Hope for the future rests on the shoulders of Colorado Avalanche prospects

By Chau Vo
Photo: Colorado Avalanche prospect Chris Bigras is expected to bolster the Avs' defense next season. (courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

Photo: Colorado Avalanche prospect Chris Bigras is expected to bolster the Avs’ defense next season. (courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

 

The Avalanche prospect pool isn’t exactly ripe with players ready to make the jump to the NHL. However, there are a few underrated prospects who could blossom into future stars for the team if their development continues on the same track.

The strength in the system lies on the blue line and in net, while the weaknesses are a lack of wingers and players with top-six potential. This is something the team will need to address in future drafts and through trade or free agency.

Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy showed their displeasure with the state of the prospect pool with the firing of former head scout Rick Pracey last season. This move, in addition to the signings of several players from Europe, signals a shift in philosophy for the team.

1. (1) Chris Bigras, D, 7.5C

Drafted 2nd round, 32nd overall, 2013

Bigras is the best hope at filling the void next to Erik Johnson on the Avalanche’s blue line. It is a lot to expect from a player who has yet to make the transition to pro but he has excelled at the junior level and looks ready to be an impact player for the Lake Erie Monsters as early as later this season once his career with the Owen Sound Attack is finished.

His current 68 points in 58 games is his best offensive output yet despite offense not being the strong suit of his game. The total is also the second highest for scoring from a defenseman in the OHL. Bigras is a very strong skater who is not only efficient going north-south but west-east as well and his stick work and positioning is second to none. The Attack depend on Bigras to log northwards of 25 minutes a game against the other team’s best players – the same expectations the Avalanche will have for Bigras once he moves on to the next level.

2. (4) Conner Bleackley, C, 7.5C

Drafted 1st round, 23rd overall, 2014

The Red Deer Rebels captain looks poised to crack the 30-goal mark for the first time in his junior hockey career. He has seen time both as a center and right winger, something that could also happen if he makes the Avalanche roster. However, Bleackley might be better served if he spent the remainder of this season and next season in junior hockey as the Rebels have been selected as hosts of the 2016 Memorial Cup.

In 50 games, Bleackley has 49 points with a rating of +13. He is a smart and reliable two-way forward with an NHL-ready shot.

3. (7) Calvin Pickard, G, 7.0B

Drafted 2nd round, 49th overall, 2010

Pickard got his first opportunity of NHL action this season and seized the opportunity to make a big impact under difficult circumstances. His first call up didn’t go as well as he had hoped but when he got another chance one month later; he made it hard for the coaching staff to send him back down.

In 15 starts, he has a 6-6-3 record. However, the record doesn’t tell the whole story as those losses stemmed from the Avalanche’s inability to score goals. His stats tell a much better story and he is atop the NHL with a save percentage of .936 and goals against average of 2.18. If the Avalanche can find a taker for Reto Berra or admit trading for Berra was a mistake and waive him, Pickard would be expected to be promoted to back up Semyon Varlamov.

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

Elliott was waived before the start of the season and luckily no one claimed him. He is a power-play specialist and his offensive game is NHL-ready, it is just that his defensive game is very far behind. If Elliott improves his play in his own end he would be a welcome addition to any NHL roster as a bottom pairing defenseman.

In the AHL, he has 30 points in 44 games but zero in five NHL games. It remains to be seen how Elliott’s situation will unfold but it may be best for both player and club to part ways so that Elliott can be given a shot at cracking the NHL for another team.

5. (2) Duncan Siemens, D, 7.0C

Drafted 1st round, 11th overall, 2011

This is Siemens’s second professional season and he hasn’t shown much improvement but still has a lot of upside to offer. His first season was plagued with injuries and this season has been very much the same story. When he does play, he has shown signs of why he was the 11th overall pick of the 2011 draft.

His smooth skating and love for physicality make him noticeable on the ice. He doesn’t provide much offense from the back end as evidenced by his four assists in 38 AHL games but that is not what the Avalanche need from their defensemen.

Siemens is still very young and raw but it would be interesting to see if the Avalanche give him a look in the near future just to see what he can offer. It would help his development if he were called up to the Avalanche to work with Adam Foote, the team’s defensive consultant.

