NHL Draft: Avalanche and Seth Jones among intriguing storylines
As we make the sharp pivot from the astonishing conclusion of the Stanley Cup Final to the NHL Draft, which begins on Sunday afternoon in New Jersey, it's worth keeping in mind that much of the present and future core of the Blackhawks -- Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Corey Crawford, Brian Bickell, Dave Bolland and Brandon Saad -- were all Chicago draft picks. That's the starting point for how champions are built. It doesn't happen overnight and it takes an enormous amount of patience and hard work plus a keen eye for talent and character.
Each year's draft has its own unique storylines, but this year's may end up being some of the most fascinating in recent times. Consider the confluence of factors that will all merge this weekend as the NHL's general managers gather in the New York area before heading to the draft floor at the Prudential Center:
• The Colorado Avalanche have the first pick and new management -- led by Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy -- that seems eager to make a splashy debut.
• The talent pool at the top of this year's draft is especially strong, and there's much debate over how to rank the best prospects.
• The NHL salary cap is set to plummet for next season and teams will be looking to shed veteran players in order to create cap space through trades and/or exercising their compliance buyouts. Those buyouts have already started, the latest being Tampa Bay's jettisoning of 33-year-old captain Vincent Lecavalier and his annual $7.727 million cap hit through 2020.
• Teams may also be forced to let some free agent contracts expire to get under the cap, especially if they have to make the hard choice of keeping other pending free agents on their roster. The Bruins announced on Wednesday that they wouldn't bring back winger Jaromir Jagr and defenseman Andrew Ference next season because they want to keep forward Nathan Horton. The NHL's free agency period, which usually begins July 1, will be bumped to July 5 this year (a remnant of the lockout) and the process now includes a couple of days in which teams can openly court prospective free agents prior to actually being able to sign them. There's been a growing movement over the last few years of general managers moving potential free agents they believe they can't keep just to get something for that asset, even if it's a lower draft pick. Players like Jagr and Ference are still property of their teams until July 5 and could see their rights dealt before then to clubs that want a crack at signing them before they are set free.
The results of all this could be a fair amount of chaos with deals galore. But the biggest subplot going into the draft itself remains what the Avs will do with their first pick.
For months, hockey observers assumed the Avalanche would select Seth Jones, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound star defenseman with the WHL's Portland Winter Hawks whose father, former NBA star Popeye Jones, got Seth started in hockey when Popeye played for the Denver Nuggets, It seemed to make sense from a few angles. The first was Jones' Denver roots and his childhood affinity for the club.
More importantly, perhaps, was the rebuilding Avs' need for a dominant puckmoving blueliner. They have drafted and traded for some fine young players in the last few years, but the top defensemen they acquired -- Kevin Shattenkirk, in particular -- have been traded elsewhere. Jones would answer that need and he brings a big heavy shot along with his passing skills. He also likes to join the rush, acting like a fourth forward, but he's still solid defensively, more adept at positioning than making the crushing check. Jones patterned his game after future Red Wings Hall-of-Famer Nick Lidstrom and one couldn't ask for a better role model. And, he's got proven leadership skills; he's eventual captain material.
"He's one of those few players that scouts can say, 'You know, we think this guy's got potential to be a real game changer," said Dan Marr, NHL Director of Central Scouting, which ranked Jones as the top prospect among all North American-born skaters this year. Jones also has a winning pedigree, and he displayed that again this season while helping lead the U.S. to the World Junior Championship in January and the Winter Hawks to the WHL championship and the Memorial Cup final this spring.
Sounds perfect right?
Well, no. The Avs have other ideas and they don't seem to include Seth Jones. Earlier this month, Sakic said the team would pick a forward at No. 1. There are some very good ones, including Jonathan Drouin or Alexander Barkov. But the Avs seem settled on Nathan MacKinnon, who led the Halifax Mooseheads over Jones' Winter Hawks in the Memorial Cup final -- a great head-to-head matchup of top prospects, and that included Drouin, MacKinnon's linemate. MacKinnon was the tournament's top scorer with seven goals and 13 points in only four games, including hat tricks in both games vs. Portland.
