One of the more underrated organizations, when it comes to prospect depth, is the Colorado Avalanche. Hockey's Future currently ranks the team 24th in the NHL and I can't say that I agree. I understand why, there's not a lot of big name guys on the list, but I personally see a lot of players who fit the description that I used for the organization; underrated.
Starting on the back end, a trio of former WHL stars may all one day play together in Colorado. Two of the three are already former teammates in Stefan Elliott and Duncan Siemens who skated together with the Saskatoon Blades. Add diminutive but very skilled Tyson Barrie and you have three different but talented d-men to move forward with.
Up front, the choice of Joey Hishon in the 1st round of the 2010 draft took many by surprise but he can play. Another small player, Hishon had 80 points in 50 games during his last season of play, the bad news is that was in 2010-11. Hishon sustained a concussion after a tough hit to the end from Brayden McNabb during the 2011 Memorial Cup and missed all of last season because of it.
Colorado has a full stable of goalies in waiting as well with Calvin Pickard, Kieran Millan, Sami Aittokallio and Kent Patterson.
But the guy in the organization that epitomizes underrated to me is someone that wasn't drafted and wasn't even initially signed by the Avalanche.
Mike Connolly (LW)Lake Erie Monsters
5'10, 180 lbs
Acquired via Trade with San Jose
full disclosure: I've been a fan of Mike Connolly's since the first time I saw him play a game for the Camrose Kodiaks in the 2008 AJHL playoffs. I went down to watch big center Joe Colborne and came away remembering his undersized linemate that absolutely made everything happen for the Kodiaks that night.
Unfortunately for Connolly, a serious knee injury limited him to just 37 games in his draft year and for an undersized forward playing junior A... that means you don't get drafted.
The next season the Calgarian was off to college and I vowed to keep tabs on him. His first year with the Duluth Bulldogs he ended with 42 points in 43 games. He followed that up as a sophomore by collecting 40 points in 38 games. Mind you this is in the WCHA, one of the highly regarded NCAA conferences where you are playing against top competition just about every weekend.
His progress was enough that the Edmonton Oilers invited him to their summer development camp and I had the chance to reacquaint myself with him once again. Camp ended, the Oilers didn't sign him and he returned to Duluth.
During that week I watched the Bulldogs play Notre Dame and Michigan and Connolly was particularly strong against the Irish. His positioning, his skating, his work and control on the power play... it all reminded me so much of a player that I'd gotten to know from the WHL. Ironically, the two were close friends growing up in Calgary.
I don't do comparison's very often because most of the time they get torn to shreds by other people. I'm going to do it in this case anyway but I need to explain it a bit.
The player in question is Jordan Eberle. Now you're going to say, "Right. The undrafted kid is really so much like a first round pick that scored 34 goals and 76 points in the NHL last year... good one". But let me explain.
Watching him closely during the Frozen Four and then in various highlight videos, the similarities are there. I've asked scouts that I know well to tell me if I'm out to lunch and none of them have. 2011 Mike Connolly was to Duluth as 2010 Jordan Eberle was to the Regina Pats. And look... both teams have dogs as their mascot. No? Still to much of a stretch for you?
I'm not going to say "He's a poor man's Jordan Eberle" because I hate that expression and I think it's a bit insulting to both ends of the comparison. Eberle is the better player, let's not kid ourselves. But I do think that Connolly shares many of the same traits including his offensive vision and skillset.
Last year Connolly signed with the San Jose Sharks and left college. What did he do at the AHL level? He lead the baby Sharks in scoring with 30 points in 40 games as a rookie before he was dealt to Colorado in a multi-player deal before the deadline. By the end of the year he finished with 37 points and a couple of games in the NHL.
I was disappointed that he only played a pair of games with the Avalanche. I watched his NHL debut in Minnesota against the Wild and he had a strong outing, nearly scored if not for a miraculous desperation stick save by Matt Hackett.
I don't know if he fits onto the NHL roster out of camp but I hope he gets an honest look from the Avalanche. Without question, Mike Connolly is "One to Watch" for me in 2012-13.