American Hockey League

Eagles stand to benefit as Avs build depth

Logan O’Connor played five games for the Avalanche last season during a time he could have been a senior and team captain for the University of Denver. The right-shot, slick-skating forward chose to forgo his last year of NCAA eligibility to sign a maximum NHL free-agent entry-level contract with expectations of playing at hockey’s highest level.

At the time, it appeared to be a good decision.

But a year later — following significant veteran free-agent additions by the Avs — there seems to be less playing time available for the 23-year-old.

But he’s not complaining. He knows success in today’s NHL stems from having four strong lines, with the fourth as capable as the second. He knows the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues each started their fourth lines in multiple games of the Stanley Cup Final. He knows the Avs are keen on that kind of depth.

“The talent, work ethic and excitement around the organization is at an all-time high,” O’Connor said. “The Avs are going in a tremendous direction and there is tons of potential and excitement.”

Colorado signed former elite prospect winger Valeri Nichushkin, 24, last week, a month after adding veteran forwards Nazem Kadri, 28, and Andre Burakovsky, 24, through trades and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, 34, and Joonas Donskoi, 27, in free agency. The Avs also resigned free agent forward Colin Wilson, 29.

Suddenly, general manager Joe Sakic‘s youth movement has stalled when it comes to forwards. The Avs general manager has chosen to build depth with veterans, which has slowed the NHL careers of O’Connor and other young forwards like him, including A.J. Greer, 22 and Martin Kaut, 19.

Good for Sakic and his staff. They are no longer willing to win or lose with young, unproven talent. They are now building the type of depth that can win a championship — in the NHL and also the AHL with the Colorado Eagles.

With the Nichushkin signing, the Avs have 13 forwards on guaranteed NHL contracts, plus Tyson Jost, who has one year remaining on his entry-level deal. When restricted free-agent winger Mikko Rantanen becomes the team’s highest-paid player in the coming weeks, Colorado will have 15 forwards who they don’t want playing in the AHL.

Save for significant injury crisis, O’Connor, Greer, and Kaut might not play in the NHL in 2019-20. The same is true for Shane Bowers and Nick Henry, both 20, who are also in their two-way, entry-level contracts that pay them substantially less while in the minors.

“They have to do what they think will give them the most success,” O’Connor said. “One of the things they thought they needed to do was the depth, and getting good, veteran players always helps younger guys. The team is still one of the younger teams in the league, I got to think. A good veteran presence is always good. It can never hurt to have more knowledge and wisdom throughout the locker room to help those younger guys.”

O’Connor and the rest of the Avs rookies report Sept. 6. The veterans’ first day is Sept. 12. The regular-season opener is Oct. 3 and O’Connor has little to no chance of playing in that game against Calgary at the Pepsi Center.

But that’s not how he’s looking at it right now.

“My goal, just like last year, is to go into training camp with the intention of making the team,” he said. “I’m going to do everything in my power to make that happen. I feel like I’ve had a really strong summer. Although it’s obviously a hard lineup to crack right now, you can always force their hand in making some tough decisions. I’m going to do everything I can leading up to camp and if it happens, it happens, and if not I’m going to do my best back down with the Eagles.”

The Avs, Eagles and the Utah Grizzlies of the ECHL each made their respective playoffs last spring.

Expect the same next spring, because the Avs’ considerable talent will continue to filter down.

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