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Avs Going on the Defensive

by Brendan McNicholas / Colorado Avalanche
The Avalanche’s development camp roster is littered with top prospects at every position, but thanks to a recent run of “defense-heavy” drafts, perhaps Colorado’s strongest position is now on the back line.

Colorado has used its top pick on a defenseman in each of the last two drafts, snagging Cameron Gaunce with the 50th overall selection in 2008 after drafting Kevin Shattenkirk with the 14th overall pick in 2007.

Throw in recent second-rounders Colby Cohen (45th overall in 2007) and Nigel Williams (51st overall in 2006) and the Avs have no doubt invested a large part of their future on the blue line.

“Obviously the goal is to have depth at every position but we are certainly pleased with the development of our young defensemen,” said Avalanche Vice President of Hockey Operations Craig Billington, who oversees the development camp.  “We feel it is a strong group moving forward.”

“I think there are a lot of good players, a lot of good puck-moving defensemen in the system,” said Cohen, who spent a large portion of the 2007-08 season paired with Shattenkirk on the Boston University blue line. “In the long run, that commitment to developing the defense can only make the team better.”

Cohen, Shattenkirk, Gaunce and Williams are all furthering their development process at this year’s camp, which ends on Tuesday.  Despite their young age—Williams is the “oldest” at age 20—they are already making a name for themselves.

Gaunce was selected to the Ontario Hockey League’s All-Rookie Team in 2007-08 after leading Mississauga-St. Michael’s defensemen in scoring with 40 points (10g/30a) in 63 games.

“He’s a solid character player and has a good feel for the game,” said Avalanche Scout Ted Hampson of Gaunce. “He’s got good size and strength. He’s got a lot of leadership and a lot of desire to play.”

Williams helped the OHL’s Belleville Bulls reach the Memorial Cup this past year after joining the team at midseason from Saginaw.  He finished fifth among league defensemen in goals with 15, while tallying 46 points in 67 regular-season games. The 6-foot-4, 226-pound native of Aurora, Illinois also racked up 100 minutes in penalties. He went on to finish second among OHL defensemen in playoff scoring with 18 points (7g/11a) in 21 postseason contests.

Nigel Williams' postseason play (18 points in 21 playoff contests) helped the Belleville Bulls advance to the 2008 Memorial Cup in Kitchener, Ontario
Gaunce and Williams are standouts in the junior ranks, but it’s the college teammates who have a lot of scouts taking notice. The Hockey News rated the Boston U rearguards as two of Colorado’s top 10 prospects in this year’s “Future Watch.”

Shattenkirk recorded 21 points (4g/17a) in 40 games as a freshman last season, ranking second among team defensemen in scoring, while Cohen was third with 16 points (3g/13a) in 39 contests. Both players have been invited to Team USA’s National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., next month.

The sophomores-to-be are constantly linked together, having not only been teammates at BU but also with the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., and even before that.

“We played together on district teams and played against each other during winter season since we were 11 or 12 years old,” said Shattenkirk. “We go pretty far back. It was nice having him to go through everything with.”

So, do they talk about hopefully playing together on the Avalanche blueline?

“Yeah, we do here-and-there,” admitted Shattenkirk. “It’s a fun thing to talk about. Obviously that’s both of our goals. So we’re working towards it.”

Despite basically growing up together, the two have different styles on the ice. The 5-foot-11 Shattenkirk is described by Billington as an “intelligent, puck-moving defenseman,” while the 6-foot-2 Cohen is “more of a physical presence, who excels in penalty killing and has a big shot from the point.”

One thing is for sure, they can both join the rush. Shattenkirk ranked fourth nationally in scoring among freshmen defensemen en route to being named to the 2007-08 Hockey East All-Rookie Team. Prior to being drafted by the Avalanche, Cohen led all United States Hockey League defensemen with 60 points (13g/47a) in 53 games for the Lincoln Stars in 2006-07.

Both players know their games are far from complete and are looking forward to implementing what they’ve learned this past week.

“It has been a great learning experience,” said Shattenkirk. “Just seeing how they play at the NHL level, and seeing how they prepare, has been a great experience.”

Shattenkirk and Cohen, along with Gaunce and Williams, lead a solid group of young defensemen who are a big part of the organization’s future. Maybe the biggest part. 
“I think the talent level is great,” said Shattenkirk. “It’s obviously something they’ve been looking at building up through the past couple of drafts. I’m proud to be a part of that group and hopefully we can be the next generation to come through.”
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