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Avalanche Prospects Mailbag: Warming up the leftovers

A look at which prospects remain in the system and their seasons thus far.

NHL: Preseason-Minnesota Wild at Colorado Avalanche
Oskar Olausson is still here!
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

It hasn’t been the most exiting year for following prospects in the Colorado Avalanche organization. From the cancelled World Junior Championship to the mortgaged 2022 draft class to the lack of callups from the Colorado Eagles to departures at the trade deadline now more than ever the focus is entirely on what’s happening at the NHL level. Still, there are a few interesting players to keep in mind as the prospects wrap up their 2021-22 season.

Oskar Olausson has already signed his Entry Level Contract with the Avalanche so it is likely he moves on to his pro career with the Colorado Eagles next season. There really is no reason for him to consider playing an overage year in the OHL as he will turn 20-years old this November and needs to learn pro habits more than anything. This season in the OHL for him was just about completing it and getting comfortable in North America an on smaller ice. Olausson’s midseason trade from the Barrie Colts to the Oshawa Generals probably hurt that comfort and adjustment for a spell but he is back to scoring goals at a pretty good clip while doing his best Andre Burakovsky impression. As the OHL regular season just concluded Olausson finished with 49 points in 55 games with 26 goals, a solid season all around for him. While the Avalanche might give Olausson a brief test drive in the NHL much like former prospect and fellow first rounder Justin Barron there’s a lot for him to work on and Olausson probably won’t be any sort of serious NHL option until the 2023-24 season.

McGeorge: How many prospects do we have with NHL potential and who are they?

Simply put the prospects I could see holding a regular NHL job sometime in the future if the cards go right are Oskar Olausson, Martin Kaut, Colby Ambrosio, Jean-Luc Foudy, Sampo Ranta, Nikolai Kovalenko, Sean Behrens, Justus Annunen and Trent Miner. Many of these players would have a better chance outside the organization and ultimately won’t make it but it’s not out of the question for them to make it to the NHL based on talent and ceiling.

It seems most would consider drafting defense in the next draft very important but I’m more ambivalent. Obviously the Avalanche’s depth on defense was decimated at the trade deadline but an organization simply does not rebuild their prospect pool with what’s currently projected as the last pick in the third and fifth, sixth and seventh rounds; picks 96th, 160th, 192nd and 224th overall to be exact. With the development woes of non-blue chip prospects over the last decade (we’ll address that later on) there’s a slim chance any of these prospects end up anything meaningful even at the AHL level. The most important strategy should be to focus on skill talent and hopefully a couple of the picks end up being blue liners. That sounds like common sense but it’s amazing how often folks get talked out of skill for other attributes when the draft rolls around. Honestly the scouting staff might get the most value out of that 96th overall going for a goaltender.

Trent Miner is really the only other goalie prospect in the Avalanche system, signed or unsigned. Like any young goaltender Miner experienced some inconsistent moments with ups and downs but the peaks offer some intrigue. In his first year pro this season Miner was sitting for a long time in the AHL behind Justus Annunen, was on the taxi squad for the Avalanche for a minute and now currently in the ECHL with the Utah Grizzlies. The moving around and lack of a chance with the Eagles was a little disappointing but Miner has had some moments with Utah which aren’t reflected as much in the .910 save percentage and 16-12 record, though his league leading seven shutouts leave an impression. It is uncertain how much the Avalanche plan to invest in Miner’s development but he’s a prospect worth keeping an eye on.

Markopolo: Given Frankie’s new 2 year contract extension... what hope does it give to Annunen that he’ll be an Av for an extended period of time.

On Annunen specifically, he’s had an up and down season as part of the Eagles but overall successful with a 24-12-6 record and hopefully is ready to take on the third goaltender role for the Avalanche organization next season. Two years in that role behind Francouz considering his new two-year extension could set up perfectly for Annunen to slide in a backup role beginning in 2024-25 which is also when his waiver exemption expires. We’ll see what the Avalanche do with the other portion of the NHL tandem but if there’s a plan for Annunen this feels like a good one. Also, the fact that the front office did not go out and acquire a new third goaltender after Jonas Johansson was taken off waivers by the Florida Panthers shows some faith in Annunen to pick up the slack if there’s a need in net this postseason.

Sampo Ranta has been out of the lineup since early March with a foot injury. Before that he had been finding his groove playing mostly on the third line with the Colorado Eagles and had just scored one of his seven goals prior to his last contest. The Avalanche were clearly interested in Ranta with the look they gave him in the playoffs and the first month of this season but it a concern there was no hint of a recall on the horizon following. Ranta also doesn’t have as much runway as it would seem as his ELC and waiver exemption both conclude after the 2022-23 season. If there isn’t an aggressive intent to get him back at the NHL level in the fall then it seems he, too, will fall through the cracks of the development system. As for his strengths, Ranta is a classic power forward who uses his big frame and speed to create danger around the net. He has a good enough shot and hands to generate sporadic offense but could also have use as a forechecker and energy player at the next level.

