Story by Elizabeth Severy
During its 10-plus seasons since arriving in Denver, the Colorado Avalanche has found consistent success that has taken the team to 10-straight playoff berths, six trips to the Western Conference Finals and two Stanley Cup Championships.
In the post-salary cap era, however, the Avalanche is taking a new approach to uphold the winning tradition. General Manager Francois Giguere and the Avalanche organization are focusing their future on drafting and developing prospects.
"If you don't draft and develop, you have to pay a premium to get top-notch players," Giguere explained. "When you are limited in dollars, you have to develop players internally."
Giguere and his staff have worked hard to select quality players through the draft. In the upcoming 2007 NHL Entry Draft, the Avalanche will have one first round choice and three second round picks - two of which were acquired through trades. Colorado's recent draft choices have proven to be a diverse and talented group of young players who hope to make the big time in a new age of development in the NHL.
"We have a lot of different, dynamic players coming through," said Avalanche Director of Player Development Craig Billington. "They all have good upsides."
The Avalanche made six selections at the 2006 draft, including three in the first two rounds and five in the first four rounds. Several of the players selected are enjoying outstanding seasons with their current teams.
Chris Stewart, the Avs' first selection (18th overall), and Codey Burki, Colorado's third selection (59th overall), are both playing in the Canadian junior leagues and were among 38 players named to Canada's world junior selection camp. Burki has been the top scorer in the Western Hockey League for most of the 2006-07 season.
Fellow 2006 draft pick Mike Carman (81st overall) was chosen to represent the United States at the 2007 IIHF World Junior Championships. The Avalanche's development department has monitored Carman's progress since he was drafted and Billington said Carman's approach to hockey will help him achieve his goal of playing in the NHL.
"Mike Carman's character is one of those intangibles," Billington said.
Carman, a freshman at the University of Minnesota, said he's living out his childhood fantasy. A native of Apple Valley, Minn., Carman grew up watching the Gophers with his dad and dreaming of playing hockey in college and in the NHL.
"It's amazing; it's a dream come true. I never thought I'd be drafted growing up. I think it still hasn't hit me yet," Carman said. "I just want to be known as a guy who's going to work hard to get the team to victory. I want to continue to develop and live out my dream."
One player from the 2005 draft - Paul Stastny (Colorado's second pick, 44th overall) - is already living his NHL dream. Stastny has been one of the NHL's top scoring rookies this season and he, along with Wojtek Wolski, have formed the most productive rookie duo in the league this year.
"We're counting on our young guys to be a big part of our team," Avalanche head coach Joel Quenneville said. "We're comfortable with those guys and it's nice that they've gotten off to strong starts in their careers."
Stastny leads a talented group of 2005 draft picks that includes Ryan Stoa (Colorado's first pick, 34th overall) and T.J. Hensick (fifth choice, 88th overall). Stoa joined his University of Minnesota teammate Carman on Team USA's World Junior squad, and Hensick, a senior at the University of Michigan, has been one of college hockey's top scorers over the past three winters.
Hensick's offensive abilities are undeniable. Through the midpoint of the NCAA season, Hensick led the nation in total assists (26) and assists per game (1.37) and ranked third in points per game (1.74). But for all his skills, Hensick knows he needs to improve his defensive play to make it in the NHL.
"Being a two-way player is something I'm going to have to do at the next level, and I want to do everything I can to put myself at the next level," Hensick said.
"One thing that has evolved in his four years at Michigan is his maturity," Billington said. "Being in a leadership role as a captain is a positive aspect of his game."
Few players emerge from college or junior hockey to instantly have an effect on an NHL team, but Stastny and Wolski, the Avs' first selection (21st overall) in the 2004 draft, were able to make that leap. Stastny left the University of Denver after his sophomore year, and Wolski played four seasons with the Brampton Battalion of the Ontario Hockey League.
"It's a monumental step from amateurs to the National Hockey League, and we will continue to work on developing here in Colorado," Billington said.
For the players who take the more traditional route through the American Hockey League to the NHL, the Avalanche recently announced that it has signed a long-term affiliation agreement with the new AHL franchise in Cleveland.
"It's part of our philosophy," Giguere said. "We need to find a way to get more draft picks, and then the next step is to develop them in our philosophy and our culture."
The Avalanche development department takes responsibility for prospects' growth and progress from the moment they are drafted, helping to bridge the gap between amateur and professional hockey. Billington travels to games, meets with players and their coaches and puts together an action plan that focuses on specific areas that need improvement.
"We provide a road map that gives guidance for the players to achieve progress," Billington said.
As part of the introduction to the Avalanche philosophy, Billington runs a development camp in the summer to welcome new prospects to the organization.
"It's a great non-pressure environment, like going back to school to learn to be a professional," Billington said. "It's a time to be educated and informed, get to know the organization, and it's a time for us to get to know them."
The prospects get a glimpse of what they are working towards and an understanding of what it will take to get there. And the Colorado Avalanche sees the future.