With a propensity to draft players from the WHL, OHL, and QMJHL, Colorado Avalanche general manager Greg Sherman has assembled a wealth of skilled prospects who either continue to refine their game in the Canadian Hockey League, or have moved on to playing with Colorado's AHL-affiliated Lake Erie Monsters. Fewer in number are the Avalanche's prospects currently honing their craft in the NCAA or in Europe, but they do have several with the potential to be serviceable NHL players in the not-so-distant-future.
Position-wise, the Avalanche can boast about having a system that is arguably the richest in talent along the blue line, in addition to a promising plethora of young game-changers between the pipes. Up front, the Avalanche have considerably less depth, but they may still have a couple of future stars on their hands.
The Avalanche immensely bolstered their left wing depth when they spent their second overall selection in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft on OHL forward Gabriel Landeskog. The fearless Swede, who lined up mostly at right wing in junior for the Kitchener Rangers, has been playing left wing for Colorado at the NHL level in 2011-12. Despite not possessing elite offensive skills the left-shooting 18-year-old has a powerful skating stride, is unafraid to go to any area of the ice to battle for pucks, and is a tenacious leader. All of these qualities combined with his versatility to be used in virtually any scenario makes Landeskog every coach's dream player. He has two goals goal and an assists in six games so far this season, and will probably spend the season with the parent club.
Ryan Stoa, who has also been known to play center, is the next best left winger in Colorado's system. The big, bruising power forward is a force to be reckoned with around the crease, but has been plagued by inconsistency at both the AHL and NHL levels. Despite a rare combination of size and offensive skill, the 24-year-old is now six seasons removed from his draft year and finds himself beginning the 2011-12 campaign in the minors, where he has been held pointless through five games. Having signed a one-year extension this past summer, Stoa will again be playing for a new contract this season.
There is a considerable drop-off following Stoa, as collegian Paul Carey and third-year Lake Erie Monster Zach Cohen could be better suited for careers playing in the AHL. Carey, a senior at Boston College, has a strong grasp of the offensive side of the game but needs work in most other areas, while Cohen has settled into a role as a checking-line grinder for the Monsters.
The lone left wing prospect playing in Europe is Johan Alcen who plays for Mora in the Allsvenskan. Though not a great skater, the 23-year-old has decent size and is averaging just under a point per game this season, putting him on pace for his most productive season of professional hockey.
Their top pivot prospect is a smooth-skating, creative-playmaker by the name of Joey Hishon, though a serious head injury during last year's Memorial Cup tournament has pitted a definite roadblock in his future as a professional hockey player. Despite sitting out the rest of the tournament and having the entire summer to recover, Hishon remains unable to play. Even practice and training have been difficult for the feisty 19-year-old as he continues to deal with post-concussion symptoms. Prior to the injury at the end of May, Hishon had put together an OHL season worth remembering. After compiling 87 points in just 50 games in 2010-11, the elusive center tallied 24 points in 22 games en route to leading the Owen Sound Attack to their first ever OHL championship. A well-rounded offensive sparkplug who shows an occasional nasty side, Hishon's only real obstacle from eventually acquiring a job playing hockey in the NHL is his concussion symptoms.
Mark Olver could contribute for the Avalanche sooner than any of their other prospects playing center, as he already has some NHL experience. The former Northern Michigan University Wildcat chipped in with nine points in 18 games for Colorado last season, in addition to scoring 23 goals in 58 contests for the Lake Erie Monsters. Small, yet aggressive and highly-skilled, Olver fits a similar mould to Joey Hishon. Unfortunately, like Hishon, the 23-year-old finds himself sidelined to start the 2011-12 season with a head injury. There has been little news regarding the severity or nature of the injury, but the fact that the Avalanche were quick to place Olver on the injured reserve suggests that it might not be a quick recovery.
Following Olver on the depth chart is former University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux Brad Malone. A bit of a project when he was selected out of the USHL in 2007, Malone took some big strides during his four years of NCAA hockey, particularly in his junior and senior years. Unlike the rest of the Avalanche's centers, Malone is a belligerent, instigating power forward with decent size. Having discovered an untapped offensive game in his final years at North Dakota, it will be interesting to see if the 22-year-old's scoring touch will translate to the pro game. He projects as a depth checking-line enforcer with the ability to score the occasional goal at the NHL level, though he will probably spend 2011-12 furthering his development with Lake Erie.
Joachim Nermark, drafted in the fourth round in 2011, continues to round out his game in the Elitserien. The 18-year-old Swede is a defense-first forward with an underrated offensive game, though his ability to make smart decisions with the puck is suspect at times.
Other defensive forwards include Justin Mercier and Michael Carman, who both enter their third season with the Lake Erie Monsters. Evan Brophey, who played the past four seasons for the Chicago Blackhawks' AHL-affiliate, was acquired as a free agent in the offseason. None of the three have shown enough promise offensively or defensively recently to warrant an NHL promotion.
The University of Minnesota's Nate Condon is the only collegian of the bunch. The Golden Gopher sophomore is an impressive skater and stick-handler, and with six points through four games this year he is on pace to shatter the 17-point output he totaled as a freshman.
