Overall depth of Colorado Avalanche prospect pool still weak

By Chau Vo

Colorado Avalanche v Tampa Bay Lightning

Photo: Sami Aitokallio will battle with Calvin Pickard for playing time with the AHL’s Lake Erie Monsters (courtesy of Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

 

While much can be said about the Colorado Avalanche being led by their young stars at the NHL level, there is not much the team can depend on for depth if immediate help is required. Graduations of high draft picks from recent years have led to a bare farm system that will take years to refresh.


The summer acquisitions of young Europeans Dennis Everberg and Borna Rendulic, as well as Jesse Winchester, does add slight depth to the forward positions, but injuries to the blue line will force the Avalanche to rely on NHL journeyman Nate Guenin and the unproven Zach Redmond as replacements. In net, Calvin Pickard and Sami Aittokallio have yet to show they are capable of handling backup minutes for the Avalanche.

However, there are some very promising prospects that, if their development goes according to plan, will play big roles for the team down the road as they look to re-establish themselves as legitimate heavyweights in the tough Western Conference.

Left Wing

Dennis Everberg’s performance during training camp earned him a spot on the Colorado Avalanche’s bottom-six, and he played five games before being sent down to the Lake Erie Monsters. While he did not put up any points in those five games, he was given multiple opportunities to showcase his skills and even appeared on the top line for one game. The combination of his waiver-exempt status and the Avalanche having to carry one extra goalie on the roster resulted in his demotion to the AHL. He will be first in line to be recalled once a roster spot opens up.

In addition to Everberg, Paul Carey is also a possible injury call up who already has NHL experience under his belt, including three playoff games from last season’s short run. Currently in Cleveland playing for the Monsters, he is providing offense early in the season for a team that had trouble finding the back of the net just months earlier. With four points in seven games, he sits second in scoring on the team.
Trevor Cheek and Samuel Henley are two other left wingers who are also currently playing for the Monsters. Cheek and Henley provide a much-needed physical presence for the team thanks to their large frames. Henley will see time on the top-six this year and already has one point in seven games, as does Henley.

In junior hockey, Alexis Pepin is starting the season off on the right foot with two points in two games for the Gatineau Olympiques of the QMJHL. He was sidelined with a shoulder injury during training camp and for the start of the season. Once considered a top prospect of his draft class, Pepin’s work ethic on and off the ice contributed to his drop down the draft boards. He remains a high risk/high reward prospect.
Also playing in the QMJHL, Julien Nantel is benefiting from playing with the high-powered offensive weapons on the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. A hard-working winger whose compete level is unrivaled, Nantel will try to shake off the skepticism that comes with being a seventh round draft pick and show why he was deserving of being chosen higher. His 11 points in 12 games is a good start to the conversation.

Center

Last year, Joey Hishon showed he could play at the NHL level when he dressed for the Avalanche in the playoffs against a hard-hitting Minnesota Wild club. Even after a great showing at his first NHL training camp, Hishon was sent back to Cleveland to play top-line minutes for the Lake Erie Monsters. However, in five games, Hishon has zero points and a minus-six rating. The 2010 first round pick is still a highly skilled player who is working to get his hockey career back on track after sitting out for almost two years because of injury.

Michael Sgarbossa last played for the Avalanche in the 2013 season, when he appeared in six games. Last year he quietly spent the season in the AHL with the Monsters. Unlike Hishon, Sgarbossa had a quiet training camp where his physical stature came into question, but also unlike Hishon, Sgarbossa has had a hot start to his 2014-15 season with six points in seven games, all assists. The Avalanche will have to think hard about what they want to do with Sgarbossa, as he is set to be a restricted free agent after this year and could possibly move on to another team with weaker center depth that will provide him with a better chance at cracking an NHL roster.

Troy Bourke’s quiet demeanor accurately reflects the quiet town of Onoway, Alberta, where he grew up. His play on the ice, however, is anything but that. Bourke possesses tremendous skills, but his small stature is the only thing holding him back from being a recognized name in the NHL. After enjoying a successful junior career with the Prince George Cougars, Bourke showed promise when he scored seven points in 15 games for the Monsters at the tail end of the season. He will look to build on that success this year as he establishes himself at the professional level.