6. (3) Joey Hishon, C, 7.0C

Drafted 1st round, 17th overall, 2010

There are some murmurs debating whether or not Hishon can be classified as a bust but it wouldn’t be fair to label him as such. He is still the same highly skilled player he was drafted to be and his career is finally getting back on track after suffering through multiple setbacks from an injury dating back to junior hockey.

In the playoffs last season, he was called up and performed admirably in sheltered minutes as a bottom-six player – a role he could easily be utilized for right now. He has 32 points in 50 AHL games so far this season. After movement within the NHL roster at the trade deadline, Hishon was recalled to the Avalanche later that afternoon.

7. (10) Will Butcher, D, 7.0C

Drafted 5th round, 123rd overall, 2013

Butcher’s stock rose after his performance for Team USA in the 2015 WJC. He showcased his intelligence and two-way abilities on the biggest international stage for NHL prospects. Although Team USA failed to bring home a medal, much of its success in pool play can be traced back to Butcher who played on the squad’s top pairing.

Butcher may be small in stature but he plays an aggressive style. He uses his strong core and powerful legs to play effectively along the boards, and a stocky build makes him difficult to knock off the puck. His ability to make the first pass out of the zone with deadly precision is underappreciated.

The Denver Pioneers will rely heavily on Butcher next season when their upperclassmen graduate. In 30 games for the Pioneers, he has 14 points.

8. (NR) Dennis Everberg, LW, 6.5B

Acquired via free agency in April, 2014

Everberg has already established himself as a player who can play anywhere in the lineup at the NHL level. In terms of European free agency acquisitions, he could be one of the best the Avalanche have ever had. He is strong, physical, and willingly plays in the dirty areas.

With seven points in 36 games, he can also chip in the occasional point that is expected from a bottom-six role player. He still has another year left on his two-way entry level deal signed last spring but has already proven to be a great bargain for the Avalanche.

9. (16) Mason Geertsen, D, 7.0D

Drafted 4th round, 93rd overall, 2013

Not much was expected from Geertsen when he was drafted. He was another big defensive stay-at-home guy that the prospect pool needed but over the past two seasons Geertsen has shown he is capable of much more. In addition to drastically improving his offensive game, Geertsen has also shown leadership abilities for the Vancouver Giants of the WHL. At 6’4 and 215 pounds, he is a heavyweight fighter who will drop the gloves for teammates if the situation arises.

In 63 games, Geertsen has 36 points including 11 goals. Both are career bests for the Rocky Rapids, Alberta native.

10. (11) Kyle Wood, D, 7.0D

Drafted 3rd round, 84th overall, 2014

Wood is a big defenseman with puck moving abilities. He has shown he can quarterback the powerplay as well as play a shut down role for the North Bay Battalion of the OHL.

Last season, he put up 10 points in 22 playoff games for the Battalion and is following that up with 37 points in 60 regular season games. He has a rating of plus three and has never been a minus player in his time in the OHL.

11. (NR) Borna Rendulic, RW, 6.5C

Acquired via free agency in May, 2014

If Rendulic hadn’t broken his leg earlier this year there is a good chance he would still be on the Avalanche roster. Like Everberg, he was signed late last spring from Europe to help add depth at the forward position. He spent some time in the minor leagues to get used to the North American game and when given some NHL playing time he showed he was not out of place.

The trend going forward seems to be replacing veteran players with younger players who bring the same level of skills. That is very telling of how Sakic and Roy will try and mold their rosters from now on.

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

Martin’s junior hockey career ended with a big collision and the young goaltender in crutches on December 21st. The next day it was announced Martin would be out for the rest of the season and the entire Mississauga Steelheads fan base knew their best shot of making the playoffs went down with Martin.

For the past two years, the Steelheads rode Martin all the way to the first round of the OHL playoffs. Without his steady and dependable play, as well as his abilities to steal games, they would have to look to inexperienced backups Jacob Brennan and Cameron Zanussi who have not been able to perform at the same level as the Avalanche prospect.

