The Colorado Avalanche system lacks significant high-end talent, but not depth. The top tier of talent in the organization includes center T.J. Hensick, right wingers Chris Stewart and David Jones and defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk, Nigel Williams and Kyle Cumiskey. Of that group, Shattenkirk likely has the best shot at developing into an NHL star, but the rest of the group represents either top-six forward or everyday defenseman material.
Beyond them, some long-term development is required for the others. Below is an evaluation of the Avs system, broken down by position.
The Avs are deeper down the middle than at any other position in the system. It all starts with Hensick, a University of Michigan grad who was a victim of a numbers game this past training camp in Colorado. He set a near point-per-game pace last season in Lake Erie, earning a 31-game stint in the NHL along the way, then gave Colorado management reason to keep him with pre-season scoring prowess, but evidently didn’t show enough two-way game to line up at center behind Joe Sakic and Paul Stastny. With six points in five games to start the season in the AHL, Hensick may be the first call-up.
Ryan Stoa and Justin Mercier are two young centers playing increased roles with their respective collegiate teams this season. Stoa, at the University of Minnesota, is off to a great start this season with six points in four games after suiting up for just two games last season. The 6’3, 213-pound pivot has power forward potential, but will have to show a more prolific scoring touch consistently to realize that potential in the pros.
Mercier, a sixth-round pick in the 2005 draft, plays a game that may adapt easily to the pros. He always competes hard on the forecheck and backcheck and is effective with the puck down low. He broke out last season with Miami University with 25 goals in 42 games and has four points in six games to date this season.
One unheralded center with big-time potential is Kelsey Tessier of the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts. Drafted 110th overall in 2008 mainly due to his slight 5’9, 169-pound stature, Tessier is a crafty playmaker with a nose for the net and is ultra-competitive. He’s off to a modest start this year, but his 36 goals in 2007-08 were no fluke.
T.J. Galiardi has started this season with Lake Erie, notching two points in eight games so far. He played one year in college and one year in the WHL, coming close to a point-per-game at both levels. It’s obvious he can score, but at 6’2 and 185 pounds, he might just need to bulk up a little bit more.
Other centers in the system – Michael Carman, Codey Burki, Nathan Condon, Philippe Dupuis, Mark Olver and Marty Sertich – are lower in the system ranks and will have significant work to do to get NHL opportunities.
The Avs are a little light on the left wing. Just three players are listed as natural left wingers in HF’s top prospects list: Paul Carey, Johan Alcen and Tom Fritsche. All of them are long shots for primetime regularity.
Carey is, first and foremost, a goal scorer. He has averaged at least a goal every other game over the past three seasons, including 34 goals in 60 games with Indiana of the USHL last season. Now with Boston College, the fifth-round pick in 2007 has played just three games. He will have to work on his defensive game to allow his scoring touch to translate to the pros.
Alcen, a Sweden native taken in the last round of the 2007 draft, plays a supporting role with Brynas of the Swedish Elite League. He scored 10 points in 39 games last season and has just one assist in 10 games to date this season. He has good hockey sense, but doesn’t shoot the puck enough.
Fritsche was once regarded as a solid offensive prospect. In four seasons at The Ohio State University, Fritsche’s points-per-game average declined each year. He went from leading the team in scoring in his freshman year with 45 points in 42 games to scoring just five goals in 39 games in his final year. He still plays a solid defensive game, much like his brother Dan of the New York Rangers, and could still fit in a third- or fourth-line role down the road.
Of the Avs five current right-wing prospects, one is on the big team and another is nearly ready to make the jump.
The 24-year-old David Jones wasted little time making the jump to the NHL after a very good three-year career at Dartmouth College, where he led the team in scoring in his final season in 2006-07 while playing alongside Galiardi. Jones has good size at 6’2, 210 pounds, to go with great speed and uses both assets effectively at both ends of the ice.
Chris Stewart isn’t as well known as his older brother Anthony, but the younger Stewart has been more successful as a professional player so far. After back-to-back seasons of more than 80 points for Kingston in the OHL, Stewart jumped right into a scoring role with Lake Erie last season and finished with 25 goals. He’s kept up his offensive ability so far this season in the AHL, putting together five points in his first eight games. Stewart is a big man who plays an aggressive game and he’s got power forward potential. A concern of scouts before he was drafted was his conditioning, but he appears to have silenced the critics.
Brad Malone is another winger the Avs hoped would develop into a solid power forward when they selected him in the fourth round of the 2007 draft, but the youngster from Miramichi, N.B. has struggled mightily at the University of North Dakota. In 38 games so far in his collegiate career, he has scored just three points.
