As is the tradition, Hockey’s Future hands out some hardware to the Colorado Avalanche prospects who made an impression this season for better, or in some cases, for worse. Although it was a struggle of a season for the NHL club, several younger players in various developmental leagues stood out as hopeful signs of incoming help.
Most notably, it could be argued that just two seasons ago, Calvin Pickard was fourth on the Avalanche’s goaltending depth chart. That is no longer the case as Pickard made a big impression with coaches and fans during his call up early in the 2014-15 NHL season. His stellar play helped the Avalanche steal precious points when their offense was struggling to find chemistry. Those points would later prove to be very valuable when they were in contention for the final wild card playoff spot.
Bourke played in 61 games this season and bounced up and down, in and out, of the lineup. While a definitive role with the team was never cemented, Bourke maintained the same work ethic that helped him succeed in junior hockey and make it to within a stone’s throw of the NHL.
Late last season, Bourke scored seven points in 15 games for his first taste of professional hockey. He followed that up with 22 points in 61 games this season. However, you have to look at more than just points to appreciate Bourke’s game. There was a lot of criticism when it came to personnel decisions for the Monsters and Bourke’s rookie status did not help him increase his ice time.
Don’t expect a below average rookie season to get Bourke’s spirits down as he will look to make a bigger impact next year when the Avalanche’s AHL prospects move to San Antonio, Texas and a possible coaching change.
Wood’s play last post-season with the Battalion helped him jump up in the draft rankings where the Avalanche selected him with the 84th overall pick of the 2014 draft. This season, his first full season in the OHL, he scored 40 points from the blue line in 67 games and 11 points in 15 playoff games.
His booming shot is a staple of his special teams play and a big reason why the Battalion let him quarterback one of their power play units.
Outside of his shot, Wood moves the puck extremely well for a player of his size. While not too much of a concern at this stage of his career, Wood will have to work on his physical play and skating before he moves on to the next level.
Best defensive prospect: Chris Bigras, D, Owen Sound Attack (OHL)
Despite his snub from Team Canada’s WJC team, Chris Bigras had his best season of hockey this past year. His offensive game immensely improved to go along with his already stellar defensive game and his two-way play made him a dangerous threat both with the puck and away from the puck. As the Attack’s best defenseman, Bigras was entrusted with the role of shutting down the opposition’s best players and would sometimes see more than 25 minutes of ice time in any given night.
His 71 points was second in scoring among defensemen behind only Anthony DeAngelo (TBL) who won OHL Defenseman of the Year honors. Bigras finished second in voting.
After the Attack were eliminated in the first round of the OHL playoffs, Bigras made his much awaited professional debut with the Lake Erie Monsters where he appeared in seven games. His ice time was limited in those seven games but he still managed to get on the score sheet four times with four assists. Next season, Bigras will see a big role with the San Antonio Rampage and fight for a spot on the Avalanche blue line’s left side.
Fastest skater: Colin Smith, C, Lake Erie Monsters (AHL)
The Edmonton native played in his second AHL season and scored 31 points in 55 games. While with the Kamloops Blazers in the WHL, he was the main piece of one of the deadliest offensive lines in WHL history. His speed, skills, and on-ice vision are the strengths to his game and what he relies on to be successful.
When the Avalanche suffered a string of injuries, they used multiple call ups from the AHL to get through their difficult stretch. Team brass were intrigued by Smith’s speed and skills and took the gamble on the young forward to see how he would perform at the NHL level. Although he didn’t score any points, Smith was not on the ice for any goals against and was able to step in and play a few minutes to give the top line players a much needed rest.
Prospect of the year: Calvin Pickard, G, Lake Erie Monsters (AHL)/Colorado Avalanche (NHL)
Pickard’s NHL debut didn’t go exactly as he had hoped. In fact, he let in four goals in 27 shots in a 4-3 loss to the Ottawa Senators. That sinking feeling of letting his team down helped him rebound just over a month later when he helped the Avalanche come from behind to beat the Carolina Hurricanes and Arizona Coyotes. In those two games, he stopped all 42 shots he faced in 95 minutes of playing time. For the next month, he started every game and gave Avalanche fans hope that they could turn their season around.
His stellar play and humble attitude made it hard for head coach Patrick Roy to send him back to the AHL but when Semyon Varlamov came back from injury everyone knew it was the right call. At this stage in his development, it was best for Pickard to see playing time than to ride the pines as an NHL backup.
Regardless, he has given current backup Reto Berra a lot to be worried about and the number two spot behind Varlamov will certainly be up for grabs at the start of this fall’s training camp.
Breakout player for 2015-16: Will Butcher, D, University of Denver Pioneers (NCHC)
Butcher was the top defender for Team USA in this year’s WJC and really made his name known to other hockey fans. He was a rock on the blueline and helped cover for mistakes committed by his young defensive partner, Brandon Carlo (2015). Avalanche fans already know him as their fifth round pick from the 2013 draft and have already been aware of his two-way abilities and big plays despite his small stature.
With the graduation of Edmonton Oilers prospect Joey Laleggia, Butcher will step into the role of the Pioneers’ top left-shooting defenseman. With this role he will see increased ice time at both even strength and on the power play. This will give Butcher an opportunity to increase his points total and test his defensive game against the other team’s top players.
Most Improved Prospect: Joey Hishon, C, Lake Erie Monsters (AHL)
At the conclusion of training camp last fall, Hishon was told by coaching staff that if he improved his game away from the puck he would be with the Avalanche sooner rather than later. Although it took until March of 2015 for him to appear in his first regular season NHL game, Hishon remained with the team for the remainder of the year and could very well see himself on the team’s opening night roster this October.
In 13 games, he has two points including his first NHL goal. In 53 games for the Monsters, he had 16 goals and 20 assists.
It is always a treat to see a seventh rounder play above expectations and that is the case with Nantel this season. Last year, his draft year, Nantel scored 34 points in 68 games and followed that up with a 61 in 64 campaign. In the QMJHL playoffs, he scored three goals and assisted on one other for four points in six games.
Nantel established himself as a top-six forward for the Huskies on an already offensively dangerous team.
Underachiever: Wilhelm Westlund, D, Vita Hasten HC (Hockey Allsvenskan)
Westlund spent two seasons in Sweden’s top professional league before taking a step back in his development when he spent the season on loan to Vita Hasten of the country’s second-tier league. The move was to help Westlund gain confidence while logging more ice time against weaker competition but the step back is cause for alarm.
In 40 games, he has 11 points and will try his best to steal one of the spots on the Djurgarden blueline next season.
Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Alexis Pepin, LW, Val d’Or Foreurs (QMJHL)
When the Avalanche selected Pepin with their fourth round pick last spring, they knew they had a project on their hands. Once regarded as a top player in the Quebec minor circuit, Pepin fell out of favor when his work ethic and conditioning came into question.
His skills are still elite and helped him get drafted but from this point on it will be up to Pepin to see just how far he can go in his hockey career. He has the size and skills to be successful but there will always be a question of how badly he wants to make it to the NHL.
In his time split between the Gatineau Olympiques and Foreurs, he had 27 points in 47 games. In the QMJHL playoffs, he scored four goals and assisted on four others for eight points in 17 games.
Prospect of the month
Defenseman Anton Lindholm picked up his play in the second half of the SHL season and just in time to help Skelleftea win the regular season top-team honors with 111 points. Unfortunately, they lost out to the Vaxjo Lakers in six games in the SHL championship finals.
In the playoffs, Lindholm scored five points in 15 games and led all players in hits. He was commended for his smart defensive plays and saw his ice time increase as the playoffs went on.