Welcome to the 2015 edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”. As we go through the Summer of 2015 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 2015 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 2015-16 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 or being 25 years old. These are not hard or fast rules though, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
After an exceptional 2013-14 season that saw them take first place in the Central Division, the Colorado Avalanche fell back down to earth in 2015-16, finishing 21st overall, and outside of the playoffs. Semyon Varlamov was good, but was not up to the Vezina Trophy Nominee status that he held the previous year. Tyson Barrie emerged as a premier puck mover on the blueline, but overall depth was a concern. The offensive production coming from Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan McKinnon all dropped off to various degrees. While Jarome Iginla was added and he produced the points that were lost with Paul Stastny in St. Louis, it wasn’t quite enough. If the Avs overachieved in the 2013-14 season, they underachieved this year. This has led to some changes as Ryan O’Reilly is out, with a number of youngsters coming in from Buffalo. His role is largely being replaced by Carl Soderberg who was a pending UFA that the Avalanche traded for at the draft and then signed to a long term deal. On the blueline Francois Beauchemin comes in to add some depth and mentor the youngsters.
2015 Draft Picks: Players Drafted: Mikko Rantanen, A.J. Greer, Nicolas Meloche, Jean-Christophe Beaudin, Andrei Mironov, Sergei Boikov, Gustav Olhavor
Graduates: Dennis Everberg, Nikita Zadorov (acquired from Buffalo), Mikhail Grigorenko (acquired from Buffalo).
TSP: 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 2nd Round, 32nd Overall in the 2014 NHL Draft
Last year, we indicated that while Bigras offensive stats were down in 2013-14 vs his 2012-13 season, we saw vast improvements in his defensive game, and as such, it wasn’t too big of a worry. His offensive explosion, 71 points in 62 games this season, seems to confirm that. Now more comfortable in his own zone, Bigras revved up the offence, and nearly doubled his previous career high for points. He also continued to be the key shutdown defender for the Attack, playing huge minutes in all situations. He turned pro at the end of the year and had four assists in seven AHL games.
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 has shown the willingness to take more offensive chances, often joining the rush as a trailer, and even taking some opportunities to lead it. Still he loves to use his passing skill to get Owen Sound’s transition game going and then follow up on the play. He is quick and efficient with the puck meaning less time is spent in his own end and more time spent in transition when he is on the ice. On the power play he is a heads up playmaker. His shot has improved as he’s added upper body strength, but is not a howitzer. He has great ability to keep it low and on target though, 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. In this way he forces attackers into bad shooting positions. He blocks passing lanes effectively as well. Bigras works hard in board battles and in clearing the front of the net, and has gotten stronger over the last two years. 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.
Bigras will go to Avalanche camp looking to earn a spot on the team. He’s young but could make it with a strong camp. Still it is most likely that he ends up in the AHL, getting a little more experience and possibly being an injury callup, before making his real push in 2016 training camp. With the way he’s improved since being drafted, he could make an impact sooner rather than later.
#2 Prospect: Conner Bleakley, Centre
Born Feb 7 1996 — High River, ALTA
Height 6.1 — Weight 196 [185 cm/89 kg] – Shoots Right
2014-15 was a year of small gains for Conner Bleakley. He didn’t seem to show vast improvement in any one area, but did make a number of small improvements across the board. In terms of offence, he produced a much better goals per game ratio with 27 in 51 games, but saw his assists numbers fall by a similar amount in Red Deer.
Bleackley continues to make effective use of his size and speed to get in quickly on the forecheck and play a physical game. He scores goals with a very good wrist shot and a quick release. He shows the ability to drive hard to the net and score in tight. He has good the balance and strength on his skates necessary to fight through checks and battle in the dirty areas of the ice, in front of the net and in the corners. Its not always pretty, but it is effective. Bleakley is as likely to bull rush through a defenceman to get to the net, as he is to go around them. He excels in getting to the dirty areas of the ice, and playing a high contact, gritty style of game. He has the quick hands to pounce on rebounds and put them in the back of the net in tight, or to make a quick move on the goaltender as he cuts to the net. He is very good in the cycle game, and his hockey IQ helps him to make quick, smart passes and wait for openings. Bleakley understands that a shift can be effective if his line controls the puck down low, even if they don’t get a goal or scoring chance, especially when playing against the other team’s best offensive players.
Bleackley is a decent skater. His top end speed is average, and he could stand to improve his acceleration and quickness going forward. Lengthening and strengthening his stride would make a huge difference in his game. However he has very good agility, and excellent balance. He’s very hard to knock off the puck, and that really helps him to play the gritty style that he favours.
