Welcome to the 2014 edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”. As we go through the Summer of 2014 I will be featuring a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. I will go team by team through the NHL bringing you a look at each Teams Top Prospects. I will be following the order of the first round of the NHL draft (as if there were no traded draft picks) and you can find all the articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in the 2014 draft, as there have been no games since then, and my reports on them will not have changed. What I will be doing is linking you to those articles, as well as taking a look at prospects that were acquired before this year’s draft; their progress, and their chances of making the 2014-15 roster of the NHL team in question. I will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later, or was an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as my darkhorse to make the NHL. For those wondering, the cut-off for what is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 50 NHL games played (including playoffs) or being 25 years old. These are not hard or fast rules though, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
In their first season under Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy, the Avalanche showed huge improvement over the team that finished 29th in the NHL in 2012-13. Led by Canadian Olympian Matt Duchene, captain and Swedish Olympian Gabriel Landeskog, Vezina candidate Semyon Varlamov and featuring Calder winner Nathan MacKinnon, the Avalanche finished in first place in the NHL Central Division. Unfortunately there were still some growing pains for the young team as they fell in 7 games to the Minnesota Wild in the first round of the playoffs.
The off-season brought a few key changes as Paul Stastny left, joining the division rival St. Louis Blues as a free agent. Also leaving as a free agent is defenceman Andre Benoit who signed with Buffalo. The Avs also traded P.A. Parenteau to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for Daniel Briere. They also picked up defenceman Brad Stuart in a trade with San Jose. However the Avalanche’s biggest move was signing Jarome Iginla to a three-year contract as a UFA.
Top Colorado Avalanche Prospects
Top Prospect – Chris Bigras, Defence
Born Feb 22 1995 — Elmvale, ONT
Height 6.01 — Weight 194 — Shoots Left
Drafted by the Colorado Avalanche in the 1st Round, 32nd Overall in the 2014 NHL Draft
For those that only look at stats, they might think that Chris Bigras regressed after being drafted 32nd overall in 2013. His points were down this year, and his plus/minus was a lot worse. While this would be concerning for most prospects, some context on Bigras is needed. First the Owen Sound Attack were a strong team and very deep in 2012-13 accumulating 94 points and being 3rd in the conference. They weren’t near as deep this year, only getting 70 points in a transition year. Bigras was given a bigger role and forced to play a lot tougher opposition. He also played a more conservative game, taking less offensive chances as a result. The attack didn’t have the offensive depth that they had in 2013, and scored 30 less goals as a result. Therefore playing a more defensive game was imperative for them to make the playoffs. Bigras impressed enough with his ability to play big minutes in all situations that he made Team Canada for the World Juniors. Personally I don’t think Bigras took any big steps forward this year but he also didn’t regress.
Bigras is an extremely smart player with outstanding instincts and positioning. While he is not flashy, he consistently makes the smart play in nearly all situations and in all three zones. Bigras is extremely poised with the puck and makes hard, crisp tape to tape passes, both on the breakout and on the power play. He can sometimes join the rush as a trailer, but is not likely to lead it, instead using his passing skill to get Owen Sound’s transition game going. He is quick and efficient with the puck meaning less time is spent in his own end and more time spent in transition. On the power play he is a heads up playmaker. His shot needs work on its power, but he has great ability to keep it low and on target, leading to tip ins and rebounds.
Bigras is solid in the defensive zone. He uses his strong positioning and good instincts to their full advantage. He maintains good gap control and is rarely beaten in one on one situations, keeping his man to the outside and forcing him away from the net. He blocks passing lanes effectively as well. Bigras works hard in board battles and in clearing the front of the net, but must add more muscle mass to be really effective in these situations. He isn’t a huge hitter, but will take the body when necessary to make a play.
Bigras skating is at a decent level. His top end speed and acceleration, are slightly above average and could use some improvement however they are not liabilities. He combines that speed with very good edgework, footwork and agility, which coupled with his hockey sense and positioning allow him to cover a lot of ice. Bigras makes decent pivots, but could be a little bit quicker and crisper in this area as well. Bigras has some decent balance, but could become stronger on the puck with more muscle.
Expect to see Bigras back in the OHL for one more year, and if the Attack don’t look like a contender, he could be traded to one.
#2 Prospect – Duncan Siemens, Defence
Born Sep 7 1993 — Sherwood Park, ALTA
Height 6.04 — Weight 209 — Shoots Left
Selected by the Colorado Avalanche in the 1st round, 11th overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
Siemens made his pro debut with the Lake Erie Monsters this year, but missed nearly half the season with injuries. When he did play he put up 1 goal and 3 assists in 46 games.
Duncan Siemens is a rugged defender who hasn’t played up to his draft position, but is still a decent prospect. After an impressive 2010-11 season that saw Siemens rocket up draft boards and be selected 11th overall by the Avalanche, his points per game decreased in each of his junior years, and was passed on the Saskatoon depth chart by Darren Dietz. Siemens made his pro debut with the Lake Erie Monsters this year, but missed nearly half the season with injuries. When he did play he put up 1 goal and 3 assists in 46 games.
