Colorado Avalanche minor league system flush with defensive talent and depth forwards

By Blake Benzel
Michael Sgarbossa - Colorado Avalanche

Photo: Playing in his rookie pro season, Michael Sgarbossa was leading the Lake Erie Monsters in scoring when he was called up to the NHL club on January 29th. (courtesy of Russell Lansford/Icon SMI)

 
The depth and talent developing at the pro level is an organizational strength for the Colorado Avalanche. Players like Michael Sgarbossa, Mark Olver, and Tyson Barrie got off to strong starts in the AHL and are now making an impact for the Avs in 2013. Meanwhile prospects Stefan Elliott, Brad Malone, and Cameron Gaunce are knocking on the door and are more than ready to step in as injury replacements this season.

AHL

Mark Olver, C, 25

Of all the Avalanche prospects, Olver may be the one that is benefiting the most from the absence of Ryan O’Reilly. A tireless worker, Olver should find himself a spot in Avalanche coach Joe Sacco’s lineup now that he is looking like he will get an extended look. He had a solid AHL season, tallying six goals and 16 assists through 36 games.

Olver was recalled to the Avs when the NHL season started and has spent much of this season on the team's fourth line, only tallying one assist in seven games for the Avs. Especially with Steve Downie on the injured reserve and Gabriel Landeskog day-to-day with the dreaded “upper body injury,” Olver is looking to play a more important role in the lineup.

After starting the season in the six to eight minute range, Olver has now logged at least 11 minutes in five of his last seven games and has also won 50-percent of his draws, meaning that he is slowly becoming an important part of their lineup.

Tyson Barrie, D, 21

Last season, Stefan Elliott made his mark on the Avs, filling in as an injury replacement and bringing his offensive flair to the lineup. This season, Barrie is looking to do the same, having made the squad right out of the truncated training camp.

Barrie started the 2012-13 season with the Lake Erie Monsters due, in large part, to the lockout, and lit up the AHL with 27 points in 36 games for the Monsters – this after 32 in 49 games last season. The Avs obviously did not think that he had much more room for growth in Lake Erie, keeping him as one of their extra defensemen and Barrie has grabbed coach Joe Sacco’s attention early.

The Victoria, British Columbia native has played just three games for the Avs so far this season but, in those three games he has averaged 3:00 of his 15:57 on the power play and he is quickly becoming a favorite of Sacco on the man advantage. Though he is yet to break through on the score sheet, Barrie is earning the trust of the coaching staff which should bode well for him down the line.

Michael Sgarbossa, C, 20

The former San Jose prospect joined Lake Erie this season for his first pro season after his 102-point campaign with the Sudbury Wolves in 2011-12. He immediately impressed, tallying 16 goals and 36 points in 38 games before getting the nod to join the big squad, where he made his NHL debut on January 30th.

Sgarbossa is playing primarily on the Avs’ fourth line, replacing Brad Malone who was sent back to Lake Erie, but also looks to be getting a look on the Avs’ second power play unit. If he can keep his legs about him and put forth a consistent effort, he could find himself sticking with the Avs longer than anticipated.

For now, though, it looks like he will be keeping a roster spot warm for the return of Landeskog and, given his spot on the team, he is going to be looking over his shoulder once the Avs’ captain gets closer to returning.

Aaron Palushaj, RW, 23

A former University of Michigan standout, Palushaj recently joined the Avs after being waived by Montreal and likely will make an immediate impact on the squad. The 23-year-old has put up terrific numbers at every level, save for the NHL – a level that Colorado management does not feel he has gotten a good opportunity at yet.

After being a point-per-game player for Hamilton last season, he has struggled to 10 points in 21 AHL games this season. That seems to be selling Palushaj short, however, as he certainly has NHL-level speed as well as a solid offensive mind for the game. He is likely going to be a depth winger with the Avs, but he is in prime position to move up in the lineup with some strong play.

Stefan Elliott, D, 22

It seemed like a foregone conclusion that Elliott would be on the Avs' roster on opening day after a rookie season that saw him get called up to Colorado and tally 13 points in 39 games, but he was beaten out for the team’s final defenseman spot and was shot back down to Lake Erie.

Elliott's production has been shaky in Lake Erie. He has just eight points in 34 games and has been held off of the score sheet since his two-goal outburst on December 29th. He has yet to skate in a game for the Monsters since taking an elbow to the head in his first AHL game after Avs training camp.