Bleackley is well developped defensively. He’s good in the face-off circle, and while the WHL doesn’t keep stats, seems to win a good number of his draws. He also backchecks hard, and is willing to do whatever it takes to help his team win, whether it be block shots, or play against the other teams’s top lines, and kill penalties. He understands the game at a high level and his ability to read the play and anticipate what others will do helps him to create turnovers in all three ends of the ice. Bleackley plays a high energy style and he never stops moving his feet. He’s even been known to drop the gloves on occassion, but this isn’t the focus of his game.
Expect to see Bleakley playing an offensive role for Red Deer again this season, while trying to make Team Canada’s World Junior squad in a bottom six, checking line capacity.
#3 Prospect: Calvin Pickard, Goalie
Born Apr 15 1992 — Moncton, NB
Height 6.01 — Weight 195 [185 cm/88 kg] — Shoots Left
Drafted in the 2010 NHL Draft, round 2, 49th overall by the Colorado Avalanche
Pickard got his shot in the NHL last season, after both Reto Barra and Semyon Varlamov went down with injuries early in the year. In 16 games with the AVs he didn’t disappoint, putting up a .932 save percentage. Granted that was a small sample size of games played, but the numbers were phenomenal. In the AHL Pickard still put up reasonably strong numbers with a .917 save percentage over 50 games.
Pickard is an extremely technically sound goaltender, playing a strong butterfly technique, and showing good rebound control. He has quick legs which take away the bottom of the net, and does a good job with his glove and blocker of taking away the top of the net. He is a good skater, which allows him to come out to cut down angles, and his good push and solid puck tracking allow him to go side to side quickly and efficiently. He’s made great strides in his game in the past year and its clear that working with Francois Allaire as well as getting a few tips from Patrick Roy has had a dramatic effect.
Pickard showed an ability to recover quickly from bad goals against. These will happen to any goaltender, but sometimes a young goalie will allow the last goal to stick in his head, making him lose focus for the next shot and a domino effect can occur. This has not seemed to happen to Pickard, who recovers quickly and is ready to make the next stop.
Pickard is also decent at handling the puck. Making a good pass, and helping his defenders to clear the zone on dumpins. He’s shown this a bit more at the AHL level than in the NHL, so its expected we will see it more in the big leagues with increased experience at that level.
Expect Calvin Pickard to take on the full-time backup role for the Avalanche this season, beyond starter Semyon Varlamov.
Sleeper: Will Butcher, Defence
Born Jan 6 1995 — Sun Prairie, WI
Height 5.10 — Weight 200 [178 cm/91 kg] — Shoots Left
Selected in the 2013 NHL DRaft, round 5 #123 overall by the Colorado Avalanche
Will Butcher finished up his second season at the University of Denver, putting up 4 goals and 18 points in 38 games. He also played on the United States entry in the 2015 World Juniors, being named an alternate captain on the club.
Butcher has very good vision and the ability to thread the needle on passes both to start the transition game and in setting up plays in the offensive zone. He also has a good shot, and understands how to get it through to the net and keep it low to create opportunities for tip-ins and rebounds for his teammates. He has good agility and walks the line well to open up passing and shooting lanes in the offensive zone. Butcher also shows poise with the puck and can stickhandle away from a forechecker, or to create space in the offensive zone.
While Butcher is a little undersized, and can be overpowered in the defensive zone, he works hard to avoid this making him a defensive liability. He has good positioning and a quick stick to try and avoid these situations. He also transitions the puck out of the defensive zone quickly, avoiding getting pinned in there for long periods of time. Butcher has strong positioning and effectively cuts down passing lanes.
Expect to see Butcher back at the University of Denver for at least one more season, where he will continue to bulk up before looking at going to the NHL.
Last year we looked at the Avalanche as having one of the shallowest prospect groups in the NHL. However we must look at their NHL team and see how many young players are contributing in key roles. Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Matt Duchene are all young, elite forwards, while Tyson Barrie is a young elite puckmover. These are the key pieces of the team’s core. Future prospects were improved over the past year with the drafting of Mikko Rantanen, and the addition of J.T. Compher via trade. A young (but not quite a prospect) defender in Nikita Zadorov was also added. Mikhail Grigorenko is also not a prospect due to game’s played, but is young. He looked to be heading down the road of being a first round bust in Buffalo, but reunited with his junior coach in Patrick Roy, there is some hope he can start to reach his immense potential. Other prospects in the system like Duncan Siemens and Joey Hishon are reaching the point where they must no longer knock on the door looking for an NHL spot, but bust it down and take that spot. Overall though, the system looks in better shape than one year ago. While it won’t rank highly on our “organizational rankings” due to so many of the Avalanche’s young players not being prospects, this doesn’t change the fact that the future is bright and a solid young core is being assembled in Denver.
DENVER, CO – SEPTEMBER 20: Chris Bigras #57 of the Colorado Avalanche skates against the Los Angeles Kings during their preseason game at the Pepsi Center on September 20, 2013 in Denver, Colorado. The Avalanche defeated the Kings 4-3 in overtime. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)