Colorado Eagles
Colorado Eagle players celebrate a goal during the 2019-20 regular season. Photo by Ashley Potts/Colorado

Since joining the American Hockey League (AHL) as the affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche, the Colorado Eagles have juggled the need to drive development and establish a winning mentality. This means signing well-known AHL stalwarts to help those young draft picks and give the team a chance of competing. The Stalwarts tend to not stick around longer than a handful of years while the younger players either prove they are up to the task or not. So far it’s working just how the Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic envisioned it.

Like any team sport where development is an integral part of winning there has to be a pathway. If there’s not the system is broken. For a while in Colorado, you could say that the system wasn’t just broken but barely existed at all. The farm system if you will for the Avalanche was nearly a thousand miles away in a completely different state. At one point it was even shared with a rival NHL team. To say it was not ideal was an understatement. They still got Mikko Rantanen through despite all this, but the depth needed was severely lacking.

With the move to Loveland not only are the Colorado Eagles ‘down the road’ from their NHL club, but the depth problem is slowly becoming a non-issue. Last season Logan O’Connor and Martin Kaut (among others) came up from the Eagles to play bottom-six minutes. Both players had very different pathways into the game. Kaut was a first-round draft pick in 2018 while O’Connor was picked up by the Avalanche after going undrafted in the same year. What both have in common though is it would come as no surprise if they made next season’s opening night roster and played bottom-six minutes. And that is what the Avalanche need.

With Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar, and Mikko Rantanen all 25-years-old or younger the need for a ‘Star’ is not as much a necessity as it was when they drafted MacKinnon first overall in 2013. What they do need is depth players. This is a lot cheaper to do from within than on the free agency market and that is where it is vital the Eagles continue this growth.

In fact, at a time when the Avalanche are moving into win-now mode, it wouldn’t be too far a stretch to say these next few years are just as much about the Colorado Eagles than the Avalanche in some aspects. As General Manager Joe Sakic stacks his team for a Stanley Cup push there will be a surplus of talent in Loveland needing much-needed ice time to continue their development. While Martin Kaut and Logan O’Connor have proven they can hang in the NHL the Avalanche’s offseason moves may limit opportunities.

If that is the case they may play a big portion of the season with the Eagles. Center Shane Bowers also needs time while winger Nick Henry needs to show he can stick around after a poor showing last season. And that’s only this year. There are also the likes of Sampo Ranta, Alex Beaucage, Sasha Mutala, and Nikolai Kovalenko getting ready to test the pro leagues in the next few years. Beaucage is currently the QMJHL player of the month after scoring a hat-trick in under six-and-a-half minutes to tie the game 4-4 before also scoring the overtime winner.

On the opposite end of the ice, the Avalanche had Ryan Graves come through the Eagles in the last season and a half. The defenseman just recently signed a three-year deal and spent most of last season playing top-line minutes beside Cale Makar. Graves put a lot of that down to coach Greg Cronin and the development he received with the Eagles. Now 2017 second-round draft pick Conor Timmins will be hoping for the same effect.

Timmins saw substantial time against the Dallas Stars in game five of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs and was on track to repeat this in game six before leaving with an injury. With the Avalanche trading for, and then signing, Restricted Free Agent Devon Toews, Conor Timmins could well start in Loveland if all the Colorado Avalanche defenders are healthy. However, with injuries (which always happen) he should see NHL ice time this season. Denis Gilbert and Kyle Burroughs, two recent acquisitions, should be in the same predicament as Timmins.

Gilbert played minutes for the Chicago Blackhawks last season and will very likely be an option for a call-up alongside Timmins should his development continue. Josh Anderson will also need ice time to continue his development while Jacob McDonald proved last season just how influential he can be as both a defender and forward. So much so he could be a cap crunch addition to the opening night roster given he can play both positions.

All this means that while the Avalanche head into win-now mode, the Colorado Eagles could be in a position to challenge for honors themselves. Assistant coach Aaron Schneekloth was head coach of the Eagles when they won back-to-back ECHL Kelly Cups so the winning mentality is certainly there. While Avalanche fans will be hoping a Stanley Cup is in their near future, that could all depend on the Eagles. Either way, it’s a fun time to be a sports fan in Colorado… unless you’re a Denver Broncos fan.