Chris Bigras leads group of new prospects in Colorado Avalanche Fall 2014 Top 20

By Chau Vo

Chris Bigras was voted

Chris Bigras was voted “best defensive defenseman” by the OHL’s Western Conference coaches in 2013-14 (courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

 

Two key Colorado Avalanche players did not stay prospects for long as both surpassed the 65-NHL-game mark in 2013-14. 18-year-old forward Nathan MacKinnon entered the league under the bright spotlights of being the 2013 NHL Draft’s first overall pick and did not disappoint. He ended the season as the Calder Trophy favorite and was unanimously voted as the trophy winner. Tyson Barrie also had a statement season when he cemented himself as a key figure on the Avalanche blue line, contributing offense in even-strength situations as well as on the power play.

Former Denver Cutthroats goalie tandem Kieran Millan and Kent Patterson are no longer with the Avalanche organization. Millan has decided to retire to pursue other career options while Patterson signed with the Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL.

Former Avalanche prospect Brad Malone’s pursuit of his first one-way NHL contract led him to Carolina, where the Hurricanes gave the gritty forward a two-year deal worth $1.3 million.

On July 22nd, the Fort Wayne Komets announced their new affiliation agreement with both the Lake Erie Monsters and the Avalanche. The Komets will provide an important developmental stop for Avalanche prospects as well as a direct line to the NHL, something the Cutthroats and the CHL did not offer.

The Avalanche also signed five free agents in the spring to help add size, grit, and goaltending depth to their farm system. Head scout Rick Pracey and head coach Patrick Roy continued with that trend with their seven selections in the 2014 NHL Draft. Headlining the team’s draft class was Red Deer Rebels forward and captain Conner Bleackley, whose combination of skills, intelligence, and two-way abilities make him an exciting prospect for Avalanche fans.

1. (2) Chris Bigras, D, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 32nd overall, 2013

OHL Western Conference coaches voted Chris Bigras the best defensive defenseman in the 2013-14 season, an ode to his steady and dependable play in his own end. His offense seemingly took a step back in 2013-14 when compared to his draft year, but that can be attributed in part to the team around him not playing up to expectations as well as Bigras being tasked with mentoring rookie defenseman Damir Sharipzyanov.

Bigras also made Team Canada last winter for the 2014 World Junior Championship, where he played in all seven games but recorded no points. He ended the tournament with a plus-two rating. Bigras was one of several returning defenseman who were invited to this summer’s World Junior Championship camp.

Bigras will enter the Avalanche’s training camp already armed with a three-year entry-level contract that he signed at the conclusion of training camp in 2013. Barring any significant developments, Bigras will return to the Owen Sound Attack for his last year of junior hockey.

2. (7) Duncan Siemens, D, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 11th overall, 2011

If Duncan Siemens got the chance to redo his first season of professional hockey he likely would. The Lake Erie Monsters had to deal with multiple injuries to key players throughout the 2013-14 season and Siemens was one of those who missed a big chunk of the year. Siemens only had one goal and three assists and was only healthy enough to skate in 46 games. Even though he is not relied upon for his offensive contributions, a reunion with former Saskatoon Blades defensive partner Stefan Elliott was unable to reignite what the two had together in 2010-11.

While the offense was not there, Siemens is creating a name for himself as a no-nonsense defenseman with a nasty streak. His hard hits and play along the boards is exactly why the Avalanche chose him 11th overall in 2011.

3. (8) Joey Hishon, C, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 17th overall, 2010

Joey Hishon finally got his big break in the 2014 NHL playoffs when he suited up for three games for the Avalanche against the Minnesota Wild. In those three games, he played sheltered minutes on the third and fourth lines and assisted on a goal for his only point.

Hishon’s career was nearly derailed due to multiple injuries but he is now seemingly on the right path to getting his still-young career back on track. The 22-year-old Stratford native recently signed a new one-year contract with the Avalanche, and he will again be given the opportunity to make the jump to the NHL.

Even though he was drafted in 2010, injuries and a lockout prevented Hishon from attending training camp the previous four years. He will look to make his first appearance in 2014 and try to leave a good impression with the coaching staff before he likely returns to Lake Erie.

