Devon Toews and up-and-comers like Bowen Byram.
Sam Malinski’s come-up through hockey wasn’t unlike many before him, but it was one that favored time and development.
He played a season in the USHL for the Cedar Rapids Roughriders along with current teammate Jason Polin. He spent the next two seasons maxing out his juniors career in the NAHL before opting for the NCAA route. He was named the NAHL’s Central Division Defenseman of the Year during the 2018-19 season.
Malinski spent four seasons at Cornell – one of which was halted due to the pandemic. The Ivy League school touts academic acclaim, and its hockey program has collected its share of success as well with eight Frozen Four appearances and two national titles.
“The college pace was great. The culture we had at Cornell was something that you don’t get necessarily get with major juniors or a lot of other programs,” said Malinski. “That was really special to be a part of, and I think that helped me develop strong habits that have helped to make this transition easier.”
A former defenseman himself, Cornell’s head coach Mike Schafer has been with the program since 1995 and was recently named co-winner of the 2020 Spencer Penrose Award for Coach of the Year following Malinski’s freshman season – an award Cale Makar’s coach Greg Carvel received in Makar’s final year at UMass as well.
Schafer has earned a reputation for fostering a strong defensive identity within his group.
“I don’t think you can win without playing great D. It’s always been a staple of our hockey team and always will be,” Schafer said. “The guys that come here know that they want to win, and they gotta play a certain way. For a player to go on to the NHL, the only way they’re gonna play in the NHL is if their coaches trust them. If they can’t trust him defensively, it doesn’t matter how talented they are offensively, it’s gonna be very difficult for them to break in. It helps us win, and it helps the kids develop.”
Last year, Cornell received excellent goaltending from Ian Shane but they also had the fourth-best overall margin for goal scoring and goals allowed thanks in part to solid defending as well.
In his senior year, Malinski was named captain – though he was already familiar with the leadership role. He had his first taste of captaincy leading his high school team and again as an alternate captain during his last year of juniors.
He finished first on his team among defenseman in points (26 points in 34 games), played a top-four role with ample time on the top pairing, and ran their first powerplay unit.
“He’s an unselfish player. He shoots pucks when he needs to, and he has a hard enough shot to score from the outside and also to create rebounds with a shot. He’s just a good player,” said Schafer.
In talking to those who know him, you can’t discuss his on-ice skill without mentioning the strength of his off-ice character. The two are unavoidably linked.
Schafer said Malinski’s genuity was a quality that made him special. “Off the ice, just a genuine personality, great person on the ice, and (the) consistency of his game. He doesn’t take any practices or games off at all, and all that leads to success.”
He has an offensive instinct and his game pops immediately: a mobile defender who can transport pucks and walk the blueline in search of the perfect play.
“His offensive side: he’s got great skating skills and skill. He’s got the ability to get up ice, and that takes a little bit of tenacity. I call it an engine,” Schafer explained. “He’s got to get there and he’s got to do it consistently in order to be rewarded offensively. He just can’t jump when there’s opportunity, you got to go all the time. [He] has done that at the college level: great shot, plays with his head up, just all the different things that lead to a player’s great offensive numbers.”
Like many defensemen who make the leap to the pros, there are some challenges he can anticipate. Schafer recognized what his players need in order to find success at the next level.
“When an NHL coach is gonna play a player, they know they gotta trust them on the ice to know where he’s supposed to be and what he’s supposed to do. Our kids understand that aspect of the game: making adjustments, being responsible to the team. That’s the kind of the culture that we have here, and it leads well into our guys making that adjustment. When coaches put them into play, they know that they can depend on them. They can trust him to do what they want them to do.”
Malinski put in the work at Cornell and Schafer took notice of two specific areas of improvement.
He said Malinski improved defensively and became more consistent.
“He’s surprisingly strong, I think that’s what will take people aback when they get a chance to see him play. They will get shocked, for his size, he can be physically very strong on his feet and can defend. That’s the kind of thing that I think will surprise people.”
This year during the Manchester Regional Semifinal, Cornell upset the defending national champions (the University of Denver) in a 2-0 shutout. They advanced to the final just one step away from the Frozen Four, but fell to Boston University in a close 2-1 contest.
His college career didn’t have to end; he had eligibility for one more year, but his stock was on the rise.
As an undrafted player, he was a free agent and Cornell’s proximity to the title games and Quinnipiac’s eventual success shone a bright spotlight on the ECAC as a whole.
