Tyson Barrie leads the way in Colorado Avalanche’s mid-season Top 20

By Blake Benzel
Tyson Barrie - Colorado Avalanche

Photo: Defenseman Tyson Barrie, who has skated in 20 NHL games with the Avalanche in 2012-13, moved into the top spot in Colorado’s mid-season Top 20 (courtesy of Dustin Bradford/Icon SMI)

The Colorado Avalanche are in a very unique position for their franchise. They have a bevy of young talent in their organization – if you look at their roster, the team does not have many players over the age of 28 playing in the NHL this season. The problem for Colorado is, the bulk of that young talent is already on their NHL roster, leaving the cupboard a bit bare behind them.

That said, Colorado does have a bit of top end talent in their pipeline – bolstered by the recent return of former first round draft pick Joey Hishon – and a lot of players that, if everything goes just right, could make a lot of people trying to prognosticate about their future look quite silly.

Colorado has also had two players graduate out of prospect status this season, with Mark Olver moving past his 65th NHL game and new acquisition Aaron Palushaj not far behind him. While neither Olver nor Palushaj are necessarily “top end” talent, their graduation to the big squad certainly speaks to the organization’s commitment to development and to their youth movement, respectively.

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

Barrie has found himself in an interesting situation this season, as one of the two top call-ups on the blue line for the Avalanche when the team is in need (something that seems to be a constant struggle for the team as they try to keep their defensemen healthy). Barrie found his way onto the team’s roster early this season, skating in 15 games between January 19th and March 6th, tallying six points in those 15 games and seeing his ice time not often dip below 18 minutes per night.

He has, however, found himself in the press box on occasion and was even returned to the AHL for another stint in March. His offensive skill set has been successful in Erie, however, as he has tallied seven goals and 29 points in 38 games for the Monsters.

He has since been recalled to the Avalanche and shown that he has the talent and skills to play regular shifts in the NHL, adding another two points in his last five NHL games. Despite his defensive deficiencies, Barrie has been a major contributor to the Avs in his time with the team and his impact in creating chances and getting the play moving towards the offensive end is reflected in the fact that his Relative Corsi rating is among the best on the team for players who have seen more than 10 games in Colorado.

The bottom line, for Barrie, is that he is constantly improving. While other defensive prospects in the Avs organization have suffered setbacks at times this season, Barrie has continued to progress on a steady, upward trend. The only thing left for him now is for him to be given a chance to shine in the NHL.

2. (6) Michael Sgarbossa, C, 7.5C
Acquired via trade from San Jose, February 2011

A large part of the trade that sent Daniel Winnik and T.J. Galiardi to San Jose, it is easy to see why Sgarbossa is the team’s top offensive prospect. In 47 games for Lake Erie, this season, Sgarbossa is second on the team in scoring with 19 goals and 44 points in 17 fewer games than the team’s leading scorer. On top of his scoring, he likes to play with an edge, which has led to 64 penalty minutes this year – good for seventh on the team – but has also led to trouble with “the law” in the AHL.

The biggest cause for concern for Sgarbossa, however, is his shooting percentage. Not because he is not burying the puck (although he has only potted three goals in 16 games since returning to the AHL), but because it is so good that it is likely not sustainable. It currently sits at about 22.1 percent, suggesting that it will regress significantly as the season continues. This is something that Sgarbossa, who has notoriously struggled with consistency throughout his career, will have to find a way around against the tougher pro goalies in order to maintain his success. That is not to say, however, that Sgarbossa does not contribute when he is not putting the puck in the net. During those 16 games, he still has five assists – something that speaks to his offensive creativity.

At 180 pounds, there is no doubt that he needs to bulk up, especially if he wants to continue playing the type of annoying, gritty game that he likes to play. The proof of how good the Campbellville, Ontario native can be is in the results and, despite still being undersized, the results show that he is adapting very well to the faster and larger opponents in the pro game.

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

In 39 games last season, Elliott was a revelation for the Avs, tallying four goals and 13 points and looking like he was set to be the next big thing on their blue line. This season has seen Elliott’s development stunted a bit, however, as his offensive numbers have dipped and his play in his own zone has continued to struggle. Whether his offensive game has begun to lag because of the fact that he is working to improve the deficiencies in his game or for some other reason is unknown, but Elliott was quickly surpassed by Barrie out of training camp and his play for Lake Erie this season has not done much force the team’s hand.

Elliott has 11 points this season through 43 games to go along with a minus-11 rating. While he has shown flashes of the player that burst onto the scene last season, he has yet to demonstrate that he is that same player this season. It was certainly expected that Elliott would make the team directly out of camp this season, so the fact that he was passed over for Barrie may have caused some confidence issues – not something you necessarily want to see in your top prospects.

