Colorado Avalanche prospects finding success in the CHL

By Chau Vo

Mason Geertsen - Vancouver Giants

Photo: The Avalanche drafted heavily out of the CHL in 2013, including the imposing Mason Geertsen, currently patrolling the Vancouver Giants blue line (courtesy of Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)

While the majority of the Colorado Avalanche prospects are playing professional hockey for the Lake Erie Monsters or Denver Cutthroats, recently drafted players have been sent back to their junior teams in the CHL.

The Avalanche may not be represented in the QMJHL but their players in the WHL and OHL are highly touted and giving fans plenty of reasons to be excited about the future of the franchise.

WHL

Troy Bourke, LW, Prince George Cougars
Acquired: 3rd round (72nd overall) in 2012

As captain of the Prince George Cougars, Troy Bourke wants to set an example both on and off the ice. He is doing just that through the first 24 games of the season, scoring nine goals and 15 assists while playing at a point-per-game pace for the first time in his junior career. At 5’10 and 170 pounds, he is not a big player but that does not stop Bourke from chasing the puck into the tough areas of the ice. What sets Bourke apart from his peers is his vision and hockey sense.

Bourke had an excellent showing at the Avalanche training camp this fall and found himself on a line with Ryan O’Reilly and Matt Duchene. During preseason games, he played limited minutes on the fourth line but was able to make a good impression by committing few errors and being reliable in his own end. Back in Prince George, Bourke is positively impacting teammate Alex Forsberg and helping Forsberg have his best season of juniors. Bourke was also selected to Team WHL for the upcoming 2013 Subway Super Series.

Mason Geertsen, D, Vancouver Giants
Acquired: 4th round (93rd overall) in 2013

When Mason Geertsen was traded from the Edmonton Oil Kings to the Vancouver Giants early in the 2012-13 season, he knew he would have a bigger role on his new team and a better chance to showcase his skills. His play earned him a fourth round selection by the Avalanche after posting a career high in points and penalty minutes.

Early this season, Geertsen was sidelined with an upper body injury but quickly returned to the lineup. He has been paired with Dalton Thrower (MTL) and together the two form a formidable top pairing for the Giants to help protect the lead late in games. The blueliner has three assists and 39 penalty minutes through 19 games.

Geertsen is a smart player and knows that he has to use his big body to be successful. He is not scared to drop the gloves and defend his teammates. While he is not known for his offensive contributions, he understands that it is not the strong point of his game. Instead, he will have to continue working on his play in his own end in order to be successful. If he can continue to be a dominant force and help protect his goalie, the Giants have a good chance of making the playoffs this season.

OHL

Chris Bigras, D, Owen Sound Attack
Acquired: 2nd round (32nd overall) in 2013

Out of all the defensive prospects to participate in the Avalanche training camp this fall, Chris Bigras received the most attention from head coach Patrick Roy and assistant coach Adam Foote. Even though he was drafted in the second round, Bigras was considered a first round selection by many scouts. His steady play and ability to chip in points is what makes Bigras a prospect with strong NHL potential. After signing a three-year entry-level deal with the Avalanche, Bigras was sent back down to the Owen Sound Attack for another year of junior hockey. Bigras plays in all situations for the Attack including the powerplay. He displays a tremendous amount of hockey sense and his excellent gap control helps prevent scoring opportunities for the opposing team.

Bigras is currently paired with Damir Sharipzyanov, a rookie defenseman from Russia. Attack coaching staff believes Bigras’ smart defensive coverage will help cover Sharipzyanov’s mistakes while he adjusts to the CHL and North American style of play. Bigras however needs to continue to work on his offensive game as he is currently under his scoring pace from last year with eight points through 20 games. His shot leaves a lot to be desired, but experience from Avalanche training camp has helped Bigras add a more physical side to his game this season.

Spencer Martin, G, Mississauga Steelheads
Acquired: 3rd round (63rd overall) in 2013

Last year, the Mississauga Steelheads were picked by many pundits to finish last and get the first pick in the bantam draft. This year everyone thought the same. Instead, the Steelheads made it to the playoffs as the eighth seed and this year they are currently leading the OHL Central Division with a record of 12-8-1. The only constant has been goaltender Spencer Martin.

The Oakville native is a big reason behind their 12-8-1 record having appeared in 20 of those 21 games. In the 20 games he has played he posted a save percentage of .909, improved from his performance last season. His goals against average is high at 3.30, but that can be attributed to the Steelheads’ lack of a top pairing that can play big minutes. Martin was also recently named the OHL player of the week for his play.

Michael Clarke, C, Peterborough Petes
Acquired: 5th round (132nd overall) in 2012

When the Peterborough Petes traded former captain Slater Koekkoek (TBL) they wanted a player back that could immediately impact their team. They got just that in Michael Clarke. Clarke was the third line center for the Windsor Spitfires but for the Petes he jumped right into their top six. Not only does he play a responsible two-way game but he can chip in timely goals as well, evidenced by his two goals including the game winner in his first game against his former team back in February.

This season, Clarke is expected to provide leadership on a young Petes team. He is not expected to be a goal scorer as that job is being done by 17-year-olds Nick Ritchie and Eric Cornel, but the Petes would like Clarke to still contribute points on the second line. In 20 games, he already has 13 points and has already matched his point total from last season.

Joseph Blandisi, RW, Ottawa 67’s
Acquired: 6th round (162nd overall) in 2012

In what is likely to be his last year in juniors, Blandisi is on a torrid scoring pace with 12 goals in his first 19 games for the Ottawa 67’s. Blandisi is currently playing on a line with talented rookie Travis Konecny and experienced overager Ryan Van Stralen. Blandisi plays a 200-foot game, helps out with defensive coverage for the young center Konecny, and often finds himself playing down low in his own end despite being a winger on the line.

Before he makes the jump to professional hockey next season, Blandisi will have to work on his lower body and core strength as he shows signs of weakness playing along the boards. He has an accurate wrist and snap shot but his release speed needs to be faster.

Other notes:

In addition to CHL prospects, the Avalanche have other players worthy of mention in college hockey and minor professional leagues. Eighteen-year-old freshman defenseman Will Butcher is playing significant minutes for the University of Denver Pioneers and has contributed three goals and an assist in nine games. Butcher plays a big part in the success of the Pioneers’ powerplay. Defenseman Gus Young returned to the Yale Bulldogs hockey team this season to help lead a young group of defensemen defend the Bulldogs’ national title from last year. Young, a shutdown defenseman, played a vital part in shutting down the best collegiate hockey players last year en route to their title win over the Quinnipiac Bobcats. In Lake Erie, Andrew Agozzino and Brad Malone are among the team’s top-five scorers early in the Monsters’ season. Kieran Millan is a perfect 3-0 in his first three starts for the Denver Cutthroats and has an impressive .930 save percentage.