4. (NR) Conner Bleackley, C, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 23rd overall, 2014

Conner Bleackley fondly remembers his days idolizing former Avalanche stars like Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic as a child. Now, he finally gets the chance to be under the watchful guidance of both Hall of Famers.

As a 17 year old, Bleackley was chosen to captain the Red Deer Rebels of the WHL. Not only that, but in addition to an official leadership role, Bleackley also saw his ice time increase and with that the opportunity for him to showcase his offensive talents. With 68 points in 71 games, Bleackley showed that he had a deadly offensive game to go along with his already established defensive accumen. His ability to play all 200 feet of the ice meant that he could be trusted playing in all situations.

Bleackley will have many eyes on him at Colorado’s training camp as one of their more intriguing prospects. It is not likely he will be on the Avalanche’s opening night roster in 2014-15, but it is not out of the question either.

5. (3) Stefan Elliott, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 49th overall, 2009

During the 2011-12 season, Stefan Elliott dazzled fans at the Pepsi Center and around the NHL with his electrifying skating and stick handling skills in his first year of professional hockey. Since then, Elliott has only appeared in 19 NHL games and has not gotten anywhere near the 13 points in 39 games that he recorded in his first NHL stint.

With a change in the coaching regime, Elliott had high hopes that Patrick Roy would give him another chance at the NHL but the lack of significant injuries to the NHL roster meant Elliott stayed in the AHL until the final game of the regular season. In his only NHL game of the 2013-14 season, Elliott reminded fans why he was once considered the premier offensive-defenseman prospect of the Avalanche farm system by scoring one goal.

However, even when Tyson Barrie was sidelined after a malicious knee-on-knee collision during the playoffs, it was not Elliott who would get the call to replace Barrie. Elliott’s defensive game could still use additional work and for now he cannot be trusted even in sheltered situations.

Elliott will need a big training camp if he wishes to finally bid farewell to the AHL for good as he is now no longer exempt from waivers.

6. (5) Sami Aittokallio, G, 7.0C
Drafted 4th round, 107th overall, 2010

Out of all the goaltending prospects in the Avalanche farm system, Aittokallio has the highest raw skill level. His transition to North America has gone quite well even if you count his two less-than-successful NHL appearances. Aittokallio still needs to work on his technique, most notably not relying too much on his raw athleticism to make saves. He has corrected his too-low glove hand problem that many scouts counted as a knock against him in seasons past.

Blessed with a large frame, Aittokallio uses it to his full advantage when in the butterfly position. Similar to many other European goalies past and present, Aittokallio is a naturally gifted skater and his overall style is very fluid.

If the last two seasons are any indication the Avalanche brass sees Aittokallio’s as the most NHL-ready player out of Colorado’s other goalie prospects. In the case of injuries, expect to see Aittokallio being recalled by the Avalanche to assume back up duties and potentially start a few games.

7. (4) Calvin Pickard, G, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 49th overall, 2010

Calvin Pickard has been patiently waiting for his turn to be called up to the NHL, but it seems as if he might have to wait longer. Even though he has seen more starts than teammate Sami Aittokallio in Lake Erie, it was the latter that has gotten the nod for both call-up opportunities the last two seasons.

Pickard is a technically sound goaltender who is proficient in making saves with minimal movement. In short, he makes the hard saves look easy. He has already shown in junior hockey that he can be relied upon as a workhorse goalie.

The two Monsters goalies will continue to duel for the coveted third overall spot on Colorado’s depth chart but for now it looks as if Pickard is number four.

8. (6) Michael Sgarbossa, C, 7.0C
Acquired via trade with San Jose, February 2012

Many fans forget there was another promising prospect that was also included in the deal that sent Jamie McGinn to the Avalanche in 2012. Although Michael Sgarbossa was unproductive in his six game call-up to the NHL last year, his addition to the Lake Erie Monsters has been invaluable.

His first season for the Monsters saw him become a big part of the Monsters offense. His contributions earned him an AHL All-Star appearance as well as the aforementioned six game call up with the parent club. During the 2013-14 season, however, he failed to reproduce the same scoring pace largely due to injuries. In 49 games, Sgarbossa only scored five goals and 15 assists. Look for Sgarbossa to have a bounceback season.