Individual success at the collegiate level also commanded attention: as a junior he was named a finalist for ECAC Hockey’s Best Defensive Defenseman and as a senior he became the first Cornell defenseman to earn consecutive All-ECAC Hockey First Team selections since their last Frozen Four appearance in 2003.
On March 30th, he agreed to a two-year contract with the Colorado Avalanche for the 2023-24 and 2024-25 seasons and joined the Colorado Eagles on a professional tryout contract for the remainder of the year.
“Hockey is a small community, so it spreads. It goes from the players, to the agents, to the general managers, and then back to the players. So for me, the consummate compliment for our organization is Sammy Malinski,” Colorado Eagles head coach Greg Cronin said.
With Malinski came four other college free agents: Jason Polin, Ryan Sandelin, Ondrej Pavel, and Kyle Mayhew. After the Avs pursued Ben Meyers last year and Logan O’Connor before that – the addition of undrafted players straight from college continues.
Much of their dip into the NCAA pool is thanks to the hard work of the Avs’ Director of Video Scouting, Mike Battaglia. Battaglia set up viewings, helped with lists, and guided others ahead of scouting players once they were identified.
Avalanche Assistant General Manager and General Manager of the Colorado Eagles, Kevin McDonald, completed his inaugural season with the Avs under the duress of an injury-riddled season which demanded a lot of both the parent club and AHL affiliate.
To McDonald, the college players recognize the mutual benefits of choosing Colorado.
“It works both ways. Because the more success we have with those players, the more the agents and the next wave of players are paying attention that this is a potential pathway that could work,” he said.
“When you add [Cronin’s] coaching success with some of those guys that – let’s face it – these guys weren’t drafted. They weren’t on the fast track. They’re prospects. Those are the kinds of guys Cronin wants to get his hands on and let the teaching begin. That’s what this is about,” McDonald added.
“I’ve been here long enough now to know that they can just connect the dots between the Eagles and [Sheldon Dries], the Eagles and [AJ Greer], the Eagles and [Ryan Graves], the Eagles and [Conor Timmins], and the Eagles and [Justin Barron]. They know when players are going here, they may not stay in the organization, but they’re getting trained, and they’re gonna go somewhere else and play,” Cronin said.
“Colorado did a really good sales pitch to me, and I felt like it would be a really good fit for myself,” Malinski admitted. “I like their style of play: they allow their defenseman to jump up into the play, and that’s something I really like to do. I heard really good things about the coaching staff here too, so that’s a big sales point for myself. So far, I’m really happy with my decision.”
He was able to make an informed decision with the help of Cornell alternate captain and Avalanche prospect, Matt Stienburg. The pair both made the leap to the American League at the same time.
“He was in my ear the whole time trying to convince me to come here,” Malinski laughed. “It’s nice to have a familiar face in the locker room and someone I already know.”
“He’s a guy that leads by example. When something needs to be said, he’ll step up and say it, and I think guys really listen when he talks,” Stienburg shared of his teammate. “Back at school, he is a guy that everybody respected a lot.”
In his first professional game, he scored a goal and continued to produce. In fourteen total appearances, he collected ten points and earned a spot on the Eagles’ top powerplay unit – even under the intense stage lights of the Calder Cup playoffs where he led the team in points behind Cedric Pare.
He became a player the Eagles could count on very quickly.
“He’s very poised, he’s very calm with the puck. He’s confident with it. Like most college kids, he’s going to have to work on some of the defensive details, but he’s not afraid. He’s able to get into lanes and defend lanes well,” said Cronin. “He’s got a real good skill set.”
His confidence was evident: from game one, dropped on the road into games during the regular season, to a key playmaker in the playoffs. Malinski’s contributions helped keep the Eagles powerplay perfect through the first round against the Ontario Reign.
Malinski took the adjustment in stride.
“The guys have been really good (at) helping me get used to the systems and the pace of play. Coming to a new team is tough: just every day in practice, learning new drills. They’ve done a really good job helping me out there,” he explained. “The strength of the opposing players and speed of the game is a little bit different too. It’s been a little bit of a transition, but I think we’re making some progress and learning a lot.”
Fortunately, there are similarities between Cornell and Colorado. “At Cornell, we did man-on-man in the D-zone, so that’s a little familiar for me. And other than that, I like the way the Eagles play here. I was able to activate a little bit as a defenseman at Cornell, and I know they like to do that here too.”
