While we would love to see NHL stars return to the ice, prospects can shine a light into the future during these metaphorically dark and trying hockey times. The Colorado Avalanche have a deep prospect pool, filled with players that could make a talented, successful team even better.
Imagine it now: a young Alex Newhook playing with an older (but no less potent) Nathan MacKinnon; or rookie Bowen Byram skating alongside Cale Makar. Quite the team, no? Well, that could be the Avalanche in the next four to five years. Let’s examine 11 of these up-and-coming players to remind ourselves that the future of Avalanche hockey looks pretty darn good.
The Avalanche had two picks in the first round of the 2019 NHL Draft, fourth and 16th overall. The fourth-overall pick came courtesy of the Ottawa Senators in the three-team trade that dealt Matt Duchene. With this pick, the Avalanche selected Bowen Byram. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound defenseman has dominated the WHL with the Vancouver Giants for the past two seasons. In 2018-19, he had 26 goals and 45 assists in 67 games. This season, he had 52 points (14 goals, 38 assists) in 50 games. His highlights look more like a forward’s reel than a defenseman’s.
Aside from Bryam’s offensive production, his plus/minus has improved significantly since he first entered the WHL in 2016. He finished 2018-19 with a plus-33 and this season plus-19 after logging minus-5 and minus-3 his first two seasons. Combined with his offensive firepower and smooth skating, his enhanced defensive capabilities make him even more NHL-ready. The Avalanche have a young defensive lineup, but the team has a few opportunities to move pieces this offseason, including UFA Mark Barberio and RFAs Nikita Zadorov and Ryan Graves. Do not be surprised if the Avalanche make room for Bryam.
By almost every measure, Alex Newhook had a sensational freshman season at Boston College, justifying his 16th-overall selection by the Avalanche in 2019. He had 42 points (19 goals, 23 assists) in 34 games and led BC in scoring. He finished the regular season with a 12-game point streak. The clip below showcases his skill and creativity.
But, Newhook’s game extends beyond raw offensive talent. He has on-ice awareness and discipline, traits that allowed him to succeed after transitioning from the BCHL to the NCAA. He finished the season plus-28 and had a minuscule total of eight penalty minutes. Rather than take penalties, he kills them, leading all rookies with three shorthanded goals.
Combined with his scoring ability, his maturity on the ice makes him a complete player, a rare commodity among prospects. Fans will have to wait at least one more year before he suits up in the NHL after he opted to return to BC for his sophomore season. On the bright side, Newhook could be even better after an additional year of development.
The Avalanche complemented the two first-round picks in 2019 with a different, albeit no less important, third-round selection. Taken 78th overall, Alex Beaucage has established himself as a pure goalscorer in the QMJHL. His quick and precise shot netted him a whopping 40 goals in 63 games in the 2019-20 season, tied for third in the league. He has steadily increased that goal total over three seasons: 13 (56 games); 39 (68 games); and 40 (63 games). He tacked on 24, 40, and 30 assists respectively, demonstrating he is not a one-dimensional player.
Beaucage’s release is deadly. He barrels down the right side of the ice, uses his 6-foot-1 frame to protect the puck, and fires a shot so fast if you blink you miss it. This skill is Auston-Matthews-esque, and, as Matthews has proven, such a shot can make you one of the best forwards in the NHL. With the Avalanche’s deep offense, there is no rush for Beaucage to transition to the NHL. The game is faster and the players stronger, so there is no guarantee of success. Nevertheless, if the Avalanche don’t rush him, he could improve his skating and enter the NHL more prepared, allowing him to make a more immediate impact.
Selected 28th overall in 2017, the Ottawa Senators drafted Shane Bowers before sending him to the Avalanche in the Matt Duchene trade. He played his full freshman and part of his sophomore years at Boston University (53 points in 77 games) before signing an entry-level deal with the Avalanche in 2019. He snuck in four games with the Colorado Eagles before the end of the 2018-19 season registering zero points, but his first full season in the AHL saw drastic improvements: he netted 10 goals and 17 assists in 48 games, fairly impressive for a 20-year-old.