Like Bourke, Colin Smith is another firecracker on the ice whose success is only hindered by his lack of size. Smith dominated the junior hockey scene but that success has not carried over. He still scored 34 points in 76 games last season, but those numbers are nowhere close to what he put up in the WHL. The hard-hitting AHL game is having an adverse effect on his game and he will have to overcome his physical limitations if he wants a shot at the NHL.

Mitchell Heard was an unpopular draft choice when he was selected 41st overall in 2012. He has not done much to prove his critics wrong and his recent demotion to the ECHL is most likely the nail in the coffin for his time as part of the Avalanche organization. In the 87 games he appeared in for the Monsters, he settled into a role as the team’s enforcer. However, recent additions to the system with both skill and size have pushed him even further away from the NHL. He is set to be a restricted free agent after his current contract expires next June.

Conner Bleackley had trouble getting on the score sheet early in the WHL season but has recently found his stride. The Red Deer Rebels’ captain currently sits third in team scoring with 12 points in 12 games and was recently chosen for the WHL squad that will play in the 2014 Subway Super Series against some of Russia’s best young players.

Right Wing

The Avalanche have not chosen many natural right wingers in recent drafts. Instead, they have relied on acquiring them through free agency or converting centers into wingers.

In the OHL, Kitchener Rangers forward Nick Magyar has six points in his first 11 games and has not kept pace with his scoring from last year. Magyar returned to the Rangers after a quiet training camp with the Avalanche where he looked outmatched in all aspects of the game by his peers.

Meanwhile, Garrett Meurs has only appeared in one game for the Lake Erie Monsters, where he played just south of ten minutes.

Borna Rendulic has played in seven games and has two points for the Monsters and will try to work his way up the call-up list in case of injuries to the parent club. He and Everberg were the two summer forward acquisitions from their respective professional leagues in Europe that give the Avalanche insurance for their fourth lines in case of injury.

Defense

The biggest concern for the Colorado Avalanche right now is the level of their defensive play. With few options available in-house, Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy were forced to fill out the blue line via free agency and trades. The offseason moves, however, have not been paying off and the Avalanche are currently in the midst of one of their worst starts to the season in franchise history.

Help is coming but it may take a while. There are many prospects with the skills and talent to play top-four roles for the Avalanche but it remains to be seen how much longer their development will require before they can step up for the team.

Chris Bigras remains the Avalanche’s best defensive prospect and arguably best overall prospect. The 6’1, 195 pound defenseman is a quiet defender but his reliability does not go unnoticed. As a coach’s favorite for his ability to log big minutes against tough competition he has remained in the conversation for international tournaments. Bigras played for Team Canada in last year’s World Junior Championship tournament and is likely going to make the team again. He was recently chosen to represent the OHL in this year’s Subway Super Series. He has 12 points in his first 14 games in his final season for the Owen Sound Attack.

Duncan Siemens and Stefan Elliott played together on the same pairing with the Saskatoon Blades of the WHL and in the 2010-11 season had a combined 124 points. Elliott’s 81 points earned him the WHL’s best defender award and Siemens’ 43 points helped him climb up the draft charts, where he was selected 11th overall by the Colorado Avalanche. Elliott would move on to play professional the next year and earned significant playing time with the Avalanche right away but was demoted to the AHL soon after. Elliott’s departure also took a toll on Siemens’ offensive numbers, but he maintained his reputation as a hard hitting and mobile defenseman. When Siemens joined Elliott in Cleveland last year, the two were briefly reunited but were unable to display the same chemistry they had in juniors. Both have appeared in seven games so far this season; Elliott has four points and Siemens has one.

Kyle Wood and Mason Geertsen are the only two Avalanche defensive prospects playing in the CHL. Wood is playing for the North Bay Battalion of the OHL while Geertsen is in the WHL playing for the Vancouver Giants.

Wood was drafted because of his size and puck moving abilities. He quarterbacked the Battalion’s second power play unit the last half of the 2013-14 season and through the playoffs. At 6’5 and nearly 230 pounds, he towers over most of his competition in the OHL. He was recently selected to represent the OHL in the upcoming Subway Super Series.

