Dustin Bradford/Icon SMI)
Below is the first edition of the Colorado Avalanche prospect awards. Featuring most prominently are a troika of defensemen whose skill and efforts have elevated them to the top of the organization's prospect pool.
Most Improved Prospect: Michael Sgarbossa, C, Sudbury Wolves (OHL)
After going undrafted just two years ago, Michael Sgarbossa set out to prove his doubters wrong. After signing with the San Jose Sharks as a free agent in the summer of 2010, the undersized pivot has elevated his game to the point that he is now among the most feared scorers in the OHL. Playing with the Sudbury Wolves in 2011-12, the offensive sparkplug tallied 47 goals and 55 assists in 66 games en route to winning the OHL scoring title with 102 points. Sgarbossa has developed deceptive speed and an array of elusive dekes and maneuvers that make him a threat to score and create for his teammates on every shift.
The former second-round pick from the now-defunct Mississauga St. Michael's Majors is the most well-rounded rearguard in a remarkably strong contingent of Avalanche defensive prospects. Cameron Gaunce is a hard-nosed defenseman capable of doling out punishing hits, delivering crisp breakout passes, firing hard shots accurately on goal, breaking up opposing offensive attacks and even dropping the gloves. The former OHL captain is a natural leader with an admirable work ethic who leads by example. Though he has seen some NHL duty, he has spent the majority of the past two seasons in Lake Erie, where he has been heavily relied upon by the Monsters' coaching staff to match up against the top scoring lines of opposing teams. In 2011-12, Gaunce led the Monsters with a plus-17 rating and 90 minutes in penalties. His six goals also led all defenders.
Not only did blueliner Stefan Elliott play in the most NHL games in 2011-12 of all of the Avalanche prospects, he also set himself up to take on a role as a regular in 2012-13 and could even start the season in Colorado's top four. At 21, Elliott's future is bright and it's no surprise that he is also currently ranked first among Avalanche prospects by Hockey's Future. The former WHL Defenseman of the Year is a stellar puck-mover and though not especially physical, he puts himself in the right position to intercept passes and shutdown opposing rushes which allow him to be a factor in both ends. His transition from junior to the pros has been seamless. Playing as a rookie with Colorado's AHL-affiliated Lake Erie Monsters, Elliott totaled 14 points and a plus-five rating in 30 games. In 39 games as a first-year NHLer, Elliott fared quite similarly, recording 13 points and a plus-two rating despite playing at an elevated level of competition with the Avalanche.
Hardest Shot: Tyson Barrie, D, Lake Erie Monsters (AHL)
Measuring in at 5'10, Tyson Barrie may not have Zdeno Chara-like size but he packs 6'9 power behind his shots. The 2010 WHL Defenseman of the Year has a big windup and heavy follow through on his slapshot which he rarely hesitates to use. He found the net five times in 49 games as an AHL rookie in 2011-12 but was held scoreless in 10 games at the NHL level. Look for Barrie to improve upon those numbers next season.
Fastest Skater: Tyson Barrie, D, Lake Erie Monsters (AHL)
Just as natural as his shot is Tyson Barrie's skating stride. The diminutive rearguard is a fluid skater, carving effortlessly into the ice with an always efficient exertion of energy. Skating for the West in the AHL All-Star Skills Competition this past January, Barrie recorded one of the top times in the Puck Control Relay event that tests not only puck-handling abilities but speed, agility and acceleration as well.
Overachiever: Brad Malone, C, Lake Erie Monsters (AHL)
Once projected to be a depth minor leaguer, Brad Malone has made consistent strides to shed that label over the past few years – a trend that continued in 2011-12. After just 24 games as an AHL rookie with the Lake Erie Monsters, Malone's inspiring play warranted a call up to Colorado for nine games in December where he notched a pair of assists, a plus-1 rating and 13 hits despite limited ice-time. The pugnacious power forward is not just an agitator but also has some underrated offensive skills. He finished third on the Monsters with 36 points in just 67 games and his 89 minutes in penalties led all forwards. The gritty center is a hard worker and is willing to take on any role he is given.
Underachiever: Ryan Stoa, LW, Lake Erie Monsters (AHL)
The 2005 34th overall selection is now seven years removed from his draft year and has proven a worthy recipient of the Avalanche's biggest underachiever award. After a pair of inconsistent seasons spent between the AHL and NHL from 2009-2011, the Avalanche re-signed Stoa to a one year deal for the 2011-12 season to give the former NCAA star one more chance to impress. The 6'3 pivot responded with his most lackluster AHL season to date, recording 36 points in 75 games as well as a minus-6 rating. Once a highly regarded power forward prospect, the 25-year-old will likely spend the majority of his career in the minors.
Hardest Worker: Cameron Gaunce, D, Lake Erie Monsters (AHL)
In addition to snagging top defensive honors Cameron Gaunce is also the Avalanche's hardest working prospect, and the two attributes go hand in hand. Gaunce has been known to engage in grueling exercise regimens and diet plans designed by fitness enthusiast and former NHL player Gary Roberts during the offseason. His off-ice approach to the game is becoming increasingly evident on the ice with his continued development.
Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Joey Hishon, C, Lake Erie Monsters (AHL)
The risk aspect of Joey Hishon's selection for this award has nothing to do with his skill-set or his drive. The undersized center is feisty, has soft hands, is a natural playmaker and finisher, plays hard at both ends of the ice and has an innate desire to succeed and help his team win, as he showed en route to helping the Owen Sound Attack win the 2011 OHL Championship. The only glaring obstacle standing in his way of becoming a professional hockey player is the severe concussion that he suffered during the 2011 Memorial Cup. The devastating injury kept him out of the remainder of the tournament and then sidelined him for the entire 2011-12 hockey season. If healthy next year he will likely spend most, if not all of 2012-13 with Lake Erie, getting back into top playing form.
Breakout Player for 2012-13: Joachim Nermark, C, Linkoping (Elitserien)
Ranked eighth among international skaters in NHL Central Scouting's final rankings, Joachim Nermark was a highly touted prospect heading into the 2011 draft. Playing in his second season in Sweden's Elitserien this past year, Nermark failed to take the strides forward that Avalanche management would have hoped, recording no points and a minus-three rating in 17 games. An excellent skater with underrated offensive skills and a dedicated defensive game, Nermark could breakout with increased ice time and confidence, which will likely come if he gets stronger and adds a few more pounds to his wiry frame this offseason.