Colorado Avalanche getting creative with prospect development

By Chau Vo
Brandon Gormley - Colorado Avalanche

Photo: Although Brandon Gormley has not put up many points early in his pro career, his skills could help the Colorado Avalanche improve puck possession (courtesy of Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire)

 

 

The San Antonio Rampage coaching staff entered the 2015-16 hockey season under a lot of pressure. Not only are they tasked with the development of the top Avalanche prospects but they must win over fans that saw their hockey team win its first-ever division championship then leave for Portland, Maine.

The Avalanche’s top defensive prospect, Chris Bigras, was joined by the team’s top forward prospect, Mikko Rantanen, on October 22nd. Rantanen played six games with the top club before being demoted. The demotion was to give Rantanen bigger minutes against weaker competition to boost his confidence. The move has been paying off for both Rantanen and the Rampage.

Bigras leads a promising and underrated group of defensive prospects who are honing their craft in the minors, CHL, NCAA, and European leagues. The Avalanche identified defense as a big need and focused their recent drafting in that area. Now bursting with depth, the team has to be patient to see which prospects will blossom into NHL regulars.

Left Wing

AJ Greer had an impressive showing at his first NHL rookie camp this summer but has followed that up with a disappointing start to his sophomore season for the Boston University Terriers. Greer ended his freshman season as a top-six forward for the Terriers and so far has been pushed out of that role by two freshmen. With just one point in his first ten games, Greer will need to step it up offensively before he slips further down the lineup.

In junior hockey, Julien Nantel continues to impress while playing for the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the QMJHL. The 2014 204th overall pick has 18 points in 19 games so far this season even though he is playing center and not his natural wing position. His speed and shot continue to be his two biggest attributes helping him earn playing time on the man-advantage.

The Avalanche gambled with their fourth round pick in 2014, deciding Alexis Pepin was worth the investment if they could turn his lifestyle around. With the help of nutrition experts in Denver, Pepin was able to change his diet. A little over a year after being drafted, Pepin’s work off the ice is finally starting to translate into success on the ice. With 13 points in 21 games for the Val d’Or Foreurs, Pepin still has a long way to go but is at least trending in the right direction.

The Avalanche have another left wing prospect playing junior hockey in the WHL. Gustav Olhaver may seem like an imposing figure on the ice at 6’7 and 220 pounds, but off the ice, Olhaver’s smile and enthusiasm are contagious. After being drafted by the Avalanche, Olhaver was quick to accept a chance to play North American hockey with the Seattle Thunderbirds. Olhaver has four points in 18 games.

Samuel Henley is in his second year of professional hockey and has found a role as a defensive forward for the Rampage. Although he is a natural winger, Henley is currently playing center and has two points in 11 games. Trevor Cheek started the year down in the ECHL with the Fort Wayne Komets where he had eight points in six games. In four games with the Rampage, Cheek has two points in four games. The 22-year old undrafted winger is in the last year of his three-year entry level contract.

Center

With center John Mitchell sidelined, the Avs called up former University of Wisconsin standout Ben Street to take his place. Prior to the call-up, Street was the Rampage’s best forward having scored 12 points in six games. This promotion meant the Rampage’s trio of skilled but undersized centers – Joey Hishon, Troy Bourke, and Colin Smith – would have to step up their games if the Rampage were to have any chance of success.

Hishon, the most touted of the three, has a lot more pressure to perform than his two teammates due to his NHL experience, as well as being the 17th overall pick of the 2010 Draft. In what is a make-or-break season for the 23-year old, he will have to show he has elevated his game or risk falling out of favor with the organization. Although not bad by any means, Hishon’s seven points in 13 games to start the season is disappointing this far into his career.

Bourke and Smith were not first round picks like Hishon. In fact, Smith was a seventh round selection but beat Bourke to the NHL when he was called up for one game last season. The two share the same work ethic and dependable play and have a combined 15 points early into November.  Their versatility in being able to play center or wing allows head coach Dean Chynoweth to play them anywhere in the 12-man forward group.

