The Colorado Eagles graduation to the AHL was the culmination of 15 years of hard work and excellence. They debuted in 2002 in the CHL, played there for 8 years and made the championship finals 5 times, winning twice. In 2011 they moved up to the ECHL where they played for 7 years and won the Kelly Cup in the final 2 seasons as the Avalanche affiliate.
The Eagles had never missed the playoffs so that was a minimum expectation for the season. While making that the primary goal can possibly detract from other important functions of an AHL team I think the latent pressure to win and succeed is an overall positive and I like that it will be a continuing expectation. Being a perennial bottom-feeder doesn’t help anyone, prospects included, and the Avs AHL teams had been bottom-feeders for most of the decade.
While the Eagles haven’t mastered making the playoffs consistently they’ve proven it can be done which is a good first step. Now the goal should be to continue that along with improving the other aspects such as prepping players for the NHL both long and short term.
On paper, the affiliation looks similar to what we saw in Lake Erie and San Antonio. The Eagles take care of things like marketing, PR and facility management while the Avs provide things from the hockey operations side like player management, coaching and logistics. It’s pretty clear that there’s a lot more overlap than we’ve seen in the past. The Monsters provided a token coach and some support staff and the Spurs management was totally hands off with the Rampage. Eagles President and former GM Chris Stewart has at least an advisory role in hockey operations and perhaps more.
Eagles GM Craig Billington and his staff built a… ok, wait. Let’s talk about this for a moment. Craig Billington has no (known) staff. David Oliver was the longtime Director of Player Development, he left last summer for an Assistant Coaching job with the Rangers and was not replaced. The Avs have a couple development coaches plus part time contributions from skating coach Tracy Tutton and occasional sessions with Avs Skills Coach Shawn Allard. In contrast, the Leafs and their unlimited resources have 3 Directors of Player Development and several layers of prospect oversight in various ways. Not saying the Avs need a 10-20 person Dev Staff but having almost nothing is a bad look for a team that has a terrible track record of producing NHL talent from the minors. Word on the street is that this is a position they are looking to fill but it’s been vacant for 10 months, regardless of how choosy they want to be here it does project as apathy. Delegating these responsibilities to other places like the Eagles coaching staff and the Avs Pro Scouting division works in a pinch but they all have primary jobs that need to get done and this is an important function of an NHL franchise that was in a state of neglect even before Oliver left.
Back to building the Eagles, Billington, and whoever helps him, put together a roster that was better than we’ve seen in years past but still had flaws. The forwards were high on potential and light on proven production. The defense skewed heavily towards low puck skill defensive defensemen. The goalie tandem was very solid.
The two forwards with proven scoring talent, Agozzino & Greer, were both coming off of poor seasons in San Antonio so far from a sure thing. Kosmachuk and Dries were depth scorers elsewhere and the rest of the forwards with pro experience were either unproven, unknown or unable to produce. If the Eagles were going to score it would have to come from rookies carrying a fair amount of the load. I don’t mind the idea but it’s one where the staff has to commit to it and follow through. Aside from Logan O’Connor and to a lesser extent Martin Kaut they didn’t and decided to go in another direction with fairly grim results. Basically the Avs staff built a team that wasn’t going to score much and they didn’t.
The Eagles defensive corps would have been quite different if Cale Makar had left school early (and was assigned to Loveland) and Conor Timmins was able to overcome his concussion symptoms to play. In Makar’s case they knew his plans long before most of the personnel decisions were made but Timmins was at least a question mark until long after the season started. What they ended up with were 5 defensive defensemen, one 2-way and a scoring guy on NHL contracts plus a couple of rookie unknowns on AHL deals. Not very balanced but it does reflect one of the flaws in Colorado’s drafting tendencies. Going back many many years the Avs were big fans of the puck-mover + big shot-blocker on each pair strategy and even though on paper they had the personnel to do that this season the coaching staff weren’t interested in deploying that way.
When Pavel Francouz was signed we didn’t really know what his role would be, at that time the NHL backup spot was open but later filled by Grubauer. This was a great acquisition and having him as the starter was perfect for the Eagles, it allowed them to have way above average goaltending while letting Spencer Martin get his game back together after a down season. More than any other player, Francouz had a major positive effect on how the year played out.
So the season began with great goaltending, some questions about where goals might come from and a blueline that collectively couldn’t move the puck. The coaching staff had their work cut out for themselves but GM Craig Billington had to continually manage the roster.
