Friday, September 9, 2011

Rembering Lokomotiv

Words cannot express the magnitude of the tragedy that befell the hockey world on Wednesday.

As I sit here trying to come up with a catchy or profound opening sentence, it has dawned on me that I don't need to relay the significance of today's events - anyone reading this understands the deep impact this tragedy has had on the hockey community.

I wrote an article about it here, ( but I've given myself 48 hours to process what happened before I blogged about it.
Don't get me wrong - I don't expect or pretend to be anywhere near as affected by the tragedy as the player's family members or former teammates.
But this event has really brought out the family aspect of the hockey world.
We are all one big family. Hockey players and fans are a special breed. So this hits home for all of us.
When I read the reports that hockey ranks fourth among the four major sports in the US, I can't help but assume hockey counters that by having the most passionate fan base out of the 'big four'.
I do follow other sports, but hockey is the one that I think has the most dedicated fans.

And that's what makes us one big family.

We may be a small group compared to droves of football, baseball and basketball fans.
But we care the most about our teams, the players and the sport.

So when we lose one of our own, or in this case, an entire team, it really strikes at our core.

If a plane crashed in China carrying an entire Chinese league basketball team, I don't believe that the NBA, it's member teams, or it's players would rally around the victims the way the hockey community has.

I don't mean that as an assault on the character of those people, just as a testament to the nature of our sport.

It speaks volumes to the strength of the hockey community that the KHL is determined to maintain the Lokomotiv team, that players are voluntarily committing themselves to play for the new team, and that the league and team has rallied around the families of the victims and pledged to take care of them and see to their well being.

Hopefully a tragedy like this never happens again, and hopefully the memories of those lost in the crash never fade.

They will always be a part of our family.

Avs sign Cumiskey

Today, the Colorado Avalanche announced that the club signed defenseman Kyle Cumiskey to a one year deal.

Cumiskey was tendered a qualifying offer after the conclusion of last season, and was the last player to remain unsigned on the Avalanche roster.

The contract is a two way deal (708K/105K). The 24-year old played only 18 games with the club last season, suffering from recurring concussion symptoms. He scored 8 points (1g/7a) for the team, and has racked up 9 goals and 26 assists (35p) over parts of five seasons with the team.

Taking so long to sign a contract left some fans wondering if Cumiskey would even play this year. He is the antithesis of what the team added in big, tough defensemen like Jan Hejda and Shane O'Brien. Factor in the face that Kyle Quincey is returning from injury, and prospects like Stefan Elliott and Tyson Barrie are nearly ready to make the jump, and you have a crowded blue line for sure, with no solidified spot for Cumiskey.

Cumiskey will need to have a killer training camp to secure a spot on the roster. Being only 24, he still hasa few years to develop, but he will have to learn how to best make up for his small stature and inconsistent defense. If he could learn how to harness his speed and best use it for breaking out of his own end, he would increase his chances greatly.

But if guys like Wilson, O'Brien and Elliott have a good camp, Cumiskey may find himself on the outside looking in. 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Free Agency Roundup - Where the Avalanche sit after the free agent frenzy

It's been two weeks since the NHL free agent signing period began, and the Avalanche look much different than they did prior to the frenzy.

They have new goaltenders, a revamped blue line, and new role players who will hopefully compliment the team's stars.

But how much better did the Avs actually get?

This installment will address the team's biggest need coming into free agency: goaltending.
Ten days before last season's trade deadline, Colorado sent kindergartner Craig Anderson packing to Ottawa for beleaguered starter Brian Elliott. Many fans hoped Elliott could regain his form from the season before when he lead the Senators to the playoffs, but Elliott was simply atrocious finishing the season with the Avalanche, going 2-8-1 with a 3.83 GAA and .891 SV%.

After the season ended, it became inherently clear that Colorado was trying to make it with two sub-par backups. It then became GM Greg Sherman's and Joe Sakic's mission to address this need. In the weeks leading up to free agency, the cards seemed to play out perfectly in Colorado's favor.

The limited number of teams that needed a number one goalie got smaller and smaller, with Philadelphia trading for and signing Ilya Bryzgalov, Phoenix signing Mike Smith, Tampa Bay signing Dwayne Roloson, and Florida signing Jose Theodore. The stars seemed to align for the Avalanche to sign veteran netminder Tomas Vokoun. Vokoun has always been considered one of the top-tier goalies in the league, but has always played on mediocre teams.

To be honest, if there had been a pool for the over/under on whether or not Colorado would sign Vokoun, I would probably have put at least $100 on it.

But in a move that stunned most people in the hockey world, Sherman traded his 1st and 2nd round draft picks in the 2012 draft to Washington for young goaltender Semyon Varlamov. Most of the hockey analysts cried foul, and many believe that the Avalanche gave up a "guaranteed" top-5/lottery pick. I won't get into why that notion is utterly ridiculous, but the trade is a polarizing one.

