Friday, March 18, 2011

Checking Out Jay McClement

DENVER CO - FEBRUARY 23:  Jay McClement #16 of the Colorado Avalanche skates against the Edmonton Oilers at the Pepsi Center on February 23 2011 in Denver Colorado.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Mention Jay McClement's name to anyone in the know around the NHL, and you'll get the same response: he's one of the best defensive forwards in the game right now. In the 2009-2010 season, McClement logged over 300 minutes on the penalty kill, good for 4th most in the league and tops for all forwards. He led the league in shorthanded face-offs, both taken and won, and helped make the St. Louis Blues the best penalty-killing team in the NHL. That season, his team relied upon his defensive skills heavily as he took 58% of his face offs in the defensive zone. Even more impressive, in November 2010, McClement went 11-for-11 in face offs in a game against the Nashville Predators. Clearly, you need look no further than the 28-year-old center to see how a forward should play defense.

Jay McClement was born on March 2, 1983 in Kingston, Ontario. He was Brampton Battalion's first pick  (2nd overall) in the 1999 OHL Priority Selection draft. He spent the next four years playing for the Battalion, already developing his reputation for hockey smarts and on-ice responsibility. In 2001, Bob Chery of Hockey's Future wrote, "If anyone were to write a textbook or make a video of how a young prospect should play the game of hockey, especially in this era of a defence-first NHL, they could do worse than use...Jay McClement as an example."

Checking Out Erik Johnson

Colorado Avalanche's Eric Johnson (6) skates in the first period of an NHL hockey game against his former team the St. Louis Blues, Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011, in St. Louis. Johnson was traded late Friday night to the Avalanche along with teammate Jay McClement. (AP Photo/Tom Gannam)

Erik Johnson is a big guy. At 6'4" and 236 pounds, the defenseman from Bloomington, Minnesota, is an imposing figure on the ice. You would expect him to be the tough one on the team, ready to take out anyone who looked at him wrongly. However, the 22-year-old is a skills-first kind of player who puts his game above all else. He won't back down from a fight on the ice, and he's willing to step up to defend a teammate or send a message; he'd rather score goals or prevent them, though, and it's something he happens to be pretty good at doing.

In 2006, Johnson became only the 5th American-born player to go first in the NHL draft. That's an impressive feat, especially considering the 2nd and 3rd selections that year were Jordan Staal and Jonathan Toews, respectively. So how did he get there? What made the St. Louis Blues say, "He's the one"?

Checking Out Cameron Gaunce

NASHVILLE TN - FEBRUARY 12:  Cameron Gaunce #43 of the Colorado Avalanche skates against Mike Fisher #12 of the Nashville Predators on February 12 2011 at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville Tennessee.  (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

Cameron "Awesome" Gaunce is about to turn 21, and he's already achieved what most hockey players only dream of doing: playing in the NHL. If you ask his former coaches and teammates what got him here, they would probably say it's because of his ability to evaluate his own play and do what is necessary to improve. These traits make Gaunce a leader, and one of his biggest strengths is knowing his role on a team. It's no surprise that the Colorado Avalanche drafted him in 2008 in the second round - despite being projected to go in the third - as he's the type of player the organization values. The Avs' chief scout Ted Hampson called Gaunce "a solid character player (who) has a good feel for the game. He's got good size and strength. He's got a lot of leadership and a lot of desire to play." Gaunce keeps it simple and sticks to his game, and because of that, he's already proven he can make it in the pros.

The 6'1", 203 lb. defenseman was born in Sudbury, Ontario, but spent most of his formative years in Markham. He began playing for the Markham Waxers of the Ontario Junior Hockey League in 2005 at the age of 15. That year, he established himself as a solid "two-way defenseman" with impressive skills both offensively and defensively. He ended the season tallying 11 goals and a whopping 60 assists for 71 points in 72 games. He also proved his worth physically. "Part of my game," Gaunce once said, "is to make sure there are no liberties being taken on my teammates and also to make sure the other team knows I'm on the ice." With 122 penalty minutes that year, it's safe to say his opponents knew he was out there.

The Theo Fleury Theory

(Originally posted on on February 28, 2011)
12 years ago today, the Avalanche signed Theo Fleury as a rental player in Colorado’s pursuit of their 2nd Stanley Cup. In his short tenure with the Avs, Fleury scored 24 points in 15 regular season games and 17 points in 18 playoff games. He has not made it a secret that he loved playing for the Avs and had hoped they would offer him a contract to stay. One of the things Fleury said he appreciated the most about the team was the poise, desire to win and confidence that came with such an experienced, talented team. He wrote in his book Playing with Fire, “I liked everybody. They were experienced. You didn’t have to work to convince them to win. Instead, we all knew we were there to win the Stanley Cup and we all knew what it took to do it.” As you know, that team was stacked: Sakic, Forsberg, Drury, Deadmarsh, Foote, Roy, Lemieux, etc. These were guys who fully understood the battles they would have to fight to go deep into the playoffs, as well as what it meant to persevere during the dark times of losing streaks and elimination threats.

