by Craig Stancher || ColoradoAvalanche.com
Injuries are an inescapable part of any sport.
Throughout the course of an NHL season, players will absorb multiple bumps and bruises and occasionally will be knocked out of the lineup for extended periods of time.
But the true test comes in how a team deals with losing its players.
Battling numerous injuries in the first half of the season (including long-term injuries to Joe Sakic and Ryan Smyth), the Colorado Avalanche has used a bevy of call-ups from its American Hockey League affiliate – the Lake Erie Monsters – to help fill the void in the veterans’ absence.
Six different players who started the year with the Monsters – Johnny Boychuk, Kyle Cumiskey, T.J. Hensick, David Jones, Cody McCormick and Cody McLeod – have seen action with the Avalanche through the first half of the season.
Four of those players (Boychuk, Hensick, Jones and McLeod) were making their first NHL appearances. In addition, 31-year old Jaroslav Hlinka and goaltender Tyler Weiman, who started the season with Colorado and came on in relief of Peter Budaj on Oct. 4 versus Nashville, also made their NHL debuts this year, increasing that number to six.
Only the Chicago Blackhawks (7) have seen more players make their NHL debut this season.
With over 140 man-games lost to injury through Jan. 11, these call-ups, including four players currently on the active roster, have done their part to fill in for the injured Avs regulars. Not only have they helped to fill the void, the players have performed admirably and provided a boost of energy for the club.
Why have these call-ups been so successful during their time in Denver? Because, for the most part, the players have been asked by Colorado’s coaching staff to keep it simple and rely on the attributes that molded them into the players they are today.
Simply put, they’re playing a game they already know.
McLeod, a forward who was leading Lake Erie with 101 penalty minutes at the time of his recall in mid-December, is a good example of a player who was able to step right into the lineup. Upon arriving in Denver, McLeod knew that he wouldn’t be replacing the role of a Joe Sakic and wasn’t going to be asked to do so by the coaching staff. Being able to play a role familiar to him – that of a grinder who thrives when throwing his body around – helped McLeod make an immediate impact with his physical style of play.
“I’ve kind of done it all of my career, just bang and crash and try to keep things simple,” said McLeod. “They told me when I got called up just to keep doing what got you here, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the most part.”
While McLeod was making his NHL debut this season, McCormick had 95 games of NHL experience under his belt when summoned from Lake Erie. As a player who has seen action at both the NHL and AHL levels over the past few years, McCormick already had an idea of what it would take to help the team and stick around for a while. The forward, who had spent parts of the past three seasons with the Avalanche, immediately found his niche on the team by using his hard-nosed style of play to compliment the likes of Ian Laperriere and Ben Guite.
“When you get a taste of the NHL and then get sent down, you work that much harder to get back,” said McCormick. “You know how hard it is to stay in the NHL, so down there you work twice as hard.”
The effort and energy that McLeod, McCormick and Colorado’s other call-ups bring to the ice each night is not lost on the veteran players.
“I think they’re getting a good opportunity to play. It brought a different dimension when Cody McCormick and Cody McLeod came up,” said Andrew Brunette. “We brought in some physical play, which we didn’t have a lot of before. They came up and have played with an edge, making us a tougher team to play against.”
The young guns have added a bit of offensive punch to the lineup at times as well. Hensick notched a breakaway goal in only his second NHL game, McLeod recorded two goals in his first six contests and McCormick notched the game-winner against Vancouver on Dec. 23 after scoring his first goal of the season two games earlier against Anaheim.
“It’s kind of nice at times, it gives you a boost of youth,” added Brunette. “They all have brought in different elements that we’ve needed.”
Also making an impact – albeit, in a slightly different way – have been players such as defensemen Cumiskey and Boychuk. Cumiskey was recalled from Lake Erie for the second time this season on Oct. 22 following an injury to Jordan Leopold and quickly became a regular in Colorado’s defensive rotation thanks to his speed and puck control.
Boychuk was recalled on Jan. 4 and found himself paired with Cumiskey the following night in his NHL debut against the New York Islanders.
The only difference in this circumstance, when contrasted with the Avalanche’s other call-ups, is that the players were skating in somewhat unfamiliar situations. Cumiskey and Boychuk lined up on opposite wings, playing forward on the same line due to injuries up front.
“It took a little getting used to, but I’ll do whatever the coaches ask me to,” said Cumiskey.
That attitude of selflessness and sacrifice, voiced by Cumiskey but echoed in the play of the Avalanche’s other young call-ups, is exactly why they have been so successful during their stints with Colorado.