Jesse’s Observations

Avs Give back – My favorite thing about writing this piece every week is the fact that it allows me the opportunity to share some of the fascinating stories that we get to see up close, that maybe go unnoticed by the general public. 

This past week, when the Colorado Avalanche hosted the Anaheim Ducks, the Avs and Kroenke Sports Charities announced that they would be making donations to 27 local non-profit organizations, totaling north of half a million dollars. 

We see different organizations hosted at Ball Arena throughout the year, and in many instances, they are there to either receive a donation or make a donation. So why did I feel it necessary to take time out to write about this one in particular?

Well for starters, it was something that legitimately grabbed my attention when it was being announced in-arena. Not just because the dollar figure was significantly larger than what you’re used to hearing in a situation like that at a sporting event, but what stuck out to me was where the money was coming from. 

For years the Avalanche have hosted fan watch parties for playoff games. When the team is on the road, they have opened up Ball Arena to show the games live on the Jumbotron. Last year was no exception, with minor tweaks to the familiar format.

In years past, starting in the first round, all that was required for entry was an online RSVP. Essentially all they asked was that you go online and alerted them that you were coming. This past season though, it was announced that the watch parties would start during the Western Conference Final, and there would be a ticket fee to get in. I never really put too much thought into it, but I did find it interesting that it would now cost to get in. 

Another new initiative that the organization rolled out was what they called a Pom Pom Post. The Avs’ famous white pom poms that are given to every fan in attendance for playoff games have taken on their own “cult following” among Avalanche fans on twitter, with people who weren’t able to attend a playoff game trying desperately to get their hands on one from someone who was in attendance but maybe had a spare.

The Avs found a way to solve that this year by offering them for sale to anybody who wanted one shipped to them, and it was a huge success. Playoff pom poms were eventually sent to fans in all 50 states.

I know it’s easy to look at things like these two new initiatives in the moment and immediately jump to “they’re just trying to make more money”, but that wasn’t the goal at all. It was always the intention to raise money that would be donated back into the Colorado community. 

$565,000 raised during last season’s run to a Stanley Cup championship, between the watch parties and pom pom posts. Now all being donated to 27 non-profit charities. This is the type of stuff that I don’t think gets talked about enough in pro sports. So many organizations use their tremendous reach and influence to do good and help those who need it, and I thought this was an awesome example of the Colorado Avalanche doing just that. 

Given that this is the team I cover, and I just said it doesn’t get talked about enough, I just felt like I had to bring it up to kick off the article this week. Good on the Avs and Kroenke Sports Charities for finding a way to capture that playoff excitement and turn it into some good for the Colorado community. 

Matt Nieto – We couldn’t not talk about this deal right?

Honestly, the longer I took in the details of the trade, I could not believe what Avs GM Chris McFarland was able to pull off here. No offense to either one of Jacob MacDonald or Martin Kaut, but McFarland essentially took two non-roster players and flipped them for a bonafide bottom-six NHLer, and an intriguing right-handed defensive prospect. Not too shabby.

The Ryan Merkley part of this deal is especially intriguing to me. He’s a young player, who still has a long way to go, but the upside is there. He was considered to be one of the best defensemen in his draft class. Certainly one of the (if not THE) top offensive defensemen of the class. Great skater, great puck skill, very talented player. 

Merkley had requested a trade out of the San Jose Sharks organization, the organization that drafted him 21st overall back in 2018. You do worry a little bit about some of what we heard about him coming out of the draft. 

I’ve never heard any ultra-specifics on what it was about him that rubbed some teams the wrong way, but I’ve mostly heard it’s stuff that folks think he could easily grow out of. We’ve said it for years now, the Avalanche organization is one that will not tolerate disruptive behavior. Get on board, or there’s the door is the mentality. This pairing with Merkley could end up being great for everyone, and it’s off to a pretty good start. 

As for bringing back Matt Nieto, I like it. First of all, he and Nathan MacKinnon are great friends, and it’s never a bad thing to do things that keep MacKinnon happy. Second, he just fits the identity of the Avalanche so well. He’s fast, he is ravenous on pucks, heavy on the forecheck. He does everything they want in a bottom-six player. 

He struggles to put the puck in the net, but you hope he can settle into that shutdown role and it doesn’t become too much of a factor. 