With the help of assistant coach Aaron Schneekloth, he’s focused on the details to better defend faster and stronger opponents.
“He’s been really helpful (and has) taught me a lot already,” Malinski said. “We’ve been working a lot on my posture, defending, and footwork. I’ve been doing a lot of different very specific drills with him and a lot of film work too.”
At 24-years-old and with four years of college under his belt, he’s not a blank slate quite like others who come straight from juniors at nineteen.
“He’s got an identity. I already had a conversation with his coach Mike Schafer, so I got to know about the kid, what his personality is like and what his natural skill set is, so we kind of have an idea of his natural identity,” Cronin explained.
“We’re not going to change too much on him in terms of his athleticism. What we try and do is find little parts of his game that can improve. Whatever he learned at Cornell, that’s still going to be weaponry that he can use playing here, but we might add some of our ideas to him that will make him a better defender (and a) more efficient, offensive player.”
“You can see sometimes he carries the puck too much instead of moving it and moving off the puck,” Cronin elaborated. “But he’s gonna learn that, he’s a smart kid. He’s coachable. I think he’s just gonna keep getting better and better. The one thing that surprised me about him was that he’s not a physically imposing guy, but he’s strong on the puck. When guys have stick strength on puck battles, despite the lack of size and length, that’s a big bonus.”
At 5’11”, 190 lbs Malinski teeters on the edge of undersized, but it might serve as an advantage for the way he likes to play. Plus like Schafer and Cronin both alluded to, his strength will surprise you.
“Guys like Keaton Middleton and Erik Johnson when they take off, they pop up,” Cronin said. “So when they take off, if the small guy gets under them, they win the center of gravity battle. Malinski is a real good height. He plays low. When you watch him skate, his hips are low, when he engages in battles, his hips are low. That’s something that is hard to teach people to do if they’re staying high all the time – he does that naturally which (will) really benefit him as he moves up, hopefully to the NHL at some point.”
To prepare players for the next level is a challenge that Cronin personally embraces.
“I love it.”
“I’m very confident that what we teach [is] athletic principles. We’ve fine-tuned these things that have to be present to be successful…We call them events, certain events happen every game and are predictable…They happen every game multiple times. Hockey is not football, so you’re not dialing plays up, but when you break the game down, there’s certain events that happen over and over and over again.”
“If your players are trained to manage those events properly, then the game just slows down for them because they’re comfortable in that. Hockey’s a chaotic game, right? So if you can be comfortable in chaos, you can make plays. That’s the spirit of what we try to teach them, and I take pride in it.”
“I’m proud and confident that our coaches do a great job making players aware of what they need to do to be successful. And then doing, I call it fertilizing work, just constantly being on them about these details, and then we watch them grow. I’m proud of it, and I know it works. And it’s not a one man show – I can’t say enough about Aaron [Schneekloth].”
“It’s not about me, it’s about the staff and organization. Everybody here is totally invested from Steven Petrovek, Brent Woodside to, Bryce Blinkhorn – everybody. We’ve had draft picks tossed into trades, right? We need to stock shelves with players. So the only way to do that, in the absence of draft picks, is getting college guys.”
Greg Cronin added to his praise of Schneekloth and Tim Branham. “Aaron [Schneekloth] and I have been together for five years. Our assistant coaches are outstanding, they are so dialed in. In their position, they are responsible for special teams to get the details driven home to the players,” Cronin explained.
Schneekloth runs the powerplay and Branham works the penalty kill.
“I believe that we are able to win because our players understand the little details that allow us to win one-on-one battles, and to create structure on the ice that makes the game somewhat predictable. That can’t be done, especially when there’s a crash course with guys coming in from college with a different culture, different coaches, different style of play, without [Schneekloth] and [Branham] sitting down and going through everything we do as a team.”
Cronin emphasized the collaborative effort that has brought everyone – especially the college players – success.
“Aaron Schneekloth, Tim Branham, and Steven Petrovek do a great job getting them acclimated. The personal habits and social change, right? (When) somebody has come in (anew) they got to feel comfortable in that environment, and then you’ve got to give them some systems which allows them to play with structure.”
“Then the expectations that we try to create are real high, and they’ve got to try and meet those. That’s just the way we do it here. To be able to come in and acclimate and then compete at the level that we need them to compete at to win, to me is extremely impressive.”