9. (13) Troy Bourke, C, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 72nd overall, 2012

Troy Bourke is one of the hardest working Avalanche prospects. Even though the Prince George Cougars were never able to surround him with elite offensive talent, Bourke was still able to put up respectable numbers in junior hockey and even scored 85 points in 69 games in his final season.

As a 17 year old, Bourke was looked to as a leader in the Cougars dressing room. His calm and quiet demeanor brought respect from the older players and his play on the ice demanded respect from opponents.

Bourke is a quick and shifty offensive player. He is a precision passer and has deadly finishing abilities. While he is not the biggest player, he relies on his high hockey intelligence to avoid unnecessary physical confrontations. Often times, to his advantage, Bourke will initiate physical play himself.

In a 15 game stint with the Lake Erie Monsters at the end of 2013-14 Bourke put up seven points. If there is a reason to watch Monsters games this year it is to watch what Bourke can do in a full season with the club.

10. (14) Will Butcher, D, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 123rd overall, 2013

Will Butcher was one of 42 players invited to Team USA’s World Junior Championship evaluation camp this summer. Butcher put up two goals and three assists for five points in five games in the last U20 tournament and provided steady and dependable play from the back end. He is one of seven returnees from the 2014 tournament, where Team USA was eliminated by Russia in the quarterfinals.

Butcher is a favorite to make this year’s tournament team after his good showing from the 2014 tournament. Though the 5-11 defenseman may be small in stature his play is anything but that. Butcher’s ability to jump into the play is crucial to helping create Team USA’s offense and his ability to hurry back makes him a coach’s favorite. He is also known for his good defensive stick work and anticipation.

Fresh off of his first year of NCAA hockey for the University of Denver Pioneers, Butcher helped the Pioneers win the inaugural NCHC Championship and a berth in the NCAA Tournament. He finished the season with 16 points in 38 games, including a team leading six power-play goals.

11. (NR) Kyle Wood, D, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 84th overall, 2014

The Avalanche may have gotten a third-round steal when they selected Kyle Wood 84th overall. The 6’5, 229 pound defenseman can not only play a physical stay-at-home game but can also man the point on the power play. He is a capable puck mover and can lead the rush.

Wood only played 33 games in 2013-14 due to a lower body injury but when he returned he only got better as the season went on. His climb up the draft board can be attributed to his NHL-ready size along with high potential and his upward-trending play as the season progressed.

12. (NR) Nick Magyar, RW, 7.0D
Drafted 4th round, 93rd overall, 2014

A rare product out of the Ohio hockey system, Nick Magyar used his experience in American junior hockey to help lead the Kitchener Rangers in scoring this past season. In 66 games, Magyar had 46 points as a rookie forward who could play both the right wing and center positions.

Magyar is a dynamic offensive talent who uses his edgework more than speed to get in and out of high traffic areas around the net. He is an excellent forechecker and battles hard for loose pucks. Along with his offensive skill set, Magyar has shown his ability to play all 200 feet of the ice.  

Magyar will return to the Rangers, who are still in a rebuilding mode. He will be looked to to carry the offense as well as provide leadership on a relatively young team.

13. (9) Spencer Martin, G, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 63rd overall, 2013

For the second year in a row, Spencer Martin has had to play behind a slowly rebuilding Mississauga Steelheads team and for the second year in a row, Martin has led them to the OHL playoffs. In the 2012-13 season, Martin appeared in an astounding 46 games. He upped that by appearing in 64 games and facing over 1,800 shots in 2013-14.

Martin is a tall goalie with natural athletic abilities who utilizes the butterfly style. He still needs to work on his rebound control as well positioning but for now his lateral movement and cat-like reflexes can make up for the holes in his game.

Martin will return to the Steelheads in 2014-15 but is a prospect to watch because once his time in junior hockey is up he will be making a quick play for the number three overall spot on the Avalanche’s goaltending depth chart.