It dawned on me while reading Fleury’s take on the Avs that the current roster is missing something beyond certain positional pieces and level of talent. It's missing experience. The strength of rebuilding is the youth involved; there’s an energy and hunger that is infectious. But that strength is also the team’s weakness. Without the steady hand of teammates who have been through it and found ways to claw their way out of holes, there’s bound to be a sense of being lost.

Checking Out Wojciech "Wojtek" Wolski

New York Rangers left wing Wojtek Wolski (86) plays the puck as Atlanta Thrashers right wing Anthony Stewart, top right, and teammate Freddy Meyer (24) fall all over each other just to be near him. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Wojtek Wolski was born 25 years ago today in Zabrze, Poland. By the time he was 5, he and his family had immigrated twice: first to Berlin, Germany (age 2) and then to Toronto, Ontario (age 4). As his family had little money, Wolski learned how to skate on an outdoor rink using his brother's skates which were two sizes too big. The young Pole stuffed multiple layers of socks, as well as newspaper, into them in order to make them fit. He attended his first NHL game at Maple Leaf Gardens where he saw the Toronto Maple Leafs square off against the Colorado Avalanche. The Avs quickly became his favorite team, and Wolski spent his life idolizing Joe Sakic.

In 2001, the 15-year-old started playing for St. Michael's Buzzers of the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League.  In 33 games, he put up 16 goals and 33 assists for 49 points. He was drafted third overall in the Ontario Hockey League draft, and the following year, he began a lustrous career with the Brampton Battalion where he finished with a total of 366 points in four seasons (including playoffs). By the time he left the Battalion, Wolski had 14 franchise records and still holds, among others,  Most Goals (47), Most Assists (81) and Most Points (128), all coming in the 2005-2006 season, as well as Most Career Goals for a regular season at 328.

Checking Out the 2011 NHL Draft Class

I had every intention of doing a detailed analysis of the potential draft picks for the upcoming festivities June 24-25, 2011 in St. Paul, Minnesota. However, I started talking with Yeti and discovered he'd already done it. He sent me his notes to help me, and I've decided I couldn't say it better than he has. And since he's the one who did the work, I'm going to give you his low-down with full credit where it belongs. Thus, with no further ado, here's the IncredibleEdibleYeti and the 2011 NHL Draft outlook...and some suggestions from me for ad campaign slogans.

Adam Larsson of Skellefteå terrorizes a player from Timrå. Photo courtesy of Sverigesradio

Top 14 potential Avalanche picks: 

While there are other potential picks, the players I list are typical of what the Avalanche may want or need (aka - NOT RUSSIAN). 14 teams won't make the playoffs, so that's why I chose 14 players to highlight. Also, I'm not Dick Pracy (or whatever our chief scout's name is). I rarely get to see any of these players actually play.  So these are primarily based on scouting reports, rumors, and stats.  Not the surest way to form an opinion, but it's all I've got!

The exciting thing for Avs fans this year should be - with 4 players all rated tops and a slew of other top-15 that could turn out well - with a top-10 pick we may be able to land a top-5 player.  Not a sure thing, but our scouts seem to be very good (Hishon, Barrie- aka 3rd round pick) so a big clump at the top should allow us to scope the 2-3 players we really want and be aggressive in getting one of them.

The price the Avs have paid for injuries

(Originally posted on on February 14, 2011)

As injuries pile up on teams across the league, folks start talking about man-games lost. They start comparing how many one team has lost versus another; they argue about which team had the most valuable players out of the line up. In the end, this is all supposed to tell us which team suffered the most because of injuries. Obviously, the Avalanche are up there. They certainly don't top the list of number of games lost; that honor belongs to the Islanders. And they haven't lost the most valuable players; hello, Pittsburgh. But what the Avs have lost is something that goes beyond numbers and perceived skill level. It's the collective blow that's created the biggest impact.

This year, like many years, the Avalanche succumbed to the injury bug in a big way. You can talk all you want about how good teams fight through that and win anyway. However, when you look at exactly what went on in Colorado, you can see how the mid-season slide isn't all that surprising.