Impressive rise to NHL for Francouz

American Hockey League

Defining an athlete by their moment of triumph is easy.

Avalanche goaltender Pavel Francouz is best understood when it seems the sky is falling.

Sixty minutes between the pipes each night in the NHL for the unprepared is a chaotic nightmare with league netminders facing an average of 31 shots per game entering the weekend. Francouz — pronounced ‘FRAN-sohz’ and nicknamed ‘Frankie’ — has a keen understanding of managing goaltender turbulence with only five NHL starts to date.

Just ask Avs defenseman Ryan Graves, an AHL Eagles teammate last season who witnessed Francouz’s rise from mostly unknown European prospect, to AHL All-Star, to starting in net for the Avalanche with goalie Philipp Grubauer recovering from a lower-body injury.

“Frankie is super quiet and very calm,” Graves said. “You see even when they score on him, there’s no reaction out of him. You don’t see any freak-outs. He’s a calming influence, and as a D-man, it’s very nice because there are goalies you see who are kind of erratic in the way they play and flopping around the net. Frankie never really strays.

“He’s in his set, he makes hard saves look easy, and everyone has a lot of confidence in him.”

Upon first glance, it’s not overwhelmingly clear that Francouz is an elite athlete. Among 55 NHL goalies this season with at least five starts, Francouz is one of only eight who stands 6-feet or shorter, per hockey-reference.com. It doesn’t limit his ability. Graves said: “Frankie is really good positionally. He reads the play. I don’t think the size affects him whatsoever.”

Yet Francouz’s quiet on-ice demeanor extends to locker room interviews where he speaks in a thick Czech accent glowingly about his time with the Avalanche.

“I’m living the dream,” he said.

Francouz’s path to the NHL was totally unorthodox.

He spent five years in Czech leagues and another three seasons in the Russian KHL before Colorado signed him to a one-year deal in May of 2018.

“We’ve got our European scouts over there who identified him as a guy we should look at and try to bring into the organization,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said.

Francouz represented his native Czechoslovakia in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics and posted goals-against averages of 1.43 and 1.80 in his final two KHL seasons.

So, why did it take so long to crack professional hockey in the United States?

“My whole career I was just taking small steps and didn’t really dream too big,” Francouz said. “Then I was thinking, ‘OK, maybe I could go to North America and try (the NHL).’”

Francouz, 29, starred in the AHL last season with a .918 save percentage, three shutouts and 15-11-5 record. When the Avalanche moved on from Semyon Varlamov, now with the Islanders, they re-signed Francouz on another one-year contract with a salary increase to $950,000; a financial commitment solidifying his role behind Grubauer in 2019-20 with the expectation of 25-plus starts.

“I showed them I adapted to the style of hockey here,” Francouz said. “I tried to be a leader with the minors and show the other guys you have to be professional. That played a role, too.”

Added Bednar: “Everyone identified him as one of the top goalies in the American Hockey League and he was a big reason the Eagles made the playoffs. … It warrants a shot.”

Early returns on Colorado’s investment in Francouz, much like the team’s overall play, are mixed. He carried a 3-2-0 record into Saturday’s game against Columbus with a .906 save percentage. But the rarity of right-catching NHL goalies and Francouz’s instinctive play have already given teammates problems in practice.

“It’s very unique and gives him an advantage,” forward Tyson Jost said. “He’s such a stud in net, and you throw that little obstacle in there, it helps him for sure.”

Francouz’s ability to stay calm at all times begins with zen-like preparation. He politely declines media requests after morning skate the day of a start and actively avoids thinking about the game until he arrives at the arena. It’s all business from there. Francouz locks in at the start. And when adversity inevitably strikes, the only response is looking toward the next play.

Francouz’s focus was on display early in the second period against Nashville on Thursday when two quick goals gave the Predators a 3-2 lead and newfound momentum. Francouz didn’t flinch, and his teammates picked up the slack with a barrage of offense.

“I’m trying to not show emotions in the net because it can harm you,” Francouz said. “Sometimes it’s harder because, of course, you’re a human being and going through tough times. You still have to focus and work on it. If I show no emotions, nothing, it can create this feeling of, ‘Alright guys. Everything is OK.’”

A deep postseason run or even hoisting the Stanley Cup? Now those would be cause for some goaltender emotion.

For now, Francouz will keep a straight face as Colorado enters a critical stretch of the season.

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