Defense and goaltending remain strengths in Colorado Avalanche top 20

By Richard Greco
Tyson Barrie - Colorado Avalanche

Tyson Barrie, who made his NHL debut in 2011-12 with the Avalanche, is one of several promising defensive prospects in the Avalanche system. (courtesy of Dustin Bradford/Icon SMI)

The Colorado Avalanche’s defensive and goaltending prospects occupy eight of its top 10 spots. From offensive-minded defensemen to stay at home defenders, the Avs’ future on the blue line is looking bright. The biggest problem Colorado is facing is a lack of premium offensive talent in its system. Michael Sgarbossa and Joey Hishon have the potential to be impact NHL players, but the list ends there. Colorado is stacked with undersized forwards who consistently get hurt playing too physically on the ice.

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

Stefan Elliott still heads the Colorado Avalanche’s stacked defensive youth. The second-round pick plays the game with a quiet confidence and above average puck-handling. His biggest asset comes in the offensive zone. He can quarterback the power play and walk the blue line to navigate his wrist shot through traffic. Last year, Elliot saw time with both Lake Erie and Colorado and posted a combined 27 points. In his 39 games with Colorado he showed his good speed and playmaking ability, scoring four goals, nine assists but also making mistakes at key times in the games.

A former winner of the Bull Hunter Memorial Trophy awarded to the WHL’s top defender, Elliott has a keen sense of awareness when it comes to reading plays and joining the rush. His strong play in the offense zone has earned him NHL games, but he still needs to prime his ability in his own zone. As a 21-year-old, Elliott has plenty of time to become more defensively responsible, which will be the final step in him becoming a complete defenseman.

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

Duncan Siemens yet to break out after leaving fans excited leading up to the 2011 NHL Draft. A year after competing on both Saskatoon’s power play and penalty kill in 2010-11, the 19-year-old who controlled the blue line was pulled from the power play. He is known for his passing ability and uses first passes to stretch the ice, but was used in more of a shutdown role last season. The 6’3” and 200-pound defender was deemed as having a “mean streak,” but his on-edge style was more controlled last year.

He scored six goals and set up 22 with the Blades last season, finishing with an impressive +12 rating on the team’s top pairing. Siemens has the build to become a solid defender who can take away passing lanes with his long reach, throw the body, and drop down to the ice to block shots. The Alberta product saw former Saskatoon linemate Elliott called up to Colorado in March and will hope to make a similarly quick transition when he turns pro in 2013-14.

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

Tyson Barrie has the potential to be a top-four defender in the NHL. He plays an offensive-minded game and had 27 assists in his rookie season in the AHL. He scored five goals with Lake Erie and was called up to Colorado for 10 games.  With a two-way contract, he fluctuated between Colorado and Lake Erie for the season’s final three months. He finished the year with a -2 rating and no points over his 10 games with the big club.

At 5’10”, he is not a dominating force and his game does not rely on physicality as much as it does precision passing and positioning. His biggest asset is his fluid skating, which gives him the ability to join the rush and lets him catch up to offensive players during odd man rushes. Being an offensive-defenseman is an asset to any team, but becoming known as a power play specialist is helping him stand out on a team stacked with defensive talent.

4. (10) Calvin Pickard, G, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd Round, 49th overall, 2010

Calvin Pickard spent the past four seasons carrying the Seattle Thunderbirds. Unfortunately for him, the Thunderbirds only made the playoffs his first year and finished last in the U.S. Division of the WHL three consecutive years. Playing on a team that allowed an average of over 38 shots per game last season, the Manitoba product has already proven he can handle a heavy load. Pickard allowed 3.59 goals in 64 games with Seattle and had a .906 save percentage. He also recorded five shutouts, the most in his career, during the 2011-12 season.

The WHL helped the 20-year-old become technically savvy and Pickard’s consistency makes him a front runner for the starting job in Lake Erie, where he played in two games last year. The 6’1” and 195-pound netminder has room to improve his lateral quickness but can be counted on to bring consistency to the rink every night.

