Colorado Avalanche

Looking to make the leap: Mirco Mueller

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Like most things in San Jose last year, Mirco Mueller’s progression didn’t go exactly to plan.

Mueller, the 20-year-old blueliner San Jose took 18th overall in 2013, started out the year in the NHL as part of GM Doug Wilson’s “tomorrow team” movement, only to see his ice time dwindle by early December.

From there, he was loaned to Team Switzerland for the World Juniors and, upon returning, was shuffled back and forth between San Jose and the club’s AHL affiliate in Worcester, before a thumb injury in late March ended his year.

All told, Mueller appeared in just 39 games for the Sharks, three for Worcester and six for Switzerland — not a ton of hockey for a youngster that needs all the reps he can get.

Which begs the question — where will he get them this year?

On paper, Mueller appears to be part of the club’s six-man defensive unit, along with Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun, Brenden Dillon and newly acquired Paul Martin. But the Swiss rearguard will have some pretty heady competition for that spot, particularly in the form of Matt Tennyson, who appeared in a career-high 27 games last year, and Dylan DeMelo,  a 22-year-old prospect who, according to AHL bench boss Roy Sommer, is ready to make the leap himself.

Speaking of the American League, it could end up being the place where Mueller starts this season.

There were worries San Jose rushed him to the NHL last year and it’s important to remember that, of all the d-men taken in the first round in ’13, only Seth Jones and Rasmus Ristolainen have emerged as regulars; some have argued that Nikita Zadorov, taken two spots ahead of Mueller, was also rushed to the NHL (and has since been traded to Colorado).

What’s more, the likes of Philly’s Samuel Morin (No. 11), Winnipeg’s Josh Morrissey (No. 13) and the Islanders’ Ryan Pulock (No. 15) have yet to even make their big-league debuts.

Mueller knows that, based on his age and number of players looking to stick with the Sharks, this fall’s training camp will go a long way in deciding his fate.

And he knows the challenge will be difficult.

 “It’s always competitive,” he said, per the San Jose Mercury News. “A lot of jobs are on the line.”

O, Dear: Russia fined $85K for skipping Canadian anthem

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Remember when Russian hockey players stormed off the ice instead of sticking around for Canada’s national anthem after a drubbing at the 2015 World Hockey Championship? Apparently that gesture will come at a cost beyond making Matt Duchene really, really mad.

The IIHF fined the Russian Hockey Federation $85K (in the form of 80,000 Swiss francs) for those actions, pointing to an “unmistakable head gesture” from “the captain,” aka Ilya Kovalchuk.

(As you may remember, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and some other players did stay out for at least a portion of the ceremony, so it wasn’t necessarily a team-wide action.)

Here’s a portion of the release, which is soaked in somewhat amusing legalese:

The panel is of the opinion that the occurrences on the ice show that this is not a result of an unfortunate misunderstanding. The Russian players and officials left the ice after a short discussion between the Russian team captain and some Russian officials and the unmistakable head gesture of the captain. It was also noted that the Russian team and management should have been aware of the postgame/victory and closing ceremony procedure because of their vast experience with IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships. The open gate was irrelevant.

Therefore the violation of the IIHF Championship Regulations should be sanctioned by a fine as provided in Articles 5.1, 5.2 of the Disciplinary Code.

So the “oops” excuse didn’t work?

Here are the highlights from Canada’s 6-1 win:

This seems like a good time to share a couple extra sad/angry Kovalchuk photos:

source: AP
Via AP
source: Getty Images
Via Getty

Colorado Avalanche ’15-16 Outlook

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The Colorado Avalanche can be a tough nut to crack.

If you bounce around “Hockey Twitter” at all, the team very much stands as a guinea pig in the “stats vs. tradition” debate (or whatever you’d like to call it). That debate often gets a little weird and then overshadows the team itself.

When you look at the Avalanche, it’s an odd mix of old and new.

You have old ideas and old faces in management with Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic running the ship. They seemingly lean toward signing old veterans from Jarome Iginla to Francois Beauchemin.

The fresh faces make this squad awfully interesting, however. Gabriel Landeskog is still one of the NHL’s youngest captains at 22. With all the pressure on Nathan MacKinnon to make the next step, one might forget that he’s just 19. Matt Duchene and Tyson Barrie remain in the meat of their primes at 24.

