The 2021 World Junior Championship capped off with a thrilling Team USA vs Team Canada gold medal game Tuesday night, with team USA taking the 2-0 victory. For Avalanche fans, the tournament featured four promising young prospects, all of which made it to the gold medal game for their respective countries. For Team Canada, co-captain Bowen Byram, Alex Newhook, and Justin Barron all dawned the maple leaf exceptionally, and standing on the other side of those three highly touted prospects for Team USA, was defenseman Drew Helleson.
The 47th pick in the second round of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, Helleson is described as “a capable defensive defenseman with an impressive compete-level and really good hockey sense. Skates well and is a decent puck handler, but stands out as solid defenseman who rarely makes mistakes and can shut down the top players on the opposing team”, per EliteProspects.com. A product of the United States National Team Development Program, upon being drafted Helleson would join fellow 2019 Avs draftee Alex Newhook at Boston College for the 2019-20 NCAA season. As a Freshman, he would post 1 goal and 6 points in 28 games, while finishing as a +12 in the +/- category. Currently in his Sophomore season, Helleson appeared in only 4 games, posting 1 goal and 3 points before getting the call to tryout for Team USA for the 2021 World Junior Championship. Helleson made the team, and had a stellar showing at the international stage, tallying 2 goals and 4 points in 7 games, and truly showcasing his abilities as an all-around dynamic defenseman.
While his play in the World Juniors was certainly impressive, there’s no reason to expect that Helleson will draw into the Avs lineup anytime soon. At 19 years-old, and having the deep blueline that Colorado has, Sakic has plenty of time to let Helleson craft his game even further at Boston College. It does serve the question however, if Helleson does become NHL ready a couple of years down the line, where will he fit into the Avs roster?
The current defense corps looks like this:
Devon Toews - Cale Makar
Samuel Girard - Erik Johnson
Ryan Graves - Ian Cole
With the immense amount of talent the Avs have on defense, and more help on the way, it’s going to be very difficult for Helleson to draw his way into the Avs lineup for at least the next three seasons. A realistic assumption that can be made about the state of the defense are that Ian Cole is going to be replaced by Bowen Byram as soon as this season, and that the Avs will not re-sign him following this season. The next casualty to younger, cheaper options that could open up a full time spot for Timmins would be Ryan Graves. This is where the depth of the defense is crucial, as following this season, the expansion draft for the Seattle Kraken will take place. The assumption can be made that if Graves metrics stay solid, that he would be the most likely candidate for the Kraken to select from the Avs roster. That would open the door for a permanent spot for Timmins, which would send the Avalanche into the 2021-22 season with a defense corps along these lines, assuming that the Avs don’t sign any roster defensemen:
Toews - Makar
Byram - Johnson
Girard - Timmins
At this point, Helleson should be entering his Junior season at Boston College, and the other notable defensive prospect, Justin Barron, will likely be making the jump to the AHL. For the extra defensemen, Dennis Gilbert and Kyle Burroughs, this will be the year where they fill in for injured players. Gilbert provides grit and physicality to the roster, and will protect the stars, while Burroughs provides more of the same play, just with a bit more offensive upside. This season will come and go, and barring any trades, no changes will be made in the offseason.
Next up, the 2022-23 season. This season should see the same defensive core as the past season, but once this season is completed, a new face will be set to join in to replace Erik Johnson, who will have spent almost 13 full seasons in burgundy and blue. Assuming Sakic stays with the same strategy of staying young, it would be expected that a 35 year-old Erik Johnson will be seeing his time as a member of the Avalanche come to an end. This will free up one spot on the right side, but it will also leave Sakic with a decision to make: Which right handed defenseman gets the vacant spot, Drew Helleson, or Justin Barron?
That question can’t be answered any time soon, and it will likely come down to which player Sakic feels developed into the better NHL player. If Helleson makes the Avs in 2023, Barron could be subject to a trade, or be a potential replacement to Devon Toews when his four-year deal ends up. It’s hard to pinpoint the futures of these guys when the depth of their position is set to be stacked for years to come. It’s all speculation at this point. The great thing about all the depth on the blueline, is that neither Helleson, nor Barron are going to be rushed to the NHL. They’ll both be able to complete their junior careers, and when they’re both 22 years-old, a decision can be made about their futures in Denver.