It has been reported that Sakic and Sherman had been in Var-"love"-mov for weeks before the actually acquired him. Management mentioned multiple attempts and proposals made to Washington on draft day and prior trying to get Varlamov from the Capitals, so it seems as though Washington GM George McPhee knew just how to play Sakic and Sherman into his hand and then take them for as much as he could get. And that's fine. We still haven't seen the turn or the river, for those poker players out there.

We know this much: Varlamov has a history of injuries in his short career, but he has been known to play brilliantly when healthy. He owns a 30-13-12 record with a GAA of 2.39 and a save percentage of .917. For sake of comparison, Tomas Vokoun owns a losing NHL record, a GAA of 2.56, and a save percentage of .917. Granted, Vokoun has played on bad teams, but this is for the sake of comparison.

If Colorado coaches can get ahold of Varlamov and tweak his playing style somewhat to minimize his injuries, Sakic and Sherman will look like geniuses. There is potential for Varly to become Colorado's number one guy for the next decade, and be successful doing it. There is also potential for Varlamov to turn into the next Rick DiPietro, in which case Sherman would likely be shown the door.

Avalanche management hedged their bets, though, mere hours after acquiring Varlamov, in signing veteran goalie Jean-Sebastian Giguere. Giggy, as many affectionately call him, is 34 years old - by no means a 'young gun'. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2003 as the MVP of the playoffs in a losing effort by the Mighty Ducks, and then led the Ducks to a Stanley Cup Championship in 2007 - just 4 years ago. To say he is an overly qualified backup would be an understatement.

The fact is, Colorado hasn't had this kind of goaltending depth in years. In fact, never in the history of the team since moving to Denver has the Avalanche had such a tandem to deploy in net. Yes, Patrick Roy was likely the best to play the game at his position, but he never had a backup with the pedigree of Giguere (and he never needed one, for that matter).

The Avalanche has a solid plan B in case the Varlamov experiment fails, and Giguere has stated that he feels better than he has in years due to recent sports hernia surgery. To be able to go with Varly or Giggy when the situation warrants is a luxury Joe Sacco is surely not accustomed to, especially after having to rely on Elliott and Budaj. It will be interesting to see how he balances the two.

The bonus in these guys, though, is their attitude towards this Colorado organization. Giguere has been on local sports talk shows numerous times since the signing, stating how comfortable he feels coming here and just wants to make a difference, whether it be from the bench, mentoring Varlamov, or in a scenario where he assumes the starting netminder's role. And Semyon has publicly stated that the Avalanche were one of his favorite teams growing up, that he idolized Patrick Roy and was ecstatic to be in the same place where his hero once played.

Those kinds of intangibles are hard to come by, but this organization has felt them more and more recently. They chose Matt Duchene a couple years ago, a kid who had Avalanche memorabilia covering the walls of his room. They picked Gabriel Landeskog in this year's draft, who was shown before the draft in his Avalanche jersey as a child. Perhaps that is the last legacy left by players like Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, and Patrick Roy - a generation of youngsters who grew up watching their magic and wanting to do the exact same thing in the exact same place.

If all goes according to plan next year, the Avalanche won't need to worry about that first round pick. Goaltending was the first, biggest, and last piece of the puzzle needed to solidify the future of the club, and it has been aggressively addressed. If Sherman's bet pays off, the champagne may flow once again in downtown Denver.

Keep an eye out for roundups of the Avalanche defensive corps and forwards in the next couple weeks. 

Monday, June 27, 2011

Full 2011 Avalanche Draft Recap

And so another draft weekend has come and gone. 211 teenagers' dreams have come true, and we as fans will wait to see which of them will be gems and which will be busts.

We'll look today at the rest of Colorado's picks in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. For analysis of their 1st round picks, see my previous post.

The Avalanche were without a 2nd or 3rd round pick in this draft, having traded them both away previously. Their 2nd rounder went to St. Louis as part of the Stewart/Shattenkirk/Johnson trade earlier this year, and their 3rd rounder went to the New York Islanders in the deal that saw them acquire the Isles 4th round pick in 2010 entry draft (used to select Stephen Silas).

Picking up in the 4th round, Colorado saw that Joachim Nermark was still available, and quickly selected the Swedish center with the 93rd pick. Nermark was rated the 8th overall European skater, so Avalanche brass felt they were lucky to get him in the 4th round. The 18 year old Nermark is bigger, sitting at 6'1" and 187 pounds. He plays for Linköpings of the SEL. He most recently starred at the 2010 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, scoring 5 g and 6 a (11p) in 5 games for the Swedes.

In the 5th round (123), the Avalanche picked Canadian Garrett Meurs. Muers, who is 18, plays for the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL. He is listed at 5'10", 169, and plays center. This is likely a "best player available" selection, as scouting tends to get thinner in the later rounds, and Colorado already has a bevy of talent at the center position.

Colorado chose Canadian defenseman Gabriel Beaupre in the 6th round with the 153rd overall pick. Beaupre, who is 19, tips the scale at 195, standing 6'2" tall. He plays for Val d'Or of the QMJHL. This is another pick the Avalanche used on a bigger body, showing that the team is likely focused on getting bigger at both ends of the ice.

