Off-ice chemistry leading to on-ice success

by Alyssa Dombrowski || for

In the game of hockey, on-ice chemistry is the key to success. For Colorado Avalanche prospects Mike Sgarbossa and Andrew Agozzino, the bond began forming well before they got to the American Hockey League’s Lake Erie Monsters.

“We definitely knew about each other,” Sgarbossa said. “I didn’t really like playing against him, because he was obviously a good player on the other team and was always tough to compete against.”

Both natives of the Toronto area, the two competed against each other in the Ontario Hockey League from 2008-12, Agozzino with Niagara and Sgarbossa with Barrie, Saginaw and Sudbury.

“We were in the same division, so we played each other quite a bit,” said Agozzino. “Mike was a great player in the OHL. We were kind of familiar with one another and did some training together in the summer, so when we both got here it was pretty easy to connect.”

Sgarbossa, 21, and Agozzino, 22, both joined the Monsters prior to the start of the 2012-13 season – Agozzino on a one-year AHL contract and Sgarbossa on an entry-level NHL deal after being acquired by the Colorado Avalanche from San Jose in 2012.

“It’s cool that we both came up in the same fashion and ended up on the same team here in Cleveland,” Sgarbossa said. “We have our history to fall back on, and now that we’re playing with each other we have that chemistry and kind of know what the other one is going to do.”

As rookies last year, Agozzino (52 points in 76 games) and Sgarbossa (44 in 57) were the Monsters’ top two scorers; in six games this season, Agozzino has notched four points and Sgarbossa three.

“Mike is great to play with,” said Agozzino. “He’s such a great passer, and he sees the ice so well that he makes it really easy for you to play with him. You just have to find an open area, and he’s going to get you the puck for a scoring chance.

“I think our games complement each other pretty well. I’m a bit more of a shooter and he’s a bit more of a passer, so it works out.”

Playing alongside Agozzino has proven to be equally as advantageous to Sgarbossa.

“Andrew is a little bit different of a player than me,” said Sgarbossa. “He’s more of a two-way player and he’s really good in the defensive zone, so he helps me out because that’s something I have to work on.

“At the same time, I can help him with things he wants to work on in the offensive zone, so we work together on that. We help each other out with our weaknesses and strengths.”

For the second-year pros, a great deal of help and nurturing from Lake Erie’s front office has come through Director of AHL Operations David Oliver, who has been with the team in various roles since its inception in 2007.

“Andrew leads by example on the ice,” said Oliver. “He’s a small player, but he plays with a big heart, he hits and he plays the way the coach wants him to play the game.

“Mike is a very skilled, super competitive player who has exceptional vision on the ice. If he’s got the puck on his stick, he’s one of those guys that can find the open guy even if the lane is really small.”

As a former 13-year pro with 233 games of National Hockey League experience in his career, Oliver is someone who can have a positive influence on all of Colorado’s prospects.

“Ollie wants his players to play in the NHL. That’s his goal, to always get players better,” said Sgarbossa. “He always wants me to keep growing – to push myself and not settle.”

“He’s a guy who’s been there and played in the NHL, and he knows what it takes and how hard you have to work,” said Agozzino. “He’s talked to me about having that work ethic, how to be a true professional and how that translates to games.

“He’s watching practice every day and always letting us know what we can do better and where we can improve to get to that next level.”

Oliver’s overall directive to the two has been clear.

“My loud message to them is to make sure you’re doing everything you can to do more than the guy who’s trying to take your job,” said Oliver. “Especially when you’re climbing the ladder to get to the NHL, you’re going to have to earn every minute of ice time you can by doing things the right way – not just being a hockey player, but becoming an elite athlete to give yourself a chance to take that next step.”

The history between Sgarbossa and Agozzino has only further propelled the on-ice profitability necessary to make that jump. And they took their bond to new heights when they were both selected to compete in the 2013 AHL All-Star Classic last winter.

“It was a great experience,” said Agozzino, who was voted a starter for the Western Conference. “We even got to room together. It was great to be a part of that event and to do it with somebody on your team who was a rookie as well was definitely special.”

“When the time came that they announced the All-Star candidates, my name was there and so was his,” said Sgarbossa. “Having someone not only from the same team, but someone that I’ve played against in junior hockey as well, to be there and share the experience with was really cool for me.”

Oliver understands the motivation that led to Sgarbossa’s and Agozzino’s place as All-Stars.

“I think that any time you have the belief in yourself and your ability and you see your peers going up [to the NHL] and doing big things, it just fuels the fire,” said Oliver. “Part of the description of both of these guys is that they’re ultra-competitive and want to prove people wrong.”

The two young prospects are well on their way to doing just that.

Sgarbossa was recalled by Colorado right after last year’s All-Star event and made his NHL debut on Jan. 30 against Vancouver. He played six games for the Avalanche on the year.

“When I got sent back [to Lake Erie] from Colorado, I slowed down a bit point-wise and in the way I was playing,” Sgarbossa said. “I think in the NHL, you have to do the same thing every night – if you’re off one night, they’ll find someone else. So I definitely want to be more consistent [this year].”

Agozzino’s achievements with the Monsters last season were formally recognized by Colorado when he signed a two-year contract with the Avalanche on March 22, 2013.

“A lot of my success last season was just from working hard and trying to do the right things every day in practice,” said Agozzino. “I’m not trying to change too much. I just want to come in and build off last year to keep us off to a good start and to continue rolling forward.”

Despite their accomplishments thus far, Agozzino and Sgarbossa remain focused on obtaining what has long been their dream.

“As far as being named All-Stars and things like that, we’re trying to carry ourselves the same way we did last year,” said Sgarbossa. “Hopefully, we can become All-Stars in the NHL too. That would be our ultimate goal.”