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Rantanen, Pickard lead Avalanche's top prospects

by Rick Sadowski | NHL.com / Colorado Avalanche

The Colorado Avalanche is committed to building through the NHL Draft, using free agents to fill in the gaps while waiting for its prospects to mature.

"This is where we're going to have to focus," Avalanche coach Patrick Roy said. "If we feel that we need to have a free agent to give time to our young guys to develop, we will do that. But we truly believe that the draft will be the key in our success."

The Avalanche has been stockpiling promising defensemen in the system, but right wing Mikko Rantanen, goalie Calvin Pickard and center Joey Hishon have the best chance of playing in the NHL this season.

Here is a look at the Avalanche's top five prospects, according to NHL.com:

1. Mikko Rantanen, RW

How acquired: 1st round (No. 10) in 2015 NHL Draft

Last season: TPS Turku, Finland-Liiga: 56 GP, 9-19-28

The Avalanche coveted Rantanen, 18, and considered trading up to ensure his availability. The club gambled by standing pat and landed the 6-foot-4, 211-pound forward, who was ranked first among international skaters by the Central Scouting Bureau.

Rantanen is hopeful of joining Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon as recent Avalanche teenagers to make an immediate jump to the League. He's been playing professionally, so the Avalanche have the option of assigning him to the San Antonio Rampage, their new American Hockey League affiliate.

"I would like to see him play for us, but we're certainly going to be very patient," Roy said. "He'll come to camp and we'll see how it goes."

Projected NHL arrival: 2016-17

2. Calvin Pickard, G

How acquired: 2nd round (No. 49) in 2010 NHL Draft

Last season: Lake Erie, AHL: 50 GP, 23-17-9, 2.61 GAA, .917 SV%; Colorado, NHL: 16 GP, 6-7-3, 2.35 GAA, .932 SV%

Pickard, 23, was outstanding while filling in for the injured Semyon Varlamov after the Avalanche lost faith in backup Reto Berra. He allowed two goals or fewer in eight of 16 appearances and became a fan favorite. Pickard (6-1, 200) will compete for the full-time backup position with Berra.

"I think a young guy has to play, keep working on your game," Avalanche executive vice president and general manager Joe Sakic said. "Is it going to hurt him to play another year in the minors as a No. 1 goalie, to back up what he did (last season)? No. Are we ruling him out being here (this) year? No. That's what training camp is for."

Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16 (midseason)

3. Chris Bigras, D

How acquired: 2nd round (No. 32) in 2013 NHL Draft

Last season: Owen Sound, OHL: 62 GP, 20-51-71; Lake Erie, AHL: 7 GP, 0-4-4

Bigras, 20, caught Roy's eye two years ago with his poise and efficient two-way play. Now Bigras (6-2, 194) is primed to challenge for a spot on a roster that has eight veteran defensemen under contract. A smooth skater, he has the ability to make accurate outlet passes to initiate a fast-paced transition game.

Bigras was a first team all-star in the OHL last season and said in development camp that playing against bigger and older players during his short time in the AHL was an important step for his confidence.

Projected NHL arrival: 2016-17

4. Joey Hishon, C

How acquired: 1st round (No. 17) in 2010 NHL Draft

Last season: Lake Erie, AHL: 53 GP, 16-20-36; Colorado, NHL: 13 GP, 1-1-2

Injuries have stalled his development. Hishon, 23, missed the 2011-12 season with Owen Sound and all but nine games with Lake Erie in 2012-13 because of concussion issues. His size (5-10, 170) is another concern.

But he's a slick skater and playmaker, and is coming off his best season as a pro. Relegated to spot duty after a late season recall, Hishon showed he's capable by scoring his first NHL goal — the game-winner — in spectacular fashion against Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne.

Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16 (midseason)

5. Conner Bleackley, C

How acquired: 1st round (No. 23) in 2014 NHL Draft

Last season: Red Deer, WHL: 51 GP, 27-22-49

Bleackley, 19, is expected to play one more season with Red Deer. He hasn't signed an entry-level contract and will need to report to camp in better shape than last season when Roy criticized his conditioning.

Bleackley (6-foot, 192) has a high hockey IQ, plays with energy and is a team leader; he captained Red Deer the past two seasons.

Projected NHL arrival: 2017-18

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