Colorado’s top-20 prospects led by defenseman Stefan Elliot

By John Canario
Photo: Rookie defenseman Stefan Elliot has been impressive this season, splitting time between the AHL and NHL. (Photo courtesy of Russell Lansford/Icon SMI)

With 16 roster players set to become either restricted or unrestricted free agents at the end of the 2011-12 season, Colorado Avalanche general manager Greg Sherman may opt to promote from within, providing an opportunity for many of his young prospects to play at the NHL level in 2012-13. Stefan Elliott, Tyson Barrie, Cameron Gaunce, Mark Olver, Brad Malone and Mike Connolly each have a good chance at leaving the AHL behind for good next season. Four of the prospects who appear in the Top 20 have suited up for NHL duty this year, and several more could receive a similar opportunity before the season concludes.

1. (3) Stefan Elliott, D, 7.5B
Drafted 2nd round, 49th overall, 2009

Following a formidable five-year WHL career, Stefan Elliott has wasted little time showing that he belongs in the pros. The swift-skating rearguard opened his 2011-12 campaign in the minors with Colorado's AHL-affiliated Lake Erie Monsters, experiencing only modest success. Perhaps Elliott was looking for a more difficult challenge because he has fared considerably better at the NHL level following a late-November call-up to Colorado. Since then the Vancouver-native has recorded four goals and nine assists in 37 games. He is also a plus-four. He could stand to throw his weight around a little more though as he has registered just three hits on the season.

Greg Sherman's recent three-way deal that sent Kyle Quincey to the Detroit Red Wings and brought Steve Downie to Colorado from the Tampa Bay Lightning will provide Elliott with a greater opportunity to shine on the Avs' blue line. Expect Elliott to play significant minutes down the stretch of 2011-12 and to take on a top-four role next year.

2. (2) Duncan Siemens, D, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 11th overall, 2011

A 6-foot-3, 205-pound 18-year-old, Duncan Siemens is a rugged rearguard with developing offensive skills. The 2011 first-rounder is still working on his defensive zone play though he already does a good job utilizing his long reach to antagonize opposing forwards and intercept passes in his own end. The Saskatoon Blade has six goals and 20 assists in 51 games so far in 2011-12. He also has a plus-11 rating and 77 minutes in penalties. However, he has been sidelined since early February with a concussion after being on the receiving end of a dirty hit by the Medicine Hat Tiger's Brendan Hurley.

His unique size and skill-set suggest that he will be either a first or second pairing defenseman at the NHL level, though his offensive skills are somewhat raw. He is unlikely to make the jump to the professional ranks until the start of the 2013-14 season.

3. (7) Tyson Barrie, D, 7.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 64th overall, 2009

Tyson Barrie is a dynamic blueliner with all of the tools to achieve offensive stardom, packed into a modest, 5'10 package. The AHL rookie has looked right at home in Lake Erie this season. To this point, he has notched five goals and 25 assists in 47 games. His inspiring play drew the attention of the Avalanche brass, and he has even earned a promotion to Colorado. To date, he has recorded no points and a minus-two rating in four contests.

Astonishingly, 20 of his AHL points have come with the man advantage which bodes well for his projected future as a powerplay NHL quarterback. However, he will need to shed the "powerplay specialist" image by contributing more consistently at even strength and at both ends of the ice to earn a permanent promotion to the Avalanche.

4. (6) Cameron Gaunce, D, 7B
Drafted 2nd round, 50th overall, 2008

Cameron Gaunce is currently the best NHL-ready, two-way defenseman in Colorado's system. His puck-moving prowess and offensive skills aren't quite as elite as Elliott or Barrie's and he isn't as big as Siemens, but his defensive coverage and decision-making abilities are far superior at this stage in his development. While several of his Lake Erie teammates sport plus/minus ratings in the negative double digits, Gaunce leads the Monsters with an impressive plus-16 in 59 games. His 23 points surpass his AHL total from all of last season.