With their last selection (7th round, 183rd overall), the Avalanche chose American-born defenseman Dillon Donnelly. Donnelly is nearly exactly the same size as Beaupre, weighing in at 192, and also standing at 6'2". He plays for Shawinigan of the QMJHL. Donnelly's father, Gord, played 554 games in the NHL, so the bloodline is there for Dillon to follow in his father's footsteps.

While it's likely we won't see all of these names on an NHL jersey in the future, the Avalanche have pulled some definite talent from the later rounds in the past ten years. Guys like John-Michael Liles (round 5/159th overall), Marek Svatos (7/227th), David Jones (9/288th), Brandon Yip (8/239th), Kyle Cumiskey (7/222nd), and Jonas Holos (6/170th) have all seen significant action at the NHL level.

There's also something to be said about the demographic of the Avs' choices. Two of their first three choices were used to select Swedes. Now this may just be a coincidence, but Sweden has been churning out quality NHL talent for years. Nicklas Lidstrom, Mats Sundin, the Sedin twins, and of course, Peter Forsberg, just to name a few. These guys may very well have been targeted by the team for their backgrounds, and if any of them approach the potential of the names listed above, Landeskog in particular, Avalanche fans and management will be very pleased.

The other trend was the size of players taken. Only one prospect was under six feet, and most will fill out to be roughly 200 pounds or more. That's not huge by any means, but on a team that could use some size, they will be a welcome addition.

Overall, I would give this draft an A- grade for the Avalanche. They certainly came out winners getting both Landeskog and Siemens in the 1st round, but it would have been nice to have the second pick in both the 2nd and 3rd rounds, or picks at all in those rounds. Still, you have to say that the future looks bright for the team.

Next up: finding a starting goaltender...

Friday, June 24, 2011

Colorado Avalanche Round 1 Recap

As we sit here on Friday night, the picture of what the Colorado Avalanche will look like in the future got a little clearer. Fans should appreciate that they will be seeing Gabriel Landeskog fighting his way to the net and Duncan Siemens punishing opposing team's forwards for at least the foreseeable future.
You can read about Landeskog in my previous post, but Duncan Siemens was the prospect Colorado selected with the 11th overall pick. Siemens, a 6'2" defenseman out of Saskatoon, describes himself as a "tough, hard-to-play-against, edgy defenseman who takes care of his own end first but has the ability to chip in offensively."
Siemens is known as a shut-down defenseman who will certainly add grit to the Avalanche blue line.  He is probably a year or so away from being ready for the NHL, but will make an impact when he makes the team.
Colorado got an added bonus in the fact that Siemens defensive partner on the Blades was Stefan Elliott, a highly touted Avs prospect who is expected to compete for a roster spot next season. Their chemistry could translate to a very successful defensive paring for years to come.

So Colorado addressed two needs with these two picks: the need for a physical, power-forward type player to play along side Duchene or Stastny, and the need for a big, stay-at-home defenseman. Siemens will fill the role that Adam Foote used to have, although he's been compared more to Scott Stevens, another hardcore, in-your-face D-man who will stand up for his teammates. 

Overall, I would give the Avalanche an A for their efforts this evening. They kept both of their picks amongst rumors that they'd trade the #11, which was smart. And they took the right players at the right time. They didn't reach for anybody - they knew their plan from the moment the night started and executed it perfectly. 

As of 12:00 AM Mountain time, Colorado has no picks in the 2nd or 3rd rounds of the draft that will take place in the morning. Don't be surprised to see the team make a move or two to be able to make a selection in one of those rounds. Should be a good day.

Avalanche choose Gabriel Landeskog with 2nd overall pick

The Colorado Avalanche have chosen Kitchener Rangers captain Gabriel Landeskog with the second overall pick in the 2011 NHL draft. Speculation turned out to be correct that the Avalanche would take a forward, although the trade of John Michael Liles to Toronto earlier in the afternoon fueled rumors that the Avs would take Swedish defenseman Adam Larsson.
Landeskog will provide an instant impact to the Avalanche lineup, as he has been deemed to be the most NHL ready player in this draft. Look for him to jump onto the left wing spot with either Paul Stastny or Matt Duchene as a power forward.
Stay tuned for more analysis of this pick and the #11 pick the Avalanche have.

Avalanche Trade Defenseman John-Michael Liles to Toronto

After enduring deadline after deadline of rumors that he'd be traded, Avalanche defenseman John-Michael Liles was shipped to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday, per TSN. In return, the Avs will get Toronto's 2nd round pick in 2012 - NOT this year's.

What does this surprising move mean? I'd say you could put money down on the fact that Colorado will draft Adam Larsson with the 2nd overall pick. Sending Liles to Toronto clears up room on a defensive corps that was getting crowded with Johnson, Quincey, Wilson, O'Byrne, Cumiskey and Holos. Stefan Elliott and Tyson Barrie are also expected to compete for jobs this fall. There just weren't enough spots, and Liles is closer to the end of his career than the beginning.

That being said, JML was a fan favorite, and will be missed. Best of luck.