An Avalanche of Prospects

Coming off a season in which they were neither good nor bad, one point out of a playoff spot, the once-perennial divisional champion Colorado Avalanche have to be haunted by the team's inability to produce that one player that might have made a difference.

This season could be different. The Avalanche boast impressive prospects at every position. The club drafted well in Columbus, taking young American defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Colby Cohen, Peterborough Petes goalie Trevor Cann and Dartmouth right winger T.J. Galiardi. Those 18-year-olds are a few years away, but if they progress like the past two classes, the Avalanche will have laid the foundation for another decade of divisional dominance.

The Avs took Ryan Stoa, Paul Stastny, Tom Fritsche, Chris Durand, T.J. Hensick and Kyle Cumiskey in 2005. Stastny was one of the three finalists for the 2007 Calder Trophy, while Hensick was a finalist again for the Hobey Baker Award. Fritsche is bouncing back from a life-threatening illness, while Stoa and Cumiskey are moving well toward NHL careers.

Colorado took right winger Chris Stewart, defensemen Nigel Williams and Kevin Montgomery and center Michael Carman in 2006 and all had good seasons. Goalie Tyler Weiman was a seeming afterthought late in the 2002 Entry Draft, but he keeps succeeding at every level and will be ready if Peter Budaj or Jose Theodore struggle.

Centers

T.J. Hensick -- Hensick arrived at this summer’s prospects camp as the reigning NCAA scorer after an MVP season at the University of Michigan, where he scored 23 goals and 43 assists. It was Hensick's third-straight season as Michigan's leading scorer. He was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as a sophomore and senior and was only the third player in Central Collegiate Hockey Association history to make a First or Second All-Star Team in all four college seasons. Hensick also led the NCAA with 1.12 assists-per-game and 1.68 points-per-game. He captured the CCHA scoring title with 42 points (12g/30a) in 28 conference games.

"T.J. has good vision of the ice," Director of Player Development Craig Billington said. "He's an exceptional passer and it shows in his point production. He was leading the nation in scoring this year. He is an above-average skater who looks to utilize the other people on the ice."

Ryan Stoa -- Stoa is a 6-foot-3, 215-pound power forward who played two years for the United States National Development Program and the past two years for the University of Minnesota. He won gold medals at the 2004 U-18 Four Nations Cup and at the 2005 World U-18 IIHF Championships. Stoa has posted similar point totals the past two years, scoring 10 times and adding 15 assists two years ago while playing with Ryan Potulny and Danny Irmen and 12 goals and 12 assists last year while playing with Kyle Okposo and Tyler Hirsch. Stoa has good speed and power and handles the puck well.

"Ryan made tremendous progress from his first year to his second year at Minnesota," Billington said. "He found himself on the power play. Ryan has a big body and he goes to the net honestly. He looks to bring people with him when he goes to the net without the puck. One of his strongest attributes is his size and his physical presence. He skates well for a big man. One thing about him, he has tremendous character."

Michael Carman -- After leading Holy Angels to a third-place finish in the Minnesota high-school hockey tournament, while earning All-Tournament honors, Carman played two seasons for the USNTDP, finishing third in scoring in 2005-06 with 15 goals and 23 assists while leading the team with 102 penalty minutes. Carman helped the American team to the gold medal at the 2006 IIHF World Under-18 Championship in April. Carman had nine goals and 11 assists for 20 points in his freshman season at the University of Minnesota.

"Michael played on the United States' World Junior team last year and will again this year," Billington said. "He's very competitive with a lot of grit and tenacity. He makes your team tougher to play against and he has an offensive upside."

Left wingers

Tom Fritsche -- Fritsche is just glad to be alive after a scary battle last year with severe ulcerative colitis, a chronic intestinal ailment that caused Fritsche to miss the first half of the 2006-07 season. He had been Ohio State's leading scorer in his freshman and sophomore seasons. Fritsche, the younger brother of Columbus Blue Jackets' center Dan Fritsche, made the 2005 CCHA All-Rookie Team, when he had 11 goals and 34 assists. He had 11 goals and 19 assists the next season and was looking forward to a big year last season when he was struck down by illness. Fritsche played the final 19 games and had five goals and eight assists.

Fritsche has replaced the lost weight and his conditioning is much better. It's expected he'll return to OSU for one more season and his coaches are hoping he can approach or pass the 50-point mark.

"Tom is extremely competitive," Billington said. "He has a knack for the game and thinks the game well. Tom has an undersized frame, but his competitiveness makes up for it, along with his thinking."