This could be JT Compher’s last season of college hockey and the Northbrook, Illinois native is making the most of it after being named captain by his teammates early last summer. Compher’s points production slipped last season after a promising 31 in 35 campaign his freshman season, but has scored six points in his first seven games to start his junior year. Compher can be trusted on the ice in any given situation with his two-way play and the University of Michigan Wolverines will have a big hole to fill once Compher moves on.

Conner Bleackley is hard to judge because his game is geared towards defense and he is utilized in a shutdown role for the Red Deer Rebels of the WHL. His lack of production should still be a cause of concern because he does get his chances. Bleackley has yet to be offered an entry level contract from the Avalanche who will have until June 1st to decide if he is part of their future plans. If he is not tendered a contract by then, he will re-enter the draft and the Avalanche will be given a compensatory second round draft pick.

Unlike Bleackley, Jean-Christophe Beaudin has been spectacular offensively for the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies where he plays with Nantel on the same power play unit. Beaudin is second in team scoring with 29 points in 21 games.

Right Wing

The Avalanche has three prospects on the right wing who are NHL ready or close to it. In fact, those prospects – Mikko Rantanen, Borna Rendulic, and Andreas Martinsen – have all appeared in an Avalanche uniform at least once this season. Martinsen, along with recently-graduated Dennis Everberg, remains with the team, while Rantanen and Rendulic are getting seasoning with the Rampage.

Arguably the organization’s top prospect, Rantanen started the year with the Avalanche playing limited minutes. Although he didn’t register a point, he didn’t seem out of place despite his young age. His lack of playing time was a cause of concern for his development so the Avalanche sent him to San Antonio where he would get ample minutes on the top line. The move has paid off and Rantanen has ten points in nine games. It shouldn’t be long until Rantanen is back in Denver.

There was a lot of fanfare in Norway when native son Andreas Martinsen made his NHL debut on November 10th in a 4-0 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers. Martinsen had a total of 10:21 of ice time playing on the fourth line with Ben Street and Jack Skille. He had one standout moment when he made a power move around a defender to get a shot on goal. His size and strength were the big reasons why the Avalanche had interest in the 25-year-old.

Garrett Meurs was selected in the fifth round back in 2011 by the old Avalanche regime. After four years of playing for the Plymouth Whalers, Meurs spent the next two seasons bouncing between the AHL and ECHL, and has spent the bulk of this season with the Komets as well.

Nick Magyar played in three games for the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL before suffering a broken ankle that has him sidelined until the end of this month.

Defense

Brandon Gormley was acquired from the Arizona Coyotes for Stefan Elliott in early September. The swap was to give both players a change of scenery as well as a better chance of earning playing time in the NHL. The logjam of defensemen on the right side at the NHL level prevented Elliott from moving upward on the depth chart. Gormley is still a prospect with holes in his game but the 13th overall pick of the 2010 draft has shown glimpses of why he was a high selection. With the demotion of Nikita Zadorov to the AHL, Gormley has finally been given a chance to play on a regular basis.

It didn’t take long for Chris Bigras to get used to the pace and skill level of the AHL. Right away, Bigras was entrusted with big minutes and has put up seven points in 13 games. His composure and smart plays shows why Avalanche front office are excited about the young prospect and see him as a big part of the blueline down the road. Zadorov’s unforeseen demotion however has cut into Bigras’ playing time for now.

While not as heralded as Bigras, Mason Geertsen is another defenseman in whom the Avalanche see NHL potential. The Rocky Rapids, Alberta native plays a bruising style that fits into Patrick Roy’s vision of what type of team he needs to be successful in the Western Conference. Although Geertsen did put up points in junior hockey, he has kept his game simple in the AHL.

Duncan Siemens is now in his third year of professional hockey and is at risk of falling further down the depth chart. With new prospects nipping at his heels for playing time, he will have to step up his game to regain his place as one of the top prospects in the organization. 

