There isn't a great deal to smile about when an organization goes through tough times the way the Colorado Avalanche have during the past five seasons.
One of the bright spots, though, is high draft picks. The Avalanche have certainly had their fair share, and many of their selections are already making key contributions, Matt Duchene, the No. 3 pick in 2009, and Gabriel Landeskog, the No. 2 pick in 2011, chief among them.
Now, buoyed by the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, which the club used to select center Nathan MacKinnon, there are a host of Colorado prospects knocking on the door of NHL careers, in addition to those who are several years down the road from arriving.
Here's a look at Colorado's 10 top prospects, according to NHL.com:
1. Nathan MacKinnon, C: In what was widely considered to be the deepest draft class in years, MacKinnon (6-foot, 182 pounds) was the cream of the crop in the eyes of Colorado brass.
In two seasons for the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, he totaled 63 goals and 153 points in 102 regular-season games. He was the MVP when Halifax won the Memorial Cup title, scoring a hat trick in the championship game. One year earlier, his hat trick led Canada to the gold medal at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.
Big-game performances and consistent excellence are hallmarks of MacKinnon's game. His new coach, Patrick Roy, already has him penciled in as the Colorado's third-line center, but it could be sooner rather than later that MacKinnon's first-rate skill set rockets him up the team's depth chart.
"He's a great competitor, he's a winner," Roy said of the 17-year-old. "People are going to be very surprised by his speed, especially his starts. He has that NHL skating ability, no doubt in my mind."
2. Michael Sgarbossa, C: An undrafted free agent originally signed by the San Jose Sharks, Sgarbossa had his rights acquired by Colorado in February 2012. At the time, he was in the midst of a 102-point season for the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey League.
Sgarbossa, 21, debuted in the American Hockey League in 2012-13, posting 19 goals and 44 points in 57 games for the Lake Erie Monsters, and got into six games with the Avalanche shortly after the lockout ended. What he lacks in size (5-11, 175), he makes up for with strong hockey sense and other intangibles.
3. Duncan Siemens, D: Selected in the first round in 2011, nine picks after Landeskog, Siemens (6-3, 200) projects as a physical, shutdown defenseman of the future for the Avalanche. After being drafted, he spent two seasons in the Western Hockey League continuing to develop with the Saskatoon Blades, also appearing in three games for Lake Erie last season.
"Since the draft I think I've come a long way. The big thing I've tried to focus on has been my consistency from night in to night out," Siemens, 19, said in a May interview with the Avalanche Avenues blog. "If you want to make the jump to the next level, that's huge."
Bigras is expected to bring more of an offensive game while performing steadily in his own end. He's coming off a strong season with the Owen Sound Attack of the OHL, where he's likely to return this fall for additional development.
"I've always been a two-way defenseman, a guy who is able to jump into the offense," Bigras told the Denver Post while attending Colorado's prospects camp last month.
5. Calvin Pickard, G: With Jean-Sebastien Giguere 36 years old, there figures to be a job opening for at least a backup goaltender soon enough. One of the candidates when that time comes could be Pickard, a 2010 second-round pick (No. 49).
Pickard (6-1, 195) is coming off his first full AHL season. As the No. 1 goalie in Lake Erie, he had a 20-19-5 record with a 2.47 goals-against average and .918 save percentage. He's not the only goalie prospect in the Avalanche system, but the 21-year-old's athleticism and competitive nature make him stand out.
6. Joey Hishon, C: Concussion issues threatened the career of Colorado's 2010 first-round pick (No. 17), but after sitting out the entire 2011-12 season and most of '12-13, Hishon made his pro debut playing nine games with Lake Erie, contributing a goal and five assists.
Standing 5-10, 170 pounds, the 21-year-old displayed excellent creativity and playmaking skills during his junior career with Owen Sound. He could further strengthen the Avalanche at center if he stays healthy and continues to develop.
7. Colin Smith, C: Colorado took a flyer on this 5-10, 162-pound pivot in the seventh round (No. 192) of the 2012 NHL Draft after he put up 30 goals and 85 points in 72 games for the Kamloops Blazers of the Western Hockey League.
It appeared to be a shrewd move when Smith followed that with 41 goals and 106 points last season in Kamloops. Like many prospects his age (20), he needs to bulk up a little and become stronger on the puck, but his offensive instincts stand out. He'll likely start this season in Lake Erie.
8. Garret Meurs, RW: On a Plymouth Whalers team boasting its fair share of NHL prospects, Meurs ranked second in scoring in 2012-13 with 65 points (32 goals) in 68 games. He had seven goals and 14 points in 15 postseason games.
A 2011 fifth-round pick (No. 123), Meurs (6-foot, 175) is above average in most areas of the game. The 20-year-old has playmaking skill and shows grit and a willingness to battle along the boards and travel into high-traffic areas.
9. Will Butcher, D: Selected in the fifth round (No. 123) this June, Butcher is set to start his collegiate career at the University of Denver in the fall after a couple of seasons with the U.S. National Team Development Program.
Butcher (5-10, 191) is seen as a bit of a high-risk, high-reward defenseman. The 18-year-old has the instincts to make things happen offensively but can be a liability at times with the puck. The Avalanche will hope to see his game smooth out the next few seasons.
10. Sami Aittokallio, G: Last season marked the North America debut for the Finnish netminder, who turned 21 on Aug. 6. Though his stats with Lake Erie as Pickard's backup weren't eye-popping (14-12-1, 3.00 GAA, .899 save percentage), it was Aittokallio who got the call for an April 11 start against the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings when Semyon Varlamov was injured. His first NHL appearance was impressive (23 saves on 25 shots), but also incomplete; leg cramps forced him from the game in the third period.
Aittokallio (6-1, 174) should continue to compete with Pickard for playing time in the AHL this season.
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