Duncan Siemens was standing at his dressing-room stall Wednesday night at the Pepsi Center after the Avalanche …
No, wait a second.
Although the nameplate said SIEMENS, it’s still Erik Johnson’s choice stall, temporarily reassigned. Johnson is out with what now is believed to be a separated shoulder, and he isn’t coming back soon.
“Those are shoes that I’m definitely not going to try to fill,” Siemens said after the Avalanche’s 5-2 win over Calgary. “That’s a huge loss for us. So any way I can go out there and have success like tonight, I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Siemens, the Avalanche’s second of two first-round draft choices in 2011 who was playing only his 10th NHL game Wednesday night, was called up from the San Antonio Rampage last week. He’s getting another look in the wake of the defensive corps injuries to not just Johnson, but also Mark Barberio and (more short-term) Anton Lindholm.
One of the more interesting moments in the Avalanche’s potentially crucial win came when Siemens, cotton stuffed in what likely was a broken nose suffered in a first-period fight with the Flames’ Tanner Glass, shot the puck from the Colorado zone into the empty Flames net with 17 seconds remaining.
It wasn’t a work of art.
It also was his first NHL goal.
He is 24.
“I’m sure it will sink in, in the morning, once my nose feels a little bit better,” Siemens said. “It’s one of those things where I’ll take them any way I can get them and it definitely feels nice to get that first one out of the way and get that monkey off the back.”
When the puck went in, his teammates giddily celebrated, on the bench, and on the ice — as if it was a big deal. Genuine wide smiles. Arms raised. A more-emphatic-than-usual group embrace around the empty net goal-scorer. It was a big deal because of who it was.
“It was heartwarming,” Siemens told me. “It shows how much everybody means to each other and it goes to show you how the character in this locker room goes a long way.”
It was more specific than that, though.
This was a long time coming, and his Avalanche teammates knew it. They also know that Siemens is a popular AHL journeyman with the Avalanche affiliates at Lake Erie and then San Antonio who hasn’t been able to crack and stick on the Colorado roster, despite going 11th overall in the draft seven years ago.
But Siemens hasn’t groused, has remained with the organization and become considered the type of leader you want around your prospects. Before this season, his stints with the Avalanche were limited to one game in 2014-15 and three last season.
No question, the 11th overall pick in the NHL draft — the Avalanche also had the second overall choice that year and took Gabe Landeskog there — is supposed to be better than that. Siemens’ lack of success was at the leading edge of any discussion of the Avalanche’s inability to draft and develop elite defensemen as one of the problems that led to the slide after the 112-point season under Patrick Roy in 2013-14.
But it was hard to hold that against Siemens — because he was such a pro.
“I think that’s just part of my personality,” he said. “There was no use sulking about it or being bitter. There’s nothing you can do. All you can control is going out there, working your hardest, get better and try to earn your opportunity. In this business, that’s all you can control. The rest of it’s out of your hands. I always told myself if I do everything that I can at the end if the day and I never play another National Hockey League game, I can go to sleep at night and then hold my head high because I controlled what I could.”
Can he ever be more than that organization guy?
The odds remain against it, but he had another solid game — his sixth game of the season and fifth since his most recent call-up — again Wednesday night against the Flames, logging 13:25 of ice time. He mostly was paired with fellow callup and AHL veteran David Warsofsky, but he was with Nikita Zadorov late.
This is at least showing that Siemens can be called up in times of injury and step in.
“You know what, they’re giving me the opportunity,” Siemens said. “Everybody has a different path. You never know when your last (chance) is going to be. It’s about managing every game, every shift and making sure I take advantage of every opportunity I get. We have some guys dinged up that are going to be coming back and it’s going to be competitive from here on out. Every game’s must-win for us. That (playoff) race is so tight, I think it’s going to be healthy competition, and you have to make sure you have your best game every night.”
I asked Siemens if he ever had accepted being an “organization” player.
“We’ve been very open with each other since I was drafted,” Siemens said. “As you said to start this, things haven’t gone exactly the way we maybe pictured on draft day, but we’ve stuck with each other. I’ve done everything they’ve asked me to do and they’ve given me the help when I’ve asked for it. It’s starting to pay off here. It’s a matter of taking it a day at a time.”
If nothing else, this stint might additionally establish Siemens as a higher-priority potential callup in times of injuries, and when the Avalanche AHL affiliate becomes the Loveland-based Colorado Eagles next season, the callup potentially can be by car if both teams are home.
Or maybe …
With the Avalanche having the offensive-minded and undersized Tyson Barrie and Samuel Girard among its top six, physicality among the other D-men becomes more important. Lindholm has an edge, but at 5-11 and 191, he’s not a freight train, either. The vibes from San Antonio also seem to be that all connected to the Rampage are rooting for Siemens — and rooting for him not to come back.
Avalanche coach Jared Bednar worked with and saw many “organization” guys during his coaching stay in the AHL.
“I certainly like the way he’s playing,” Bednar said of Siemens. “I was new to the organization last year and we came in and I haven’t seen the way he’s played in the past. So he kind of gets a fresh set of eyes, a fresh set of coaching staff eyes on him last year again, and again this year with some new staff members. We liked what he did for us at the end of last season. We liked what he did for us in training camp and through part of exhibition. He had a couple of rough exhibition games, we thought, and this is his second callup this year and we’ve liked what we’ve seen.
“When you buy into your role as a player and you’re willing to do whatever it takes to succeed in that role, then you have a chance. Dunc’s a real good team guy who’s playing his role to the best of his ability and right now, he looks great. I thought that was another strong game from him tonight. It’s a small sample size, but at the same time, he’s come in at an important time when the intensity is cranked up, when every play matters and we’re in this race. He understands that and the experience he’s gained over the last three, four, five years in the minors and being with us at times last year and this year, that experience is helping him.”
* * *
Denver-based journalist Terry Frei writes two commentaries a week about the Avalanche for Mile High Sports. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times, four times in Colorado (including for 2016) and three times in Oregon. He’s the author of seven books, including the fact-based novel “Olympic Affair” about Colorado’s Glenn Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon champion; and “Third Down and a War to Go,” about the 1942 football national champion Wisconsin Badgers and the players’ subsequent World War II heroism. His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries on subjects beyond the Avalanche are at terryfrei/oncolorado.
Terry Frei’s MHS Commentary/Story Archive:
Magazine: Gateway High Olympian Stephen Garbett