Bowers’ 6-foot-2 frame does not slow him down. Instead, he uses his body to compete and succeed against grown men. His skating ability and hands resemble those a smaller-sized player. He finished 2019-20 with a plus-2 rating and only 14 penalty minutes, indicating he is not outmatched and can be relied upon to play a 200-foot game at the professional level. Like Martin Kaut, he might only need one chance in the Avs’ lineup before establishing himself as a capable NHL player. Look for him to make his debut next season.
A native of Naantali, Finland, Sampo Ranta is the second Finnish player to suit up for the University of Minnesota (Erik Haula was the first). The Avalanche drafted him with the 16th pick in the third round of the 2018 Draft before he started his freshman season with the Gophers. He has 36 points (18 goals, 18 assists) in 71 career NCAA games. He notched one goal and one assist for Finland when they won gold at the 2018 IIHF World Under-18 Championship. In the 2019-20 tournament, he notched two assists.
Ranta’s numbers are not off the charts, but he is a consistent, steady contributor at the collegiate and international levels. He does the little things properly and finds himself in the right place at the right time. Often, he will be the player who chipped the puck out of the defensive zone to start a 3-on-2, or he will tally a second assist because he forced a turnover on the forecheck. These abilities are difficult to teach, and his knack for team play – combined with a healthy dose of offensive talent – will make Ranta a versatile player for the Avalanche.
The only goalie on this list, Justus Annunen has developed into a fantastic prospect for the Avalanche. Selected 64th overall in 2018 (12 picks ahead of Sampo Ranta), Annunen has split the last two seasons between Mestis and Liiga, the second and first-tier professional leagues respectively in Finland. He struggled in his first season, posting a 2.77 goals-against average and .891 save percentage, but in his second professional season, he bounced back remarkably, establishing himself as one of the best goaltenders in Finland’s top professional league. He maintained that momentum heading into the 2020 WJC, backstopping Finland to the bronze medal game, where they lost to Sweden.
Annunen’s calm demeanor stands out, especially considering he is only 20 years old. This season, he posted a 15-5-3 record in 23 starts. He broke the record for the longest shutout streak in Liiga history, going 259 minutes and 28 seconds without allowing a goal. The Avalanche have a deep list of goaltending prospects, but Annunen’s incredible season has moved his name up the ranks. The Grubauer/Francouz tandem has worked well for the Avalanche, but the depth at this position gives the team more flexibility. At some point, Annunen should get his chance in the NHL, and when he does, expect him to seize that opportunity as he has in Finland.
The second-oldest player on this list at 21, Conor Timmins is also the only player to have played for the Avalanche, suiting up for two games this season. The Avs drafted him with the first pick in the second round in 2017. The 6-foot-2 defenseman notched 115 points in 143 OHL games over three seasons. He joined the Colorado Eagles for the 2019-20 season and did not miss a beat, posting three goals and 24 assists in 40 games.
While Timmons made the Avalanche’s opening night roster this season, his NHL stint lasted only two games, but he has used the time in the AHL to round out his game and become the player that the Avalanche envisioned. He has the potential to become a steady, reliable defenseman with offensive instincts that do not compromise his team defensively – a rare tandem. After tasting the NHL, Timmons will be hungrier than ever to become a staple in the Avalanche’s lineup next season, and he has all the tools to do so.
A teammate of Alex Newhook, Drew Helleson was also selected by the Avalanche in 2019 (second round, 16th pick). He’s 6-foot-3, 190 pounds – a big frame for a defenseman. During his freshman season, he netted one goal and five assists in 28 games. Defensively, he shined, logging a plus-12 rating, 15 blocked shots, and only 12 penalty minutes.