There’s a perceived stigma with prospects that get sent to the ECHL. I don’t have a problem with it, to a point, because the Avalanche don’t necessarily seem to perceive it as a negative in all cases. If the roster is full and healthy and there are youngsters not getting the minutes they need then playing in the E is perhaps the lesser of two evils. Josh Dickinson definitely needed the minutes/experience in Utah and benefited from his time there, at least for the first 3/4ers of the season. Travis Barron got sent there several times because the coaches didn’t want to play him, even though he was capable. In hindsight and partly because of the Timmins situation, Kevin Davis should have been on the roster all season and definitely from the time he proved he was a top 30 defenseman point producer in the league by January. Sending all these players plus Ty Lewis down at the end of the season was a mistake and it’s unclear whether management or the coaching staff were driving the bus there.
Outside of Davis and Tim McGauley the callups were generally disappointing. The players themselves are what they are, the disappointing part was when and why they made callups. If as an organization you prioritize playing ECHLers over your own NHL-contracted prospects then there’s a big problem. Actively searching for older players in other organizations to play instead of your own prospects is incompetent. It’s a crutch and lazy, short-term thinking. Every club wants consistent, predictable players on the ice but choosing predictable mediocrity over inconsistent talent doesn’t help anyone.
Coach Greg Cronin was hired in July and took on the ECHL Eagles staff of Aaron Schneekloth (defense/PK), Ryan Tobler (PP/forwards) and Ryan Bach (goaltending) as his assistants. He’s very experienced in pros, with a couple long stints with the Islanders and one with Toronto, along with amateurs at U Maine, CC, Northeastern and the USNDTP while it was being put together in the mid-90’s.
We quickly learned that he’s honest, forthcoming and quite blunt in interviews. I have no doubts that he’s the same when reporting to Avs management and it’s a dose of reality they could use. The lack of results from the Avs minor league program is obvious and figuring out why has eluded them for a decade. Cronin will rip a player (obliquely) or the team for something but he also explains what didn’t work in detail. This level of feedback can help the amateur staff in evaluating their drafting process and the player personnel division with their signings and acquisitions. I don’t necessarily think that his opinions should determine the Avs course going forward but the process and standards are sound.
Coaches are judged on results. The Eagles backed into the playoffs with the absolute slimmest of margins so in that respect the season’s goal was realized. They got there by some good luck and overachievement, which is a positive as long as everyone realizes the flaws that were hidden. Breaking down the on-ice performance into the component areas with an eye towards systems and deployment we can uncover some of the coaching effects.
The Eagles are subject to using the same basic systems that the Avalanche do so the staff have to take them and transpose for their own personnel and level of competition in the AHL. The Avs play a fairly outdated and unsophisticated brand of hockey in the offensive zone which is offset by a high degree of talent in a small number of players. The Eagles didn’t have that talent to fall back on so they struggled to score consistently. They were most effective with high-speed low-skill plays and the staff did a good job systemically to create those. Static situations where low-speed high-skill plays are needed, especially the power play, were a lost cause. Typical offensive zone possessions were some cycling leading to a non-dangerous perimeter shot, often from the point. High-percentage shots from the slot area were few and far between. Overall the staff did a fair job with what they had to work with but it still left a lot to be desired.
Personnel choices were another story. Whether players were misidentified or they felt there were no other options, there were some perplexing usages through the season. Mark Alt as a power play QB, overusing fast break specialists like O’Connor and Joly in PP/static situations, leaning on experience over skill in general effectively suppressed offensive production at times. There wasn’t a lot more capacity but they sure didn’t give themselves the best chance to score either, even 10 more goals over the season would have made a difference.
Overall the Eagles did a mediocre job defensively. By pure scoring they were mid-pack but shots against they were at the bottom of the league. Part of that is playing in the shot-happy Pacific Division but even so the sheer volume against was troubling, especially since it wasn’t a consistent thing. On any given night they could give up 24 or 44 (or 68 even) shots against. This isn’t all on the defensemen, as we’ve seen with the big club it takes a major buy-in from the forwards to make this system work well and when that’s not there it gets ugly. The Achilles heel was the inability of the defensemen to make outlet passes and strong forechecking teams like Stockton wreaked havoc thanks to this weakness. Other than getting some quicker D’s with more puck skills there wasn’t a fix. The system wasn’t the problem, execution was.
A fair amount of the Eagles struggles point back to defensive personnel. They weren’t a good match for the speed of the forwards or the system. Any one of the heavy defensive defensemen could play effectively but the imbalance between that archetype and more quick/skilled guys they were lacking presented a problem. Early in the season when David Warsofsky was out they were rolling out 5 pure defensive D’s every night and that’s pretty much insane. In the second half of the season it was mostly Warsofsky/Meloche then 2 purely defensive pairs with no puck-moving skill. It worked sometimes but often it didn’t. The odd thing is that this goes against the Avs long-time philosophy of balanced pairs, one puck-mover and one banger on each. The staff could have done this at any time and I’m curious as to why they didn’t. It could easily have had a profound effect at both ends of the ice.
