AHL’s Eagles off to hot start in ’22-23, take flight into first place
It’s said that it takes a village to raise a child. If that’s the case, it might take a whole state or province to win a Stanley Cup championship.
An astute assemblage of trades, free-agent signings, management of draft picks, player development, scouting and just a little old-fashioned luck all have to come together in the right order at the right time for a team to raise the Cup in celebration.
Everyone is involved: from management all the way down to the equipment manager and stick boys.
The Colorado Avalanche made all the right moves to win the franchise’s third Stanley Cup in its history last season. The Avs’ first NHL championship came in its first season in 1995-96 since relocating to Denver from Quebec and its second came in 2001.
The 21-year gap between the second and third Cup championships attests to the difficulty in keeping all the pieces together.
The Avalanche has relied on player development from the Colorado Eagles, its top minor league affiliate in the AHL, located just 53 miles away in Loveland.
The Eagles are celebrating their 20th anniversary season in 2022-23 — their fifth year as an affiliate of the Avs either at the AAA or AA level.
The Eagles have built a mountain of success since their founding in the Central Hockey League in 2003 with two Ray Miron President’s Cup championships in the CHL (2005, 2007) and two Kelly Cup championships after moving to the ECHL (2017, 2018).
NHL clubs desire placing prospects in a winning atmosphere and the Eagles have served as the perfect vehicle.
Altogether, the Eagles have collected three regular-season titles (2005, 2006, 2009), eight division titles (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2016, 2018) and seven conference titles (2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2017, 2018) leading into this season.
The 2022-23 campaign is looking promising to add to that legacy after the Eagles reeled off a commanding 10-0-1 run to soar to the top of the AHL’s Pacific Division standings. With a 13-5-1 record and 27 standings points through 19 games, the Eagles led the Calgary Wranglers (11-6-1) by four standings points atop the division standings.
The Eagles’ .711 winning percentage ranked second in the Western Conference and fifth best in the 32-team league.
The Eagles didn’t appear to be cooling down after firing off 51 shots in a 3-1 victory over the host San Diego Gulls on Nov. 30.
There’s been no shortage of experience. This year’s team is peppered with players who have either donned sweaters for the Avs or other NHL teams during their careers.
Goaltender Jonas Johansson has 32 NHL games under his skates, including 17 with the Avalanche from 2020-22 (8-3-2 record) and 13 with the Buffalo Sabres from 2019-21.
Johansson posted a 5-1-1 record, 2.06 GAA and .913 SVPT in 2020-21 with the Avs. In nine games this season, he’s keyed the Eagles with a 6-3-0 record, 2.01 GAA (fourth in the league) and 0.932 save percentage (tied for second in the league).
Drafted in the third round (64th overall) by the Avs in the 2018 NHL Draft, goaltender Justus Annunen appeared in two games last season with the Avs with a 1-0-1 record.
Another promising prospect, he helped Finland capture the gold medal at the 2018 IIHF U18 World Championship and set a SM-Liiga record with four consecutive shutouts (302:05) as a 19-year-old in 2019.
He remains on the Avs’ radar with a 7-2-1 record, 2.39 GAA and 0.923 SCPT in his third season with the Eagles.
Annunen made 27 saves on 28 shots in the Nov. 30 win in San Diego.
The Eagles’ veteran core includes defenseman Brad Hunt, center Jayson Megna and left wings Charles Hudon and Anton Blidh with a combined 589 NHL games between them.
Hunt, a veteran of 241 NHL career games (22 goals, 76 points) with Oilers, Blues, Predators, Golden Knights, Wild and Canucks, has shown his leadership skills by pacing the Eagles in scoring with 17 points (four goals, 13 assists) through 19 games.
Hunt played almost exclusively in the NHL from 2016-17 to 2021-22, including 50 games with Vancouver last season. He suited up for 45 games with the VGK in 2017-18 and 59 games with the Wild in 2019-20.
Hudon appeared in125 NHL games with Montreal Canadiens from 2015-20 with 14 goals and 41 points. His best season occurred in 2017-18 with 10 goals and 30 points in 72 games. In his first year with the Eagles, he’s brought that experience to good measure by ranking second in team scoring with 15 points (eight goals, seven assists) in 18 games.
