Extra years in development leagues for Colorado Avalanche prospects will pay off in the future

By Chau Vo

Spencer Martin - Mississauga Steelheads

Photo: Mississauga Steelheads goaltender Spencer Martin was Colorado’s third round pick in 2013, adding to an already strong group of prospects in net for the Avalanche (courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

The Colorado Avalanche are off to a hot start this season and youngsters like Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, and Nathan MacKinnon are big reasons for their early success. What all three have in common is that they were able to jump immediately from the junior ranks to the NHL after being drafted.

However, not all prospects follow the same path and many require extra years on their respective minor pro, junior, or collegiate teams in order to further their development and make the transition to the next level.

Center

The Colorado Avalanche are not only stacked at center at the NHL level but also in their prospect pool. From 2009 to 2013, they drafted a total of nine centers out of 33 overall picks. This influx of centermen will create a competitive atmosphere as the prospects will battle each other for the top spots on the organizational depth chart.

After going first overall in 2013, Nathan MacKinnon became the highest player picked by the Avalanche since they moved to Denver in 1995. MacKinnon made the immediate jump to the NHL and had a slow start to training camp and his unimpressive preseason games led some to question the Avalanche drafting him ahead of other notable prospects. As soon as the puck dropped on the regular season, MacKinnon answered the critics by assisting on two of the Avalanche’s goals as they went on to beat the Anaheim Ducks 6-1 in Denver. MacKinnon also showed he will not be bullied in the NHL when he and Ducks defenseman, Ben Lovejoy, were involved in several scrums throughout the game. The young center would get his first NHL goal against the Washington Capitals a few nights later and through 10 games has seven points. MacKinnon is finding great chemistry on the ice with wingers PA Parenteau and Jamie McGinn. The one area MacKinnon does need to improve on is his faceoff performance but for the time being will continue to face easier competition in the circle.

Joey Hishon was highly praised by Avalanche head scout Rick Pracey when he was selected 17th overall in 2010 despite being ranked further down the list by Central Scouting. Hishon made Pracey look like a genius when he went on a tear that season for Owen Sound Attack of the OHL. Unfortunately, head injuries sustained in the CHL playoffs would sideline him from competitive play for the rest of the postseason, the entire 2011-12 season, and the majority of the 2012-13 season. His nine-game return to the ice was short lived when he again found himself on the wrong end of another cheap shot while playing for the Lake Erie Monsters of the AHL. Hishon recovered from the setback but a groin injury prevented him from participating in the Avalanche training camp this fall. He returned recently and has two goals, one assist in his first three games with Lake Erie so far in the last year of his entry-level deal.

Michael Sgarbossa exploded for 102 points in the OHL for the Sudbury Wolves in 2012 prompting the Avalanche to demand the San Jose Sharks include him in a five-player trade that same year. He would not disappoint the Avalanche the following year when he posted 44 points for the Monsters and earned a bid to the AHL All-Star game. He received a six-game call up to the Avalanche when they were facing injuries to their roster but posted no points in those games. So far in the 2013-14 season, Sgarbossa has five points in eight games.

Mitchell Heard is a hardworking center out of Bowmanville, Ontario. He was not drafted in the OHL draft having to fight for his roster spot and continuing to prove he belonged on the Plymouth Whalers team. It did not take long for him to prove Whalers coaching staff was correct in giving him serious consideration as he showed he was more than capable of not just scoring but playing special teams as well. After going undrafted in his first eligible NHL draft, Heard would return to the Whalers and in 2012 the Avalanche would select him with their second round pick. So far, Heard has not been able to carry his scoring over to the Monsters squad but his 23 games last year will help him as he looks to use that experience for more success in his first full season.

At the end of this season, Nate Condon will have to decide if he will sign a contract with the Avalanche or test the market via free agency. The Avalanche will surely make a bid to retain this skilled forward’s rights after seeing Condon prove himself capable of the same accolades he received in juniors playing for the Fargo Force of the USHL. A multidimensional player, Condon is counted on by the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers to play in all situations. This is his senior and last season for the Gophers.