While his development may have taken a bit of a left turn this season, bouncing between the AHL and NHL has certainly not helped. Elliott had scored three goals and eight points in 11 games prior to being called up to the NHL for training camp. Since then, he has tallied two goals in nine AHL games and seven NHL games, which certainly speaks to the fact that he needs some sort of consistency to get his game back.

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

Siemens had a rough start to the 2013 season, getting stripped of his captaincy and his game struggled as well. In his first 15 games for the Saskatoon Blades, Siemens tallied just three assists, while compiling a minus-nine rating. His shaky start, however, made the rest of his season all the more impressive as Siemens finished the WHL’s regular season with three goals, 32 points and a gaudy plus-31 rating to go with 109 penalty minutes.

What was most impressive about Siemens’ turn around is that he did not allow the early season setback to affect him. He pushed forward, playing solid hockey in his own zone which got him back to the type of hockey he was accustomed to playing – a physical, shutdown game with sparks of offensive flair.

While he is never going to be an offensive dynamo, he certainly showed the skills late this season to justify why the Avs took him 11th overall. The Blades were readily swept by the Medicine Hat Tigers in the first round of the WHL playoffs, but Siemens will get the chance to play on a big stage as his team hosts the 2013 Memorial Cup in May.

5. (4) Calvin Pickard, G, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 49th overall, 2010

Possibly the most NHL-ready of the Avs’ goalie prospects, Pickard is an absolute workhorse between the pipes – one that can shoulder the workload of a full season and still remain sharp in the crease. Since entering the WHL with the Seattle Thunderbirds in 2008, Pickard has played no fewer than 47 games in a season – his rookie season with Seattle – and looks to be well on his way to keep that impressive run going with 42 games played already this season.

While he may be the most NHL-ready, Pickard’s consistency has been of question this season as he has adjusted to the pro game. After posting impressive numbers in October, his numbers ballooned to a goals-against over 3.00 and a save percentage barely above .900 through December. Many goalies may have packed it in after this rough stretch, but Pickard showed a tremendous ability to fight back, posting an absolutely remarkable month of January before settling in to play quite well in the months following.

Pickard has been playing well despite not posting the most impressive win/loss record, having given up four or more goals just four times in 26 games since letting in seven goals on 33 shots on December 26th against Rochester.

The Avs are fairly set in the crease, for now, but Pickard is likely the goalie that will be first on their list should either Semyon Varlamov or Jean-Sebastien Giguere go down.

6. (10) Kent Patterson, G, 7.0C
Drafted 4th round, 113th overall, 2007

Patterson has been impressive this season for the Cutthroats, helping to backstop the team to the playoffs in their inaugural season, and has shown remarkable athleticism and reflexes between the pipes while sharing the goaltending duty with fellow Avs prospect Kieran Millan.

While his numbers this season have not been gaudy in the Central Hockey League – Patterson carries a 14-10-6 record, along with a .910 save percentage and a 3.01 goals against average – he was impressive in four games in the AHL that saw him go 0-2-1 despite a .921 save percentage and a 2.14 goals against average.

This is not to say that Patterson does not have holes in his game. Given that he relies more on his athleticism and reflexes to make saves, his positioning can sometimes be called into question. The fact that he has come from the NCAA and has not played more than 43 games in a season is a question mark on his resume as well. The latter, however, is a question that may not get answered anytime soon, as goaltending is the system’s biggest strength. Even without that knowledge though, the future looks bright for Patterson.

7. (8) Kieran Millan, G, 7.0C
Drafted 5th round, 124th overall, 2009

Millan came to Denver this season after posting three impressive seasons at Boston University (the other, his sophomore season, was much less than impressive) and has seemed to adjust to the pro style of game quite nicely. In 38 games for the Cutthroats, Millan sits with a 2.91 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage, as well as a 15-15-4 record.

As with many young goalies, Millan’s consistency has been brought into question, and he has struggled to win the battle between his ears more often than he struggles to win the battles between the pipes. That being said, he is a highly skilled goaltender who appears to be heading in the right direction.

8. (9) Sami Aittokallio, G, 7.0C
Drafted 4th round, 107th overall, 2010

To say that Aittokallio is the fourth most-promising of all of the Avs’ goaltending prospects would be doing the young Finn a great disservice. While Pickard stands out far and away as the team’s top goaltending prospect, the three others are neck-and-neck.

In his first season playing North American hockey, Aittokallio has struggled with consistency at times while sharing the crease with Pickard. His consistency issues aside, however, when he has looked good, Aittokallio has looked very good – certainly much better than his 2.89 goals against average or .903 save percentage would indicate.

Aittokallio definitely has a long way to progress before he can be considered NHL-ready. In addition to adjusting to the pace of the game, he also needs to work on controlling his rebounds a little more as he gives up too many second and third chances. Once he gets the kinks in his game ironed out, however, Aittokallio has a good chance at being yet another in a long line of successful Finnish goalies.