Colorado's greatest area of need from a prospect perspective is at right wing. Of the three players who can line up at the right side of the faceoff circle, Luke Walker is the most NHL-ready, but he is still a productive season in the AHL away from being given such an opportunity. As a rookie with the Lake Erie Monsters last season, Walker took some time to adjust to his new competition and spent most of the season making simple plays as a checking-line player. With an expanded role and increased confidence from a year of professional hockey under his belt, the physical winger could very feasibly double his 10-goal total from last season.
At just 18 years of age, Garrett Meurs may have the most offensive upside of any right winger in the Avs' system, but may lack the dogged determination necessary to achieve scoring stardom. A slick skater who is quick to dart up ice on the breakout, Meurs' defensive game leaves more to be desired. He is still a ways from playing professionally and will likely spend another two or three years playing junior hockey.
Luke Moffatt lacks the typical background of most NHL prospects, but he doesn't lack the soft hands or creative vision. The native of Paradise Valley, Arizona has notched a goal and three assists in four games this season as a sophomore for the University of Michigan Wolverines. Still just 19, Moffatt will probably play another two or three seasons of college hockey.
Colorado's table of blue-chip defensive prospects is plentiful, and 18-year-old WHLer Duncan Siemens leads an impressive list of talented, offensive rearguards. Siemens is a prototypical NHL defenseman in every aspect of the game. The Saskatoon Blade has a tremendous ability to find teammates in open space, is unafraid to step in the path of opposing shooters, and carries himself with a sizeable chip on his shoulder. Despite all his gifts, he still needs to pack on a few pounds and could stand to use his generous size even more effectively, steering opposing forwards away from the goal area. The 2011, first-round pick is a virtual lock to make the NHL as a top four defenseman, and could leave junior hockey for the pros as soon as next season.
As for Colorado defensive prospects who could find themselves wearing Avalanche burgundy and blue this season, there are four, each of whom have begun 2011-12 playing for the Lake Erie Monsters. Stefan Elliott and Tyson Barrie, who tore up the WHL for the past five years as point-producing juggernauts, each had a strong training camp and will eventually be looked upon to bring their high-flying, puck-moving ways to the AHL. Joel Chouinard, who looks to stay healthy this year after an injury-riddled campaign last season, also brings an offensively-charged skill-set to the table.
Cameron Gaunce, given his 11-game NHL stint last season, is probably the first in line should the Avalanche decide to call up a defenseman from the minors. Despite a less polished offensive game than Elliott Barrie and Chouinard, Gaunce's defensive zone play and physicality separate him from the rest as the most NHL-ready of the skilled group of prospects on the blue line. Jake Newton is the only other defensive prospect currently playing for the Monsters, but he is presently only a depth AHLer.
The Avalanche also have four rearguards currently playing Canadian major junior hockey. Troy Rutkowski is a physical, offensive defender for the Portland Winterhawks who will likely spend another year or two improving in the WHL before receiving an opportunity to further his development in Lake Erie. Stephen Silas is the Belleville Bulls' puck-moving blueliner and will likely play out his OHL eligibility working on his skating and positional play. General manager Greg Sherman spent his sixth and seventh-round picks in 2011 on a pair of hard-nosed rearguards from the QMJHL in Gabriel Beaupre and Dillon Donnelly. Both are considered long-term projects and will play out their junior eligibility.
With Jonas Holos opting out of his contract and heading back to the Elitserien, Jens Hellgren is the sole remaining European defense prospect in Colorado's system. For the fourth straight season, the 22-year-old will spend the year playing in Sweden's second-tiered Allsvenskan. Gus Young is the Avs only collegian defenseman, and will need to perform better and more consistently to crack the Yale Bulldogs' roster as a sophomore. Like Beaupre and Donnelly, consider Hellgren and Young long-shots to crack the NHL.
Just a few seasons ago, the Avalanche's greatest area of concern was the future of their goaltending. Having addressed that concern through recent drafts, Colorado has assembled several young netminders who could crack an NHL roster in just a year or two.
The most promising of the bunch is the Seattle Thunderbirds' Calvin Pickard. The fourth-year WHLer has been shelled with pucks during his junior career as the last line of defense on a perennial basement-dwelling team. His technical game is nearly flawless, and he may shine as a member of the Lake Erie Monsters next season, playing for a team with a better defensive game than his Seattle squad of the past four seasons.
Standout collegians Kent Patterson of the University of Minnesota and Kieran Millan of Boston University enter 2011-12 as seniors on two of the top-ranked teams in the country. Both have been stingy for stretches playing NCAA hockey, but will need to shine consistently this year to be tendered NHL contracts at the end of their respective college seasons.
Playing in the minors the last couple years, Trevor Cann has been unable to consistently display the stifling, athletic goaltending performances that made him a star in the OHL. He finally gets his chance as the Lake Erie Monsters' starter to begin this season, with Cedrick Desjardins on the shelf with a shoulder injury.
Like they do at most of the other positions, the Avalanche have one goaltending prospect playing in Europe. Sami Aittokallio is a 19-year-old Finish netminder playing for Ilves in the SM-liiga. He is blessed with ideal size and great quickness, but the Avalanche are in no rush to bring him into the mix. He will probably spend another few seasons in Europe, ironing out the technical kinks in his game.