Colin Smith was a prolific scorer for Kamloops Blazers of the WHL and posted a 106-point season in 2012-13. At 5’10 and 172 pounds, Smith is undersized and many are unsure of whether he can withstand the rigors of the more physical game in the AHL. This is his first year for the Monsters and his skill will be welcomed in Lake Erie, but the coaching staff will have to do what it can to give him sheltered minutes against weak competition to help him adjust to the higher level. At just 20 years old, Smith still has time to add to his frame and the Avalanche are in no rush to move him up to the next level.

The Avalanche added another big two-way, physical forward when they drafted Michael Clarke 132nd overall in 2012. Clarke showed with the Windsor Spitfires and Peterborough Petes that he is capable of some offensive contribution but he is not relied on to score. He currently has seven points in 13 games after being moved up to the Petes’ second line this season.

Joseph Blandisi was drafted 162nd overall in 2012 and currently plays for the Ottawa 67’s in the OHL. Blandisi is capable of playing the pivot or on wing and so far has 15 points in 13 games for the 67’s. Blandisi still has another year of eligibility left in the OHL after this year and will look to use that remaining time to step up his defensive game away from the puck.

Wing

Having only drafted a combined six wingers in the last five years, it should not come as a surprise to anyone that the Colorado Avalanche winger depth is the weakest out of all the positions. Only one of those picks was used in the first round, when the Avalanche selected current team captain, Gabriel Landeskog, second overall in 2011.

Aside from Landeskog, the only other winger in the system selected in the top three rounds in the last five years is current Prince George Cougars captain, Troy Bourke, who went 72nd overall in 2012. After 16 games this year, Bourke is second in team scoring with 15 points. Four of his five goals this season have been scored on the power play and his success on special teams has helped the Cougars stay above .500 early on in the season as they look to make a bid for a playoff spot in the WHL.

Undrafted Andrew Agozzino had an impressive rookie professional season for the Lake Erie Monsters last year when he posted 52 points in 76 games, including 20 goals. Agozzino played his junior hockey in the Ontario Hockey League for the Niagara Ice Dogs where he holds the franchise record for goals (159), assists (147), points (306), and games played (318). In his five years spent playing for the Ice Dogs he twice put up 40 goal seasons and was a point-per-game player for three of those seasons. Agozzino is currently on the first year of a two-year entry-level deal with the Avalanche that was signed in the spring. So far in the 2013-14 season, Agozzino is tied for the team lead with seven points in eight games. Agozzino shows no signs of slowing from his impressive rookie year and will be a staple of the Monsters’ offense this season.

After being drafted 123rd overall in 2011, Garrett Meurs enjoyed a relatively successful ending to his junior career by scoring 118 points in 135 games during his final two OHL seasons, including 32 goals in his last year. The 2013-14 season is his first year playing professionally, and after seven games, he has one assist. This will be an important year for him as he gets acclimated to the faster pace of play in the AHL.

Having spent three seasons playing for the Monsters, Luke Walker signed a contract with the newly promoted Medvescak Zagreb of the Kontinental Hockey League upon the conclusion of his three-year entry-level deal signed in 2010. Walker has so far been unable to sustain the same level of scoring success in the AHL and in 19 games in the KHL only has one goal and one assist.

Luke Moffatt is enjoying a great start to his senior season for the University of Michigan Wolverines in the newly formed Big 10 conference with four points in six games. Moffatt, a power forward, saw his scoring steadily increase through his first three years for the Wolverines and if he can continue to keep his current pace up, Monsters fans will be happy knowing he will be suiting up for them next season.

Paul Carey was a contributing member of the two Boston College championship teams. After winning the title in 2010 and 2012, Carey signed a two-year deal with the Avalanche and was assigned to the Monsters. In his first year playing for the Monsters he posted 41 points in 72 games, but has only one goal and one assist through his first eight games in 2013-14. 

Trevor Cheek is an undrafted winger from California who played his junior hockey for the Calgary Hitmen, Vancouver Giants, and Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL. He is currently on the first year of his entry-level deal. At 6’2 and 210 pounds, Cheek is more than just a big body. He showed he can score in junior hockey and will look to show off the same talents for the Monsters this year. 

