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Four goalies among Colorado's top prospects

by Davis Harper

In recent seasons, the Colorado Avalanche have drafted and developed a talented stable of forwards, including Ryan O'Reilly, Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog, all of whom are key players heading into the 2012-13 season.

These days, Colorado's pipeline is packed with goalie prospects. Within the past year, the Avalanche have signed four goaltenders with hopes of developing them into NHL-caliber stoppers. Kent Patterson and Kieran Millan were cornerstones of their college teams at Minnesota and Boston University, respectively, and Sami Aittokallio represented Finland at the 2012 World Junior Championships.

Calvin Pickard might be the pick of the bunch, however. The former Seattle Thunderbirds goaltender set a Western Hockey League record for career saves and possesses the most NHL upside.

Craig Billington, Colorado's vice president of player development and a former NHL goalie, told he's excited about the crowd in the crease.

"There's clearly some strong depth in our defenders and forwards on our team right now, and behind (Semyon) Varlamov, there's an equally deep group of goalies behind him in our organization," Billington said.

Colorado selected Calvin Pickard with the 49th pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, further boosting a long line of prospects the Avalanche hope to mold into the next great mile-high goaltender. (Photo: Getty Images)

Here's a look at Colorado's top 10 prospects:

1. Calvin Pickard, G: Talk about making the most of a dire situation. Pickard joined the Thunderbirds four seasons ago and, after a first-round playoff exit in 2009, they have finished close to the league's basement every season since. Despite a 91-120-27 career mark in Seattle, Pickard stopped more shots than anyone in WHL history (7,727). He was twice named Seattle's MVP and his career .909 save percentage was consistently near the top of the league.

Pickard possesses high-level shot-stopping ability and impressive longevity, playing in almost 70 games in each of the past three seasons.

Colorado took notice and selected him No. 49 in the 2010 NHL Draft, another in a long line of prospects the Avalanche hope to mold into the next great mile-high goaltender. The 6-foot-1, 208-pounder will take the next step this season when he joins the Lake Erie Monsters of the American Hockey League.

"Calvin faced more shots in the Western Hockey League than anybody who has ever put on pads in the Western Hockey League," Billington said. "His compete and his hockey sense are excellent. He's a real dedicated kid who is very focused."

2. Tyson Barrie, D: When the Avalanche let John-Michael Liles go to the Toronto Maple Leafs prior to the 2011-12 season, they did so with hopes a homegrown prospect could fill his skates.

Meet Barrie, the heir apparent to Liles and perhaps the best of a slew of defensive prospects coming through the Avalanche system. Undersized (5-foot-10, 190 pounds) but highly skilled, the Victoria, British Columbia, native could be the type of creative, puck-moving blueliner Colorado has been missing.

The Avalanche drafted him No. 64 in 2009 and he has continued to impress at each level of development. Barrie, the son of former Tampa Bay Lightning co-owner Len Barrie, enjoyed four productive seasons with the Kelowna Rockets -- 51 goals, 177 assists in 256 games – and was an integral part of Canada's silver-medal run at the 2011 World Junior Championships.

Last season he made the transition to Lake Erie and had 27 assists in 49 games. At the AHL All-Star Break, he led the team in scoring and received a call-up to Colorado for 10 games but failed to record a point. Barrie could stay in the NHL with a good showing at training camp.

"He's a top-end guy with real good vision and hockey sense, extremely committed," Billington said. "He showed real well when he came up last year, and he's got a tremendous background in terms of Kelowna and the world juniors."

3. Duncan Siemens, D: Another talented defensive prospect, Siemens was Colorado's second pick (No. 11 overall) in the 2011 draft despite being one of the youngest players available. Gifted with top-level size and strength (6-foot-3, 192 pounds), Siemens is not afraid to mix it up with opponents in the WHL. An elite skater, Siemens also possesses offensive tools, witnessed by his 14 goals and 92 points in 188 games for Saskatoon.

Billington said Siemens provides a nice, physical complement to the young core of defensemen in Colorado's prospect pool. At 18 years old, Siemens will spend another season honing his all-round game in Saskatoon before turning pro in 2013.

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4. Michael Sgarbossa, F: Sgarbossa came over from the San Jose Sharks in the Jamie McGinn trade, and the Campbellville, Ontario, native immediately became Colorado's most polished amateur skater. After going undrafted in 2010, Sgarbossa signed an entry-level deal with San Jose on the strength of his offensive potential. In two seasons with the Saginaw Spirit and Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey League, Sgarbossa hasn't disappointed.

In 2011-12, the silky center cemented his rise into the OHL's elite when he won the scoring title with 47 goals and 55 assists (102 points) in 66 games. At 5-foot-10, 171 pounds, Sudbury relied on him in all key situations, including the penalty kill and against opposing teams' top lines. Sgarbossa finished the season with a plus-21 rating.

