Duchene, O'Reilly ... Why Avs chose to keep both

October, 20, 2009

Matt Duchene? Hardly surprising. Ryan O'Reilly? Now that one we didn't see coming three weeks ago.

The Colorado Avalanche announced this week they're keeping both 18-year-old centers and not returning them to junior hockey, a huge accomplishment for both kids. Once they play in their 10th NHL game Friday night, their NHL entry-level contracts will kick in regardless of whether they are sent back down to junior later. They're in for the long haul.

"Certainly their play dictated the majority of that decision, along with the fact our head coach and coaching staff were very comfortable with these two players, both Matt and Ryan, not only with their minutes but also in crucial parts of the game," Avs GM Greg Sherman told ESPN.com.

But it's not an easy decision in the world of this collective bargaining agreement. With the CBA clock set to start for both players, they will be eligible for unrestricted free agency at 25 years old. (The Florida Panthers were in a similar situation with defenseman Jay Bouwmeester this past summer.)

"You have to weight that, yes, as part of your decision," Sherman said. "But having said that, where we're at in our franchise, with the youth movement and the ability of these two players that they've shown they deserve to stay here, it all fits into the plan we're presenting to the fan base here in Denver in terms of the youth movement."

I had a close look at both kids Oct. 13 in Toronto and couldn't believe my eyes. We all knew Duchene was the real deal. He went third overall in the 2009 draft, but some scouts believed he was good enough to challenge John Tavares for first overall. Watching him speed through the Maple Leafs like a hot knife through butter cemented my impression that he was already NHL-ready.

"His speed certainly is a major asset to his game," said Sherman, whose club has roared out of the gates with a surprising 6-1-1 start. "He generates a lot of chances when he's on the ice. He's also a responsible, two-way player. He's got a bright future ahead of him."

Honestly, I knew very little about O'Reilly. He went in the second round this past June, 33rd overall. Four months later, he's the third-line center on an NHL team and killing penalties on the top unit. Oh, and he's put up six points (one goal, five assists) and a plus-5 rating in eight games heading into Thursday night's encounter at Minnesota.

"Our amateur scouting staff did a terrific job identifying him last June," said Sherman, complimenting the group led by Richard Pracey. "He's a very responsible player. He's got high-end hockey sense. He's very smart on the ice. He's very responsible in his own end, which is indicative by the fact he's on our top PK unit. He's been able to handle the physicality of the game."

Speaking of kids ...
I'm a couple of chapters into Bob McKenzie's book, "Hockey Dad: True Confessions of a (Crazy?) Hockey Parent." It's a great read. The respected TSN hockey insider recounts his involvement in his two sons' minor hockey days. I strongly recommend it, folks. Christmas isn't that far away!

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer


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