Stefan Elliot leads skilled group of Colorado Avalanche junior prospects

By John Canario
Photo: In his fifth season of WHL play, Stefan Elliot has little left to prove at the CHL level. (Photo Courtesy of Holly Gunning

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The Avalanche have six prospects playing junior hockey this season, four of whom were selected in this past summer’s NHL Entry Draft, and two in the 2009 draft. QMJHLer Michael Bournival would have been the seventh junior prospect, but Colorado recently sent the intriguing third-rounder to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for defensive rearguard Ryan O’Byrne.

General Manager Greg Sherman has done a commendable job scouring the Canadian major junior leagues the past couple seasons, and has some talented young players impressing in the OHL and WHL this season, including one center, four defenseman, and one netminder. With an excess of talented offensive-minded defensemen in the system and only so many positions available with Colorado and their AHL-affiliate Lake Erie Monsters, Sherman might have to move a defender or two or risk stalling their development. Fortunately for the Avalanche, an excess of talent is one of the best problems to be had.

WHL

Stefan Elliott, D, Saskatoon Blades
Acquired: 2nd round (49th overall) in 2009
January 30th, 1991. Ht: 6’1, Wt: 192 lbs.

Statistically, Elliott has little left to prove at the junior level, producing at a near point per game clip for the past three years. With eight goals and 13 assists in 22 games thus far, Elliott is on pace for his best WHL season to date.

The 19-year-old does not have the natural aggressive instincts of the prototypical NHL defenseman, but his ability to move the puck counterbalances his lack of physicality. He would likely have cracked the Lake Erie Monsters’ roster in any other season, but the Avalanche had a great influx of young defensemen playing at a marginally higher level during training camp, including Kevin Shattenkirk, Colby Cohen and Cameron Gaunce.

Barring an injury or a severe drop-off in play, Elliott will get his chance with the Monsters next season, as he is in his fifth and final year of eligibility in the WHL.

Calvin Pickard, G, Seattle Thunderbirds
Acquired: 2nd round (49th overall) in 2010
April 15th, 1992. Ht: 6’0, Wt: 197 lbs.

Calvin Pickard has been nothing short of spectacular this season en route to a 10-5-6 record and a .933 save percentage. A true workhorse, Pickard has played in 21 of the Thunderbirds’ 22 games this season, a feat which should serve him well on his path to the 82-game pros. He has more than justified his second-round selection in this past off-season’s draft, having outplayed the only two goaltenders selected ahead of him (Dallas Stars prospect Jack Campbell and Phoenix Coyotes prospect Mark Visentin).

If Pickard is able to maintain his stifling play between the pipes throughout this season and into next year’s NHL training camp, the Avalanche may have a difficult time sending the 18-year-old back to Seattle for another year of junior hockey. While many goaltending prospects take somewhere in the four-to-six year range following their draft to crack an NHL roster, Pickard has the potential to make a faster transition.

Tyson Barrie, D, Kelowna Rockets
Acquired: 3rd round (64th overall) in 2009
July 26th, 1991. Ht: 5’10, Wt: 191 lbs.

Similar to Elliott, Tyson Barrie has dominated offensively in his time in the WHL, and this year has been no different. In 17 games the diminutive rearguard has notched four goals and 17 assists, and his 21 points place him eighth among WHL defensemen. Barrie is hopeful that he can make a smooth transition to the professional game, much like two of his former Kelowna Rockets’ linemates – Luke Schenn (TOR) and Tyler Myers (BUF).

Also like Elliott, Barrie is in his final year of WHL eligibility, and the offensive sparkplug will likely suit up for the Monsters next season.

Troy Rutkowski, D, Portland Winterhawks
Acquired: 5th round (137th overall) in 2010
April 29th, 1992. Ht: 6’2, Wt: 195 lbs.

Troy Rutkowski is the best defenseman on a powerhouse Winterhawks team that has a very good chance at contending for both the WHL and Memorial Cup Championships this season. The 18-year-old has picked up right where he left off last year, accumulating four goals and 13 assists through 26 games. What is perhaps the most notable is his plus-15 rating, as Rutkowski has been described in the past as a rushing defenseman with shortcomings in his own end. He currently trails only Brett Ponich (STL) and Stefan Elliott for the top plus/minus among defensemen in the WHL.

Rutkowski will continue to work on his defensive game, with his offensive ability and physicality his obvious strengths. With so many talented Avalanche defensive prospects a year or two ahead of him in development, Rutkowski could see extended time playing junior hockey.

OHL

Joey Hishon, C, Owen Sound Attack
Acquired: 1st round (17th overall) in 2010
October 20th, 1991. Ht: 5’10, Wt: 175 lbs.

Despite missing eight games already with a hand injury, Joey Hishon (14 goals and 17 assists in 15 games) is one of the frontrunners to win the OHL scoring title this season. His 2.07 points per game average trails only Jason Akeson of the Kitchener Rangers (2.09) for tops in the OHL. His plus-16 rating indicates the reliability he has exemplified at both ends of the ice.

At his current level of production, Hishon could very well earn himself a job with
the parent club next season, though a shift to the wing might be in order with Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny and Ryan O’Reilly centering the top three lines in Colorado.

Hishon is a virtual lock to make Team Canada for the upcoming Under-20 WJC, and his performance on the international stage against the world’s most elite prospects could shed more light on his distance from the pros. The one knock against the young pivot is his durability, as the 19-year-old has missed a total of 40 games over the past two seasons.

Stephen Silas, D, Belleville Bulls
Acquired: 4th round (95th overall) in 2010
June 26th, 1992. Ht: 6’0, Wt: 200 lbs.

Of the Avs’ six junior prospects, Stephen Silas has had the least impressive start to the season, with zero goals and 10 assists through his first 24 contests. While he hasn’t had much help offensively (the Belleville Bulls rank last in the OHL in goals scored per game with 2.54), management was hopeful that the veteran would take the young team on his back this season.

Silas will likely play at least one more year of OHL hockey following the 2010-11 campaign, honing his skating skills, which he admitted needed work this past summer. A pass-first defenseman, Silas projects as a depth blueliner at the NHL level, though he is presently three or four years away from challenging for a roster spot.