Graduation of MacKinnon and Barrie allows other prospects to step into the spotlight

By Chau Vo

Stefan Elliott - Colorado Avalanche

Photo: Defenseman Stefan Elliott spent most of 2013-14 with Lake Erie in the AHL, but he returned to the NHL late in the season and scored a goal in an April 13th overtime loss in Anaheim (courtesy of Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images)

As the 2013-14 hockey season ends for many Colorado Avalanche prospects, there are still a few competing for their respective league championships.

The Lake Erie Monsters had hopes for a better season but succumbed to multiple key injuries throughout the year and finished 12th in the AHL’s Western Conference.  The Denver Cutthroats, in their second year of operation, are in the middle of a playoff race for a chance to hoist the Ray Miron President's Cup. The Cutthroats finished their season in second place in the 10-team league.

At the college level, Nate Condon and Will Butcher both got a chance to play in the NCAA tournament. Butcher and the University of Denver Pioneers were eliminated in the first round by the high powered Boston College Eagles. Condon and his University of Minnesota Golden Gophers had better luck and advanced all the way to the finals where they lost in a hard fought game to the champion Union College.

In junior hockey, Spencer Martin, Michael Clarke, Chris Bigras, and Mason Geertsen all got a chance to play in their league playoffs but failed to advance to the Memorial Cup four-team round-robin tournament. Only newly signed prospect, Cody Corbett, and his Edmonton Oil Kings still have a chance to make it out of the WHL playoffs and a shot at the CHL championship. Corbett is enjoying a lengthy run with the Oil Kings and in 14 games has six goals and six assists for 12 points.

There were two key graduations this year when Nathan MacKinnon and Tyson Barrie both surpassed the 65-game mark. MacKinnon is a favorite to win the Calder trophy as the best rookie in the NHL and Tyson Barrie has proven to be an invaluable piece of the Avalanche blue line.

2014 Avalanche Prospect Awards

Hardest Worker: Joey Hishon, C, Lake Erie Monsters (AHL)

While many of the 2010 first round draft picks are already on their way to long NHL careers, Joey Hishon has been battling through various injuries since being drafted. It took two years for Hishon to play another hockey game after being on the receiving end of an illegal check to the head in the 2011 OHL playoffs. After playing nine games for the Lake Erie Monsters in the AHL, Hishon again was on the receiving end of an illegal check this time from behind by Hamilton Bulldogs forward Joey Tenute.

Hishon was not able to participate in the Avalanche 2013 training camp due to a groin injury but played 50 games for the Monsters this year tallying 10 goals and 14 assists. His hard work and persistence has earned him a call up to the Avalanche for their playoff run, appearing in two postseason games for the Avalanche.

Hardest Shot: Gus Young, D, Yale Bulldogs (ECAC)

Gus Young will go down in Yale history as one of the best defenseman to play for the Bulldogs. As a junior he helped the team win their first ever National Championship. Unfortunately, the Bulldogs were unable to defend their title the following year.

In 110 career college games, Young had 12 goals and 28 assists for 40 points. In his senior year, Young’s hard and powerful shot from the point would help him achieve career highs in both goals and assists. Of all his shots, his most memorable shot will be the one that was redirected and went by Quinnipiac goalie Eric Hartzell (PIT) to give Yale a 1-0 lead over the Bobcats in the 2013 National Championship game.

Best Defensive Prospect: Chris Bigras, D, Owen Sound Attack (OHL)

Chris Bigras may have had a down year stats wise but a lot of that had to do with the team around him. The Owen Sound Attack were not nearly as good as they were in the 2012-13 season and Bigras’ minus-11 rating was a reflection of that. However, that does not mean Bigras had a down year. In fact, Bigras was selected to represent Team Canada at the WJC and was also voted the OHL Western Conference's best defensive defenseman by the league’s coaches.

Bigras spent the majority of the year mentoring and paired up with Russian rookie Damir Sharipzyanov. Together they formed the Attack’s top pairing.

Head coach Patrick Roy says unless Bigras is leaps and bound better than he was at last year’s training camp, it is unlikely Bigras will be on the Avalanche opening night roster next season. Patience is key in developing defensemen and it looks as if the Avalanche found a gem in Bigras.

