With Nazem Kadri being hurt, there’s a lot of speculation about who could be called up. Everybody wants it to be Martin Kaut or Shane Bowers. And if the Avalanche suddenly needed a defenseman, it’s a sure bet everybody would be screaming for Conor Timmins. But in my opinion, none of these players will be getting a call-up anytime soon.
Let’s Talk About Call-Ups
Obviously, I’m not a coach. I can only guess at what’s going on in their heads. But I think people have unrealistic expectations when it comes to call-ups. Certain phrases get tossed around a lot. Things like, “Let’s bring him up, just to see what he can do.” Or, “It’s time to bench [some perfectly healthy bottom-six player] and give that new kid a chance.” Or, “We need to reward good play in the AHL by giving him NHL ice time.”
Personally, I think it’s highly unlikely any of these things cross a coach’s mind when he’s debating a call-up. Coaches aren’t going to toss an unproven rookie into the lineup as some kind of fun little experiment or in lieu of a gold star. Maybe if his team has already been eliminated from the playoffs and he has nothing left to lose. But for any team still in contention, the coach isn’t thinking, “This is a good time to assess that young prospect.” After all, he has a whole team of people doing that already. Assessing young prospects is the exact point of the AHL. If and when an NHL coach needs to bring somebody up, they have exactly one goal in mind:
Win the next game.
That’s it. Win the next game. And then the next. And then the next. Which players are going to help them do that? The consistent ones. The reliable ones. The ones who are least likely to commit a costly mistake. And like it or not, Kaut, Bowers, and Timmins do not fit this bill. All of these guys make the occasional spectacular play – a play that lets you see just how much potential they have –but none of them are consistent. And when a coach needs to call somebody up, he doesn’t want to gamble on inconsistency. He wants somebody he can count on to hold the line and make as few mistakes as possible.
I’m not saying Bowers, Kaut, and Timmins will never get there. They will. They’re all young. They all have enormous potential. Every single one of them will probably be in the NHL someday. But it won’t be this week or this month, and it probably won’t even be this season.
That’s not what the other people say!
I know, I’m about to contradict people whose opinions you trust. They’ve told you these three guys are all NHL ready. I’d argue these people are viewing young prospects through some very burgundy-and-blue-tinted lenses. It’s a big case of confirmation bias. They’ve looked at past play in college or juniors. They’ve looked at draft status. And based on those things, I think they’ve already decided these players are better than the AHL. When they take time to watch an Eagles game, they only see what they want to see: Big plays and points by the guys they’re watching most. But they’re not seeing the big picture. Specifically, they’re failing to see how these players match up against other AHL players.
Look at it this way: T.J. Tynan, Sheldon Dries, Jacob MacDonald, Erik Condra, and Jayson Megna are all consistently dismissed by these same people as, “good enough for the AHL, but not NHL material.” Yet, they lead the team in points. Bowers clocks in at sixth, Timmins at 11th, and Kaut at 13th. But to really assess their play and their NHL readiness, you also have to look at them against the entire backdrop of the AHL. Looking at stats for all AHL skaters, the Eagles’ top scorer, Tynan, is ranked 26th. Bowers doesn’t show up until 167, Timmins at 278, and Kaut at 362.
There were injuries to take into account, and stats don’t tell the whole story, especially for defensemen. They’re just one piece of the puzzle. But these numbers underscore my primary point: None of these guys are dominating in the AHL. They’re all improving. They’re all trending upwards. But they aren’t truly dominant players quite yet.
Of these three prospects, I think Bowers is the closest to being ready. After a slow start and an injury that had him sidelined for three weeks, he came back in a big way. Since returning to the lineup, Bowers has scored nine goals and 14 assists in 22 games, including a goal and an assist in Friday’s game against the San Jose Barracuda. There’s no question that he’s improved tremendously since the beginning of the season. So why isn’t he ready?
Ryan Clark of the Athletic recently reported that the number one reason Bowers suddenly started being productive was because Head Coach Greg Cronin moved him from center to wing. By putting him at wing next to a very productive Dries, it gave Bowers less space to manage, which in turn boosted his confidence and led to more productivity. We’re seeing the results of that move now. He’s finally gaining some confidence at the AHL level, but that’s a far cry from being ready to play in the big leagues.
Everything I’ve read about incoming prospects since the Eagles moved to the AHL has the same theme: The AHL is a lot harder than people think. Guys who dominated in college or juniors rarely have the immediate success people expect when they transition to the AHL. In that same article in the Athletic, Bowers himself is quoted as saying, “There’s a lot more that goes on at this level of the game than at the college level or even the junior level.” Translation? He’s still figuring out how to play against older, more experienced players. He had to be moved to an easier position in order to do that. If he’s still making that adjustment at the AHL level, how could he possibly be ready for the NHL?