Brad Malone was in the last group of players cut from the Avalanche training camp roster this fall. His impressive showing at camp earned him praise from head coach Patrick Roy and Malone will surely find himself one of the first players called up to the Avalanche roster when the time comes. Through five games for the Monsters, the New Brunswick native has four goals, one assist, and one fighting major.

Defense

In terms of sheer number, defense is the area that the Colorado Avalanche have been focusing on the most in the draft in the last five years. Thirteen players were drafted in that time span including one first round pick, two second round picks, and one third round pick. Many of these players will get their chance with the parent club in the next couple years when open spots are expected to become available.

Chris Bigras might turn out to be the steal of his draft class after going 32nd overall in 2013. He was very impressive at training camp and earned an entry-level deal with the Avalanche just prior to being sent back to the Owen Sound Attack of the Ontario Hockey League. During camp, he was paired with Avalanche top defender Erik Johnson and the two showed they had chemistry together and could possibly be the featured pairing in Denver in the near future. After being sent back to juniors just in time for the start of the Attack season, Bigras has seven points in 13 games to lead all defensemen in points for the team.

Tyson Barrie is currently finding out just how hard it is to maintain a roster spot at the NHL level. After leap frogging Stefan Elliott on the defensive depth chart last year, Barrie is currently a healthy scratch on an Avalanche team that is playing well under new head coach Patrick Roy. Barrie has only suited up for four games so far this season and has one assist but remains the Avalanche’s most NHL-ready defensive prospect.

The Avalanche are in dire need of a defenseman with a mean streak ever since former captain Adam Foote retired. They found one when they drafted Duncan Siemens 11th overall in 2011 with a pick obtained from the St. Louis Blues trade that also saw Erik Johnson come over to Denver. Siemens twice had over 100 penalty minutes while playing for the Saskatoon Blades. During his time in the WHL, he also showed he was capable of chipping in points as well as playing top pairing minutes. This year will be his first full year playing professional for the Lake Erie Monsters and in seven games he already has seven penalty minutes. Five of those came from a fighting major in a bout with former teammate Michael Ferland.

Mason Geertsen was drafted to add size and physicality to the Avalanche farm pool. This big defenseman is known for his great work ethic as well as his ability to clear the crease. Geertsen is currently playing for the Vancouver Giants in the WHL.

Wilhelm Westlund is the Avalanche’s only European prospect. Westlund currently plays for the Farjestads BK Karlstad in the Swedish Hockey League. Last year Westlund played 26 games for Farjestads senior team in the SHL. Westlund was the Avalanche’s 183rd overall pick in 2013.

Stefan Elliott made many jaws drop in Denver in his NHL debut back in 2011-12. He posted 13 points in 39 games giving fans reasons to be excited about this young offensive defenseman’s future. The following year however, his inconsistent play would get him demoted to the Monsters for the majority of the shortened season. Elliott was also cut from Avalanche training camp this fall due to head coach Patrick Roy’s belief that he would be better served playing top-pairing minutes in the American Hockey League as opposed to being the number-seven defenseman in the NHL. With five points in eight games, Elliott is making a strong case for Roy to reconsider his decision.

Just down I-25, a young Avalanche prospect is currently trying to make a name for himself in the University of Denver Pioneers’ history books. At 18 years old, Will Butcher is making the transition from junior hockey with the U.S. National Team Development Program to NCAA Division 1 hockey with the Pioneers.  Butcher has represented the U.S. in international tournaments against some of the best U18 players around the world. He will be looked to add some scoring from the back end this year for a Pioneers team that is currently undergoing some changes.

Karl Stollery cemented himself as an important part of the Monsters’ blue line last year after leading all Monster defensemen in points. Stollery is a late bloomer who spent over three years in the AJHL before spending another four playing for Merrimack College in Hockey East. So far this season, Stollery is second in scoring among Monster defensemen with three points in eight games.

Drafted 153rd overall in 2011, Gabriel Beaupre was a big, defensive defenseman coming out of the QMJHL with the Val d’Or Foreurs. Last year was his first year playing professional hockey and his play for the Cutthroats earned him a promotion to the Monsters’ roster. Beaupre’s performance at the Avalanche training camp would determine that he would not see any playing time for the Cutthroats in the foreseeable future and would stick with the Monsters for the start of the season.

