Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy have used the last three drafts and two summers to turn a once dismal prospect pool into an underrated one. The key to continued success in the NHL is to have good depth and cheap replacements: two things a strong pipeline provides. Before the duo took over the front office, the team depth had been hurt by immediate graduation of top picks and lack of success in the later rounds in addition to free agency duds.
However, the arrival of new players into the system and a change in philosophy means once-favored players are now on the outside looking in, leaving some prospects to question their future with the organization. Several of these young players will use the 2015-16 hockey season as one last chance to prove themselves worthy of wearing the burgundy and blue.
Top Pro Prospect
Mikko Rantanen, RW, Colorado Avalanche (NHL)
If preseason performance is any indicator of NHL readiness then Mikko Rantanen has already proven he can keep up with the best hockey players in the world. He kept up with the best Avalanche players during camp and stood out in preseason games against rosters that were filled with NHL regulars.
At just 18-years-old Rantanen will have the best shot out of any 2015-drafted player – aside from Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid – of making his NHL club. Preseason injuries to Avalanche forwards only increased his chances. While a top-six spot is far from guaranteed, Rantanen has displayed chemistry with fellow Europeans Carl Soderberg and Gabriel Landeskog.
It is safe to say that Rantanen will not be returning to Europe any time soon.
Borna Rendulic was playing on the third line for the Avalanche when he suffered a season-ending broken leg. In two stints with the top club, he had two points in 11 games. Although he may start the season in San Antonio with the Avalanche’s AHL club, Rendulic is a favorite to get early season call ups due to his size and speed – two traits head coach Patrick Roy has praised Rendulic for explicitly.
The first Croatian player to earn an NHL contract, Rendulic has scored an additional eight points in 26 AHL games in North America while playing for the Lake Erie Monsters.
Unsigned for 2016-17
Joey Hishon, C, San Antonio Rampage (AHL)
It’s not a secret that Joey Hishon is one of the more skilled players in the Avalanche system but with the way the team philosophy is trending and his lack of upward movement on the depth chart, Hishon might be seeing his last season as part of the organization.
Hishon’s performance in training camp was a mixed bag but most importantly he was not able to stand out among his peers despite having 16 games of NHL experience under his belt. Additionally, Hishon’s numbers in the AHL have not been what you’d expect out of a first rounder who twice put up over 80 points in a single OHL season.
The 23-year-old Stratford, Ontario native signed a two-way contract this summer that expires next July. He was placed on waivers on September 30th with the expectation of assigning him to the AHL to start the season.
On September 30th, the Avalanche sent Conner Bleackley back to the Red Deer Rebels of the WHL for his final junior season. Shockingly, Bleackley was returned to the Rebels without an entry-level contract. This means if he remains unsigned throughout the year, the 23rd overall pick of the 2014 draft will be available to all 29 other teams in the 2016 draft.
Regardless of contract status, Bleackley remains the Avalanche’s top forward prospect still playing junior hockey. He is an excellent defensive forward with a great shot and the Avalanche would be foolish to let him slip back into the draft.
Kyle Wood, D, North Bay Battalion (OHL)
Kyle Wood is poised for an offensive breakout when he becomes the number one guy for his OHL club this season. The North Bay Battalion will rely heavily on Wood in all aspects of even strength and special teams play. He will look to improve on his 40 points in 67 games stat line from last season.
Unfortunately for the Battalion, Wood will be out until late October with a wrist injury – the same injury that prevented Wood from participating in this season’s training camp.
Unsigned for 2016-17
Nick Magyar, RW, Kitchener Rangers (OHL)
Nick Magyar has a lot on the line for him this year as he looks to both bounce back from his poor 2014-15 season performance and earn a contract with the Avalanche. When Magyar was drafted 93rd overall in 2014, the 46 points he put up seemed like that would be his floor but failed to match that points total the following year.
Magyar has both the size and skills to be one of the top players for his club. He showed a lot of promise in his rookie OHL season and will need to replicate that performance. His inconsistency at the junior level will hurt him the most in the eyes of the organization.
Reports out of training camp were not favorable to Magyar which means he needs to have a big season for the Rangers to keep his NHL dreams with the Avalanche alive.
Top Amateur Prospect
J.T. Compher, C, University of Michigan (Big Ten)
Three weeks after being appointed captain of his college club, J.T. Compher got word that he was traded to the Colorado Avalanche. His eagerness at a chance to prove himself to his new organization has in turn created many fans eager to see what the future holds for the Northbrook, Illinois native.
In 69 NCAA games, Compher has 55 points. The left winger brings more than just offense and leadership to his game however, as he was targeted by the Avalanche because of his two-way play. With the exit of Andrew Copp (WPG) and Dylan Larkin (DET) from the Wolverines program, Compher will be counted on to increase his role offensively.
A.J. Greer, LW, Boston University (Hockey East)
When A.J. Greer was selected in the second round of the 2015 draft a lot of hands were thrown up in the air in disgust due to more highly rated players still left on the board. After his first rookie camp, Greer turned that skepticism into optimism.
Greer quietly played the 2014-15 NCAA season as the youngest forward in collegiate hockey. It was easy to stay out of the spotlight when all the attention was on his teammate Jack Eichel. As the season went on, Greer found his ice time increasing and by the time the NCAA tournament began in the spring, Greer was a top-six forward for the Terriers.
With Eichel and several other notable players moving on to professional hockey, Greer will have a good shot at continuing where he left off last season.
Top European Prospect
Andrei Mironov, D, Moscow Dynamo (KHL)
The earliest Andrei Mironov could jump continents and play in North America is 2017. With no transfer agreement and the ink still fresh on his two-year contract with Moscow Dynamo, Mironov will have to wait until he is 23 before he decides if he is ready and willing to play in the NHL.
Although he is just 21, he boasts an impressive resume in both international and national play in his native Russia. Mironov plays a physical game with limited offensive upside but has enough poise and composure to push the puck up and out of his zone.
Maximilian Pajpach, G, Tappara U20 (Jr. A SM-liiga)
Maximilian Pajpach was already a project prospect when the Avalanche drafted him in the sixth round in 2014 but they didn’t anticipate him losing out on an entire year of development due to an injury. That injury could set Pajpach back as he tries to make the most of his last year of junior eligibility before making the jump to professional hockey either in Europe or North America.
Unsigned for 2016-17
Sami Aittokallio, G, Karpat (Liiga)
Sami Aittokallio found himself relegated to the ECHL for four games last season. That was a low point in the career of a goaltender that at one period was looked to as the favorite to take over J.S. Giguere’s job once he announced his retirement.
However, very few jobs in the NHL are secure and Aittokallio found himself moving down the depth chart for the organization. With upward trends for both Calvin Pickard and incoming talented youngster Spencer Martin, Aittokallio was not sure he would be the number one guy in San Antonio or in Fort Wayne this season, leaving him to consider heading back to his native Finland for more playing time and a bigger role.
This summer, the Avalanche extended Aittokallio for one more season and included a clause that allowed him to be loaned to Karpat, a top team in Finland’s highest professional league. So far, Aittokallio has played spectacularly for Karpat in the Champions Hockey League, but the real test will come later in the tournament when he faces tougher competition.