When you look at the 2022 Stanley Cup Champions, it might be hard to envision a path to the NHL through Colorado. After all, their core still contains Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Cale Makar.
“The first thing that [McDonald] and [Chris MacFarland] say when we get these college players is that they’re coming here because of you guys – like your reputation in developing players and they want to go with where they’re gonna get developed,” said Cronin. “They’re not looking at the Avs and saying, ‘I’ll never play there.’”
Why do players choose Colorado?
“I think it’s a testament to both: what Joe [Sakic] and Chris [MacFarland] did bringing in the staff here, and then what the staff here has accomplished,” Kevin McDonald proposed. “I’m able to use it as a manager especially in July and free agency to recruit these guys. You go down the list of these guys that have played here, and there’s close to ten guys on NHL rosters now that have come through the Eagles recently that weren’t supposed to be necessarily NHL players when they came here. That’s a direct testament to the coaching staff, the teaching and the attention to detail, and the demand to win. It makes everybody better. We’re into that now a little bit because it’s a competitive environment.”
“If you want to go to the NHL, you got to beat out your teammates, your linemates, your roommate, to be the next guy.”
McDonald used two examples: Alex Galchenyuk, the former 30-goal scorer with first round pedigree in need of a revival to stick in the NHL and Ben Meyers, an undrafted free agent who hoped to crack the National League at 23-years-old. Meyers appeared in 45 total games and Galchenyuk – who started the year on a PTO, came back from injury and signed a one-year deal – dressed for 11 games this season.
“My impression of working with Greg Cronin for almost the whole year now: those are the challenges he lives for – to get somebody with the talent to go on and play in the NHL when he puts in the work and does what Cronin wants him to do on a daily basis,” McDonald explained. “Same thing with [Meyers], he came in last year, was one of the most sought-after college free agents, played well in the playoffs, but (that September to June) journey to stay in the NHL is a long one. He needed to come down here, reset.”
It was a really good marriage between both players.
“[Meyers] and [Galchenyuk] were willing to put in the work and be good students. Cronin had great guys that he could teach and mold and shape. They were ready to take the ball and run with it.”
“That’s what the Eagles thing is, why it works so well. The guys know if they put in the work, they have to trust that they’ll play. They have to trust that, you know, Cronin’s track record. This is all you need to do. You pay attention to these details and change your game like this, you’ll be fine. And then when they do it, it helps us with all these college guys and the new guys coming in.”
“To see what the path to success has been (for others) makes it easier for them to follow. ‘That’s worth it. I’ll walk down that path,’” McDonald finished.
At points this year with Erik Johnson, Josh Manson, and Cale Makar missing time, the defensive group started to feel left-shot heavy.
Even Jared Bednar, who prefers harmonious pairings, acknowledged the imbalance during the regular season when the group was especially depleted.
Two right-shot defensive prospects, Drew Helleson and Justin Barron, were used as trade chips last year to bring important pieces to the Stanley Cup-winning team in Josh Manson and Artturi Lehkonen.
Still remaining is 20-year-old, left-shot defenseman Sean Behrens. Behrens will complete his junior year at DU for practical reasons, so his professional debut is yet to come anyways.
In the pipeline for defensive depth through next season are Brad Hunt and Keaton Middleton, though the Avs/Eagles may extend some additional expiring deals.
It’s probably safe to assume Bowen Byram inks an extension this summer. Making up Colorado’s defensive group for at least one more year is Cale Makar, Bo Byram, Devon Toews, Sam Girard, Josh Manson, and Kurtis MacDermid. The future for Toews beyond next year is murkier.
Suddenly, a path forward feels possible.
“I know they have a really good defensive group up there,” Malinski revealed. “It’s not something I look at a ton. In making my first decision to come here, maybe I looked at that a bit, but right now I’m just trying to focus on little details, get up to speed with this level here and trying to get better day by day.”
He has loved it here so far. “It’s awesome,” he said. “All the other guys here have been very welcoming, so it’s a great place to play.”
Even though the Eagles’ season came to a disappointing end in a Game 5 shutout on Friday, Malinski has a real opportunity to show in development camp, the rookie tournament, and eventually main camp in the coming months.
Until his time comes, he will have a wealth of knowledge and experience to gain under the tutelage of an Eagles coaching staff eager for his skill and up to the task.