June 30, 2013

Avalanche have lots of options for first pick in NHL draft

Nathan MacKinnon and Seth Jones headline a group of four highly regarded prospects.

The Associated Press

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 stickhandling 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 further 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.

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, he could also become the first black player selected No. 1.

"Seth could be that poster child for USA hockey," Popeye Jones said.

"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.

The Avalanche, however, appear to have narrowed their focus on MacKinnon, who spent this past season with Halifax of the QMJHL, where he had 32 goals and 43 assists in 44 games, then added 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."

 

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