By Bill Whitehead
If the word that came out of Denver on late Tuesday night is true — and if is the big word here — the NHL draft next Sunday may have taken its first interesting twist. Of course, if it’s out of Denver, that means Avalanche. And if it affects the Avs, it affects the Florida Panthers, who are slotted to make the second selection after Colorado gets the ball rolling.
The problem? According to reports by multiple sources, including Denver Post Avs beat writer Adrian Dater, the Colorado brass reached a decision, one that goes against the grain, which maybe should be considered typical of that franchise. The organization made a statement saying it would not choose local product Seth Jones as the top pick and reiterated it Thursday to ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun.
The defenseman and son of former NBA player Popeye Jones, Seth Jones has been ranked at the top of many prospect rankings and mock drafts since 2013 rolled around, but Colorado stated it had ruled out Jones and would take one of three forwards — speedy center Nathan MacKinnon, high-scoring winger Jonathan Drouin or big center Aleksander Barkov. Colorado would do this despite having Matt Duchene, Paul Stasny and Ryan O’Reilly anchoring the middle and having much more depth in forwards than defensemen who post big minutes.
It all could be posturing on Colorado’s part. What stands to be gained by making this announcement so soon and turning over all the team’s cards face-up at the table? Will it diminish the public relations problem of passing on a player in Jones that Avs executive vice-president of hockey operations Joe Sakic influenced and helped develop into youth hockey?
Here are a few scenarios that could happen:
Colorado, which stated it didn’t want to trade out of the top three or four (a range that ends, likely, at Barkov), could hope Florida, Tampa Bay or Nashville picks up the phone to make an offer. Florida looks to go offense, and Lightning GM Steve Yzerman has said his club will get quality at the third pick, regardless of who’s there, so Tampa may not be willing to trade. The Predators could go offense or defense, but MacKinnon is the hot commodity right now after his spectacular showing in Halifax’s Memorial Cup-winning tournament. However, new Colorado coach Patrick Roy will have an important role in making the top selection, and he thinks very highly of MacKinnon’s Halifax teammate Drouin, a Quebec native who is the top-rated prospect in the recent rankings of Hockey Prospectus.
With Yzerman perhaps staying put, the onus could be on Florida GM Dale Tallon either to make a deal with the Avalanche to secure the player the Panthers want — that is if the Cats have their sights dead-set on a certain player and feel they must get him. If Florida offered a top 6 forward, defenseman or good prospect, the Panthers could swap with the Avs and insure that it gets the player it has targeted as the top one overall — essentially the player it wanted before the Avs turned the tables by winning the draft lottery.
Tallon could stay put and be content to pick second, knowing the Panthers will get one of the Big Three of Jones, MacKinnon and Drouin. The organization could keep its current assets and not deal away a key player or prospect to the Avs and just take the BPA (best player available) at No. 2. That would mean Florida would have the opportunity to choose between two of Jones, MacKinnon and Drouin with at least one of those choices being one of the two dynamic forwards.
Staying inside that first three picks in this draft is key because most feel a drop-off occurs from No. 4 on back, which has to do with Barkov’s shoulder injury he suffered in March. If the Avs go ahead and take Memorial Cup MVP MacKinnon or CHL MVP Drouin, do the Panthers take Jones or the other forward? Or do the Cats trade down to a team who may want Jones like defensively-needy Edmonton for a top 6 forward and its No. 7 pick, which could likely be in the range of wildcard Russian power forward Valeri Nichushkin (below), center Sean Monahan or sniper forward Hunter Shinkaruk?