Fastest Skater: Colin Smith, C, Lake Erie Monsters (AHL)

Colin Smith used his speed to amass an impressive 106 points in his final WHL campaign in the 2012-13 season. However, Smith will need more than just pure speed to succeed at the pro game, and he has acknowledged the need to improve other areas of his game. 

In 76 games for the Monsters this year, Smith had eight goals and 26 assists for 34 points.

Prospect of the Year: Andrew Agozzino, F, Lake Erie Monsters (AHL)

After a two-game stint with the Peoria Rivermen in 2010, Agozzino would return to the Niagara IceDogs of the OHL without an AHL contract. Agozzino spent another two years playing for the IceDogs before signing a one-year contract with the Monsters in 2012.

In his first year pro, he led all Monsters in scoring with 52 points in 76 games. His play would earn him a selection to the 2013 AHL All-Star Game as well as a new two-year entry-level contract with the Colorado Avalanche.

Agozzino carried over his scoring pace into his second year for the Monsters and in 75 games recorded 17 goals and 32 assists for 49 points; good enough for the team lead in scoring.

Breakout Player for 2014-15: Troy Bourke, C, Lake Erie Monsters (AHL)

From 2010 to 2013, Troy Bourke was constantly flirting with becoming a point-per-game player for the Prince George Cougars of the WHL. In the 2013-14 season, Bourke would finally achieve that goal and record 85 points in 69 games.

After playing his last game for the Cougars, Bourke was sent to Cleveland where he suited up for the Monsters’ last 15 games. In those 15 games, Bourke showed he was more than ready for the AHL and scored three goals and four assists for seven points.

The best is yet to come for Bourke and he could prove to be a very valuable prospect for the Avalanche if he can use his time in the AHL to improve his defensive game.

Most Improved Prospect: Stefan Elliott, D, Lake Erie Monsters (AHL)

Stefan Elliott started his NHL career with a bang and scored a highlight worthy goal in his first game. That goal showcased Elliott’s speed, skills, and confidence all in one play. Unfortunately, Elliott would show his inability to consistently make those type of plays and was shuttled back and forth between Denver and Cleveland.

Soon after, Elliott was leapfrogged on the depth chart by Tyson Barrie and remained in Cleveland for an extended period of time.

As the 2013-14 season winded down, Elliott would get another chance to play for the Avalanche and scored a goal against the Anaheim Ducks in the last game of the season.

During Elliott’s time playing for the Monsters this season, he has shown he can be depended on at the AHL level and anchored a blue line that was going through multiple injuries throughout the year. Elliott’s patience and development has not gone unnoticed and he will be competing for the Avalanche’s sixth and seventh defenseman spot in this fall’s training camp.

Overachiever: Sami Aittokallio, G, Lake Erie Monsters (AHL)

During the 2012-13 season, Sami Aittokallio got a chance to start his first NHL game against the LA Kings. Things did not go as Aittokallio had hoped but it was a valuable learning experience for the young goaltender.

After another season of adjusting to the North American style of play, Aittokallio was again called up to the Avalanche for another crack at the NHL. This time, he would be pulled after giving up three goals in two periods.

Aittokallio will continue to challenge teammate Calvin Pickard for the number-three spot on the goaltending depth chart but the two goalies will be pressured by newcomer Spencer Martin when he turns pro in 2015-16.

Underachiever: Mitchell Heard, C, Lake Erie Monsters (AHL)

When Rick Pracey selected Mitchell Heard with the 41st overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, he thought he was getting a scoring forward with decent size who was not afraid to drop the gloves and fight for his teammates. So far, in the two AHL seasons since being drafted, Heard has shown that he is still not afraid to drop his gloves and stick up for his teammate but has been unable to carry over his offensive game from junior hockey.

With 167 penalty minutes in 63 games, Heard is settling into a role as a fourth line enforcer for the Monsters.

Highest Risk/Highest Reward: Ben Storm, D, St Cloud State Huskies (NCHC)

Ben Storm was neither a flashy goal scorer nor a playmaker that was known for making impossible passes. Instead, for the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the USHL, he was a defensive fixture on their first or second pairing tasked with shutting down the opposition’s best players.

For the St. Cloud Huskies, he is asked to do the same and saw minutes on the third pairing this season.

At 6’6” and 210 pounds, he is the Avalanche’s biggest prospect in size. If he can use his time in college to develop his skating and work on minimizing mistakes in his own end, he will be a valuable prospect for the Avalanche’s farm system.