14. (18) Andrew Agozzino, LW, 6.5C
Signed as a free agent, March 2013

Highly overlooked coming out of junior hockey, Andrew Agozzino has proven to be an important part of the Lake Erie Monsters offense the past two seasons. In his first year playing professional, and also his first year for the Monsters, he led all players in scoring with 52 points in 76 games.

Agozzino would follow up that performance with 49 points in 75 games in 2013-14, again leading the Monsters in scoring. Not overly big in stature, Agozzino is good at cycling the puck along the boards as well as digging for loose rebounds in front of the net.

With recent additions slotted to make their first appearance in Lake Erie, look for Aggozino’s numbers to improve as he will have better teammates to play with.

15. (20) Colin Smith, C, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 192nd overall, 2012

With one full AHL season under his belt, Colin Smith proved that he can indeed play with the big boys. Smith was a prolific scorer in junior hockey and twice had seasons where he scored at higher than a point-per-game rate. In his final year of junior hockey he posted 106 points in 72 games.  

Smith was able to move around with ease in the WHL, relying solely on his speed and skills to score highlight-reel-worthy goals. In the AHL he had a much tougher time against bigger and more mature defenders. He was still able to score 34 points in 76 games for the Lake Erie Monsters in 2013-14, but the more physical style of play magnified the glaring holes in his game.

Smith is still young and could grow into his 5’10 frame some more but he will need to add a more physical aspect to his game if he wants to make the jump to the next level.

16. (17) Mason Geertsen, D, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 93rd overall, 2013

After being drafted 93rd overall in 2013, Mason Geertsen has really improved his game and is considered one of the more promising defensive prospects for the Colorado Avalanche. The 6’4, 200 pound Albertan broke into the WHL as a 16-year-old stay-at-home defenseman but has added a nice offensive game to his pedigree.

Geertsen uses his size to be a physical force in and around the net. Goalies love playing behind him because of his penchant for not letting opposing players set up screens. He has impressive strength as well as decent mobility.

17. (NR) Cody Corbett, D, 6.5D
Signed as a free agent, March 2014

After being passed over in two drafts, Cody Corbett finally achieved his dream of signing an NHL contract when the Colorado Avalanche offered him a three-year entry-level deal. While playing for the Edmonton Oil Kings Corbett was relied upon to be an offensive spark plug and was the top scoring defenseman for the Oil Kings two years in a row. Defensively, he has no stand-out skills but plays a smart and quiet game.

Corbett has been lauded for his work ethic. However, he has been known to have lapses in his conditioning, which affects his strength. He could learn to use his size to his advantage to be more of a physical presence in his own zone.

18. (NR) Alexis Pepin, LW, 6.5D
Drafted 4th round, 114th overall, 2014

Blessed with both size and skills, Alexis Pepin has all of the tools to play in the NHL. Pepin is exceptional at driving to the net using his entire 240 pound body to protect the puck. His size also enables him to be effective along the boards and in the dirty areas of the ice. His heavy shot is both accurate and deadly.

Scouts are concerned about his work ethic and subpar skating abilities. While his 6’2, 240 pound frame has helped him succeed in junior hockey, the weight does slow him down. His lack of consistency also played a role in the Charlottetown Islanders trading him to the Gatineau Olympiques in January 2014.

19. (NR) Wilhelm Westlund, D, 6.5D
Drafted 7th round, 183rd overall, 2013

Wilhelm Westlund got his first taste of North American hockey in the winter of 2013 when his Farjestad SHL team traveled to Nova Scotia to take on the AHL All Stars. Westlund has no stand-out skills but has no glaring holes in his game, either. He was dependable playing depth minutes for Farjestad’s top club despite his young age.

Westlund will play for Djurgarden this upcoming season.

20. (NR) Mitchell Heard, C, 6.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 41st overall, 2012

Mitchell Heard is establishing himself as an energy player in the AHL. In the 2012-13 season, Heard had 72 penalty minutes in just 23 games. In 2013-14, he racked up 167 penalty minutes in 63 games. In just two AHL seasons, Heard has fought 18 times.

In addition to his willingness to drop the gloves, Heard also chipped in four goals and eight assists for 12 points. He ended last season with a plus-one rating, showing that he was not a defensive liability.

Follow Chau Vo on Twitter via @chowdersoop