Markus Lauridsen was a teenager when he played for his hometown Danish team IC Gentofte. He would later move on to play for a Swedish junior team and from there traveled to America to play for the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL. After finishing his junior career with the Gamblers, Lauridsen participated in the Monsters’ training camp and earned a contract. He would be reassigned to the Cutthroats but his play earned him a call up to the Monsters. Lauridsen is currently on a two-year contract with the Avalanche and provides the team with another big and physical defenseman down in the AHL.

The honor of biggest defenseman in the Avalanche prospect pool goes to current St. Cloud State player Ben Storm. At 6’6 and 215 pounds, the Michigan native is a force to be reckoned with in his own end. Storm still has a lot of other aspects of his game to work on but he will have plenty of time to do it with St. Cloud in the NCHC. Storm was drafted 153rd overall in 2013.

Gus Young may not be known for his scoring but last spring he blindly shot the puck towards Quinnipiac Bobcats goalie Eric Hartzell (PIT) with seconds left in the second period where teammate Clinton Bourbonais was able to tip it past Hartzell for the first tally of the game. That was the only goal needed as the Yale Bulldogs would go on to win the game 4-0 and their first National Championship in school history. Young was a staple of that championship team as the lead shutdown defenseman who was on the ice when the opposing team’s top lines were out. He will enter his senior year with big expectations as the Bulldogs look to defend their national title against the best teams in the country.

Goaltending

The Colorado Avalanche prefer quality over quantity when it comes to goaltending prospects. With just five goalies picked in the last five years, they boast an impressive stable of youngsters who have the skills and potential to one day become full-time NHL goaltenders.

Calvin Pickard was drafted 49th overall in 2010 and with good reason. He helped keep a subpar Seattle Thunderbirds team competitive in the WHL and teams playing against the Thunderbirds knew they would not have an easy night if Pickard was in net. Appearing in 241 games over the course of his junior career, Pickard also showed he could stay healthy and handle the heavy workload. Pickard does not possess overwhelming size, but he easily makes up for it with his ability to read the play and eliminate secondary scoring chances for the opposition. In his first full year playing for the Lake Erie Monsters of the AHL, Pickard showed he can carry over his success to the professional ranks by posting a goals against average of 2.47 and a save percentage of .918. Pickard will look to have a big year this year as he will try to cement his status as the number-one goalie behind Semyon Varlamov and J.S. Giguere.

Selected two rounds after Pickard, Sami Aittokallio is possibly the most talented of the Avalanche goaltending prospects. He is 6’1 and 180 pounds and lanky, but Aittokallio’s style of play is anything but small. His agility and flexibility makes for some highlight-reel saves and even got him a one game call-up to the Avalanche last season. Aittokallio still has some adjustments to make to fully embrace the North American style of play specifically the placement of his glove hand but his raw skill will help him compete with Pickard on the goalie depth chart. The two are currently splitting duties with the Monsters.

Spencer Martin is a new addition to the Avalanche goaltending corps this year but the future is bright for this 18-year-old. Last year, Martin singlehandedly helped the Mississauga Steelheads make it into the OHL playoffs as the eighth seed. Martin likes to use his size and aggressive playing style to cover more angles and challenge shooters. He enjoyed his first year at Avalanche rookie camp and will take back the knowledge and experience to the Steelheads as he will try to help them return to the playoffs.

While playing for the Boston University Terriers, Kieran Millan helped the team win a National Championship as a rookie. That year he also won the Hockey East Rookie of the Year award after posting a superb 1.94 goals against average and .921 save percentage. Upon the conclusion of his tenure in Boston, Millan would finish as the Terriers’ all-time leader in wins, games played, and saves. Last season, Millan was assigned to the newly formed Denver Cutthroats of the Central Hockey League as a rookie where he was twice named the CHL goaltender of the week. Millan will again play for the Cutthroats this season as he tries to move up the ladder and challenge Pickard and Aittokallio for their jobs in Lake Erie. 

Kent Patterson may have fallen down the Avalanche goaltending depth chart with new additions and emergence of other prospects but he has too much skill and potential for the Avalanche to write him off of their future plans. Patterson is currently backing up Millan for the Cutthroats.