5. (4) Cameron Gaunce, D, 6.5B
Drafted 2nd Round, 50th Overall, 2008

Cameron Gaunce spent the 2011-12 season playing for the Lake Erie Monsters in the AHL. Gaunce fell through the cracks because of Colorado’s defensive depth, but after his second season in the AHL he is beginning to get noticed as a stay-at-home defenseman.

The 6’1” and 203-pound defender plays a gritty game and racked up 90 penalty minutes last season, including six fights. Since turning professional in 2010, the Ontario product has not broken the 30-point mark in a season but will surprise opponents with his quick accurate outlet passes. He is not a flashy player, but has very good positioning and can play pucks well along the boards. He may not have as much offensive upside as the prospects ahead of him, but Gaunce is the kind of player who will stick up for his teammates and play a solid game at both ends.

6. (13) Michael Sgarbossa C, 7.0 C
Acquired via trade with Sharks, February 27th, 2012

Michael Sgarbossa was acquired by the Avalanche in a five player deal that sent T.J. Galiardi and Daniel Winnik to the San Jose Sharks. Sgarbossa led the OHL with 102 points (47 goals and 55 assists) in his first season as assistant captain for the Sudbury Wolves last year. He also increased his plus/minus to +21. The 5’11”, 175-pound forward relies on his speed and agility to avoid being caught in open ice. He consistently creates scoring chances, whether running the power play along the boards or sneaking into the slot from behind the net.

He has the hands and vision to become a great playmaker as long as he can play as consistent as he did last year. Sgarbossa does not have a strong defensive presence, but he is not afraid to mix it up for his size.

7. (11) Joey Hishon C, 7.5D
Drafted 1st Round, 17th Overall, 2010

Joey Hishon may have the most talent in Colorado’s system, but injuries kept him sidelined all last season. During the 2011 Memorial Cup, Hishon received an elbow to the head from Brayden McNabb that left him with a concussion that has kept him out of game action since the injury.

The Ontario product’s speed and positioning makes him a chore for defenders to keep a tab on and, in his last full season, he had 49 assists in 50 games with the Owen Sound Attack. At 5’10”, 170-pounds, Hishon can play a relatively physical game but does not as have much success in the faceoff circle. His return to hockey with Lake Erie will tell just how far the concussion has set back the promising 20-year-old center.

8. (6) Kieran Millan, G, 7.0C
Drafted 5th Round, 124th Overall, 2009

Millan started between the pipes for a talented Boston University program all four seasons he attended, including an NCAA National Championship-winning season his freshman year. In his senior season, the Alberta native had a 2.60 goals against average and a .923 save percentage, his highest as a Terrier.

Millan’s biggest task will be staying out of his own head. He can fall into funks when he is not playing his best and often tries to do too much. The 23-year-old netminder has the tendency to drop down too early leaving him susceptible to giving up top-shelf goals. Millan’s athleticism leads to great puck control and a quick left glove.

9. (7) Sami Aittokallio, G, 7.0C
Drafted 4th Round, 107th Overall, 2010

Sami Aittokallio proved his worth by leading an underrated Finnish team to a fourth place finish during the World Junior Championships, where he had a 3-2 record, 2.52 goals against average, and .937 save percentage. He has spent at least part of his last three seasons in Finland’s SM-liiga with Ilves and had a solid year with a 2.82 goals against average in 11 appearances in 2011-12.

The 6’1” goaltender has a big presence and plays standing up which only makes him more intimidating when he plays at the top of the crease.  He transitions from the butterfly with ease, but has had a lot of weaknesses exploited during international play. The Finnish goalie struggles with rebound control, and despite playing at the top of the crease, he is not always aggressive enough. He has trouble with low shots and often gets beat high glove side when he drops to his knees. 

10. (9) Kent Patterson, G, 7.0C
Drafted 4th Round, 113th Overall, 2007

Kent Patterson started the past two seasons with the Minnesota Golden Gophers and will be competing for Lake Erie’s starting job. His senior year at the University of Minnesota was his best as he earned a .907 save percentage and allowed 2.32 goals per game. He relies on his strong legs to play a comfortable butterfly style in the crease. He has great lateral movement and even quicker reaction time, usually leading to inventive yet effective poke checks and shot blocks.