Similarly, Geertsen was drafted for his size. He is a bit smaller than wood at 6’4 and 215 pounds but plays a much more physical game. While he was not drafted for his offensive skills, Geertsen has shown that he is able to put up points. After having a 14 point, 73 game campaign during his draft season, Geertsen put up 23 points in 66 games the following season for the Giants. In just 10 games this season, he already has eight points while maintaining his physical play. In addition, he has also been trusted with a leadership position for the Giants and is one of their alternate captains.

In college hockey, Will Butcher and Ben Storm are the lone representatives for the Avalanche.

Butcher, a highly skilled and offensively gifted defenseman for the University of Denver Pioneers, scored 16 points in 38 games last season. He was also chosen to represent Team USA during the World Junior Championship and will return as another key member of the team. In four games so far, Butcher has three assists.

Storm was not only a big defenseman when he played for Calumet High School in the USHS league, but he was also one of the best offensive defensemen as well. However, as he moved on to juniors and the competition got both stronger and faster he focused on his size as his main area of strength and less on his offense. That did not change as he moved on to play for St. Cloud State, as he is one of their most physical blueliners.

In Europe, the Avalanche have two prospects playing professionally. Wilhelm Westlund, drafted a year before Anton Lindholm, looked like he was well on his way to a permanent roster spot for Farjestad’s SHL team and even participated in an exhibition match against the AHL’s All-Stars. However, after signing with Djurgarden this summer he is currently on loan to Vita Hasten, a Tier 2 team in Sweden’s professional hockey system. 

Lindholm’s performance last season during Skelleftea’s playoff run not only helped cement his status as a top-four defender on the team but also gained the attention of the Avalanche, who selected him in the fifth round of the 2014 draft. Earlier this fall, Lindholm participated in the first European Champions League hockey tournament. In five games, he scored one goal for Skelleftea.

Cody Corbett, Markus Lauridsen, and Gabriel Beaupre are also defenders in the Avalanche system who are currently playing for the Monsters. So far, Lauridsen and Beaupre have only suited up for four games, and Corbett has yet to make his professional debut. All three players will be contending for third-pairing minutes this season in the AHL.

Goaltending

Calvin Pickard made his long-awaited NHL debut for the Avalanche this season when he replaced an injured Reto Berra on October 16th. Earlier that day, Pickard had just flown from Cleveland to Ottawa to serve as Berra’s backup after starter Semyon Varlamov was placed on injured reserve with a groin injury. An early first period injury to Berra forced the Avalanche to play Pickard in the matchup against the Ottawa Senators. While he looked strong at times making some key saves, his inexperience led to some soft goals and eventual loss to the Senators.

His next start, two days later against the Montreal Canadiens in Montreal, would result in another loss. In those two games, he had five even strength goals against in those games. Berra has returned from injury, but until Varlamov comes back Pickard will continue to backup Berra for the Avalanche.

The day after Berra went down and Pickard was thrust into his first NHL appearance, Sami Aittokallio was recalled from the Lake Erie Monsters to possibly share playing time with Pickard. Unlike Pickard, Aittokallio already has two NHL starts spread out over the last two seasons in which he did not fare well. Aittokallio was returned to the Monsters when Berra returned from injury.

Next in line after Pickard and Aittokallio on the depth chart is Spencer Martin, who is currently playing for the Mississauga Steelheads in the OHL. The past two seasons, Martin has been the backbone of a rebuilding Steelheads team and was a big part of why the Steelheads were able to make the OHL playoffs despite having a weaker squad than most of their competition. With the addition of some offensive players up front and a more mature blueline, Martin will finally receive some help in front of him. Martin was also recently chosen to represent the OHL in the upcoming Subway Super Series along with Bigras and Wood.

Roman Will has been playing for the Monsters in the absence of Pickard and Aittokallio and in two games has allowed 11 goals while making 47 saves.

Maximilian Pajpach has not yet appeared in a game for Tappara’s junior team this season.

Follow Chau Vo on Twitter at @chowdersoop