The Quincey transaction cleared up some room for Elliott to play for the remainder of this season, and it would not be surprising for the Avalanche to either trade or opt not to sign a couple of their current defensemen this offseason, in an effort to create room for Gaunce and Barrie along their blue line for the 2012-13 campaign. Gaunce projects to be a second pairing defender at hockey's most elite level.

5. (12) Mark Olver, C, 7B
Drafted 5th round, 140th overall, 2008

He may never be a star center, but Mark Olver has been blessed with soft hands and a knack for stumping opposing goaltenders. A preseason concussion kept him out of the Avs' lineup until mid-February, but in the games he has played in thus far, the diminutive pivot has been incredibly efficient in his offensive production.

His versatility as a checker and a scorer ensure a place for him in Colorado's lineup, on any of the four forward lines. He projects as a third-line NHLer, capable of playing on a scoring line and second powerplay unit when the ideal roster has been depleted by injury.

6. (13) Kieran Millan, G, 7C
Drafted 5th round, 124th overall, 2009

Another college season's worth of frequent stifling performances has vaulted Kieran Millan to the top of Colorado's goaltending prospect depth chart. A senior at Boston University, Millan has backstopped the Terriers to a tie for the fourth-place ranking among NCAA Division I schools in the country. His .923 save percentage ranks him fourth among Hockey East goaltenders, while his three shutouts are second best so far this season.

A strong technical game and excellent positioning are among the Edmonton-native's greatest attributes. The Avalanche are likely to sign the 22-year-old netminder once his 2011-12 season concludes. With Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Semyon Varlamov still under contract for next season, Millan will likely be given an opportunity to play for Lake Erie.

7. (11) Sami Aittokallio, G, 7C
Drafted 4th round, 107th overall, 2010

Sami Aittokallio's draft stock looks as promising as it ever has since being selected in the fourth round of the 2010 draft. The athletic Finn followed up a hot start to the 2011-12 SM-liiga season with an even more impressive string of silencing performances at the Under-20 WJC in Calgary and Edmonton. In five tournament games, the lightning quick 19-year-old backstopped Team Finland to a fourth place finish, recording a .937 save percentage and 2.52 goals against average. In 11 regular season games with Ilves Tampere, he has a .910 save percentage.

At his current, rapid rate of development, Aittokallio could be vying for an NHL job as early as the 2013-14 season. He will likely play another year in Finland before crossing the pond to suit up against North American competition.

8. (NR) Mike Connolly, LW, 7C
Acquired via trade with San Jose, February 2011

At 5'10, Mike Connolly is proof that good things do come in small packages. The diminutive winger has a talent for producing offense and it has enabled him to reach the professional ranks. After tearing up the AJHL and then NCAA, Connolly has made a seamless transition to the AHL. In 40 games with San Jose's affiliate, the Worcester Sharks, Connolly has accumulated 10 goals and 20 assists. Lake Erie, currently ranked third-last in the AHL in goals scored this season, hope the 22-year-old can provide a scoring spark.

Connolly immediately becomes one of the top offensive threats on the goal-strapped Monsters. He projects as a second line NHL forward, and could push for a roster spot as early as next season.

9. (9) Kent Patterson, G, 7C
Drafted 4th round, 113th overall, 2007

Behind the reliable goaltending of senior Kent Patterson, the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers are presently locked in a draw with Kieran Millan's Boston University Terriers for fourth in the nation. The 22-year-old from Plymouth, Minnesota is currently posting a .915 save percentage and a 2.13 goals against average, en route to a 24-12-1 record. Patterson's most impressive statistic this year is his seven shutouts which lead all NCAA Division I goalies.

Though Millan has played marginally better this season, Patterson has a slight size advantage. A lengthy run in the Frozen Four tournament would certainly go a long way in raising Patterson's profile. Rather than decide between the two, the Avalanche may opt to sign both NCAA standouts and have them platoon for the Monsters in 2012-13.

