NON 1ST-ROUNDERS TO PLAY AT AGE 18
How have the Colorado Avalanche
gone from Western Conference cellar-dwellers to the top of the charts?
Part of the reason is the surprisingly strong play of a pair of 18-year-old centers taken with their first two picks in the 2009 Entry Draft.
, the third selection of the first round, and Ryan O'Reilly
, taken in the second round (No. 33) are among the team leaders in ice time and have been major contributors to the Avs' 6-1-1 start. Colorado's 13 points lead the Western Conference and are second in the NHL. This comes a season after the club finished with just 69 points, the fewest in the West and the third-fewest in the League.
Players with junior eligibility can be returned to their club prior to playing in their 10th game without the first year of their entry-level contract being made valid. The Avs play their ninth game Oct. 21 and 10th game two days later. With decision-day coming, the Avs decided Tuesday to do without the suspense.
Duchene and O'Reilly will be staying.
"The decision that's been made is that right now they deserve to be in our lineup and remain in our lineup," Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said. "… At this point they've played every game, being used in different situations; Ryan has been used on the penalty kill, a defensive, checking role. Matt Duchene
has been centering our second line and playing on the second power play.
"Ryan, from a development standpoint, he's playing, close to 15 minutes a night right now. He's playing on what I would call our third line, if you want to call it that. He's being used in our top penalty-killing unit, so we're going to work in that department with Ryan for him to understand his role, how he has to help our team. At the same time, offensively he has been putting up some points for us lately. What I like most about Ryan is his ability, his willingness to play 200 feet of the rink. He's a very smart player away from the puck for an 18-year-old kid.
"As far as Matty's development, Matt is probably one of our leading chance-getters right now. He's creating lots of chances not only for himself, but for his teammates. It was good to see him get that first goal (Saturday against Detroit). I know that he's been pressing a little bit, but he's going to provide us probably with some more offense. A guy, again, that has a lot of speed and pushes the opposition's defenseman back."
Duchene has 1 goal and 4 points in eight games; he averages 16:58 of ice time, including 4:02 of power-play time per game, third among the club's forwards. O'Reilly has a goal and 6 points in eight games; his plus-5 rating is second on the team and tied for second among all rookies. He's averaging 14:19 of ice time including 2:50 per game shorthanded, second among the team's forwards and third among all rookies.
"There's going to be times when both Matt [Duchene] and [Ryan] O'Reilly will have ups and downs and hit the wall sometimes. I just feel over the course of a long year, over the course of 82 games right now, we're looking for them to provide us with the same type of energy and the same time of enthusiasm and the same type of speed that they have over the course of the first games here." -- Avs head coach Joe Sacco
That Duchene is sticking with the club isn't much of a surprise. The third selection in the last 10 drafts has played in the NHL in his draft season five times in the last 10 drafts. However, O'Reilly is the first player taken outside the first round to play in the NHL in his draft year since 2003 picks Patrice Bergeron
(second round, Boston), Dan Fritsche
(second round, Columbus), Lasse Kukkonen
(fifth round, Chicago) and Esa Pirnes
(sixth round, Los Angeles) did so in the 2003-04 season.
"I'm not going to say we had Ryan penned in to make our opening-night roster," Avalanche GM Greg Sherman told NHL.com. "It's a nice surprise he fit the criteria in that manner."
Sacco said he had a pretty good feeling during training camp that both 18-year-olds could play in the NHL right away.
"They are mature hockey players for their age," Sacco said. "They both seem to have a really strong work ethic. They're the first ones on the ice to practice and they're the last ones to leave the ice. They put the time and the work in. … They are mature players for their age and they both have excellent hockey sense. The biggest thing is they've been contributing to our lineup and they've been helping our team win."
The Avs still can send Duchene or O'Reilly back to their respective junior clubs -- the Brampton Battalion for Duchene, the Erie Otters for O'Reilly, both in the Ontario Hockey League -- but its doubtful that will happen due to contract issues and the fact the Avs then couldn't recall them until their junior team's season is over.
While Sacco has been impressed so far by his young players, they've still played in single-figure NHL games.
"I'm going to be looking for more of the same that I've seen over the course of the first eight games," Sacco said. "Being in the NHL, if you can be a consistent player and find a niche you can contribute to a lineup. There's going to be times when both Matt and O'Reilly will have ups and downs and hit the wall sometimes. I just feel over the course of a long year, over the course of 82 games right now, we're looking for them to provide us with the same type of energy and the same time of enthusiasm and the same type of speed that they have over the course of the first games here.
"We're not putting a lot of pressure on these guys. They don't have to feel like the weight of the world is on their shoulders. We also have them surrounded by some good players where they can just kind of come in and do their thing."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com