Megna, in his fourth season with the Eagles, has appeared in 159 NHL games with the Penguins, Rangers, Canucks (59 games), Avs (46 games, 11 this season). He suited up for 20 games with Avs in 2021-22 and is serving as this season’s team captain for the Eagles.
Blidh has appeared in 76 NHL games, including six games with the Avs this season (70 with the Bruins in six prior seasons).
Players with multi-year ties to the Eagles include left wing Ryan Wagner, center Shane Bowers, defenseman Keaton Middleton and right wing Callahan Burke.
Wagner, who is in his fourth year with Eagles, had logged 108 games in three previous seasons with the AHL club, posting 24 points in 50 games last season. He had seven points in 19 games this season, including an empty net goal to seal the win against the Gulls.
Bowers, a first round pick (29th overall) by Ottawa in the 2017 draft, is enjoying his fifth year with the Eagles. He entered the season with 107 games in an Eagles sweater and has appeared in one game with the Avs so far this season while recording six points in 10 games in Loveland.
Middleton is playing his third season with Eagles. He appeared in three games with the Avs in 2020-21 and is on pace to set a pro record for career points with 11 points (one goal, 10 assists) in 19 games after collecting 11 points (two goals, nine assists) in 49 games last season.
Burke, also in his third season with the AHL club, registered 26 points in 57 games last season after amassing 36 goals and 88 points in four years at the University of Notre Dame.
Other contributors include defensemen Joshua Jacobs, Andreas Englund and Rob Hamilton, center Ben Meyers and left wing Dalton Smith.
Jacobs, who has three NHL games with the New Jersey Devils to his credit, won a Calder Cup championship with the Chicago Wolves last season while accumulating 15 points in 51 regular season games with a plus-15 plus-minus rating. A second-round pick (41st overall) in the 2014 draft, he appeared in 18 playoff games with the Wolves with two points and a plus-7 plus-minus rating.
Englund (33 NHL games with Ottawa) embarked on his second year with Eagles after recording 12 points in 57 games last season. He led the team with 47 penalty minutes in 15 games.
Meyers, who played three years at University of Minnesota with 95 points (39 goals), has appeared in eight games over last two seasons with the Avs with two goals, including one this year in a three-game call-up.
Hamilton is playing his second year with Eagles after three seasons with the Stockton Heat (now Calgary Wranglers). He punched in 26 points in 45 games last season as the Eagles’ second top scoring D-man.
Smith, embarking on his 11th season in AHL (second with Eagles), racked up 104 PIM in 74 games the last two seasons with the Eagles and Rochester. A second round pick (34th overall) in the 2010 draft by the Columbus Blue Jackets, he has managed to throw his weight around the ice after racking up 153 PIM in 60 games with the Florida Everblades during the 2016-17 ECHL season and 111 PIM in 48 games with Rochester in 2018-19. He had 32 PIM in just six games for the Eagles to start this season.
Recent draft picks include left wing Sampo Ranta (third round, 78th overall) in 2018, Danill Zhuravlyov (fifth round, 146th overall) in 2018, right wing Alex Beaucage (third round, 78th overall) in 2019 and center Jean-Luc Foudy, (third round, 75th overall) in 2020.
Beaucage spent 40 games last season with the Eagles, generating five points in eight playoff games.
Ranta (14 points in 38 games with the Eagles in 2021-22) has already made four appearances with the Avs this season and 14 over the past three seasons.
Zhuravlyov, with a pair of U-20 World championships for Russia in 2019 and 2020, is playing his first year in North American pro hockey.
Foudy, who sparkled with 26 points in 65 games last season, including seven points in nine Calder Cup playoff games, is the latest Eagle to wear an Avalanche jersey.
The 20-year-old center received a call-up on Nov. 28 and made his NHL debut on Nov. 29 in a game in Winnipeg against the Jets. He registered on the Avs’ radar with five goals and 14 points in 18 games with the Eagles to start his third season with the AHL club.
In 12:11 of ice time in his first game with the Avalanche, he logged one penalty and three shots during the Avs’ 5-0 Central Division loss.
It was a cherished moment as both of this parents made a surprise trek from their home in Toronto to watch their youngest son make his NHL debut.
Memories continue to be made in the Eagles-Avalanche player pipeline.
— Phillip Brents
(December 5, 2022)