The Colorado Avalanche have a big decision ahead of them.
Holding the first pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, the Avalanche have a handful of players to choose from who could realistically become franchise-caliber players, altering the future of the entire franchise.
Most feel that first pick should be American-born defenseman Seth Jones of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. Big, mobile, and gifted, Jones is regarded as the complete package; a franchise cornerstone you build around.
Patrick Roy didn’t quite feel the same when he announced that the team would not be using it’s pick, if they still had that pick and didn’t trade it away, on Jones or any other defenseman. No, they were going for one of the three forwards at the top of their draft board – Halifax’s Nathan MacKinnon, his teammate Jonathan Drouin, or Russian-born-but-playing-in-Finland Aleksander Barkov.
Many argued if that was the right decision given the Avalanche’s lack of defensive depth and dearth of talent at the position. Especially when a player like Jones comes around, which isn’t often.
What most aren’t saying, however, is that the Avalanche probably made the right choice.
Historically speaking, defensemen taken with the first overall pick don’t pan out like you’d expect. Six defensemen from 1980-2010 (the last two years were left out as it’s unfair to judge those prospects after just two years) were selected with the first pick: Gord Kluzak (1982), Roman Hamrlik (1992), Ed Jovanovski (1994), Bryan Berard (1995), Chris Phillips (1996), and Erik Johnson (2006). If you want to be totally accurate, Wendel Clark was a defenseman when he was made the first pick in 1986 but spent his career as a winger.
Without even delving into stats, that’s not a great track record for defensemen taken first. Gluzak was a huge bust. Hamrlik, Jovanovski, and Phillips have had long, solid careers but were never the cornerstones they were thought to be. Berard looked to be a very good defenseman for the first few years of his career, but an eye injury in 2000 dramatically altered his course of history. And Johnson remains an enigma, struggling with injury and inconsistency throughout his career.
Even if we expand our look at defensemen into the top three, it doesn’t get drastically better. For every Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer, you get two Craig Wolainins and Aki Bergs. Very few star defensemen seem to come from this high in the draft and at best, you’re generally looking at a very solid defender but not someone who would warrant a franchise-changing pick. History doesn’t favor Jones as the top pick.
Now let’s take a look at the forwards taken with the top pick since 1980. There are 15 centers and 8 wingers on that list. It’s pretty obvious that centers are the premium picks considering there have been more centers taken first overall than wingers and defensemen combined (15 – 14).
The list of centers taken is not without its busts – Doug Wickenheiser (1980), Alexandre Daigle (1993), Patrik Stefan (1999) – but the list of centers taken first is like a who’s who of star players: Dale Hawerchuk, Mario Lemieux, Pierre Turgeon (not a star, maybe, but his numbers were tremendous), Mike Modano, Mats Sundin, Eric Lindros, Joe Thornton, Vincent Lecavalier, Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, and John Tavares.
Just four guys out of that group have been considered true busts while the rest have been stars for most or all of their careers. Hawerchuk, Lemieux, and Sundin are in the Hall of Fame. Modano and Lindros are probably in, too. Thornton, Crosby, Stamkos, and Tavares are amongst the handful of the best players in the game. Lecavalier wasn’t too shabby of a player, either, asTampa’s franchise center for the bulk of his career until injuries intervened.
Generally speaking: when you select a center with the top pick, odds are that you’re going to get a franchise player who will be a star and potentially a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Now let’s look at the wingers taken. I know that Jonathan Drouin is rated as a left winger in this year’s draft but for argument’s sake, I just put together the wingers that were taken first since 1980. That list reads: Wendel Clark (1985, again a defenseman who played as a winger in the pros), Joe Murphy (1986), Owen Nolan (1990), Ilya Kovalchuk (2001), Rick Nash (2002), Alexander Ovechkin (2004), Patrick Kane (2007), and Taylor Hall (2010).
The thing that’s most striking about that group is the way it starts – not well – and the jump it takes from Kovalchuk on. The last five on that list are all legitimate stars; Kovalchuk has been one of the game’s most feared snipers since his debut, Nash was the face of the franchise in Columbus, Ovechkin was arguably the face of the league for a while and has three MVPs, Kane has two Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe, and Hall is a budding scorer having finished in the top 10 this season.
There is no surefire way to predict who will do what in their pro careers and scouts have made a regular habit of being wrong. It’s the nature of the system, a gamble in every sense of the word.
History, however, dictates that the right move is to take either MacKinnon or Drouin with the first overall pick and leave Jones to someone else. Should MacKinnon, the top pick according to Roy himself, pan out and carry the Avs back to prominence,Roy will look like a genius. If not, he’ll be ridiculed and berated all across Avalanche Nation.
Luckily for St.Patrick, history in the draft and one of success on the ice are on his side.
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