Brandon Yip -- Yip was the 2006 Hockey East Rookie of the Year and All-Rookie Team Selection. He will forever be a Terrier hero for his overtime goal that defeated Boston College in the Hockey East championship game. He missed 16 games with a shoulder injury last season and five more with an ankle problem. In 18 games, he had five goals and six assists. Yip has a flair for high-pressure situations. He returned from his second injury last season with a two-goal game at UNH.

"Brandon is a power forward who enjoys the physical play," Billington said. "He has a 97-mph slap shot. BU put him on the point on the power play. He has a good understanding of hockey."

Right wingers

The Colorado Avalanche recently signed right winger Chris Stewart to a three-year contract.
Chris Stewart -- The Avalanche signed Stewart to a three-year contract this spring after his third season with the Kingston Frontenac. The team captain finished second on the club with 36 goals, 46 assists and 108 penalty minutes. He tied for the Frontenacs' lead with 14 power-play goals. Stewart is the younger brother of Florida Panthers' forward Anthony Stewart. He was an excellent tight end in football, leading his high-school team to the league championship in 2003-04. He sat out of hockey that year but came back the next year to play his first OHL season. The Avalanche selected him with the 18th overall pick of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. He played five regular-season games with Colorado's AHL affiliate, the Albany River Rats, last spring and one game in the Calder Cup Playoffs.

"He's made a lot of progress for a guy that was training to be a football player," Billington said. "After his first year of major junior, he came a long way. He has good hands and playmaking ability. He's a physical force and he sticks up for his teammates."

Defensemen

Kyle Cumiskey -- Cumiskey presents a bit of a problem for the Avs, but teams usually say they can deal with this kind of problem. The 222nd pick of the 2005 draft has proven to be a reliable point-producing, puck-moving defenseman. He's not overly physical, but he can run a power play. He had junior seasons with 36 and 24 assists and had 26 assists for the Albany River Rats last season. Cumiskey had a goal and an assist in nine games with Colorado last season. Cumiskey's problem is that Colorado already has left-handed shooting defensemen John-Michael Liles and Jordan Leopold with his skill set. They're bigger and more established. At 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, Cumiskey doesn't push people around, he skates by them.

"Kyle is an exceptional skater with excellent hockey sense," Billington said. "He makes a great initial pass and follows up the play well. He gets back responsibly. Defensively, he's kind of a Norm Maciver, a smaller guy who is really quick. When he gets the puck, it's two strides and he's gone out of the zone and moving up the ice. He can lead the rush or support it. Kyle thinks quickly enough to get himself out of trouble."

Nigel Williams -- After a good year with the USNTDP, Williams signed to play with Wisconsin, but left after one game to join the OHL Saginaw Spirit. He had a terrific season with 17 goals and 19 assists and was plus-8. He plays a physical game at 6-foot-5 and 226 pounds and has a strong shot. Williams made an immediate impact in Saginaw, scoring in each of his first four games. He had the Spirit's first-ever hat trick by a defensemen on Dec. 16. Williams had an excellent background, attending the top hockey prep-school, Shattuck-St. Mary's in Faribault, Minnesota, and winning a championship with the Team Illinois AAA Midget Majors. He was Colorado's second pick, 51st overall, in 2006.

" Nigel is an excellent skater with good mobility and a big shot," Billington said. "He likes to get involved in the play. Nigel played in the Under-18 program for the United States. We draft a lot of kids out of there."

Kevin Montgomery -- A product of the state champion Buffalo Selects, Syracuse Stars and the USNTDP, Montgomery moved to Ohio State last season, but lasted only 17 games before jumping to the OHL London Knights. It's amazing how long Montgomery has been on hockey's radar. He first attended a US development camp at age 14. Montgomery won a gold medal with Team USA at the 2006 IIHF World Under-18 Championship. Montgomery has good size, but isn’t overly physical. He moves the puck well and plays a steady defensive game.

"Kevin is a smart puck-moving defenseman," Billington said. "He's a good skater, a good prospect from the London Knights. He left Ohio State to play Canadian juniors and he'll play a lot next year under the supervision of coaches Dave Hunter and Dave Gagner."

Goalie

Tyler Weiman -- Weiman was taken with the 164th overall pick in 2002. He played four seasons with the WHL Tri-City Americans, then helped the Colorado Eagles to the 2005 CHL championship with a 33-win season and a 1.80 goals-against average. He split his next season between the ECHL San Diego Gulls and the AHL Lowell Lock Monsters. Weiman was 27-22-3 with a 2.99 GAA and .905 save percentage last season on an Albany River Rats team that was one game over .500 and surrendered more goals than it scored.

"We're pleased with his progression," Billington said. "He's coming off a breakout year in the AHL; 50-plus games played, a goals-against average under three and a record over .500. It was an impressive year and we're expecting him to continue on that path he's established."

Story courtesy of John McGourty, NHL.com


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