At 6’4 and 209 lbs, Siemens has an impressive frame. He could however stand to pack on a few additional pounds of muscle onto that frame. Siemens is a rough and tumble customer who has been known to throw a devastating hit, and to drop the gloves when necessary. Siemens is an excellent defender who is capable of playing physical, winning battles along the boards, clearing the front of the net, blocking shots, making a good first pass to start the transition game. His future is likely as a defensive defenceman going forward.
Siemens is a very good skater, especially for a player his size. His smooth stride, excellent pivots, and good agility and balance help him to be rarely out of position. He has shown the ability to stick with forwards in his own zone and is very difficult to beat off the rush. He also has shown some ability to make good decisions and and shows some decent vision from time to time, but overall his offensive game is inconsistent. It doesn’t appear that he has the puck handling skills to really be a big offensive contributor in the AHL, or in the NHL.
Since being drafted 11th overall in 2011, Siemens has had a bit of a rocky road, but is still young enough and talented enough that he can make the NHL. A healthy season and progressing at both ends of the ice is extremely important for Siemens this year. Expect to see him back in the AHL. It is very important to Colorado’s future that Siemens develops into that rugged, physical defender, as they really need to add that dimension in the prospect pool. While the Avalanche have some very good defence prospects, he brings a physical dimension that others just don’t.
#3 Prospect – Joey Hishon, Centre
Born Oct 20 1991 — Stratford, ONT
Height 5.10 — Weight 175 — Shoots Left
Drafted by the Colorado Avalanche in the 1st round 17th overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft
Joey Hishon is a former first round pick who had a great junior career until that all came crashing down due to a serious concussion suffered in the 2011 Memorial Cup. After sitting out nearly two full years, he was finally cleared to play at the end of the 2012-13 season and was able to play 9 games for Lake Erie. This year he came back for a full year, and managed to put up 24 points in 50 games for Lake Erie, as well as play 3 playoff games for the Avalanche, recording his first NHL assist.
Hishon has excellent skating ability. He has extremely quick feet giving him a great first step and excellent acceleration and good top end speed. He can use his agility and his ability to change pace to fool defenders and to drive past them to the net. He also has good stickhandling to be dynamic on the rush. He needs to add some muscle to his frame though to be able to fight through checks. That said, Hishon is fearless despite the injuries he has suffered and goes to dirty areas in front of the net and battles in the corners. Hishon also has good passing skills.
Defensively Hishon tries hard, and is willing to play a gritty game, but again his lack of upper body strength is an issue as he is overpowered by strong forwards in the cycle game. He does have the quickness, anticipation and hockey sense thought to cut down passing lanes and can quickly start the transition game.
Hishon lost significant development time due to sitting on the shelf and it leaves major questions as to whether he can catch that up now as the development a player has at that age is extremely important. He does have natural talent though, so the Avs will likely send him back to the AHL and hope he can start to catch up and eventually become a contributor to the NHL team. With the Avs depth at Cente, he might have to move to left wing down the road, but its more about just getting him playing time now.
Super Sleeper Prospect – Sami Aittokallio, Goaltender
Born Aug 6 1992 — Tampere, Finland
Height 6.01 — Weight 174 — Shoots Left, Catches Left
Drafted by Colorado Avalanche in the 4the round, 107th overall in the 2010 NHL Draft
In his second year in North America, Aittokallio put up a .909 save percentage for Lake Erie, and improvement on his rookie campaign. He even got an NHL start this year, the second of his career, but lasted only 2 periods after giving up 3 goals.
Aittokallio plays a fairly narrow and more upright butterfly style than most goalies, but it is still a butterfly. He has quick legs that really help him to take away the bottom of the net while relying on a quick blocker and decent glove to take away the top part. He moves extremely well laterally and tracks the puck making cross crease saves look easier than they are. Aittokallio is not as big as the goalies currently favored by most NHL teams, but he makes up for that with excellent reflexes and good athleticism. Tries to stand up as long as possible, and really doesn’t commit to going to his knees too quickly very often. One concern is his rebound control, which must improve for Aittokallio to make it to the next level.
The Avalanche’s prospect group is pretty shallow right now, and they have taken some heat for it. However we must look at their NHL team and see how many young players are contributing in key roles. Nathan MacKinnon, Ryan O’Reilly, Gabriel Landeskog, and Matt Duchene are all young, elite forwards, and key pieces of the team’s core. However, there isn’t much in terms of future prospects as even top forward prospect Hishon has major question marks. Varlamov is still young for a goaltender having just turned 26. The team does have Aittokallio and Calvin Pickard in the AHL, and Spencer Martin in the AHL and are well stocked at this position, On defence, Tyson Barrie is emerging as a key contributor, and Stefan Elliott should get more NHL time this season than he got a year ago. However even with Bigras and Siemens, this area seems a little weak in terms of prospects. Next on the list is probably longshot project Will Butcher. In some ways the criticism of the lack of prospects is valid, but at the same time I don’t think that Avs fans should be too concerned given the young players they have in the NHL.
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