The season is finally upon us!
I said three weeks ago I was going to write a season preview for the Colorado Eagles. At that point in time, the Eagles were expected to kick off their season on Feb. 5. Then, the Stockton Heat—AHL affiliate of the Calgary Flames—decided to move to Canada for the year. It was a move that made perfect sense, logistically, but shouldn’t they have figured that out weeks ago rather than three days before the season was supposed to start?
Well, either way, the schedule change bought me an extra week to write this article. But the truth is, it was difficult to find an angle.
I could talk about last year—how the Eagles were trending upwards, as I wrote about in March of 2020, and how I expected them to make a deep playoff run before the season was cut short. The problem is, none of that is relevant to this season. Only a handful of players from that team will be on the ice at the Budweiser Event Center this year.
I could talk about the league re-alignment for this season, but that is old news, and it does not actually constitute a huge change for AHL teams out west. Even in a normal year, Pacific Division teams only play a handful of games outside of their division, and none outside of their conference. AHL teams almost always play back-to-back games against the same team in order to minimize travel, then often turn around and play that team again the next week at home. For AHL players, this is just more of the same.
I could talk about the players, but which players? Elite Prospects currently shows 33 men on the Eagles roster. Add in guys who are currently playing with the Colorado Avalanche or on the taxi squad and we have over 40 players to cover, and nobody wants to read a long list of stats. I debated playing with projected lineups, but between new players and guys going back and forth to either the Avs or the Utah Grizzlies, 90% of what I said would be guesswork. So how in the world do I go about writing a season preview?
Then somebody suggested I make some predictions. Not just any predictions, mind you. After all, anybody could predict that TJ Tynan will lead the team in assists, or that Ty Lewis will be stuck in Utah no matter how well he plays, or that Liam O’Brien will lead the team in penalty minutes. No. It was suggested that I make bold predictions. I love that idea, so here we go.
Martin Kaut will leave the Avalanche organization
This year feels like boom or bust time for Martin Kaut. Despite what some Avalanche bloggers may have led you to believe, many of us who actually watch every single Eagles game will tell you his play in the AHL has been satisfactory but not overly impressive. I wrote about him twice last year, here and here, but just for the sake of comparison, in the 2019–20 season, 12 Eagles players had more points than Kaut. Looking at the AHL as a whole, Kaut ranked at a rather unspectacular 364th in points.
Granted, stats never tell the whole story. Kaut is undeniably a smart, savvy, incredibly talented hockey player who makes very few mistakes. From a skills perspective, he has everything he needs to be an NHL player. But succeeding in professional sports takes more than talent. It takes grit and dogged perseverance. It takes some undefinable mental drive I do not have a word for—let’s call it “oomph.” (Yep, it is a super technical term.) Look at Tom Brady. Love the guy or hate him, there is no denying he got where he is by working his butt off, day in and day out. He watches more film and spends more time practicing than anybody. He is also known for being competitive to a fault. Former teammates have described his desire to win as “a sickness” and “psychotic.” He did not win his seventh Super Bowl at the age of 43 just by knowing how to throw the football. He did it because he has “oomph” in spades.
In the hockey world, look no further than Nathan MacKinnon. Yes, he has mad skills, but does anybody believe that is the only thing that makes him as good as he is? No. As Ryan S. Clarke said in The Athletic, “Everyone within the Colorado Avalanche’s dressing room knows Nathan MacKinnon possesses this innate need to both win and to win all the time.” He quoted Halifax Mooseheads assistant coach Jon Greenwood as saying, “Still, to this day, (MacKinnon) tries to get the most out of himself and never seems satisfied.” And when the going gets tough? MacKinnon goes into overdrive, determined to drag his team to a victory even if he has to do it himself.
That is “oomph,” and that is the thing we have not seen from Kaut. But does he have it?
Kaut did earn a call-up last year and scored two goals and an assist in nine games. He seems to be one of those rare players who performs better in the NHL than the AHL. He even said in an interview with Scott MacDonald that he found playing in the NHL easier than in the American League. Based on all of that, one might conclude Kaut has nothing left to learn in the American League. And yet, when Eagles training camp started, Kaut was dismissed from the Avalanche taxi squad and sent back to the AHL. Part of this comes down to the Avalanche talent pool being too deep. There are too many other players in front of him.