What if all four of those promising young players make significant strides that often come at such ages, particularly MacKinnon, who may just be scratching the surface of his skill set as people move onto to the next big thing in Connor McDavid? Could the Avalanche see earlier-than-expected results from still-blooming prospects like Nikita Zadorov and Mikhail Grigorenko?

Ryan O’Reilly is a tough player to let go – and he’s also just 24 – but when you look at that group, it’s quite a bit easier to stomach, isn’t it?

Yes, that defense looks pretty shaky beyond a handful of solid players such as Barrie and Erik Johnson, meaning the Avalanche will again lean heavily on Semyon Varlamov.

Still, with the abundance of talent at the forward position in particular, even the most ardent number-crunchers would shudder to dismiss the Avalanche outright.

Avalanche’s biggest question: How much will they miss Ryan O’Reilly?

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If the contract Ryan O’Reilly signed with the Buffalo Sabres is any indication, the Colorado Avalanche traded away a pretty good player this offseason.

O’Reilly’s stats are a pretty good indication, too. Still just 24 years old, he was the Avalanche’s third-leading scorer last season with 55 points in 82 games. On top of that, he killed penalties and won 53.4 percent of his faceoffs.

No wonder the Avs didn’t want to make this trade. They repeatedly stated their intention was to re-sign O’Reilly. Ultimately, however, his contract request included “numbers that we just didn’t go to,” according to GM Joe Sakic.

In return for O’Reilly, the Sabres sent the Avs defenseman Nikita Zadorov, forwards Mikhail Grigorenko and J.T. Compher, plus a draft pick. All three of those players are young, and it would be unreasonable to expect any of them to make a significant impact next season.

That’s why the Avs acquired Carl Soderberg from Boston and promptly signed him to a five-year pact worth almost $24 million. The plan is for the 29-year-old Soderberg to center Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog, just like O’Reilly did.

But whether Soderberg can play to O’Reilly’s level remains to be seen. Last year with the B’s, he had 44 points in 82 games, skating mostly with Loui Eriksson and Chris Kelly. With all due respect to those two veterans, MacKinnon and Landeskog represent an upgrade in linemates. Hence, Soderberg’s excitement at signing up for the opportunity.

It’s all the other stuff O’Reilly did, beyond putting up points, that Soderberg may not be able to replace.

Said Sabres GM Tim Murray upon giving O’Reilly that big contract extension: “It’s not easy to find a player who, at his age, is already established in the league as someone who plays a complete game and makes his teammates better. When we acquired him, we viewed him as someone who could immediately improve our roster, but was still young enough to make an impact for several years to come.”

Related: Mikhail Grigorenko is looking to make the leap

Under Pressure: Nathan MacKinnon

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It may seem a bit unfair to choose a 19-year-old for this category, but when you’re a former first overall pick that was awarded the Calder Trophy in your rookie season, and then you go through the dreaded sophomore slump? Well, it makes it a little more fair.

Nathan MacKinnon had just 38 points in 64 games last season. He had 63 points as a rookie in 2013-14.

“The whole team was kind of in a slump,” MacKinnon told the Chronicle Herald in May. “We weren’t playing well and we weren’t scoring. Things started going better for me but then I got hurt so it was kind of the perfect storm. But at the same time, I didn’t play well and do the things out there I think I can.

“It’s one season and sometimes it can be tough when it’s not going the way you want it to, but I try to stay as positive as I can. I’m pretty hard on myself so I’m already looking ahead to trying to prove to myself that I can be an impact player on our team.”

MacKinnon conceded that he was “maybe a little too confident” after his stellar rookie campaign, and that could probably go for his team as a whole. The Avs won the Central Division with 112 points in 2013-14. They regressed badly (some would say predictably), missing the playoffs with just 90 points in 2014-15.

As mentioned, MacKinnon is still just 19 years old. And experience can only be gained through, well, experience.

“Now I know what it’s like to be up and to be down in the NHL so I think that’s something that will be good for me,” he said.

On a final note, it will be interesting to see what position MacKinnon plays next season. Though he was drafted as a center, he’s mostly been a winger in the NHL, typically with Ryan O’Reilly as his center and Gabriel Landeskog as the other winger.

O’Reilly, of course, was traded to Buffalo, replaced in Colorado by Carl Soderberg.

Even if that’s the plan for now, we all know plans can change. MacKinnon has far more upside as a player than Soderberg, and a center can have more impact in all areas of the ice compared to a winger. The challenge for young players like MacKinnon is learning the position, since it comes with more defensive responsibilities.

Related: Soderberg didn’t hesitate in signing with Avs