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Avs Get Glimpse Of Future At Development Camp

by Brendan McNicholas / Colorado Avalanche

The Colorado Avalanche wrapped up its 2007 development camp on July 13 at the Family Sports Center in Englewood, Colo.

The six-day event featured 23 of Colorado’s top prospects, including Calder Trophy runner-up Paul Stastny and fellow Avalanche forward Wojtek Wolski.  The group underwent both on and off-ice conditioning, as well as power skating sessions, nutrition and physiology presentations, fitness training and various team events.

“We want to help them in transitioning from the amateur to the pro world,” said Craig Billington, the Avalanche’s director of player development. “Part of that transition is obviously on-ice skills and part of it is off-ice skills.”

“One thing the Avalanche organization prides itself on is the time and money we’re spending on the future of the franchise. Sometimes that future is sooner than later. And our job as a staff is to really educate them, give them a chance to ask questions. During the season it’s so performance-based. It’s a pressured environment. Here it’s not and we really get to know them and help in some of their deficiencies.”

Each of Colorado’s six selections from the 2006 NHL Entry Draft attended this year’s camp, as well as six of the nine choices from the 2005 Draft and four picks from 2004.

Colorado’s first-round pick in 2006, forward Chris Stewart, signed a three-year entry level contract with the Avalanche in April after completing his third season with the Kingston Frontenacs.  Stewart was able to play five regular-season games and one playoff game for Colorado’s AHL affiliate last spring, experience the Avs hope will pay off in the long run.

“Stewy going to the minor leagues the last couple weeks last season was very beneficial,” Billington said.  “I think the more we can acclimate them to the demands placed upon them at the next level, the better chance they’ll have to succeed. Certainly you want a player who’s progressing well, developing well. You don’t want to hinder or impede his progress. At the same token, the main goal is for him to be contributing in the National Hockey League. That’s why we drafted him, that’s why we spend the time we do with these kids.”

Stewart served as Kingston’s captain last season, finishing second on the club in goals (36), assists (46) and points (82).  He was selected to the 2007 Ontario Hockey League All-Star Game, where he scored a goal to help the Eastern Conference defeat the West on Jan. 31 in Saginaw.

Stewart knows he still has work to do, but that’s not stopping him from trying to make the Avalanche’s opening night roster.

“It’s been a great week,” Stewart said of the development camp. “Obviously being a No. 1 draft pick there’s a lot of pressure, a lot of expectation. Especially with their first rounder this year being a college guy (Kevin Shattenkirk, who is heading to Boston University). You have to come into training camp in top shape and give them a reason not to send you down. I’m doing hard training this summer and am ready to be a pro this year.”

The Avalanche selected Stewart as the 18th overall pick in June of 2006 after a breakout season in which he had 37 goals, 87 points and 118 penalty minutes in 62 games for Kingston. What made those totals even more impressive was the fact that he was only two years removed from sitting out an entire season while concentrating on football. After one year on the gridiron, the former tight end joined the Kingston Frontenacs in the fall of 2004.

“I think (Chris) is progressing on the right path,” Billington added.  “As time goes, it’s really getting more detailed and detailed in the areas he needs to work on. We feel confident we’ve identified those areas and he understands them and we’ll work together.”

Another of Colorado’s top prospects, T.J. Hensick, also has his eyes set on making the NHL roster at some point this season. Hensick led all NCAA Division I-A players in scoring last year with 69 points in 41 games as a senior at the University of Michigan.  The Lansing, Mich., native played his final collegiate game at Pepsi Center on March 24, recording two goals and one assist in Michigan’s 8-5 loss to North Dakota in the NCAA West Regional.  It might turn out to be the first of many appearances on the Pepsi Center ice for Hensick.

“T.J has done a good job,” Billington said.  “He went back for his senior year and had a strong year for himself. T.J. is a very good prospect for us. I think he’s matured and is very understanding of what he needs to do to be effective.”

Hensick was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as both a sophomore (2004-05) and a senior (2006-07).  He was just the third player in CCHA history—and the first forward—to earn First or Second Team all-conference honors in each of his four years in college and became the first Wolverine to record 40 or more points in each of his four seasons since Brendan Morrison from 1994-97.

Assisting Billington with the direction of the camp was Joe Sacco and Sylvain Lefebvre, who will coach the Avalanche’s new AHL affiliate in Cleveland this year, as well as Avs goaltending coach Jeff Hackett and former Colorado forward Steve Konowalchuk, who is a part of the development staff.

“I always challenge our players that if you look at the people working with them, the Steve Konowalchuks, the Joe Saccos, the Sylvain Lefebvres, Jeff Hackett, none of us were finished products coming out,” said Billington, who spent parts of 15 seasons as a goaltender in the NHL. “We needed a lot of work at 19, 20, 21 years old. They’re probably right where they should be. They’re good talents that need nurturing, need environment, need structure, need direction and it’s our responsibility to provide them with that. I’m very confident with the staff we have doing that.”

Rookie camp is right around the corner for Hensick, Stewart and many of the prospects who attended this week’s camp. While the summer session is more of a learning process, training camp is where jobs will be won and lost. It’s a kind of pressure that Stastny knows all too well, having earned a roster spot with an outstanding camp last fall.

“There’s always a couple things you take out of (development camp) that are good for the future,” he says. “You learn things on the ice, a lot of things you need to get better at, but to have those different seminars is good.”

As for a piece of advice for his fellow prospects, the Avalanche center said:  “get the most out of it this week and train hard for the next eight to 10 weeks before training camp. And whether you’re at camp, college or at juniors, have another good year because you are part of the future of the Colorado Avalanche.”

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