10. (5) Calvin Pickard, G, 7C
Drafted 2nd round, 49th overall, 2010

While he hasn't exactly been terrible, WHL netminder Calvin Pickard has not played quite as well as he did last season when he won 27 games and posted a .916 save percentage. Thus far in 2011-12, the Winnipeg-native has a 3.53 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

It's possible that Pickard is suffering from fatigue having endured a heavy workload by major junior hockey standards. In four years playing for the perennially basement-dwelling Seattle Thunderbirds, the 19-year-old has played almost 85 percent of their games, facing an average of over 35 shots.

While the Avalanche have the option of leaving Pickard in the WHL for a fifth year, they may opt to send him to Lake Erie next season, though this would likely require Greg Sherman to part ways with one of Kent Patterson or Kieran Millan.

11. (4) Joey Hishon, C, 7.5D
Drafted 1st round, 17th overall, 2010

Joey Hishon takes a seven spot tumble down the rankings as a serious concussion suffered in May of 2011 continues to cast a significant shadow of doubt over his future as a hockey player. A fearless, offensive juggernaut at the OHL ranks prior to his injury, there is no telling how his play might be affected by this tragic experience when he does eventually return to competition.

If he can get healthy and regain the same natural playmaking and scoring abilities he displayed in 2010-11 as a member of the OHL champion Owen Sound Attack, he is destined to play on a scoring line at the NHL level. Overcoming a severe concussion may be too difficult a task.

12. (15) Brad Malone, C, 6B
Drafted 4th round, 105th overall, 2007

Like fellow Avalanche prospects Stefan Elliott and Tyson Barrie, Brad Malone's transition to the pro game has been impressively smooth. The former member of the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux has NHL bloodlines, facing his cousin Ryan Malone in his seventh NHL game this season. The Miramichi, New Brunswick-native's NHL stint was brief, lasting just nine games. The pugnacious forward recorded a pair of assists, 13 hits and a plus-1 rating averaging just 10 minutes of ice-time per game. With Lake Erie, Malone has accumulated seven goals, 19 assists and 67 penalty minutes in 51 contests.

His relentless checking has been well appreciated by the Monsters' coaching staff. He rarely backs down from a physical challenge and fearlessly drives the net in hopes of obstructing the opposing goaltender's vision or to bat in a loose rebound. Malone works hard, and it should not be too long before he secures a bottom-six role in the NHL for good.

13. (NR) Michael Sgarbossa, C, 6.5C
Acquired via trade from San Jose, February 2011

The Sharks took a bit of a risk signing the undrafted free agent in the summer of 2010 after Sudbury Wolves Michael Sgarbossa tallied just 52 points and a minus-6 rating during his draft year. His value has done nothing but rise since, as the gritty pivot notched 82 points in 2010-11 and looked far more electric on the ice. He already has 92 points in just 58 games in 2011-12 with a couple of weeks left in the season.

An elusive sparkplug who has an array of slippery moves in the opposing team's zone, Sgarbossa is a hard worker whose defensive game is beginning to catch up to his offensive one. The 19-year-old could make the jump to the pros next season. If he continues to progress, he has a future in a top-nine role at the NHL level.

14. (14) Troy Rutkowski, D, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 137th overall, 2010

A heavy shot and a penchant for playing an abrasive physical game are among Troy Rutkowski's best characteristics, but the 6-foot-2 blueliner has yet to show any particularly noteworthy development since being drafted in 2010. Statistically, the 19-year-old has not shown any significant improvement over the past three seasons, consistently recording yearly totals in the mid-forty point range. With 40 points in 66 games this season, he is again on pace for a similar output.

Rutkowski's puck skills and skating syle are unlikely to translate to offensive success at the professional ranks but his aggressive style of play will be welcomed. He projects as a third pairing defender.

15. (NR) Nate Condon, C, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 200th overall, 2008

Nate Condon is enjoying somewhat of a breakout season as a sophomore at the University of Minnesota. After posting just 17 points in 35 games as an NCAA rookie in 2010-11, Condon has notched 10 goals and 16 assists through 37 contests this year. The native of Wausau, Wisconsin is a fluid, agile skater who is also an excellent stickhandler.