13. (NR) Freddie Hamilton, C, 6.0B

Acquired via trade with San Jose in March, 2015

Hamilton is the newest addition to the Avalanche. He was traded from San Jose for Monsters defenseman Karl Stollery. The move helped free up spots on the blue line for Bigras and Geertsen next season and it doesn’t seem as if Avalanche front office had any intention of keeping Stollery who is set to be an unrestricted free agent this summer.

Hamilton is a welcome addition to a Monsters forward corp that needs both leadership and size – two things Hamilton is able to offer. He also jumps in line ahead of several other Monsters forward in case of injury call ups. In 194 career AHL games, he has 100 points and a rating of -41.

14. (15) Colin Smith, C, 6.5C

Drafted 7th round, 192nd overall, 2012

Smith is progressing quite nicely for the Avalanche in the AHL and his hard work earned him his first cup of coffee in the majors. He is a speedy and tenacious small forward with a lot of skills. Due to his size, he is best served avoiding any physicality but he knows he must able to defend himself if the situation arises.

He is on pace to beat his points total from his rookie professional season and has already scored two more goals than he did all of last year. In 44 games with the Monsters, he has 27 points.

15. (9) Troy Bourke, C, 6.5C

Drafted 3rd round, 72nd overall, 2012

Things aren’t going too well for Bourke this season but it has been a good learning experience so far for the young forward. With 18 points in 42 games he will have to work harder on his offensive game if he wants to be given a call-up but there have been a lot of questionable personnel decisions on the Monsters this season. It can be argued that Bourke hasn’t been given a fair shot in the lineup in favor of more veteran players.

Regardless, Bourke is a good long-term asset for the Avalanche to keep to see if he can develop into a defensive specialist at the NHL level. His leadership and work ethic from junior hockey have carried over to the professional level and he provides a good example for other young players making the same transition as he is.

16. (14) Andrew Agozzino, LW, 6.5C
Acquired via free agency in March, 2013

For two seasons Agozzino silently worked and made a name for himself within the organization. He wasn’t signed to an NHL deal straight out of junior hockey but had to show what he was made of for an entire season before the Avalanche knew they had a gem in their farm system.

Those two seasons of hard work earned Agozzino his first NHL call-up and in little ice time he had a secondary assist for his first NHL point. His scoring this season is not on pace with his previous seasons but he fits in well with the organizational youth movement.

17. (6) Sami Aittokallio, G, 6.5D
Drafted 4th round, 107th overall, 2010

Aittokallio is the biggest dropper amongst Avalanche prospects this season. Prior to this season, he was given the chance at NHL playing time in two separate occasions and failed to separate himself from teammate Pickard. Now that Pickard has solidified himself as number two on the depth chart Aittokallio has fallen to fourth behind NHL back-up Retto Berra.

Aittokallio spent time with the Fort Wayne Komets this season but had a rough go in his first taste of ECHL action. In 4 games he had a save percentage of .823 and goals against average of 4.90. His AHL numbers, in 12 games, are .899 and 3.11.

He will have to do more if he wants to work himself back into favor of the Avalanche.

18. (NR) Julien Nantel, LW, 6.5D

Drafted 7th round, 204th overall, 2014

Not much is expected from seventh round draft picks so it is always good to see players like Nantel exceed expectations for both themselves and the organization. Nantel entered the season on a scoring rampage and showed that he was a top-six player in the QMJHL. In 57 games he has 55 points for the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies.

19. (NR) Anton Lindholm, D, 6.5D

Drafted 5th round, 144th overall, 2014

Lindholm was loaned to Malmö of the tier-two Allsvenskan earlier this season for a short time to gain some confidence as well as ice time. Since then, he is back with top-tier Skelleftea of the Swedish Hockey League. In 35 games he has seven assists.

20. (17) Cody Corbett, D, 6.5D

Acquired via free agency in March, 2014

Corbett was brought in to help add some offense from the blue line but he has so far been having difficulty adjusting to the faster and more physical professional game. He will have a lot to work on over the summer to forget about his dismal rookie season for the Monsters. In 34 games he has one goal and two assists for three points.

Follow Chau Vo on Twitter via @chowdersoop