MacKinnon is from Cole Harbor, Nova Scotia, the same town as Sidney Crosby, and while he doesn't have the same sort of anticipation, quickness and lower body strength that helps set Crosby apart, he's still fast and powerful and he has Crosby's work ethic and competitiveness plus a great deal of high end skill. Some have compared him to Jeremy Roenick, who scored 512 goals during his 20-year NHL career and that's not shabby. MacKinnon is ranked second by Central Scouting, but others have him ahead of Jones, including TSN's Bob McKenzie, who surveys 10 scouts to assist in his evaluations. Eight of them had MacKinnon ahead of Jones this week, largely because of his dynamic play over the last month of the season.
Still, as promising as MacKinnon (or any other forward) may be, the Avs already have some very good young forwards like Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene, P.A. Parenteau, Ryan O'Reilly and Paul Stastny. Do they need another when their defense corps could use a legitimate horse and power play quarterback? Hasn't the Edmonton Oilers' draft history proved that ignoring your defense corps to collect skilled forwards doesn't even get you a playoff spot?
My SI.com colleague Adrian Dater, who covers the Avs for his main gig at The Denver Post, has some insight into the situation. He suggested last week that defensemen who get picked first overall tend to not pan out as impact players. Since 1963, he wrote, d-men have been picked first only 12 times and only one of them -- the Islanders Denis Potvin -- is a Hall of Famer.
But that's not necessarily presenting the full picture. Roman Hamrlik, for example, went first overall to the Lightning in 1992 and while he may not be a Hall of Famer when he becomes eligible, he had a much better -- and longer -- career than anyone picked after him. And there have been some mistakes in drafting in which great defensemen who should have gone first did not: Chris Pronger went second to Hartford after the Senators selected Alexandre Daigle in 1993. Ryan Suter went seventh to Nashville in 2003 and only second pick Eric Staal of Carolina could be considered as consistently great among those ahead of him, including Marc-Andre Fleury at No. 1.
What is indisputable is what Blackhawks senior advisor Scotty Bowman told Dater: "Historically, D-men take longer to develop at the national level. It's tougher to project where they'll be in five years, whereas a supremely skilled forward, you kind of know where they're headed."
That works both ways: Duncan Keith, who is among the best defenseman in the world, came to Chicago with the 54th pick in the 2002 draft. It's always been harder to project how 18-year-old blueliners will turn out. It takes longer for most NHL defensemen, regardless of when they enter the league, to reach their potential.
That doesn't seem to worry David Poile, whose Predators pick fourth and hope Jones slides that far. "He's the whole package," Poile said of Jones this week "He has size; he's got great skating; he's got offensive abilities. He's certainly going to be an aggressive player. He can be a Norris Trophy winner."
But that's all future stuff and likely part of what could be driving the Avs' decision: Their new hockey department is looking for a more immediate contribution from their top pick. "The team that drafts him will need patience," Denver Post columnist Mark Kizla wrote last week. "And patience has never been the strong suit of Roy. The Avalanche's new coach is not going to stand and suffer on the bench for five lousy seasons. He wants to win ASAP."
He also has to win back fans in Denver who have not been filling the Pepsi Center the way they once did.
Another part of the Roy-Sakic thinking is that Roy comes to the NHL fresh from years coaching in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he saw MacKinnon on a regular basis. There's a familiarity there that is tough to dismiss. He's not anywhere near as familiar with Jones.
And with all that said, there may be something else at play here: There is lingering suspicion in some hockey circles that Colorado will actually trade that first pick and move down, get a package of more picks or an established NHL player or some combination of both. Rumors persist that the Florida Panthers, drafting second, would be happy to flip picks with the Avs, and they may not be the only team interested in doing business.
No one knows for sure. This could be a wild weekend.