Colorado Avalanche 2014 NHL Draft preview

By Chau Vo
Spencer Martin - Mississauga Steelheads

Photo: Goaltender Spencer Martin, selected 63rd overall in 2013, played the most minutes in the OHL in 2013-14 with 64 appearances for the Mississauga Steelheads (courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

The rejuvenated Colorado Avalanche franchise took the NHL by surprise this past season and defied all expectations by finishing at the top of the Western Conference’s tough Central Division.

While their first round loss at the hands of the Minnesota Wild can only be described as heartbreaking, the team will use their first playoff appearance in four years as experience gained for their quest for the Stanley Cup.

The graduation of Nathan MacKinnon and Tyson Barrie leaves the Avalanche’s already weak farm system desperate for an infusion of top-end skilled players. The combination of the Avalanche’s first round playoff exit and regular season points total results with the club being given the 24th pick, except in the first round where they will pick 23rd, of each round in the 2014 NHL Draft. The Avalanche will also have an additional fourth round pick this year acquired from Toronto in the Ryan O’Byrne trade.

On March 5th, the Avalanche traded their 2014 second round pick to the Calgary Flames for goaltender Reto Berra. Berra, a native of Bulach, Switzerland, was then signed to a three-year contract extension to assume the role of Semyon Varlamov’s backup.

In what is perceived to be an already weak draft, the Avalanche will have to find some diamonds in the rough if they plan on using this year’s draft to boost their prospect pool.

Top 10 Prospects:

1. Chris Bigras, D
2. Stefan Elliott, D
3. Calvin Pickard, G
4. Sami Aittokallio, G
5. Michael Sgarbossa, C
6. Duncan Siemens, D
7. Joey Hishon, C
8. Spencer Martin, G
9. Kieran Millan, G
10. Kent Patterson, G

Team Needs

At the NHL level, the Colorado Avalanche is in need of top-four defensemen. Specifically, a top pairing left handed defenseman to share minutes with Erik Johnson. Veteran Jan Hejda filled that role admirably this year but at the age of 35 he is not a long-term solution. One or two more top-four defensemen would instantly turn this talented team into a Cup contender.

Chris Bigras and Duncan Siemens could one day fill that spot on the top line but as of right now neither are ready to be full time NHL players. Out of the two, Bigras has shown the most promise going back to the 2013 training camp when he was paired with Johnson for scrimmages and exhibition games. His defensive game has improved this last season and Bigras was voted the best defensive defenseman by OHL coaches.

Organizational Strengths

The Avalanche are the envy of the league when it comes to their young group of forwards and depth at the center position. Matt Duchene has already established himself as one of the top centers in the league and his linemate, RFA Ryan O’Reilly, is a natural center who has found success at Duchene’s side. Soon to be UFA center Paul Stastny displayed chemistry with Calder favorite Nathan MacKinnon, who similar to O’Reilly, showed he has no problems with being asked to play at the wing position. Further down the lineup, John Mitchell and Max Talbot provide depth to an already solid center group.

In addition to their center depth, the Avalanche have a trio of goalies in their minor league system who show incredible promise. Sami Aittokallio, Calvin Pickard, and Spencer Martin are all highly touted prospects who could one day take over as the Avalanche’s netminder.

Organizational Weaknesses

The Avalanche may be strong up front at the NHL level but down in their farm system they could use a lot of help. Aside from Joey Hishon and Michael Sgarbossa, the Avalanche do not have any other prospects with the potential to fill top-six roles.

Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic took a gamble this spring by signing prospects Dennis Everberg, Samuel Henley, and Borna Rendulic to help the Lake Erie Monsters and possibly the Avalanche as well. All three forwards play similar styles and are big bodies that can provide space for some of the more undersized Monsters players.

Draft Tendencies

Avalanche director of amateur scouting, Richard Pracey, has been with the team for 12 years. Pracey spent the first seven years as an amateur scout before being promoted to his current position.

Since he assumed the role as director of all scouts, Pracey has shown a preference to drafting primarily out of the Canadian major junior leagues. His selections from North American amateur junior leagues and European leagues have been few and far in between.

Last year, five of Pracey’s seven selections were defensemen with center MacKinnon and goaltender Martin being the exceptions.

Hockey’s Future Staff Mock Draft Results:

23. Travis Sanheim, D, Calgary Hitmen (WHL)

Travis Sanheim may be the diamond in the rough pick the Avalanche need. At 6’4” and 205 pounds, he has the size to go along with his skills and intelligence. While he is not as aggressive or physical as expected from a player of his size, he is rarely caught in a bad situation due to his superior positioning and footwork.

Sanheim spent two years in the Manitoba midget league before making the jump to the WHL. At the midget level, he was a prolific scorer and was expected to carry that over to the junior level. However, his slow start was attributed to a lack of power-play time on a veteran laden team in addition to being paired with fellow WHL rookie Ben Thomas.

With 29 points in 67 games, Sanheim’s numbers are hardly that of what would be expected from someone with expectations of being a premier offensive defenseman. Looking closely at this season however, Sanheim’s offense skyrocketed after the Hitmen started utilizing him and his deadly shot on the power play and letting him jump into the rush. In his last 36 games of the season, Sanheim scored an impressive 22 points and had a plus/minus rating of plus-17.

The best is yet to come for this late bloomer. With a bit of patience and nurturing, Sanheim can become a dependable NHL defenseman.