Welcome to the 2016 edition of “Top Shelf NHL Prospects”. As we go through the Summer of 2016 I will be featuring a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. I will follow the order of the first round of the NHL draft (as if there were no trades). 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 this year. 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 2016-17 roster. I will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later; or 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.
TSP: Colorado Avalanche Prospects
The Colorado Avalanche were in the playoff hunt right down to the end of the year. With the Minnesota Wild struggling down the stretch, the door was open for Colorado to make the playoffs. Unfortunately injuries to Nathan MacKinnon and Matt Duchene down the stretch were too much to overcome. Colorado lost eight of their last nine games. It left them on the outside looking in come playoff time.
The Avalanche havent made many big moves this off-season, but instead have looked at locking up key players on the current roster, while looking for bargain additions. They signed forward Joe Colborne, and defencemen Patrick Wiercioch and Fedor Tyutin to team friendly contracts. They also traded Reto Barra to Florida for Rocco Grimaldi. He has scored consistently in college and the AHL, but hasn’t done much in the NHL yet. To really take the next step forward though they will need continued development from their young roster. They will also need their prospects to step up.
Colorado Avalanche Prospects Scouting Reports
Top Prospect: Mikko Rantanen
Right Wing — shoots Left
Born Oct 29 1996 — Nousiainen, Finland
Height 6’4 — Weight 211 lbs [193 cm / 96 kg]
Drafted by Colorado Avalanche in the round 1, 10th overall 2015 NHL Entry Draft
The Avalanche’s 10th overall pick one year ago, Rantanen had an incredible season. While the youngster didn’t do much in his nine game NHL debut; he did everything else that could have been hoped for. It should be noted that he mainly played fourth line minutes near the end of the season, after Duchene and MacKinnon went down. He captained Finland to a World Junior Championship gold medal.
Rantanen had a great rookie season with the San Antonio Rampage of the AHL. He was the co-winner of the AHL Rookie of the Year award; and made the AHL All-Star Team. He was also better than a point-per-game with 60 points in 52 games. Rantanen finished second in AHL rookie scoring, just one point behind Austin Czarnik; but he played in 16 less games due to his NHL stint and time at the World Juniors. He did all this despite being one of the youngest players in the league.
Rantanen’s skating looks awkward, but is more effective than a first look at his short stand-up stride would indicate it should be. He has good top end speed but he can improve his first step and acceleration. This should come through work with a good skating coach. His agility is good for his size. Rantanen could add more power and better balance by improving his stride and adding muscle mass. This will help Rantanen in fighting through checks and driving the net, as well as help him win more board battles against big NHL players. Due to the skating, Rantanen currently projects as a winger instead of a centre at the pro level. He has played some centre in international tournaments; but was mainly a right wing both when he was playing pro in Finland, and with San Antonio.
Rantanen is a big player who plays a power forward style of game. At 6’4 he has the ideal size that NHL teams crave. He works extremely hard along the boards and is extremely effective at winning battles in international tournaments in his age group. He may not throw huge hits, but he uses his size effectively in the corners and in establishing position in the offensive zone. Rantanen also drives the net hard and can finish in close.
He could stand to work on his shot though, as he could use more power but already has a very good release. The added power may come with additional upper body strength. This is not to say that his shot is bad, its not and is actually quite good already; but it could be elite with a little work. Rantanen controls the puck well down low on the cycle and has the vision to spot open teammates and the passing skill to feather a tape-to-tape pass through the tiniest of openings. He is more of a play maker than a goal scorer right now, as he often looks to make the pass instead of taking available shots.
Rantanen shows good effort at the defensive end and is a solid two-way player. He backchecks hard, and brings his physicality and grit in all three zones. His long stick and big frame cut down passing lanes. Rantanen is not afraid to put his body on the line to block shots. He reads the play well, and plays smart positional hockey.
Given his performances at the AHL level, Rantanen looks extremely close to NHL ready. He needs to play the proper position though, and that is right wing. A strong training camp could lead to Rantanen taking a spot in the Avalanche top three lines. Once he gets that spot, he will be unlikely to reliquish it.