The Avalanche’s two prospects playing in Sweden are Anton Lindholm and Wilhelm Westlund. Lindholm is injured after being hit with a slap shot in practice. Last season, he established himself as a top-four defenseman for Skelleftea AIK with a terrific playoff performance. 

It is unlikely Westlund will be signed to an entry level contract by the Avalanche after this season. For the second year in the row, Westlund has found himself demoted to Sweden’s tier-2 league where he has seven points in 18 games.

Andrei Mironov was injured earlier this season with a foot injury but has now returned to action. The Dynamo Moscow defenseman is the Avalanche’s lone prospect playing in the KHL and has two more years in Russia before he will have to make the decision of where he wants to play next. In 12 games, Mironov has two assists.

Will Butcher entered his junior season with the University of Denver Pioneers hockey team as the number one defenseman after playing in the shadow of Joey Laleggia. So far, he has performed above expectations and has ten points in ten games. Butcher was named assistant captain of the Pioneers by head coach Jim Montgomery and has so far been named NCHC Defenseman of the Week twice this season.

Earlier in his hockey career, Ben Storm was a forward but decided to switch to defense because he felt his skills were better suited for that position.The move paid off and Storm was praised by the coaching staff for helping add versatility to their line up. This season, Storm is back at defense and has five points in ten games.

In the QMJHL, Nicolas Meloche and Sergei Boikov are entering their third season with their respective teams. Meloche is the top defenseman for Baie-Comeau and has so far been the team’s best player and all-around defenseman. Baie-Comeau has little chance of making the QMJHL playoffs so Meloche’s name has been floated around in trade rumors.

Boikov did not hesitate when making the decision to play junior hockey in North America instead of Russia. He found a fit with the Drummondville Voltigeurs and his hard work paid off when he was selected by the Avalanche in the sixth round this last draft. Boikov still has a long way before his NHL dreams become reality but is already on the right track with his attitude and play.

The Avalanche’s third defensive prospect in the CHL, Kyle Wood, is still out with a wrist injury but is expected back later this month. Wood is the North Bay Battalion’s top defenseman and the team is anxiously awaiting his return onto the ice for his last year of junior hockey.

With the influx of new defensemen on the Rampage, Cody Corbett and Gabriel Beaupre have found themselves demoted to the ECHL.

Goalies

Calvin Pickard earned AHL top goalie honors in October after going 5-0-1 and posting a 1.79 GAA and save percentage of .946. After losing his first game, Pickard went on to win the next five in a row. He was called up to the Avalanche on November 11th after Semyon Varlamov was confirmed out of the lineup with a recurring groin injury. Last season, Pickard played spectacularly in his short time in Denver giving the team a chance to climb back into playoff contention. This season however, Reto Berra has been performing admirably so it will be harder for Pickard to wrest playing time from his Swiss teammate.

With Pickard in the NHL, the AHL starting job now falls to Roman Will. Will spent the majority of last season with the Komets of the ECHL and was a big part of their success. With Sami Aittokallio on loan to Karpat Oulu in Finland, Will was promoted to Pickard’s backup. He still has not been able to get adjusted to the faster play of the AHL and has already given up 14 goals in three games played.

Aittokallio saw himself falling down the Avalanche depth chart and signed a one-year deal with the Avalanche with a clause allowing him to play in Europe for the season while also remaining a part of the Avalanche organization. He played very well for Karpat in the Champions Hockey League tournament where in seven games he had a 0.71 GAA and save percentage of .966. In Liiga play, he has a 1.95 GAA and save percentage of .923.

As the most recent Avalanche goaltending prospect to make the jump to professional hockey, Spencer Martin was sent to the ECHL to start the year. In four games, he has two wins and two losses with a 2.83 GAA and save percentage of .895. With Pickard in the NHL, Martin was called up to the AHL to backup Will.

Maximilian Pajpach lost his entire 2014-15 season to an injury and was eager to finally attend his first Avalanche rookie camp this summer. The 2014 174th overall pick still has a lot of work to put in if he wants to make the jump to North American hockey next year and is finishing up his junior career playing for Tappara’s U20 team.