Nathan Chapman: Will the Avalanche get any NHL players out of the next 3 upcoming (2022-24) draft classes?

This question clearly requires a lot of speculation but could be looked at one of two ways; will the development system produce any NHL players or will the Avalanche retain any picks to procure any players? The former part of this question is forthcoming so let’s go with the latter angle. The Avalanche are obviously in a “win now” phase so any asset is a commodity for short-term help. Still, the sense is GM Joe Sakic really doesn’t like moving his first round picks and I wouldn’t automatically assume they’ll go several years or even back-to-back drafts without them. The second round picks though are clearly the currency in the NHL and the Avalanche don’t currently have one until the 2025 draft. If the firsts are held there’s still a chance a NHL player could emerge from those draft classes.

Lets just combine this one with all the Martin Kaut and Shane Bowers queries. As both of them are staring at their waiver exemption ending after this season the coming offseason will require some big decisions. Bowers probably could pass waivers but what really is the purpose of bringing him back as a fourth year pro if they have no interest in him at the NHL level? Unfortunately I don’t see much trade value there either but Bowers needs a fresh start so moving him is probably the best option.

Kaut’s situation is much more complicated. He is one of the most important players for the Colorado Eagles as he plays in the top six and all situations, which is probably why he wasn’t moved at the trade deadline. There is nothing left for Kaut to learn at the AHL level as he has been consistently productive this season scoring 18 goals and 29 points in 43 games plus owns 160 games of career AHL experience and needs to move on to the next step to try and establish himself in the NHL. As a former 16th overall pick with 20 games NHL experience and a lot of productive film in the AHL there is some value still to be had but every day Kaut remains stuck in the AHL that value diminishes. As his waiver exemption is up this summer it is really time to move Kaut for something rather than risk losing him on waivers for nothing this fall.

SuckMyAvs: Any thoughts on Stienburg? Do you get the feeling he gets a contract, and do you see him as more suited to move to RW?

It was a good year for Matt Stienburg and he clearly took a step forward in his production with 29 points in 28 games after missing all of last season. Though he cooled off some in the second half it still was an encouraging sign for his pro potential. I always felt like Stienburg was likely to get a contract after he was selected 63rd overall in 2019 and considering his legacy status as his father played for the Quebec Nordiques. I’m actually a little surprised he didn’t sign after this season as he’s ready for pro hockey and I spied a Colorado Eagles specialty jersey up for auction with his name on the back which means the organization thought he might turn pro this spring too. Stienburg has the hockey IQ to remain at center, which is where I actually like him the best. Playing on the wing more this year allowed him to use his speed to get into scoring areas quickly but he’s not going to be that type of player at the next level. In general I feel like Stienburg can be a good pro in the AHL but the Avalanche are going to have break the mold if they have any interest in graduating him to the NHL as a role player, though his legacy status could get him a couple games.

This question was posed in several forms and it is encouraging that the systemic development failures are getting noticed. Development is a complicated process involving projecting young adults into long-term NHL players but the reality is the system just flat hasn’t been good enough for a long time especially in regards to their own non-top 10 draft picks.

Let’s start with the positives. Moving AHL operations to Loveland really hasn’t mattered in proximity to the Avalanche, if anything it’s an excuse to call up guys even less frequently. But it is a great market, building and fan base up there with a culture of winning. The opportunity to have members of the Avalanche front office and coaching staff on hand on occasion helps create familiarity as well.

The commitment to reaching the playoffs in the AHL at all costs centers around giving high dollar guarantee AHL veterans the bulk of the “big minutes” which include a lot of special teams time and all the extra attacker, empty net and overtime situations. That’s reflected in the lack of production for most of the prospects who have to score on lower lines with only 5-on-5 play. There are a lot more penalties called in the AHL and that could mean a lot of time sitting on the bench for stretches. Without flashy production the prospects aren’t considered for callups and the cycle continues.

There is a lot of talk about the “Detroit Model” about having patience with prospects but the one thing that model did was graduate third-year pros to the NHL. There still does not seem to be any concrete plan in place to move along seasoned AHL prospects to the Avalanche and that’s where the bulk of the stagnation lies. It is true the organization has not passed on any superstars but several former Avalanche draft picks have found footing this season on other NHL clubs including Nicolas Meloche, AJ Greer, Mason Geertsen and Spencer Martin. For those considered as more “role players” at the fringes of the roster it is about opportunity more than anything and without opportunity there’s no progress.

I like Eagles head coach Greg Cronin. He seems to enjoy the teaching aspect of the job and he’s helped numerous players hone the details in their game. Winning is very important to the Colorado Eagles and for GM Craig Billington. Unfortunately many of the young developing players aren’t really heavily involved in the winning and the Eagles have been a quick out in the playoffs. The veteran all-star approach can only take a team so far but I don’t pin that on Cronin, it’s a philosophy that comes from the top.