#2 Prospect: Tyson Jost
The Avalanche drafted Jost with the 10th overall pick in this year’s NHL draft. Prior to the draft, we did an in-depth scouting report on Jost. As no games have been played since that report; we will not repeat it. You can check out the report here.
#3 Prospect: Chris Bigras
Defense — shoots Left
Born Feb 22 1995 — Orillia, ONT
Height 6’1 — Weight 190 lbs [185 cm / 86 kg]
Drafted by Colorado Avalanche in round 2, #32 overall at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft
Bigras had a solid first professional season. He split time between the San Antonio Rampage and the Avalanche. At the AHL level, Bigras showed offensive prowess with six goals and 13 assists for 19 points in 37 games. While he didn’t score near as much in the NHL, just three points in 31 games, he showed strong two-way potential.
Bigras skating continues to improve and its taking his game to the next level. His top end speed and acceleration have both improved over the past year, and are now well above average. While he could use some improvement still, this is not a liability, but a real strength right now. He combines that speed with very good edge work, footwork and agility. This makes him difficult to beat one-on-one. When coupled with his hockey sense and positioning, it also 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 good balance. He is stronger on the puck than he was in his draft year.
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. Extremely poised with the puck. He makes hard, crisp tape-to-tape passes, both on the breakout and on the power play.
Over the last couple of years, he is willing 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 the transition game going and then follow up on the play. Bigras is quick and efficient with the puck. This means less time spent in his own end and more time spent in transition. On the power play he is a heads up play maker. His shot improved due to 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. Bigras keeps his man to the outside and forces 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. He 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 will go to camp looking for a full-time spot on the Avalanche blue line. Based on his play last year, a good camp will earn that spot. He looks to be a long-time staple, and a building block in the Avalanche top four, long-term.
#4 Prospect: J.T. Compher
Wing/Centre — shoots Right
Born Apr 8 1995 — Northbrook, IL
Height 5’11 — Weight 193 lbs [180 cm / 88 kg]
Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in round 2, #35 overall, at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft
Traded to Colorado in June 2015.
J.T. Compher had a massive season. He captained the Michigan Wolverines to the Big 10 title, and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in college hockey. It was a massive year. Compher put up 63 points in 38 games. He also played for Team USA at the IIHF World Championships, and acquitted himself well in a tournament with some of the NHL’s best players. Compher has turned pro, and signed his entry level deal with Colorado.
Compher’s skating stride is not pretty, but it gets him where he is going and it is effective. He has decent speed and acceleration. He is very strong on his skates, and has good balance allowing him to fight through checks and get to the net. Compher is difficult to knock off the puck. His agility and edge work have improved in college. He could still use some time working on better skating technique though. This would make him an even better player.
Compher is a talented agitator who plays an irritating game. He is always yapping and always in an opponents face after the whistle. Compher has the ability to get opponents off their game and draw penalties. Compher always seems to have a nose for trouble, finding himself in the middle of any scrum that starts when he is on the ice. He is not afraid to go to the dirty areas of the ice, and wins board battles and establishes position well in front of the net. He also drives the net hard. Compher takes a goalie interference penalty or two for his efforts, from time to time.
Compher also has the skills to back up his chirping and agitation. He has the vision, and passing ability to be an extremely effective play maker. Compher is a very good stick handler and can protect the puck well and control the play off the cycle. Compher combines this with a very good shot and release, and he knows how to put the puck in the back of the net. He also has the hockey sense to always find himself in the right place at the right time.
Compher is defensively strong. He brings his tenacious, hard working, physical game to the defensive end of the ice. He is willing to sacrifice for his team and puts his body on the line to block shots. His hockey sense, and ability to diagnose plays is very good and he often finds himself in the right spot in the defensive zone as well.
The Avalanche have a deep and talented forward group, and making the jump directly from college hockey to the NHL is tough. Expect to see Compher start the season with the San Antonio Rampage. He could develop quickly though, and may see some time as an call-up if injuries hit. Expect to see Compher as a full-time NHLer as early as the 2017-18 season. Compher reminds us of a young Claude Lemieux, and would be a fan favorite playing this style for the Avalanche.
