The Colorado Avalanche own the top pick in the NHL draft and a whole lot of options.
Nathan MacKinnon and Seth Jones. Jonathan Drouin and Aleksander Barkov. They are the top candidates to go first Sunday at the Prudential Center.
Colorado won the draft lottery and has flirted with the idea of picking a puck-moving defenseman in Jones. But it appears the Avalanche are leaning toward choosing a forward, perhaps the 17-year-old MacKinnon.
MacKinnon, a 6-foot, 182-pound center, is a solid two-way presence with strong hands and stick-handling and skating skills. He is considered a natural scorer and a very good puck distributor.
Of course, Colorado could also decide to trade the pick to the Florida Panthers, who are slated to pick second, or to the Tampa Bay Lightning at No. 3, or even farther down to another club that is looking to make a splash and shoot to the top.
There is plenty of talent available, and this draft pool has already been touted as the best in a decade. This year’s prospects have been favorably compared to the last blockbuster draft in 2003.
Marc-Andre Fleury, Eric Staal, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards highlighted that first round 10 years ago. Patrice Bergeron and Shea Weber went in the second round, and future All-Stars and Stanley Cup champions dotted the list of a loaded draft.
Fast forward to now and there is a new group of prospects vying to become as well known and decorated as some of today’s stars.
MacKinnon, Jones, Drouin, and Barkov are likely to be taken in the top four.
Given the track record of defensemen at No. 1, the Avalanche could play it safe and nab an elite forward instead.
“As far as MacKinnon, I could tell you he’s a heck of a player. Jones is a heck of a player,” Avalanche coach Patrick Roy said. “It’s the same thing with Drouin. They’re all premier players in the future for the NHL.”
Fair or not to Jones, teams are skittish about taking a defenseman first. The last defenseman selected No. 1 was Erik Johnson by St. Louis in 2006. Johnson, who now plays for Colorado, had only four points in 31 games this season and has never lived up to his top billing.
Only 12 defensemen have gone No. 1, and Denis Potvin (1973, New York Islanders) is the only one to make the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The Avalanche could make it 13 after winning the draft lottery for the first time.
Jones has deep roots with the Avalanche, dating to the early part of last decade when his father, former NBA forward Popeye Jones, struck up a friendship with Joe Sakic and Roy when they all played in Colorado.
Sakic is now the Avalanche’s executive vice president of hockey operations, and Roy is the club’s new coach.
Jones, a 6-foot-4, 205-pound defenseman, could become the first American picked No. 1 since Chicago’s Patrick Kane in 2007 and the seventh overall. In a sport in which the majority percentage of players are white, it is that slice of history he would make as the first black selected No. 1 — topping Evander Kane, who was picked fourth in 2009.
“Seth could be that poster child for USA hockey,” Popeye Jones said.
It would make for a unique cultural twist if an American was picked No. 1 in the NHL days after Anthony Bennett of Canada was selected first by Cleveland in the NBA draft.
“We still have a high amount of interest in him,” Rick Pracey, Colorado’s director of amateur scouting, said of Jones.
Jones enters the draft as the top-ranked player on the NHL Central Scouting’s final list of North American skaters.
Even as praise is heaped on him, Jones knows scouts believe he has only scratched the surface of his potential.
“They’d like to see the shot improve a little bit, be a little more physical, those kinds of things,” Pracey said.
The Avalanche, however, appear to have narrowed their focus on MacKinnon.
“He’s a player that has been front and center all year, and he continues to be so,” Pracey said. “He is a player that has withstood the pressures of a draft year, withstood the pressures of high expectations and the comparable that he’s been held accountable to, not only this year but the past couple of years.”
MacKinnon spent this past season with Halifax of the QMJHL and had 32 goals and 43 assists in 44 games. He scored 11 goals and had 22 assists in 17 playoff games.
“I think seeing that push and seeing him elevate his game and carry a team to a championship and then into the Memorial Cup is special,” Pracey said. “Having this player handle the distractions and the media and all the scrutiny that goes with being a top player and then being able to perform and raise his game, are all key, key qualities.”
After Florida and Tampa Bay, Nashville and Carolina round out the top five. All seven rounds will be held on the same day for the first time since 2006.
The next decade will tell if this class was worth the hype.
“It is certainly one of the better ones probably in the last couple of years in terms of overall depth,” Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said. “Compared to ’03, it’d be difficult, now. You look back at those players, there was a lot of impact players from that draft.
“So, that’s probably for future debate,” Holmgren said.
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham in Denver contributed to this report.