After starting for two of his four college seasons, Patterson’s relative lack of experience will be tested with the workload of his first professional season. If he can continue to put up the impressive numbers he has, it won’t be long until he gets a shot at the pros. Patterson has great hockey intelligence and despite manning the crease, can be a vocal leader on the ice.

11. (8) Mike Connolly, LW, 7.0C
Acquired via trade with Sharks, February 27th, 2012

Mike Connolly spent last year playing 53 games in the AHL between the Worcester Sharks and Lake Erie. He finished with 37 total points, including 24 assists. He got his first taste of action in the NHL playing two games with Colorado. He is a typical smaller forward who is not naturally gifted. Connolly has a great work ethic and will lead by example. At 5’9”, he is never going to be the biggest guy on the ice, but will still set up in front of the crease to screen a goalie. He is going to need to play with significantly more talented forwards for his point totals to be noteworthy because he is not good enough to create scoring chances on his own. His impeccable drive is what separates the Calgary native from players who don’t make it out of the lower levels.

12. (5) Mark Olver, C, 6.5B
Drafted 5th Round, 140th Overall, 2008

Olver played in 15 games with Lake Erie and had nine points. He also played in 24 games with Colorado spanning from February to the end of the year. Olver had seven points, including the game winner in his first game of the year against Edmonton. Much like Connolly, the forward does not let his size stop him from playing a physical game. Olver has been injury prone, which is a direct result of his physicality. He missed 41 games last year after he suffered a head injury.

He is an extremely disciplined player and breaks out of the zone well. Olver’s defensive game is his biggest asset and is priming him to be a penalty-killer. He is a modest type of player that brings energy to his team by getting into the dirty areas and playing a gritty game. The NHL lockout could chase Olver to Germany where his brother, Darin, plays for Eisbaren Berlin, a rumored destination.

13. (12) Brad Malone, C, 6.0B
Drafted 4th Round, 105th Overall, 2007

Brad Malone is the one center in Colorado’s system that is a force on the ice. At 6’2”, 207-pounds Malone has a knack for finishing his checks and providing his team with a consistent physical presence. Following a strong career at the University of North Dakota, Malone transitioned to the pro game in 2011-12 and began the process of learning to use his size against men in the AHL.

Like most big, aggressive players, Malone finds himself taking ill-advised penalties at times. He has become more disciplined since his senior year when he recorded 108 penalty minutes in 43 games, but still has been known to lose his temper. In 67 games with Lake Erie last year, he sat in the sin bin for 89 minutes. He posted 36 points last season, tied for second on the low-scoring Monsters, and his versatility was an asset to have in the lineup. He is not going to be the first guy down the ice or going to create many scoring chances, but if someone goes after a superstar, Malone will be the first one answering the bell.

14. (NR) Mitchell Heard, C, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd Round, 41st Overall, 2012

Mitchell Heard played at a point-per-game pace through 57 games as the top-line center and best faceoff man for the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers last season. He brought that consistency into the playoffs, scoring four goals and setting up seven through 13 games. A strongly built player at 6’1”, he plays an extremely physical game and has no problem crashing the net. Despite his build, Heard is a quick skater with some nifty moves that keep defenders on their heels. He is extremely aggressive, which is directly responsible for his surplus of penalty minutes. Last season, Heard showed his lack of discipline and recorded 111 penalty minute.

Although the playmaker is able to carve through defenses, he is going to need to bulk up to improve his puck control and ability in traffic. He played with talented linemates in J.T. Miller (NYR) and Tom Wilson (WAS) last season and will need to prove he can hold his own with fewer skilled forwards in the Lake Erie lineup. Heard is defensively responsible and as long as he cuts down on his time in the penalty box, he could develop into a good top-nine player for the Avs. Already 20 years old, he is expected to make his rookie pro debut this season in the AHL.