"Here's a guy that San Jose signed as a free agent and we picked up at the deadline," Billington said. “He ended up winning the scoring title in the Ontario Hockey League – a premier league for player development – and he's certainly a very skilled candidate."

As a first-year pro in 2012-13, Sgarbossa will try to continue his torrid pace with Lake Erie.

5. Brad Malone, C: After he was taken with the 105th pick in the 2007 draft, Malone spent the next four years at the University of North Dakota. There he developed into an NHL-ready power forward. The Miriamichi, New Brunswick native turned pro prior to last season and made an immediate impact.

That's not surprising -- Malone's size (6-foot-2, 207 pounds) and fearless attitude make him a valuable lower-line presence for any organization. He's also got some offensive pop, with 11 goals and 25 assists in 67 games for Lake Erie. When the Avalanche forward lines were hampered by injuries in December, Malone performed well in a nine-game tryout, averaging 10 minutes a game and notching two assists. If his development stays on schedule, look for him to make a breakthrough with Colorado sometime next season.

"He's just a big strong guy who plays the center and the wing," Billington said. "He's got good hockey sense, and he's not afraid."

6. Cameron Gaunce, D: Yet another defensive prospect who has carved his niche, Gaunce is the resident penalty-killing expert skating for Lake Erie. He was drafted No. 50 in 2008, and the 22-year-old Sudbury, Ontario native has been perfecting his shut-down defensive game.

He made his NHL debut with Colorado two seasons ago, with 11 appearances and a goal, but spent the entire season in 2011-12 back with Lake Erie. With a good training camp, it's possible he can convince Joe Sacco to bring him up on a permanent basis.

7. Kent Patterson, G: Patterson is the first of two Avalanche goalie prospects who rounded out an impressive NCAA career in 2012. The Minnesota native joined his home-state Golden Gophers after being drafted No. 113 in 2007, and he became the full-time starter as a junior. In 2011-12, Patterson won the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's goaltending title with a 2.06 goals-against average. He also led Minnesota to a Frozen Four berth before falling to Boston College in the semifinals.

At 6-foot-1, 196 pounds, Patterson possesses the physical tools and has good positional sense, although his rebound control has plagued him in the past.

At one time a lock for Lake Erie this season, Patterson now must fight Millan and Aittokallio for a place with the Monsters. Though Billington said all three will be with the organization, one or more goalies will be assigned to the Central Hockey League's Denver Cutthroats expansion franchise.

8. Kieran Millan, G: The second half of their NCAA goaltending duo, Millan and his Boston University Terriers were bounced from the NCAA tournament this season by Patterson's Golden Gophers. No matter, because Millan had arguably an even more decorated collegiate career than Patterson did.

Millan earned Rookie of the Year honors in 2008-09 – the same year BU won its most recent NCAA title – and Colorado took him at No. 124 in that June's draft. The Edmonton native continued leading BU from the crease throughout his four-year career, although the Terriers could never match the glory of 2009.

Avalanche GM Greg Sherman expressed his excitement over inking Mitchell Heard, the team's top pick from the 2012 NHL Draft, to an entry-level deal earlier this week. (Photo: Getty Images)

Millan and Patterson signed identical contracts in early May, setting up the goaltending battle for the coming season.

9. Mitchell Heard, F: When he was drafted with Colorado's first pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, Heard left lots of Avalanche fans scratching their heads. Not many outside the OHL and Heard's team, the Plymouth Whalers, seemed to think much of the Bowmanville, Ontario native prior to the draft -- and for good reason. Heard had been passed over in two consecutive drafts and was known more for his fighting prowess than anything else.

Well, Heard still scraps – his 12 fighting majors led the Whalers in 2011-12 – but he's also developed into an offensive dynamo, scoring 29 goals and 28 assists for 57 points in 57 games last season. He said the lack of attention has helped him work harder, and his high character and compete level convinced the Avalanche to take him at No. 41 before higher-touted prospects.

He will turn pro as a 20-year-old this season, and Billington said he wouldn't be surprised if he made an immediate impact at the next level.

10. Sami Aittokallio, G: He is Colorado's first Finnish prospect, and the Avalanche think they found a good one with the 107th pick in the 2010 draft. Aittokallio has been playing at Finland's highest level for three seasons, meaning his experience level is much beyond his 20 years. He was Finland's starter in the 2012 World Junior Championships in January, and he had a breakout performance with 56 saves in a 3-2 shootout loss to eventual gold-medal winner Sweden.

Billington said he likes the goalie's focus and expects him to move to North America this season and compete for time at either Lake Erie or Denver. Aittokallio possesses impressive reflexes, natural athleticism and quickness, but the technical aspects of his game will need to develop if he hopes to challenge Pickard, Patterson and Millan for time in the crease.

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