Goaltending and defense the strengths of Colorado Avalanche prospect system

By Blake Benzel
Cameron Gaunce - Lake Erie Monsters

Photo: Cameron Gaunce is one of several experienced defensive prospects in the Avalanche prospect pool on the verge of making the NHL. (courtesy of Zuma Press/Icon SMI)

 
With players like Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene quickly ascending to the pro ranks, it is easy to see why the Colorado Avalanche’s prospect cupboards might be a bit bare. On the surface that is certainly the case, but if you dig a little deeper and poke around, you can see that there is at least a little depth to be had at every position – even the ones that do not appear to have it.

Players like Mike Connolly and Michael Sgarbossa look poised to make an impact this season, while others like Stefan Elliott, Brad Malone, and Mark Olver just want the ongoing NHL labor dispute to be over so that they can have their chance to try to crack the Colorado Avalanche roster.

Left Wing

The Avs are woefully thin on the wing in their system, which is one reason that Mike Connolly was received from San Jose in the trade for Daniel Winnik (PHX) and T.J. Galiardi (SJS) last season. After a solid showing in Lake Erie last season, one that included a two game call-up to Colorado, Connolly started this season on the shelf for the Monsters and is still trying to get his legs under him. He has been able to produce everywhere he has been so there is no question his legs will get going and the points will start flowing. His size is somewhat of a concern, given the fact that the way he plays the game is more suited for a hulking power forward, but he certainly plays bigger than his 180 pounds would indicate.

Behind Connolly, there is not much top end depth for the Avs at the left wing position. Paul Carey is starting this year in Lake Erie after a relatively solid, if unspectacular, career with the Boston College Eagles. Carey is they type of player that will likely gain the title “enigmatic” throughout his hockey career. He has very good offensive skills, but has shown a tremendous lack of improvement. A very streaky player, Carey will go stretches where he is just not noticeable and he seems to have struggled greatly adapting to the faster pace and more physical style that comes along with the pro game. He shies away from the dirty areas on the ice and his defensive game needs significant improvement in order for him to get a look from the big squad.

The Avs’ lone junior prospect at left wing, however, looks to be very promising. Troy Bourke is a physical, tireless worker that has even gained lofty comparisons to Minnesota’s Zach Parise. He has great speed and some solid offensive skills that have not really been able to be showcased in Prince George to their fullest. Despite the fact that he is smaller in size, Bourke has shown a great willingness to get to the dirty areas. He needs to improve his defensive game a little and, as is the case with most young prospects, he needs to bulk up and get stronger. With his upside and his work ethic, the sky is the limit.

Center

The center position is undoubtedly one of the positions where the Avs are deepest, and it starts with Joey Hishon – the most promising and troubling pivot in the Avs organization.

Hishon has struggled with post-concussion symptoms after receiving an elbow to the head by Kootenay Ice defenseman Brayden McNabb (BUF) over a year ago in the Memorial Cup and has not played a game in that span. That is the troubling news for the Avs, in regard to Hishon. The good news is that once he gets his legs back under him, his skills are basically NHL ready. He has tremendous hands and speed and his playmaking vision is spectacular. Unfortunately, this top-end skill often leads to him forcing low-percentage plays as opposed to taking his time and turning these plays into legitimate scoring chances. If Hishon can overcome his post-concussion symptoms and get himself back on track, expect him to crack the Avalanche roster sooner rather than later.

Past Hishon, the biggest bright spot in the Avs organization could be Michael Sgarbossa. The former Sudbury standout was another cog in the trade that sent Winnik and Galiardi to San Jose and could, if all goes well, be the best piece of the trade.  After a standout season for the Sudbury Wolves last season that saw the flashy center score 47 goals and 102 points in 66 games, Sgarbossa is starting this season in the AHL, hoping to find some more consistency. He can disappear for long stretches in games, as well as being selfish with the puck, but his time in the AHL will be served to get him past these and he could end up being a productive player for Colorado in the future.

Mitchell Heard has also made the jump from the OHL to Lake Erie, looking to continue to grow in the AHL. He needs some refining – his offensive skills do not necessarily look like they will translate to the higher competition of the pro leagues. He will need to bulk up in order to make any sort of impact, but he does have the tools to be able to stick at the NHL level with some refinement.

The other two centers that Colorado has developing in the AHL currently are Mark Olver and Brad Malone, both of whom spent chunks of time with the Avalanche last season. Both Olver and Malone figure to be bottom-six, energy players for Colorado, with Olver having the potential to chip in a bit more offensively. While both players are physical, hard workers, Olver is the smaller of the two  as well as the one who will likely find himself a regular role on the Avs roster given his offensive talents and ability to slot in both offensive and defensive situations. Malone, meanwhile, is a bruiser. If the Avs need someone to fill a physical role in the lineup, Malone will be their guy. He is a valuable defensive player that can make a difference on the penalty kill and in the faceoff circle.

Next on their organizational depth chart, the Avs have University of Minnesota standout Nate Condon. The Wausau, Wisconsin native is a terrific skater and has above average offensive skills that should transfer well to the next level. He also has a good grasp of the areas in his game that need improvement and has shown the ability to make improvements on his game – a trait that will only benefit him at the next level. He is a solid two-way player and he should have no problem developing to fill some sort of role on the Avs roster.

In addition to Condon, the Avs also have Joachim Nermark developing over in Europe with Linkoping in the SEL. He has a terrific motor and is a physical force as well as a terrific defensive player. He needs to work on his offensive skills, as well as become a bit more adaptable in order to make an impact in the NHL. He has shown a reluctance to play the wing and has struggled when he has, but he can be the type of player that can be valuable to an organization.

Of all the Avs' prospects, Colin Smith has been one of the most pleasant surprises. After an 85 point season for the Kamloops Blazers last season, he has started this season on a tear and has 55 points in 31 games so far for the Blazers. Despite his slight size, he is an incredibly gifted offensive talent with a terrific work ethic and he could likely be one of the steals of the 2012 draft if he keeps developing like he has.

Other than Smith, the Avs have two other center prospects developing in major juniors. Michael Clarke (Windsor Spitfires) and Joseph Blandisi (Owen Sound Attack) are both playing in major juniors this season, though neither are having the success that Smith is having. Clarke is versatile but needs to work on his consistency in order to advance his game. He should excel as a penalty killer and a third or fourth-liner that can chip in offensively, should he reach the next level. Blandisi, meanwhile, is a hard-working player that is competent in all three zones on the ice. He needs to work on his positioning and his game needs refinement, but he should prove to be a solid competitor for the Avs down the line.

Right Wing

As thin as Colorado is at left wing, they are even thinner on talent at right wing. Plymouth Whaler winger Garrett Meurs highlights their right wing prospects, showing both the talent and work ethic that coaches live for. His intangibles are terrific and, despite how raw he is, he has shown that he is extremely coachable. Like most of the Avs prospects, he needs to bulk up, but he has improved this season already and looks like he can be a player that could make an impact at the next level.

The Avs also have one right wing in their system that is currently in the AHL, Luke Walker. Walk

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