The 2019 NHL Entry Draft is two weeks away and the Avs finally get to use the last major piece of the Matt Duchene trade – Ottawa’s first round choice, which thanks to luck ends up at #4. This is probably a big deal, we all hope that the Avs won’t have their own selection inside the top 10 for many years. If that ends up being the case then the player they draft will be the best hope for a long-term impact acquisition for the foreseeable future. So what should they do with it?
The stock answer is take BPA, the best player available, but that’s subjective and the way talent falls this year there are many BPA candidates. Even if there was a single BPA, ignoring organizational needs can drag the team down. Having too much of X and not enough of Y is an issue that’s tougher to fix than it sounds and developing players in a position where there’s an overabundance creates victims of the numbers game. In an ideal organization the top talent gets priority in minor league playing time and NHL callups, never gets benched for leadership vets and progresses as planned. In reality there are many factors at work besides the needs of a single player so counting on taking a talented kid that’s going to be 7th/10th/16th or whatever on the org depth chart doesn’t pay off all the time and value evaporates. The point here is that need has to play into the decision because there are finite resources available for each position.
Barring an extraordinary D+1 season, the earliest we will see pick #4 on the NHL roster is in October of 2021. Currently there are two NHL players signed through then (MacKinnon, Johnson), a handful of prospects (Kaut, Bowers, Henry) along with a bunch of young RFAs I’m confident will still be around like Mikko, Girard, Makar, Jost and others. Odds are Landy will still be the captain too, let’s hope so anyway. This is the basic core environment that we want to see pick #4 fit into. A lot can change between now and then and I’m leaving out some guys that have a possibility of a long-term future with the org like Kerfoot, Compher and Zadorov and talented prospects with major injury issues like Kamenev and Timmins along with the chance that Joe Sakic throws down for a big money UFA (like Tyson Barrie?) at some point. It’s not the ’96 Avs but for the cap era the roster projects quite well.
so where are the holes?
Just to get it out of the way, let’s start in net. Phillip Grubauer will be coming off the final year of his contract and will be UFA in July 2021. No point in projecting that scenario other than it would be nice if he had a Cup ring and a new contract by then. Varly will be long gone and I won’t even try to guess what happens to Pavel Francouz. What we do know is that the Avs will still have Adam Werner and Justus Annunen’s RFA rights as the only concrete notions. Adding a goalie would be nice but the top goalie prospect, Spencer Knight, isn’t in the conversation at #4.
Of the 7 defensemen who hit the ice in this year’s playoff run, EJ, Girard and Makar are the easy ones to see still here in two years. Ian Cole will be 32 and coming out of the final year of his contract. Barrie and Nemeth will be 29 and one and two years into UFA respectively. Big Z will be 26 and it’s a little hazy whether the org feels he’s a long-term fit right now. This looks like an area where an influx of talent will be needed. On the other hand if Barrie signs a new contract, Conor Timmins regains his health and shoots up the depth chart and Zadorov remains in Colorado then perhaps not. That’s a lot of ifs. There’s really only one top choice at D in this year’s draft, Bowen Byram, and it’s a path the Avs would be wise to consider very carefully.
With 12+ spots on the NHL roster the forwards are much more difficult to parse out. Carl Soderberg will be 35 and a year past contract expiration. Matt Nieto will be 28 and in the same boat. Matt Calvert’s contract expires that summer. They won’t all be back, maybe one or even none. Theoretically the fantasy of an all-homegrown lineup is possible with what they have now in the NHL and the pipeline but that’s beyond even burgundy rainbow levels of optimism. Even if that was possible it wouldn’t be very balanced.
The need most see right now is a 2nd line center. I don’t necessarily agree, even at age 33 Soderberg creates significant amounts of offense and takes pressure off the top line to play all the tough defensive minutes. What most people want is an elite scoring center that can produce given 2nd line minutes and usage, who wouldn’t? The draft won’t provide that now or even soon but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be a goal. If the front office does decide to pursue that role in the here and now, most likely via trade, then that becomes less of a priority at #4. The nice thing here is that there are plenty of options for a potential top 6 center or even winger if they choose to go that route.
The best thing to remember here is that the Avs are a young team that came within a game of the Conference finals and yet they have a top 5 draft selection to play with. This is a pretty rare situation, all the teams around them had their seasons come to a close before the All-Star Break and are trying to rebuild. Colorado is looking to augment an already solid program. There’s no pressure to rush or put a prospect in a role that’s over his head.
Because goalie isn’t an option and there’s only one defenseman that’s in the top 5 conversation, the decision comes down to Bowen Byram vs someone out of the group of forwards that have been rotating through the hype machine. After the top 2 that have been set in stone most of the season and will definitely be off the board by the time Joe Sakic heads to the podium, Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko, there’s a dropoff with no clear frontrunner.
Kirby Dach – huge playmaking center from the WHL
Alex Turcotte – quick 2-way center with scoring skills from USNTDP
Vasili Podkolzin – tenacious Russian winger with polished 200′ game
Trevor Zegras – another USNTDP center with 2-way and setup skills
Matthew Boldy – a wing that’s pegged into a modern power forward role, also from USNTDP
There are a few others in the top 10 conversation like Dylan Cozens, Payton Krebs and recently Cole Caufield but I’d put those guys in the surprise category. Word on the street is that the Blackhawks have their eye on local kid Turcotte with the 3rd selection so it’s iffy whether he’ll be available.
Here’s where we move into the opinion section and full disclosure, I am nowhere near as fluent with this year’s draft eligibles as Rudo and QueenJK are so I encourage you to peruse their thoughts for in depth coverage of these fellows on our site.
For me the choice is easy: Select Bowen Byram with the 4th pick. Not only is he the top defenseman in the class but I have no doubts that he’s the best player available after the top two. There’s an added bonus of adding to a Colorado defensive pipeline that is very thin right now since Cale Makar has graduated to the NHL so whether you’re a straight up BPA disciple or like me, take organizational needs into consideration, this pick checks all the boxes.
Fans love to rehash previous drafts with if only we had taken this fellow type thinking and I highly suspect that watching Byram progress elsewhere would inspire such laments. Of course the same can be said with Dach, Turcotte, et al so it’s not a slam dunk but imagining an Avs blueline 3-4 years from now anchored by Girard, Makar and Byram is exciting to say the least.
A couple things make picking a forward out of this group less desirable. First off they all have some noticeable downsides, just about every prospect does so it’s not out of the ordinary. Second and related, if the Avs choose a center which seems to be the plan, that player will be no higher than a 2nd liner as long as Nate MacKinnon is around. Colorado has their 1C, he’s one of the best in the NHL and only 23 years old. As QueenJK often says, using a top 5 pick on a 2nd liner is probably not the best use.
The bottom line is that no matter who the Avalanche pick up here we are going to be getting a good player we should be very enthusiastic about. When Matt Duchene was traded 19 months ago this pick looked like it would be adding a nice piece along with everything else. As that season progressed and the Sens collapsed it became better and better. So much better that they deferred for another year. Now after a long wait, we get the results.