The penalty kill was fantastic and they ran the Avs system better than the Avs did. A lot of that was because of solid goaltending which allowed the forwards to be very aggressive and the defensemen to challenge shooters. I really like what the staff did here and Nolan Pratt should look at some tape of the Eagles execution this off-season for pointers.
For years Jan-Ian Filiatrault was the Avs minor league goalie coach along with monitoring development. He was still listed as a coach with the Eagles this year but Ryan Bach was the main guy after holding that position since 2006. It’s hard to say how much he did with Francouz, who was already a world-class goalie, but he did seem to have a profound effect on Spencer Martin. Last year in San Antonio Martin went from starter to tandem to barely used backup and had a gruesome beginning to this season. Lots of people have written him off and despite his age and talent I’m sure the Avs had major doubts going into 2018-19. During one of his pre-game radio chats with Kevin McGlue, Coach Bach talked about working with Marty on the mental side of the position and something clicked. After a month off, he returned in December and was much better and had a little consistency to his play that hadn’t been there since his ill-fated callup to the Avs during the lost season. It remains to be seen whether this will have any lasting effects but Bach was able to take a talented backup from a guaranteed loss every start to a guy the team could count on to hold the fort.
On one hand the team the Avs built for the Eagles was fairly mediocre but on the other the choices available were fairly few. There were 9 signed players returning, 3 returning RFAs plus Joly, 6 free agents signed from outside the org and 7 rookie pros, plus Anderson & Timmins who didn’t play for the team. There were a couple of very good signings in Francouz and Davis and a couple of very bad signings in Grayson Downing and Josh Anderson, but those two had little impact on the team.
Could they have done better than Sheldon Dries and Scott Kosmachuk in free agency? Without knowing the alternatives it’s hard to say. Kosmachuk played up to his potential most of the time and wasn’t really blocking anyone. Dries did block younger players at the NHL level but that’s on the Avs staff not him. We saw perhaps the biggest blocks where players signed a few years ago and in the final year of ELCs like Boikov, Lindholm and Nantel hoovered a bit too much TOI.
The effects that Conor Timmins might have had if he had been available all year are up for debate but it’s easy to see how he could have had a fairly large influence on the roster, everyday lineup and even the playing style of the whole team. Kevin Davis was a solid plan B but never could sell the coaching staff on his full time usage. Instead of a player substitution they went with a philosophy substitution, which went poorly.
In one of his late season visits to the radio booth, Eagles President Chris Stewart recounted a summer meeting with Craig Billington and others where they were trying to project where Colorado’s scoring was going to come from. They weren’t seeing much, which is logical in some ways. There wasn’t a lot of scoring that anyone could count on as a sure bet but part of running a team full of prospects is having confidence in younger players improving over the course of a season. It’s imperative if the team is to keep up with the rest of the league. Vets like Agozzino and Warsofsky are great, they know what they’re doing and hopefully do it consistently. They won’t get more productive as the season progresses. To have success in the AHL there has to be a continual expansion of scoring capacity, teams rely on the youngest part of their rosters to contribute more and more as the months tick by. It doesn’t have to be someone catching fire and becoming a 60-point player, although that’s always nice. If a few guys struggle early at a point every 6-8 games, learn their craft then grow into point every 3-4 game guys then it’s fine. There’s no reason to eschew marginal gains.
Overall the coaching staff was very conservative this season. They used a talent advantage in goal and a team speed advantage when they could. Areas like transition offense, neutral zone play and the penalty kill were very solid but when space wasn’t available they really struggled. Playing it too safe with deployment hurt them to a degree. I get the frustration with seeing young skilled players making hideous turnovers forcing the staff into decisions that might hurt the team’s chances less overall but I just don’t think they had enough patience. With a little more skill and more well-rounded players on the roster next season they’ll have a wider margin to play with and can rely less on experience. Bottom line, a better roster makes it easier to coach so let’s make sure that happens.
Eagles Desk will be taking the usual hiatus until just after the draft when we get the RFA qualifying offers and start looking towards needs in free agency. Be on lookout for an in-depth season review TOOA podcast coming soon and Rudo will have player videos in his All Points and Season Review series throughout the next few months.
Thanks to the AHL for stats and standings and to the Colorado Eagles for the feature photo.