Do not get me wrong. I would love nothing more than for this prediction to turn out dead wrong. I will be thrilled if Kaut finds his “oomph,” blows the lid off the AHL and finishes the season in an Avs sweater. But, if he cannot find that extra drive he needs to set himself apart from the rest of the AHL forwards, I predict he either asks to be traded, or opts to return to Europe.
Shane Bowers will lead the team in goals
I almost did not list this one, not because I do not think it will happen, but because I think it will, which means it is not all that bold of a prediction. But I wanted to talk about Shane Bowers.
Bowers had a slow start last season, partly due to injury. Then, in December, Eagles Head Coach Greg Cronin moved Bowers from center to wing, playing next to a very productive Sheldon Dries, and suddenly Bowers found his legs. By the end of the season, he was playing center again and finished the year with 10 goals and 17 assists in 48 games. Like Kaut, he was dismissed from the taxi squad and sent back to the AHL for Eagles training camp, and I expect him to play most of the year in Loveland. But will he lead the team in goals?
Let’s look at last year’s numbers.
Now let’s go down that list.
Dries will likely spend a lot of the year on the Avalanche taxi squad. Ditto for Jacob MacDonald. Logan O’Connor has all but made himself a regular Av by this point, and AJ Greer and Erik Condra are no longer with the team. So, from last year’s leaders, that leaves only Jayson Megna with more goals than Bowers. Of course, there are a lot of new guys coming in, like Mike Vecchione, who led the San Antonio Rampage in goals last year. But my money is on Bowers to have a stellar season.
Nick Henry will have a breakout year
Last year, I predicted that Julien Nantel would have a breakout year. I am sad to say that did not happen. This year, I am predicting the same for Nick Henry. Hopefully I do not jinx him the way I appear to have jinxed Nantel.
Henry came into the league along with Bowers late in the 2018–19 season. Last year, Henry had three goals and six assists in 42 games played. He was solid, but he was not exactly blowing up the ice. Then, a strange thing happened. Henry was suddenly out of the lineup for most of February. He went to Utah for exactly two games. Some speculated that he had been hurt (unlike in the NHL, we often do not know about AHL injuries unless somebody asks, and as far as I know, nobody did). If Henry was hurt, those two ECHL games might have been rehab. Or maybe he was a healthy scratch and those two ECHL games were a kick in the pants. Either way, Henry then scored a goal in his first game back with the Eagles. A week later, the season was suspended due to COVID-19 and never resumed.
It is hard to say what might have happened, but if Henry puts in the time and the effort, I think this could be his year.
TJ Tynan will be named team captain
This one may not be all that bold either, but it deserves to be talked about. For the two years the Eagles have been in the AHL, they were captained by blueliner Mark Alt. But this year, Alt signed with the Ontario Reign, leaving a gaping hole on the Eagles bench. The problem is, there are not many guys who have been around for more than a season. In fact, if you take out taxi squad players Kaut and O’Connor, and the ELC players like Travis Barron, who have spent most of their time in Utah, there is not a single player left who has played more than one season with the Eagles.
Depressing for us fans, but I guess that is how it goes in the AHL.
Looking at the guys who were around last year, we have Tynan, Megna, Ryan Wagner (who spent about half the year in Utah), Kevin Davis (also spent half the year in Utah) and Dan Renouf. (Also, Adam Werner, but are goalies ever named captains?)
Of those five guys, one name stands out as a locker room leader: Tynan. Tynan was second in the league for assists last year, and probably would have been first if not for having played 16 games with the Avalanche.
I cannot think of a better guy to lead the Eagles for the 2021 season.
The Eagles will play in the Western Conference Championship
I will not go so far as to say they will win it, but I think they will get there. I think there is good evidence they could have won the Conference Championship last year if the season had not been suspended, and they will be hungry to prove themselves. Is this mostly wishful thinking on my part? Maybe, but I am okay with that. I predict this is the year the Eagles make their presence known in the AHL.
Are my predictions bold or just a lot of hot air? Only time will tell.