9. (NR) Colin Smith, C, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 192nd overall, 2012

Smith could be one of the most intriguing prospects for Colorado, taking the WHL by storm en route to a remarkable season that saw him tally 41 goals and 106 points in 72 games during the regular season and having tallied a goal and 11 points in Kamloops’ six game series win in the first round of the playoffs.

Another of Colorado’s undersized forward prospects, Smith has undoubtedly benefited this season by playing with equally talented linemates, but his offensive skills already seem to be at an elite level and he plays with an amount of grit that is not often seen in someone of his slight size. This size, however, is his biggest question. He likes to play with an edge and his size can hinder that, but if he focuses on playing a complete game like he is capable of – he has spent time on both Kamloops power play and penalty kill – he is going to be an important player in the Avs organization for years to come.

10. (19) Troy Bourke, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 72nd overall, 2012

Bourke is one of those players that is really hard to judge based on their major junior career. He has high end talent, to be sure, but his production for the Prince George Cougars seems to never have really shown that talent to its full extent. Now, as dangerous as basing your assumptions on a prospect on statistics alone can be, it begs the question as to whether Bourke’s production in the WHL is a true representation of his talent or if he would benefit from having a better team around him.

Bourke finished this season in the WHL with 50 points in 63 games, which is not a bad season, by any means, but certainly not what you would like to see from a player with as much offensive skill as Bourke. A better representation of his talent, however, may be his international play in previous years. Playing for Team Canada Pacific at the 2010 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge and for Team Canada at the 2011 U18 World Juniors, Bourke totaled 13 games of international competition, with three goals and 15 points. With as many questions as there may be about Bourke’s true talent level, those 13 games spread over two separate tournaments certainly lend to the idea that once he is around more talented players, we could see him break out of his shell and start putting up more points.

11. (13) Brad Malone, C, 6.0B
Drafted 4th round, 105th overall, 2007

A big, bruising alum of the University of North Dakota, Malone has found himself the player that Colorado calls upon when they need a grit call-up over the last couple seasons.

While he will not be much more than a depth forward for the Avs, Malone plays the style of game that is suited to a checking line or fourth line role in the NHL, making any offense that he is able to chip in an added bonus. Despite his limited offensive skills, Malone does have the type of skill set that can lead to being an important member of an NHL team down the road.

He is terrific in the faceoff circle – his career faceoff percentage of 57.7% at UND is fourth in school history – and he is extremely versatile, able to slot in at any forward position with ease. If he is going to succeed at the NHL level, he is going to need to improve his skating and his discipline – he is very prone to winding up in the penalty box with unnecessary penalties – but there is definitely hope for Malone to find a spot on Colorado’s roster in coming seasons.

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

Having just finished his junior season at the University of Minnesota, Condon could be another sneaky late-round pick up for the Avs.

The Fargo Force alum potted a career-high 31 points in 40 games for the Gophers this season and showed significant improvement over his impressive sophomore campaign. He is very fast and is starting to get stronger, which will serve well to complement his offensive skills.

He likely will not be jumping to the pro game anytime soon, but Condon has shown the work ethic to continue developing his game and earned the trust of the Gopher coaches, who play him now in all situations. It has taken Condon a while to adjust to the increased pace of the NCAA, which indicates that it will likely take him a couple more years to acclimate himself to the pro game once he makes that jump, but he has shown reliability at the U of M, which makes him a promising prospect for the future for Colorado.

13. (11) Mike Connolly, LW, 7.0D
Acquired via trade from San Jose, February 2011

Connolly signed with San Jose as an undrafted free agent prior to the 2011-12 season and was packaged with Sgarbossa last year at the trade deadline. He showed promise last season, tallying 37 points in 53 games in the AHL, but has struggled to acclimate himself this season with just 21 points and a minus-four rating in 59 games.

As is the case with a lot of Colorado’s prospects up front, Connolly is undersized and he does not quite possess the strength to put up consistent numbers at the pro level – something that could account for his struggles this season. Connolly has seemingly limitless potential with a terrific work ethic and willingness to go to the dirty areas on the ice, but the biggest thing that will hold him back is his size. Until he gets the strength to complement the aggressive, gritty style of hockey that he likes to play, he is going to have a hard time carving out a spot on an NHL roster.

14. (18) Garrett Meurs, RW, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 123rd overall, 2011

Meurs is another small, but intriguing forward prospect for the Avs. Another late-round acquisition, Meurs has had the sort of major-junior progression that you like to see from a young player. His first season in the OHL, he tallied 34 points in 62 games for the Plymouth Whalers. He followed that up with a 40 point performance in 68 games the next season and 53 in 67 the season after. This season, Meurs put up 32 goals and 65 points, eclipsing both his career high in goals and points by 12, and has been a leader on Plymouth’s team all season long.