The only thing that really sticks out to me is that this may be a nod to the fact that Darren Helm’s season could be over. If it’s not, the Avs just really solidified that bottom-six depth that was so huge for them last season. If it is though, Nieto is really just your Helm replacement and I’d still like to see them do something that really bolsters the bottom of the lineup. 

Bednar is breakin’ records – I think Jared Bednar is one of the best coaches in the NHL, and I genuinely think there’s a chance he is the BEST coach in the NHL.

The one thing there is no doubt about anymore is that he is the greatest coach in Colorado Avalanche/Quebec Nordique history, and as we discussed this past week on the DNVR Avalanche Podcast, there’s nobody even close. 

Bednar is what every company in corporate America is looking for right now in a leader. Someone who understands their people, someone who knows when to push, and when to pull back. Someone who understands that to truly see the whole picture, you sometimes have to take a step back and not focus so hard not he here/now. Most importantly, someone that knows how to lead. 

Not just coach, not just someone who tell guys what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong, but rather someone who says “I’m in charge, and I’m going to get us through this”. 

Congrats to Jared Bednar on an incredible accomplishment. 

Stadium Series Jerseys – Real quick.

I mentioned the All-Star Game Jerseys last week, which I think are fantastic. SO this weekI had to mention the two jersey reveals hat we got.

The Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals unveiled the jerseys that they would be wearing in the upcoming Stadium Series game set to be played in Raleigh, North Carolina. 

The Hurricanes jerseys are whatever. They’re fine. They honestly look super similar to jerseys that they already have.

The Caps jerseys though, I think they’re beautiful. 

That is what they wanted the Avs Stadium Series jerseys (for the Air Force game) to look like I think. Huge exaggerated logo, right in the middle of the jersey as a statement piece. 

I love when the NHL has fun and steps outside of the box. I think they did that here, and it was a home run. 

Darcy Kuemper – Speaking of the Capitals, It was great to catch up with Darcy Kuemper when Washington came to town. He was jovial as ever (Kuemper was always great to talk to last year), and was very generous with his Tim in talking to the media. 

Of note, his eye looked WAY better. Despite him saying he was good to go in the Stanley Cup Final last season, it was obvious just looking at him that he wasn’t at 100%. His right eye was sagging. Not anymore. So good to see that clear up, and he’s having a great season. I feel like he was majorly under-appreciated here last season. Starting in December, he put together a Vezina-caliber season. I’m not saying he should have won it, but he had the numbers that would have justified it. I’m just sayin’. 

The biggest reason I’m writing about him this week is his interview postgame. He told us before the game that he wasn’t expecting any type of acknowledgment from the team or crowd since he was only in town for one year. Failing to mention that It was a pretty special year though. 

Well, of course he got a video tribute and a pretty huge ovation from the crowd. 

Just awesome. This is what sports are all about for me. You could tell how much that truly meant to him, his tone completely changed in terms of what it meant to be back from what he had said the day before. If you ask me, that was probably truly how he felt all along and maybe just didn’t want to show it before the game. 

Either way, a really special moment for him. The Avs likely don’t win that Cup without him. 

Meghan’s Observations:

Ryan Merkley’s arrival – In the trade that saw Jacob MacDonald and Martin Kaut move to the San Jose Sharks organization, Matt Nieto was not the only addition for Colorado. Also with him came 22-year-old right-hand defenseman Ryan Merkley.

A 2018 first-round pick, Merkley spent three professional seasons trying to break into the NHL full-time. He has appeared in 39 NHL games and averaged a 0.39 point-per-game pace primarily at the AHL level. He hadn’t played in a game since December 31st due to a trade request submitted by his agent on January 3rd.

“We feel a change will be better for him opportunity-wise after 5 years,” his agent said.

Five years ago in his draft year, teams reportedly shied away from him due to attitudinal concerns.

After waiting for the trade request to be fulfilled, a month later he would suit up for a different organization with a fresh opportunity, but he would start in the American League.

Merkley played in this past weekend’s series for the Colorado Eagles against the Texas Stars on the road. The Eagles split the series. After a disappointing performance Friday, the Eagles responded with a 5-1 win on Saturday.