The Minnesota-native looked calm throughout his first NCAA season. Helleson plays smart and strives to learn, intangible traits that coaches love. He is only 19 and will be returning to BC for his sophomore year. Another year will provide him time to develop further by building on his successful, somewhat quiet (in a good way) freshman season.
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With the depth that the Avalanche have on the blue line, there is no rush for him to turn pro. This doesn’t mean he could not or will not be an impact player in the NHL, he certainly has the potential, but Helleson can prepare for the transition and ease some growing pains by playing three or four seasons at BC. The Avalanche would receive a very-capable, mature defenseman to complement superstars like Cale Makar.
Also drafted in 2019, the Avalanche selected the 6-foot, 200 pound Sasha Mutala with the 16th pick in the fifth round. The Avalanche picked him after he posted a modest 41 points in 65 games in 2018-19 in the WHL. The front office has to be pleased that he significantly increased his point total this past season: 28 goals and 39 assists in 62 games. His heavy frame allows him to create space, and he can pick up speed, driving the puck to the net like a train.
There are a few concerns surrounding the other facets of his game. He finished last season with an ugly minus-36 rating and third on his team in penalty minutes (58). His defensive lapses might stem from the fact that he has an offense-first mindset, demonstrated in his 232 shots on goal in 62 games – ranked 10th in the WHL. Fortunately, discipline can be inculcated in a player and defensive awareness taught, so he does have the opportunity to develop into a more complete player. If he does, he would be a welcome addition to the Avalanche’s front end, but that is a few years away most likely.
The final 2019 Draft selection on this list, Luka Burzan was picked in the sixth round (171st overall) by the Avalanche. The 6-foot-1, 186-pound center has had two strong seasons in the WHL, posting 78 and 62 points in 2018-19 and 2019-20 respectively. His most distinct ability is, perhaps, his elusiveness. Watching him you will notice how he sneaks behind defensemen for backdoor tap-ins, finds soft spots on the power play, and kicks it into high gear to create separation. His offensive smarts enable him to thrive and leverage his other skills.
Burzan’s points per game total decreased from 1.15 to .98 after the Avalanche drafted him, but that drop is not concerning. After the 2018-19 season, he played a more prominent role at center, increasing his faceoff attempts from 25 to 591. Centers typically carry more defensive responsibility than wingers, and he proved he could manage that responsibility without his offensive production suffering dramatically.
For a sixth-round pick, Burzan has posted impressive numbers and demonstrated a completeness to his game. Once he gets his chance in the NHL, he could be one of those players who finds a way to stay, carving out space for himself and contributing in a variety of ways.
Drafted 40th overall by the Avalanche in 2016, Cam Morrison opted to finish his four years at the University of Notre Dame. In that span, he consistently posted over 20 points, including an NCAA-career-high of 26 (12 goals, 14 assists) in his senior season. The 6-foot-3, 214-pound forward has a nice combination of hockey IQ and raw talent. He recognizes opportunities as they unfold before him and capitalizes on the chances created by his teammates.
Morrison’s consistency throughout his time at Notre Dame established him as a player his coaches and teammates could rely on. You will notice in the highlights above that more than once he is on the ice when Notre Dame is down by a goal with less than two minutes left. More than once, he factors in on the game-tying goal.
Clutch and consistent are adjectives that all players would like to embody, and I would not hesitate to describe Morrison as either. The Avalanche have yet to sign him since the NCAA season abruptly ended, but an entry-level deal seems likely. He proved his ability and versatility at Notre Dame, and the Avalanche should give the 21-year-old a chance to prove himself at the professional level.
The Avs Will Be Good for Years
The Avalanche are strong contenders now and boast a deep, talented prospect pool. This creates a unique situation where they have the potential to win the Stanley Cup in the near future, while maintaining that championship-caliber team by tapping into the prospects they have wisely drafted and developed. Unless I am jinxing it, the Avalanche’s foreseeable future looks better than bright, it could be blinding.