While he has nearly doubled his production in his second year as a Golden Gopher, it should be noted that Condon is already 21 – two years older than many sophomore athletes playing NCAA hockey and is thus more mature physically. The pivot currently centers Minnesota's second line, and he'll need to progress to the top line and start producing elite numbers by college hockey standards to receive a contract offer from the Avalanche. He projects as a third line center with offensive upside.

16. (17) Joachim Nermark, C, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 93rd overall, 2011

So far this 2011-12 hockey season, Joachim Nermark has shown that he is not yet ready to compete against the stronger, faster competition that comes with playing in Sweden's top professional league – the Elitserien. Through 17 games with Linköping HC, the 18-year-old has yet to record a point. Placed on loan to Borås in the inferior Allsvenskan league, Nermark has fared only marginally better with a single assist through 10 games. Representing Team Sweden at the most recent Under-20 WJC, Nermark was held pointless in eight tournament games.

Nermark's two-way game is his greatest strength and he projects as a shutdown player who can also help kill penalties at the pro level. At this point, it appears that Colorado's top-ranked skater still playing in Europe will be playing there for at least another couple of seasons, getting stronger and adjusting to the Elitserien's competition.

17. (19) Luke Walker, RW, 6C
Drafted 5th round, 139th overall, 2010

Luke Walker is a gritty forward with an underrated scoring touch. The 22-year-old grinder is one of the few the Avalanche currently have in their prospect pool. With increased ice-time – and likely confidence – as a second year Monster, Walker is slowly emerging as one of their more consistent offensive contributors. He is currently fifth among Lake Erie forwards with 26 points in 58 games thus far in 2011-12.

The 6'1 winger projects as a depth checker at the NHL level, capable of playing a shutdown role in the bottom six. He could get his first sniff at NHL duty in 2012-13 if he continues to progress.

18. (NR) Garrett Meurs, RW, 6C
Drafted 5th round, 123rd overall, 2011

With stellar hands and an acute nose for the net Garrett Meurs is beginning to show shades of offensive consistency, debuting in the rankings at 18. Despite spending most of his time on the Plymouth Whalers' third line, the shifty winger has already set OHL career highs in goals (19), assists (30) and points (49) through 60 games in 2011-12.

Just an average skater currently lacking a reliable defensive game, the 19-year-old has some areas to work on in what will likely be his fourth OHL season in 2012-13. In the long-term, Meurs projects as a third line winger.

19. (18) Justin Mercier, C, 6C
Drafted 6th round, 168th overall, 2005

A mainstay on the Top 20, Justin Mercier has the longest streak of all active Colorado prospects appearing in the rankings at eight straight, or four and a half years. This indicates that while he has performed adequately enough to be considered among the organization's top prospects, he has yet to excel consistently enough to warrant a full-time promotion to the parent club.

Encouragingly, Mercier is on pace for one of his better AHL seasons with 12 goals and 11 assists in 60 games thus far. If the 24-year-old does receive another promotion to the NHL, it will be because of his ability to fulfill the roles of penalty killer and checking line specialist. He projects as a depth energy player at the NHL level.

20. (7) Joel Chouinard, D, 6.5D
Drafted 6th round, 167th overall, 2008

The Lake Erie Monsters received a powerful injection of offensive talent along the blueline with the additions of Stefan Elliott and Tyson Barrie, marginalizing Chouinard as one of the team's go-to scoring defendemen. With fewer minutes and limited time on the powerplay, Chouinard has turned in a statistically disappointing second season as an AHL rearguard. After recording eight goals and nine assists in just 35 games last season as an AHL rookie, the 21-year-old has yet to light the lamp in 49 games in 2011-12, and has just 10 assists.

Skilled enough to contribute offensively at the NHL level, Chouinard's defensive shortcomings make him somewhat of a one-dimensional player. He will need to improve his coverage in the defensive zone and receive more ice time with the man advantage. A change of scenery might put him back on the right track.