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Avalanche Prospects Mailbag: Fishing for Depth

From existing prospects to 2023 draft candidates, who might be options to help the Avalanche?

Vancouver Canucks v Colorado Avalanche Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images

The focus for the Colorado Avalanche has been on defending their Stanley Cup championship, which has been rightfully earned. However, with a lack of depth rearing it’s ugly head in more ways than one, a lot of questions linger about the status of the prospect pool and if there’s any possibility of help coming internally. The questions submitted were of a big picture variety which indicates more concern about the overall direction of the development system than on anyone in particular.

This one is definitely a thorny subject as I believe a lot of Colorado’s drafting woes have to do with a broken and mismanaged development system. Late round picks will always have a longer development path and the organization has struggled with planning on how to guide a player through it. Although it must be acknowledged there are more than one factor as to why a player doesn’t make it and certainly lack of talent is one that is difficult to overcome.

My belief is that while all late round picks are a certain type of lotto ticket the Avalanche scouts like to believe they’ve outsmarted the class going with some under the radar finds. Defensemen Nicky Leivermann and Chris Romaine were drafted out of high school. Forward Denis Smirnov was an overage pick who had a successful freshman season in the NCAA. All three were sub-100 picks and a fine gamble at the time.

Another interesting fact about late round drafting is that going back to 2005 when the draft was shortened to seven rounds the Avalanche signed to an Entry Level Contract every single CHL seventh rounder they drafted and also only those from the CHL were signed. Goaltender Ivan Zhigalov selected with the very last pick in the 2022 draft and currently playing in the OHL with Kingston will test this trend.

Andrei Buyalsky is a different case because he was selected in the third round at 92nd overall and to invest a top-100 pick in someone with such a raw skill set is quite a risk. This is where the Avalanche shying away in the second and third rounds from Swedes and Finns playing in Europe has hurt them. The scouts have an affinity for goal scorers and tend to let USHL production in that department drive their evaluations. Buyalsky is in similar vein to Cam Morrison and Sampo Ranta, which the jury is still out on if this avenue is going to bear any NHL fruits. Graduations from top-100 picks is something the Avalanche need to find any semblance of success with before turning to what they can do better in the later rounds.

Forest_Fyre: Does the organization ever plan on addressing the issue of developing depth players outside of their #1 picks, or is the status quo the way forward?

This really is the million dollar question. There were hints of optimism from new Colorado Eagles GM Kevin McDonald with a strong history of development with the St. Louis Blues to the numerous prospect call-ups during the injury barrage. But it’s back to the familiar with fifth year pro Martin Kaut recently jettisoned and no draftees in sight. What is critical is that there’s a concerted effort to get player or two ready to graduate into a depth role to help relieve the cap crunch next fall. It doesn’t happen by magic as a guy suddenly “wins a job in camp” but incremental call-ups are crucial to prepare a player to make the transition. AHL all-star Jean-Luc Foudy, Sampo Ranta, Shane Bowers and Oskar Olausson could greatly benefit from this type of commitment now and then will be seasoned enough this fall to become realistic options for the Avs roster to fill one of the many holes left in the wake of Nathan MacKinnon’s hefty contract extension kicking in.

I’m the wrong person to ask about getting rid of Sam Girard but in general I don’t see GM Chris MacFarland moving anyone under long term contract for draft picks. The Avalanche should consider those on expiring contract such as Evan Rodrigues or JT Compher if they were going to go that route, however. Devon Toews is the one who would bring a large return if the organization has already decided he’s unlikely to get a massive payday in Colorado. The organization hasn’t been too focused on the past on asset management and will look at it even less while they are in a window of contention but even one such move could really help with the asset coffers (trade chips) moving forward.

It is unlikely the Avalanche will revisit some of the prospects they passed on signing such as current NCAA fifth-year players namely Tyler Weiss and Nicky Leivermann. The thin pipeline could make it easier for forwards such as Matt Stienburg, Colby Ambrosio and Taylor Makar to get Entry Level Contract offers and turn pro, however. The organization will need to sign someone this summer and all three could be options (Makar less so) along with defenseman Sean Behrens.

Yes, I would agree with best player available philosophy although a lot goes into determining that including organizational fit but I’d take that rule one step further and say the most skilled player should be the selection. It’s amazing how folks get talked out of skill for other attributes when it’s such a fundamental requirement to making it to and staying in the NHL.

The Avalanche really do need to add a defense prospect to the system because that pipeline is very thin outside of Sean Behrens. Newly acquired Ryan Merkley is currently a third year pro might get a look but he is nearly out of time himself. Anyone selected in 2023 will have a long path too depending on how high the pick is but the Avalanche really need a first round talent on the back end in the system. Considering defensemen Cale Makar and Bowen Byram did not develop in the AHL this would be somewhat unique for Colorado, too.

That said, this upcoming draft is not the strongest for defense with TSN’s Bob McKenzie’s poll of scouts ranking the top defense prospect at 17. More options are available in the back half of the first round but it wouldn’t be the draft to reach on positional need with such a strong group of forwards and the first round pick, if it’s retained, the only meaningful pick the Avalanche will make.

“The top four is special,” a scout said. “The Top 10 is very good, but relative to a lot of years, you can say the same thing about this year’s Top 20 or Top 30. I can go 40 deep and I still really like a lot of the prospects. So, yeah, it looks like a real strong group.”

One player who will probably still go outside of Colorado’s reach but is someone who is getting mixed rankings and could be a sleeper by the time the draft rolls around is Braden Yager. The Moose Jaw Warriors forward was just ranked fifth in North America on NHL Central Scouting’s midterm list so perhaps he will grab a bigger spotlight but Yager is the dream to fall in Colorado’s lap. Nate Danielson, Riley Heidt are also centers from a very formidable WHL class that Avalanche director of amateur scouting Wade Klippenstein might have his eye on.

I’d choose some of the best athletes in the sport as those whose skills could possibly translate to hockey. JJ Watt has been known to dabble a bit in hockey and with his wingspan could tend goal. Justin Jefferson is a freak athlete and should be able to adapt to a new sport in any position. A top quarterback like Josh Allen could use his smarts at center. The swift agility of Pat Surtain might translate to a puck moving defenseman. I’d send Nick Bosa out on the forecheck to create a few turnovers and Christian McCaffrey to score on them.