Meurs was one of Plymouth’s important players in the team’s sweep of the Sarnia Sting in the first round of the OHL playoffs, tallying three goals and an assist in four games.

As with a lot of Colorado’s forwards, Meurs needs to bulk up. At 175, he needs to add some muscle and get stronger on the puck, but he has improved in every season for the Whalers and there is nothing to indicate that he will not continue to do so at the next level.

15. (14) Mitchell Heard, C, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 41st overall, 2012

Another Plymouth Whaler, Heard started the season with the Lake Erie Monsters, playing 23 games and tallying 72 penalty minutes and an underwhelming four points before being sent back to Plymouth for a couple reasons – to gain confidence and get more ice time. Once back in Plymouth, Heard showed the skills that earned him a spot in the AHL in the first place, tallying 17 goals and 36 points in 32 games. He has continued his terrific season in the OHL into the playoffs, tallying three goals and five points in the first round.

Despite the fact that Heard did not succeed immediately in the AHL, it is fairly clear that sending him back to the OHL as an over-age player was the correct choice for the team to make. He was not getting the ice time that he needed in order to develop for the Monsters and, quite honestly, he was not earning the ice time either. Do not take this as a sign that Heard is not cut out for the pro level – just as a sign that he was not as ready to make the jump as everyone thought.

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

Nermark is a player that is very difficult to get a read on. He has played well over the last couple seasons for Linkoping J20, but he has struggled when called up to the big club in the Swedish Elitserien. Over the past two seasons for Linkoping J20, he has 11 goals and 29 points in 40 games. For Linkoping, however, he has played 70 games over the past two seasons, tallying just one goal and four points.

While he has solid offensive skills, his defensive play is what he is going to hang his hat on if he wants to succeed at the next level. He has the skating ability that one looks for when looking at the next level – he now just needs to round out his game and find that niche that will solidify his spot on a roster.

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

In a season where the Avs have been struggling greatly, Joey Hishon has been an absolute bright spot in that the former first round pick is actually on the ice.

After being out of hockey for two years because of concussion-like symptoms, Hishon made his pro debut on March 15th and has quickly reminded people why he was one of Colorado’s most promising prospects, tallying four points in his first six games, not to mention scoring a game-winning shootout goal in just his second game back.

When healthy and at his best, Hishon is an elite level scorer that has terrific work ethic and vision on the ice. He is going to need to acclimate himself to the pro game and prove that he is not gun shy about going into the dirty areas on the ice after his very serious injury, but if he can answer the questions about his health, there is no question that he can compete for a roster spot in Colorado – maybe as soon as next season.

18. (NR) Joseph Blandisi, C, 6.0C
Drafted 6th Round, 162nd Overall, 2012

Based on the rest of Colorado’s forward prospects, one could probably make an educated guess that Blandisi is a very talented, but under-sized, forward – and one would be right.

Blandisi had a career season in the OHL this year, tallying 51 points in 63 games between the Owen Sound Attack and the Ottawa 67’s. What was even more impressive about his season, however, is how he took to the spotlight in Ottawa, scoring 26 points in 26 games. Blandisi thrives on physical play and is a hard worker, just like a lot of Colorado’s other forward prospects. He is certainly a few years away from making any sort of impact at the pro level, but the fact he is looking at a 20 point improvement from his rookie season in the OHL to his sophomore season bodes well for his future.

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

After an impressive rookie season with the Lake Erie Monsters, the offensively-gifted Chouinard looked to be trending upwards in the Avs organization. Chouinard tallied 17 points in 35 games in his first season with the Monsters, only to stumble in his second season and earn himself a demotion to the CHL. Undeterred, however, Chouinard put together a very solid season this year for the Denver Cutthroats tallying six goals and 20 points in 42 games.

While Chouinard has some “plus” offensive skills, his defensive game needs significant work if he is going to progress within the Avs’ organization. He took steps forward this season, but the question remains whether he took the steps forward because of the competition he was facing with the Cutthroats or because his game is developing. Chouinard is in the last year of his entry-level deal and his future with the organization is up in the air after this season but, that being said, if he sticks around he will likely get a longer look at a higher level to see just how good he can be.

20. (NR) Gus Young, D, 6.0D
Drafted 7th Round, 184th Overall, 2009

With Young, what you see is what you get. He is a solid, positional defenseman that can skate and can shut down opposing teams. He will not put up a ton of points, as has been evidenced by his eight points in 35 games for Yale this season, but he is solid in his own end and looks to have all of the makings of a future leader wherever he ends up.

He is definitely not going to crack an NHL roster anytime in the near future, but Young looks like he could have the makings of a solid prospect in the coming years if everything lines up right for him. Yale will take the ice against UMass-Lowell in their semifinal game at the Frozen Four on April 11th.