Denis Parshin may be as pure a scorer as there is among the Avs prospects, but the young Russian’s diminutive frame and the question of whether he’ll ever come to North America are two huge variables Colorado management doesn’t have much control over. Parshin has put up admirable numbers the past two seasons with CSKA Moscow and currently sits second in team scoring this season with 12 points in 18 games. He’s fast and skilled, but can get pushed around a lot.
Touted as offensively savvy, Brandon Yip has put up modest numbers at Boston University since his freshman year, when he put up 31 points in 39 games. But for a wildcard pick in the eighth round of a weaker 2004 draft, Yip has at least met expectations.
The Avs depth on defense rivals their center crop for the best-stocked position in the organization.
Kevin Shattenkirk, Nigel Williams and Kyle Cumiskey are near locks to fit into an NHL top-six someday while Cameron Gaunce and Colby Cohen represent very good potential as well. Shattenkirk is undoubtedly the system’s best prospect not currently playing pro hockey. In his second year at Boston University, he should be the No. 1 defenseman there this season and log big minutes. Shattenkirk has great vision, offensive ability and leadership qualities.
Cohen, Shattenkirk’s Boston University teammate, plays a similar game in the offensive zone, but needs work in his own end. One thing going for Cohen, though, is that he’s a little bit bigger than Shattenkirk, at 6’2, 200 pounds.
Cumiskey is the most NHL-ready of this group, having already played parts of two seasons in Colorado. But the Avs signed a couple veteran blueliners and Cumiskey found himself on the outside looking in. He’s not that big by NHL standards, but he’s poised, versatile and has an offensive touch.
Combining rugged size with offensive ability and good skating, Nigel Williams possesses the skill set of an all-around NHL defenseman. He, as well as Cumiskey, is in line for a ton of minutes in the AHL this season, despite being a rookie.
The final man in the upper echelon of Avs defense prospects is Cameron Gaunce, their first pick in the 2008 draft. Gaunce is a rugged player, standing at 6’1 and weighing over 200 pounds and like the rest of the aforementioned defensemen, he’s got a scoring touch. Gaunce is a character player, but he will need to improve his skating to adjust to the pro game. So far this season with Mississauga in the OHL, he has eight points in eight games.
The rest in the long line of Colorado defense prospects – Ray Macias, Darcy Campbell, Joel Chouinard, Richard Demen-Willaume, Jens Hellgren, Jonas Holos, Kevin Montgomery, Wes O’Neill, Derek Peltier and Michael Vernace – all have a tough hill to climb to eclipse the top five.
Not only are the Avs struggling in goal on their current team with Peter Budaj and Andrew Raycroft, there doesn’t appear to be much relief in the system for the near future.
Jason Bacashihua and Tyler Weiman currently split time for the AHL Monsters, but Bacashihua has been bouncing around the minors for years and Weiman has posted run-of-the-mill numbers for an AHL goaltender in his young career.
Long term, the Avs best bet in goal is likely Bedford, Nova Scotia native Peter Delmas. He was forced to back up Jonathan Bernier for two seasons in Lewiston of the QMJHL and put up good numbers in limited appearances, but now that the gig is all his, he has struggled out of the gate in 2008-09. Delmas is a solid positional goalie, but can sometimes challenge the shooter too much and he isn’t the quickest or most agile in the crease.
Billy Sauer, the Avs seventh-round selection in 2006, had a huge breakout year for the University of Michigan last season, posting a 30-4-3 record with a .925 save percentage and a goals-against average below two. Sauer has no glaring weaknesses in his game other than his confidence, which can get shaken on soft goals.
After two full seasons as the No. 1 goaltender for the OHL’s Peterborough Petes, Trevor Cann is splitting time this season with younger Montreal Canadiens prospect Jason Missiaen. On a team that has struggled, Cann has put up respectable numbers, but hasn’t taken the next step toward becoming an elite goaltender. He may need to be placed in a winning environment as the undisputed No. 1 to see what he’s truly capable of.
Kent Patterson is in his freshman year at the University of Minnesota after two solid seasons in the USHL, while Ian Keserich is playing with the ECHL’s Johnstown Chiefs after a year in the Central Hockey League.
This club has historically drafted well and has efficiently traded its prospects for upgrades. Today, Colorado relies on young draft picks Paul Stastny, Marek Svatos, Wojtek Wolski and Peter Budaj, but the team is equally dependent on free-agent or trade acquisitions.
As stated from the top, there doesn’t appear to be any high-end talent in the system, like a surefire first-line forward or top-pairing defenseman. There isn’t a can’t-miss goaltender down the pipeline, either. The team does possess some depth at center, right wing, and defense. A hunt for top left wingers should be at the top of the priority list going forward. The Avs don’t possess a particularly deep talent pool, but it should be enough to get them through the short term so long as they improve their draft showing in the next couple years. They don’t need a superstar so long as they can consistently draft Hensick, Stewart and Shattenkirk types.