He needs to continue developing physically for his game to continue to improve, but this offensive lull from him is not necessarily an indictment of his talent. His play last season showed that he definitely has the tools to be a very successful NHL defenseman, so his demotion and disappointing season in the AHL is likely just a momentary setback for his career.

Luke Walker, RW, 22

Walker may be one of the more intriguing Avs prospects and was on his way to a pretty solid season, scoring 11 points in 20 games for Lake Erie before being sidelined with a concussion in December.

The 22-year-old forward showed a bit of a rough-and-tumble, power forward game in the WHL and he was beginning to round out his game in the AHL before his injury. While he does not figure to be moving on up to the Avs anytime in the near future, he is definitely a player to keep an eye on and one that could be an important part of their franchise in the future.

Mike Connolly, LW, 23

The Avs certainly have high hopes for Connolly, one of the pieces in their trade with the Sharks last season, but the former Minnesota-Duluth winger has struggled to gain any traction with the team this season.

There is little doubt Connolly can play – his success in college (55 goals and 136 points in 123 games with UMD) has proven that – but it is going to be a matter as to whether or not the diminutive winger can have similar success in the pro ranks. His work ethic would indicate that he will be just fine, but there is no doubt that his slow start with Lake Erie this season (four goals and eight assists in 36 games) is cause for concern.

He got called up to the Avs last season and did not look out of place, but with the shortened season this year as well as how well Sgarbossa has been playing, Connolly may not wear an Avs' jersey this season unless there is a rash of injuries.

Paul Carey, LW, 24

While Carey certainly has some holes in his game, the beginning of the NHL season has given the Boston College product a tremendous opportunity. With three of the team’s leading scorers now called up to the Avalanche, Carey not only finds himself as the team’s fifth leading scorer, but also will likely find himself as the recipient of a bump in ice time that coincides with the exodus to the NHL.

One of the largest knocks on Carey is that he has, traditionally, been a player that does not go to the hard areas on the ice. He is not overly physical and has had a hard time adjusting to the game after leaving the NCAA, but Carey has slowly but surely been ingratiating himself to the organization, having tallied 22 points in 45 games for the Monsters. He has also been playing more important minutes.

While Carey may not look like he will repeat his offensive numbers that he posted in his lone USHL season, there is definitely some talent there. If he can continue to adjust to the speed of the pro game, there is a good chance that this season could be the beginning of his coming out party.

Brad Malone, C, 23

Malone has already cracked the Avs lineup on a couple occasions, playing nine games with the big squad last season and one more this season, but he has yet to stick on the team’s roster. A large part of that was that he was used as an injury replacement, but beyond that it may be that his limited offensive skills are not necessarily translating to the pro level.

That being said, the gritty center is not having a poor season with Lake Erie by any means. In 40 games, he has tallied eight goals and 17 points, including three in his last three games after being demoted.

Malone fits the mold that the Avs seem to be going with a lot of their forward prospects – hard-working and gritty – and will likely be the first player to head to Denver should an injury arise as his physical play and faceoff prowess are two things that are both in high demand in the NHL.

Joey Hishon, C, 21

While Hishon has missed more than 19 months after being decimated by a hit from Sabres prospect Brayden McNabb, there is positive news. Hishon has been cleared to skate as of December 20th and has been skating with the Monsters. While there is still no timetable for his return, it is undeniably positive news that Hishon is back on the ice and skating.

Cameron Gaunce, D, 22

What you see is what you get with Cameron Gaunce. He is not an overly offensively-gifted defenseman. He is a strong, bruising presence on the blue line that has a terrific shot from the point. He is not going to wow anyone with his offensive talent, but it is serviceable. What the Avs are looking for from him, however, is solid positioning and physical play, which is exactly what he has brought in Lake Erie.

In 42 games for Lake Erie, Gaunce has a goal and seven points, as well as 92 penalty minutes and a plus-two rating. With the struggles of Elliott, Gaunce has also established himself as one of the primary call-up options on the blue line for the Avs.

Joel Chouinard, D, 22

While expectations for Chouinard are not necessarily through the roof, he definitely has the skill set and work ethic needed to have a very productive career. Starting off in the Central Hockey League this season, Chouinard tallied 11 points in 30 games, including three goals and a plus-six rating. These stats were good enough for him to get called up to Lake Erie.