#5 Prospect: Cam Morrison
The Avalanche drafted Morrison with the 40th overall pick in this year’s NHL draft. Prior to the draft, we did an in-depth scouting report on Morrison. As no games have been played since that report; we will not repeat it. You can check out the report here.
#6 Prospect: Nicolas Meloche
Defense — shoots Right
Born Jul 18 1997 — Rosemere, PQ
Height 6’2 — Weight 197 lbs [188 cm / 89 kg]
Drafted by the Colorado Avalanche in round 2, #40 overall at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft
Nicolas Meloche had another solid QMJHL season, despite the distraction of being moved at the leagues trade deadline. He started the season for the Baie-Comeau Drakkar, but finished it for Gatineau Olympiques. Meloche but up 13 goals and 33 points in 53 games. The move for Meloche was intended to boost Gatineau for a long playoff run, but it did not work as the Olympiques were ousted in the second round of the playoffs.
Meloche’s skating is the biggest weakness in his game. His start-up and stride are choppy and awkward which take away from his speed and acceleration. He needs to spend some time in the off-season working with a quality skating coach and working on his footwork. His pivots and edge work aren’t bad though, and he’s able to avoid getting beat with speed due to that, as well as his excellent positioning and gap control. He also shows the ability to pokecheck the puck away from attackers. Meloche does have good power and strength on his skates though, he is tough to knock off the puck, and wins his board battles and clears the crease effectively due to this strength and balance.
Meloche also plays on the power play for the Olympiques . He has a very hard and accurate slap shot. He understands the importance of getting it through shooting lanes, and keeping it low and on net, as he is able to give his teammates the opportunity for tip-ins and rebounds. Meloche makes a strong first pass, helping to start the transition game. He can make the long pass to spring an odd-man rush. He has decent poise controlling the puck and making plays in the offensive zone, but he’s more of the trigger man on the power play than a true power play quarterback. Meloche is willing to pinch down the wall to keep a puck in and keep plays alive, but is smart in doing so, and doesn’t often get caught deep.
Meloche has excellent size, and he’s certainly not afraid to use it. He plays a gritty game in the corners battling for pucks, and in front of the net working to clear the crease. He also is willing to throw big hits when he gets the opportunity, but avoids getting himself out of position looking for those checks. Meloche has outstanding positioning and defensive awareness for a player his age, reading and anticipating plays well, and almost always keeping good control and defensive posture. He is not afraid to block shots, and does a great job using a long stick to cut down passing lanes. Meloche is also willing to drop the gloves if necessary to come to the aid of a teammate.
Meloche took some nice step forwards in his first post-draft year, but is still a young, developing defenceman. Expect to see him back with Gatineau to start next season. He will need at least a year of junior, plus some time in the AHL before he is ready to move up to the NHL.
Super Sleeper Prospect: Will Butcher
Defense — shoots Left
Born Jan 6 1995 — Sun Prairie, WI
Height 5’10” — Weight 200 lbs [178 cm / 91 kg]
Drafted by the Colorado Avalanche in round 5, #123 overall at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.
Will Butcher finished up his third season at the University of Denver. He exploded offensively, with nine goals and 32 points in 39 games.
Butcher is quick skater. He has excellent speed in both directions. He also has very good acceleration. Butcher has very good agility and edge work. This allows him to cover a lot of ice. It also makes him tough to beat one-on-one. Butcher will need to add more core strength and improve his balance. This will help him to win battles in the corners and in front of the net.
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 professional ranks.
The Avalanche have really built up their prospect system over the last several years. Once one of the weaker groups in the league, there is now a lot of depth here. In addition to the prospects already looked at, they also have solid forwards in A.J. Greer, J.C. Beaudoin, Julien Nantel, and Rocco Grimaldi. Its a varied and deep forward pool. The defence also has Andrei Mironov, Sergei Boikov, and Mason Geertsen moving up through the ranks. Its due or die time for former first rounder Duncan Siemens. He needs to prove his worth at the NHL level this year, or will find himself outside the organization. In goal Calvin Pickard was considered graduated due to the fact he is 24-years-old and has secured a full-time spot. The Avalanche will now look to develop Spencer Martin, and Adam Werner between the pipes.