In his first showings, Greg Cronin – who has shared that assistant Aaron Schneekloth often sets the defensive pairings – allowed Merkley to ride out each game fully. He was on the top pair each night alongside Keaton Middleton. He more or less played true top pair minutes with 19:48 TOI, sometimes taking shifts with David Farrance in game one, and he received a nod on their powerplay.

In game two, Merkley registered a primary assist on the top powerplay unit (it was his shot that was tipped). As not to overvalue an evaluation through only two games, there are notable talking points to pull from the outings.

The positives: Indicated in his powerplay use, Merkley has an offensive instinct. Between both ends of the ice, he looked more comfortable at the offensive blueline. He didn’t hesitate to activate in the offensive zone, his passes connected, and he was able to walk the blueline (on the powerplay especially) in search of viable passing and shooting lanes.

The concerns: Some of this can be chalked up to the realities of adjusting to a new system. Save for Brad Hunt who can appear like a fourth forward on the ice, the Eagles try to play a physical, shut-down defense akin to Andreas Englund and Keaton Middleton’s style.

Merkley appeared to get worked off the puck easily, he didn’t particularly wear contact well, and appeared a step behind plays. Positionally, he looked a bit lost in space and unsure of his assignment. As a result, his gap control suffered and he was slower to engage his guy.

In stature, Wyatt Aamodt isn’t so different in size and doesn’t have the first-round pedigree of Merkley. Aamodt’s growth since coming to Loveland and spending a full professional season there is encouraging. He’s become very reliable, picking up responsible habits.

Even Brad Hunt has talked about all that he’s learned with the Eagles in his short time spent with them this season. Merkley will have plenty of opportunity to lean into the offensive side of his game, no doubt. Can he clean up the details in his own end?

With a little more time spent with Tim Branham, Schneekloth, and Cronin – we’ll have to see what becomes of him.

Edmonton’s EBUG – In yesterday’s game with a little under two and half minutes left in a 7-3 game, the Edmonton Oilers gave a young goaltender from the University of Alberta the opportunity of a lifetime.

Stuart Skinner was not an option to back-up Jack Campbell in net due to illness. To ensure he had help, the Oilers signed 25-year old university student Matthew Berlin to an amateur tryout so he could suit up in relief. Because of their comfortable lead, Berlin entered the game in the final minutes in an unexpected NHL debut.

Apparently, the decision was Connor McDavid’s idea. He faced one shot and made the save. Edmonton won 7-3.

Connor Bedard watch – As we approach the 2023 draft slowly but surely, there’s something exciting about the intensity ramping up around 17-year-old Connor Bedard. His 32-game point streak lives on and he’s now at a total of 81 points, 39 goals in his WHL season with the Regina Pats.

Joonas Donskoi’s health update – In incredibly sad news, former Avalanche right-wing Joonas Donskoi has revealed that he sustained the seventh concussion of his career during a preseason game against Vancouver earlier this year.

He detailed lingering ill-effects like vision problems, vertigo and headaches that have rendered him unable to practice. He was supposed to complete his second season with the Seattle Kraken this year. Donskoi spent two seasons in Colorado before he was claimed by Seattle in the expansion draft.

College connection – With the addition of Matt Nieto, two former Boston University linemates were reunited in Colorado’s locker room. Evan Rodrigues, a sophomore at the time, played alongside Matt Nieto in the back half of Nieto’s final year at BU. Also on the line was freshman Danny O’Regan – a draft pick of the San Jose Sharks just like Nieto.

Rodrigues followed a different path. With a lot of hard work, the young player was a college free agent who got picked up by the Buffalo Sabres. He only spent a few split seasons in the American League before becoming an NHL’er full time.

Rodrigues reflected on the success of their line and his memory of Nieto who he described as the ultimate hype man.

He also talked about the ways in which the program prepared him for the next level particularly under the leadership of David Quinn – current head coach of the San Jose Sharks.

“The second half of my senior year, I had one class, so I was kind of doing two-a-days: on the ice in the morning, then I went to breakfast/lunch, came back, and then I practiced,” Rodrigues explained. “David Quinn was my coach at the time, and he was really big into getting guys on the ice early in the morning. He had a huge part in my development that year. He prioritized individual skill when we weren’t practicing, when we were doing early morning skates, and I think it was huge for my development.”