Chouinard has had two productive seasons in Lake Erie prior to the beginning of this season, so the fact that he started with the Denver Cutthroats was part of a numbers game – with the NHL lockout, he was set to get more ice time in Denver. In eight games in Lake Erie this season, however, Chouinard has yet to tally a point and is a minus-two. The more telling stat, however, is that this offensive-minded defenseman is getting shots. After tallying just three in his first four games, Chouinard has four in his last three, and if he is to start producing from the blue line, getting the puck to the net is a must.

Gabriel Beaupre, D, 20

Beaupre started his first pro season in the Central Hockey League with the Denver Cutthroats, immediately impressing with three goals and eight points in 28 games, as well as a solid plus-six rating. Beaupre also has the fact that he plays larger than his already big frame (6’2, 200) working in his favor.

The big defenseman has added an offensive flair to his already good defensive game and, while it is not yet consistent, it is enough that he might gain more attention throughout the organization if he continues to develop. In 16 games for the Monsters, he has a goal and two assists and is a plus-five and seems to be settling in nicely in the AHL.

He will not crack the Avs’ roster this season, but Beaupre is certainly a name to keep your eye on in the future.

Calvin Pickard, G, 20

Despite his slight stature, Pickard has all the makings of a future NHL goalie. He is a workhorse, has good composure in the net, and has had a relatively solid season thus far in the AHL. After starting strong in October, Pickard struggled through November and December, posting a 4-6-1 record over those months with a .889 save percentage and a 3.45 goals against average.

Pickard rebounded nicely, however, posting a spectacular January, going 6-1-0 and posting a .938 save percentage and a 1.98 goals against average. Despite his struggles through November and December, the hope is that his play in October and January are the norm and the middle two months are an aberration as his season on a whole has been solid (13-10-2, .914, 2.69). With Semyon Varlamov holding down the crease in Colorado, it may be a few years before Pickard sees any significant time between the pipes, but there is little doubt that he is going to be their go-to guy of the future.

Sami Aittokallio, G, 20

The Finnish netminder’s first season in North America has been a bit of a mixed bag. He has looked spectacular in some games – his 42 save performance against Hamilton in November leaps to mind – while looking distinctly out of place in others, such as giving up seven goals on 27 shots against Rochester in December. Over the course of his rookie season, Aittokallio has an 11-8-1 record, .902 save percentage, and 2.92 goals against average.

While he has few holes in his game, the holes that he does have are quite glaring. His reaction with his glove hand could be a bit quicker and his rebound control leaves a lot to be desired, both of which can put him on the spot. That being said, he has been solid everywhere he has played and seems to have adjusted well to the North American game of late. After struggling, he has strung together a couple solid performances and should see some solid time between the pipes as the season reaches its stretch run and the Monsters look towards the playoffs.

Kent Patterson, G, 23

After a solid senior season at the University of Minnesota, Patterson spent the beginning of his pro career with the Denver Cutthroats, posting impressive numbers despite a lackluster goals against average. Patterson was 12-8-3 for the Cutthroats, posting a .910 save percentage, with 3.08 goals against.

Of the four goalies in the Avs organization, Patterson is the one that is the most unknown entity. While the other three goalies have a fairly large sample size, Patterson did not really come into his own until his junior season at Minnesota, lending to a concern that his solid numbers may not be sustainable. Currently, he is the third goalie in the rotation in Lake Erie and is finding playing time tough to come by sitting behind Pickard and Aittokallio. Patterson has yet to play a game for the Monsters.

CHL

Kieran Millan, G, 23

A product of the Boston Terriers, Millan has grabbed the reins between the pipes for the Cutthroats and is making the most of his time spent with the team. In his first pro season, Millan has been named as the CHL Goaltender of the Week twice – most recently for the week ending in Feb. 3 – and ranks third in the CHL in save percentage with a .920.

As with Pickard, Millan does not have the prototypical size that many NHL goalies have, but what he lacks in size he more than makes up for in athleticism. With an 11-10-3 record and a 2.71 goals against average, Millan is adjusting well to pro hockey and looks like he is ready to make the jump to the AHL should one of the goalies in Lake Erie falter.