15. (15) Nate Condon, C, 6.5C
Drafted 7th Round, 200th Overall, 2008

In his sophomore year at the University of Minnesota, Condon had 30 points in 43 games. His acceleration is his biggest asset and his go-to move when trying to split defenders. He is strong on the puck and a decent passer with an accurate wrist shot. He plays a quick style that gets all five skaters involved. The Wisconsin product could develop into a quarterback on the power play, working the boards like Claude Giroux does in the Flyers’ system.

He does not go out of his way to play physically and is not defensively responsible enough for a center. He should improve his defensive game at Minnesota, but unless he proves that he can handle the two-way responsibilities that come with being a center, he may have to switch to the wing.

16. (16) Joachim Nermark, C, 6.5C
Drafted 4th Round, 93rd Overall, 2011

Nermark is not going to impress anyone with his scoring ability, but he is a capable two-way forward who prides himself on his defensive game and work rate. He has been playing in Sweden, which is a lot less physical than the North American game, so it will be interesting to see how Nermark transitions when he decides to cross the Atlantic.

He still has ample room to develop as a forward. His passing is extremely accurate, but he has not played with enough consistency to be a dependable point-producer. Nermark is a bottom-six forward who will play good defense and chip in of the penalty kill. Following 17 games with Linkoping in the SEL a year ago, Nermark opened the 2012-13 with the big club in the SEL.

17. (17) Luke Walker, RW, 6.0C
Drafted 5th Round, 139th Overall, 2010

After finishing his second year with Lake Erie, Luke Walker increased his point total by nine to 27 points and earned a -3 rating. It’s always going to be a question whether leaving juniors for the AHL was a good move for the 22-year-old who passed up his final junior season after being drafted by Colorado. The extremely disciplined winger has not run into penalty trouble, but is never going to be anything more than a role player. He is a checking line winger who can play on the penalty kill, but his potential ends there. His defensive game has improved and is quickly becoming his biggest asset. As a depth forward, he plays a tough, gritty game that will eventually lead to opportunities at the NHL level.

18. (18) Garrett Meurs, RW, 6.0C
Drafted 5th Round, 123rd Overall, 2011

Garrett Meurs finished his third year with the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers with a career high 53 points (20 goals and 33 assists). That performance came after he managed only 10 goals in 2010-11 and observers began questioning his scoring touch. Like most of Colorado’s depth forwards, Meurs is not especially big but does not let that stop him from playing a physical game.

At 5’11”, he is not the strongest player when it comes to controlling the puck. The fearless winger may not be the strongest guy on the ice, but has no problem playing in front of the net. The Connecticut product utilizes his agility by playing behind the net and pouncing on rebounds. Whether he can continue that style of production against professional players will be important for his development at the pro level.

19. (NR) Troy Bourke, LW, 6.5D
Drafted 3rd Round, 72nd Overall, 2012

Troy Bourke relies on his balance to maintain puck possession and can easily jump into odd man rushes on the fly. He has elusive speed and is extremely agile when changing directions. He had 38 assists and 56 points with the Prince George Cougars last year. In seven games with team Canada in the U18 World Juniors, he had seven assists. Bourke has the potential to be a playmaker and will see time on the power play.

The 18-year-old does not stray away from contact, but because of his 5’10” and 156-pound frame is not going to knock many skaters off the puck. His gritty style of play mixed with his passing ability creates a dangerous winger who is a good checker in all three zones of the ice. Getting stronger and improving his consistency over his next two junior seasons will improve his chances at a pro contract down the road.

20. (20) Joel Chouinard, D, 6.5D
Drafted 6th Round, 167th Overall, 2008

Joel Chouinard is a pure offensive-defenseman but is coming off a tough sophomore year with Lake Erie. His point totals dropped from 17 to 10, while his plus/minus was -4. He is not afraid to stretch the ice with outlet passes, but has been turnover prone in his pro career. The 6’1” defender should be able to run the blue line on the power play and keep defenders modest with his powerful shot, but getting that shot on target has been a work in progress.

The Quebec product’s rookie year with Lake Erie was cut short when he was sidelined for 42 games with an injury. Last year, he bounced back to play in 52 games, but showed little sign of improvement. He makes up for his lack of positioning with his speed and willingness to block shots, but will have to make big strides this year to maintain his spot in Lake Erie.