While the Stanley Cup Finals are living up to their potential for excitement, the Colorado Avalanche front office is preoccupied by a slightly different matter: the imminent 2013 NHL Draft. With the Number 1 overall pick in the draft, the Avs have a chance to right the proverbial ship and start competing again. Joe Sakic has already taken a more involved role as the Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations, and both Patrick Roy and Adam Foote are returning to the organization for coaching roles. With all of these changes, the biggest question in the minds of many hockey fans is, “Who will they take?”
For a very long time, defenseman Seth Jones of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks seemed to be the best answer to that question. However, Sakic has recently stated that the Avs are more interested in one of the top three forwards: Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin, and Alexander Barkov. Whether or not this will be the case come June 30th is anyone’s guess, but nonetheless it has surprised a lot of people who have been following the pre-draft speculation. Here are the pros and cons of passing on Jones for the first overall pick, and my own opinion on the matter.
Simply stated, selecting a defenseman first overall has rarely worked out. The Avalanche have first hand experience with such a player, as Erik Johnson has yet to live up to his potential. Victor Hedman, Adam Larsson, Jack Johnson, and Cam Barker are other examples of recent defensemen taken high in the draft that haven’t worked out as intended. On the other hand, there are numerous examples of defensive greats who were taken outside the first round, such as PK Subban, Zdeno Chara, Nicklas Lidstrom, Shea Weber, Rob Blake, Duncan Keith, and Chris Chelios. While Jones certainly has the potential to be the next Scott Niedermayer, he could just as likely be a bust. On the other hand, while franchise defensemen can be found in later rounds, few truly great team-defining forwards have been taken outside of the first. This year’s draft class is the deepest in ten years, and Nathan MacKinnon in particular has the potential to be the next Sidney Crosby or Patrick Kane (both number one picks who helped their teams out of the cellar and into Stanley Cup champions). Sure the Avs have plenty of talent at center, including Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny, and Ryan O’Reilly. However, MacKinnon could potentially become the best player on the Avalanche roster, and there’s no such thing as too much offense. He also has experience at right-wing, where his speed and skill would be just as applicable. At the very least, should they draft him they would have substantial trade material to help bolster their defense. The fact of the matter is, players like MacKinnon don’t come along very often, and when they do, drafting for skill is almost always more beneficial than drafting for need.
Everyone knows at this point that the Avalanche need defense. They were the second worst team defensively in the league last year, and a star-caliber defenseman would do much to turn their fortunes around. Enter Seth Jones, the hometown kid and son of former Denver Nuggets power forward Popeye Jones. Seth has succeeded at every level of hockey he has played; he won two gold medals at the IIHF World U18 Championship and a gold medal at the IIHF World Junior Championship. He is already well-known for his hockey IQ and vision, quarterbacking plays and making reads that are years ahead of the average defenseman his age. He has been an Avalanche fan his whole life, and would fit so well into the Avalanche system that it seems almost preordained. Jones has the potential to be a perennial Norris candidate, the kind of player that can define a team. He is smart, big, strong, mature, and he knows how to win. Jones is the kind of player the Avalanche need, and if he does become the player many think he could be and the Avs don’t take him, it could haunt the organization for years.
Obviously, there are even more options available to the Avs than these two outstanding players. Jonathan Drouin, MacKinnon’s linemate in Halifax, would almost certainly be the number one prospect in any other year. They have already turned down one mediocre trade offer from Buffalo and one substantial offer from Calgary. Some believe Sakic and company are attempting to drive up the price of the pick before trading down to Florida or Tampa and selecting Alexander Barkov. I personally hope not. While it is true that the Avs desperately need defense, they do have two outstanding young players in Stefan Elliott and Tyson Barrie. It will be comparatively easier to find defense in the rest of the draft and during the offseason; the Avs have plenty of cap space, and with the cap going down other teams will be looking to offload players, perhaps in return for the kind of young offensive talent the Avs may find themselves in excess of. And MacKinnnon is simply too good to pass by; in a league where speed and skill are becoming more and more important, MacKinnon has incredible amounts of both. Passing on him to address a defensive issue would be passing on too much. Both players have the potential to be great, and one or the other could flop, but in the end Nathan MacKinnon is the smarter, safer, better choice.