Expectations have always been high for Kaut because he was a first-round draft pick. I think people put way too much emphasis on draft position than is warranted, but that’s an argument for another day. Kaut undeniably has good hockey sense. He tends to be in the right place at the right time. His speed is decent for such a big guy. So why isn’t he ready?
In Kaut’s first season in the AHL (including four playoff games), he scored 14 goals and 14 assists. Like Bowers, he started this season with zero points in his first seven games, then missed 15 games due to injury. Since returning to the lineup in mid-December, he has five goals and nine assists. In the last few weeks, he’s really started to shine. Two of those goals and six of the assists were just in the last eight games.
Kaut is big, and he’s learning to use his size to his advantage. He also seems to be gaining some confidence and shooting more. But his biggest drawbacks is poor puck handling. Frequently, he brings the puck through the neutral zone, but upon gaining the blue line (and running into the other team’s defense), he almost seems to panic. He can’t juke and dangle his way through the defense or use his puck-handling to keep it out of their reach. If there isn’t somebody wide open for him to pass to, he resorts to tossing the puck up the boards for somebody else to chase.
I recently saw somebody posit that the only thing holding Kaut back is the lack of structure in the AHL. They speculated that once he was in the “structured” games of the NHL, he’d thrive. Maybe it can be said that in general, NHL games are more structured than AHL games, but this is hockey. Lack of structure (or structure totally falling apart) happens on a pretty regular basis. Would anybody call Sunday night’s Avalanche game against the Minnesota Wild “structured”?
The Eagles’ recent series against the San Jose Barracuda was similar to the Avalanche’s game against the Wild in many ways. The Avs and Eagles both rely on speed. This weekend, the Wild and the Barracuda both used hard-hitting, physical play and attempts to goad players into fights to disrupt that speed. Kaut did fine in those two games – he even had a goal – but that’s against the last-place team in the AHL. That doesn’t mean he’s ready to face a team like the Minnesota Wild.
If Kaut keeps improving the way he has these past two months, he might be ready for a bottom-six role with the Avalanche by the start of next season. But as it stands now, he isn’t reliable enough for a call-up from a coach whose number one priority is winning the next game.
Of these three players, Timmins is probably the one most people think is closest to being ready. He’s also the one whose drawbacks are the easiest to see.
Timmins’ biggest issue is a lack of consistency. He makes some amazing plays. He also makes some terrible blunders. Or course, every single pro athlete makes mistakes. It doesn’t matter what sport or what league, there’s no such thing as a perfect player. And when it comes to defensemen in hockey, their blunders are often far more noticeable (and costly) than the mistakes made by forwards. But the fact remains that Timmins consistently makes large, costly errors in nearly every game.
According to Coach Cronin, these errors happen when Timmins tries to make big plays rather than taking the easy option. In Ryan Clark’s article in the Athletic, Cronin is quoted as saying, “[Timmins] makes mistakes by trying to make a better play… He ends up trying to bypass the simple play so he can get the puck 60 feet further up the ice.” One perfect example of this was in the February 1 game against the Tucson Roadrunners. Late in the second period, Timmins picked up the puck in the corner of the defensive zone with a Tucson player right on his back. He had two easy pass options up the ice – A.J. Greer along the boards or Michael Joly coming across near the blue line. Instead, he tried a spin move back toward the corner. In the process, he somehow chipped the puck right into the slot, providing an easy goal for Tucson.
Another good example came in the game on Saturday against San Jose. Timmins brought the puck across the blue line, where he ran into former Avalanche prospect Nicolas Meloche. Timmins began juking to the left to puck-handle around Meloche, and Meloche absolutely leveled him. It was a huge, clean hit that left Timmins flat on his back and the puck on Meloche’s stick.
A great deal of this comes back to what I mentioned when talking about Bowers: The AHL is a lot harder than people think. Timmins spent a few months with the Eagles at the end of last season, even though he wasn’t playing. He traveled with them and practiced with them. At the time, Coach Cronin commented that Timmins was surprised by the level of play in the AHL and that he struggled in practices. He’s improved immensely since then, but tricks that worked in the Juniors don’t work at this level, and they won’t work at the next one either.
Until he can play more consistently for the Eagles, he won’t be ready for the Avalanche.
I’d love to be proven wrong
All that may make it sound like I’m not rooting for these guys. I absolutely am. I’d love nothing more than for them to suddenly become the dominant players everybody wants them to be. But realistically, it won’t happen overnight. All three will keep improving. All three will eventually find their way to the NHL, maybe as soon as next season. But when it comes to call-ups this year? I expect their lack of consistency will compel the Avalanche to choose somebody else.