The NHL season officially drew to a close last night, and when that happened the hockey world turned its focus to upcoming events that make June and July far more bearable for the average fan than the dead month of August. The NHL awards are coming up, and there are several Avs who are possibly if not probably going to be taking some hardware home with them from Las Vegas, but while MacKinnon, Roy and Varlamov are waiting to hear their names called so they can go up to the stage and get the awards they've earned, the scouting staff of the Avs, along with Roy himself, will be hard at work on their draft strategy.
The draft has rapidly turned into my favourite day of the year on which hockey is not actually played. It has quickly overtaken the increasingly boring "Free Agent Frenzy" on Canada Day (and don't get me started on what the trade deadline has turned into) and while I'm still looking forward to the opening of free agency with the same hopeful anticipation that most other hockey fans do, the day that commands most of my attention after the end of the NHL season will always be the entry draft.
Here are some thoughts on this year's crop, the overall nature of this year's players in general, and a few interesting asides on individuals, with a focus on players that could potentially end up in an Avalanche jersey on draft day.
1) Let's get one thing out of the way right now: we as Avalanche fans were spoiled by the draft last year. We got a generational talent with the first overall pick, a stalwart defenseman with our second pick in Chris Bigras, and then picked up a promising young goalie in Spencer Martin and a tough, physical, and rapidly developing d-man in Mason Geertsen. By virtue of Mackinnon alone the draft was a success. 2013's draft was a lot better to the Avs than 2014 is going to be. The Avs have the 23rd overall pick, and no second rounder thanks to the Reto Berra trade (debate amongst yourselves the merits of that swap). Now, that's no reason to despair of this year's draft for the Avs, but temper your expectations.
2) If the Avs were spoiled by last year's draft, they weren't alone. Last year was touted as the best draft class in the last ten years, so the Avs were not the only beneficiaries of the deep, talented draft class. This year, again, is a bit of a step down, so temper your expectations. Last year had a tantalizing mix of skill and depth, while this year is lacking in both departments by comparison. That isn't to say that skill can't be found, just that it will take a lot more homework on the part of the scouts to find it.
3) On the subject of high-end skill, this year there are four players who have separated themselves from the rest of the pack, and a fifth who has arguably done the same but isn't quite as good as those in the top four. For those who haven't been paying attention, consensus among scouts is that there are four players who stand above the rest, all of whom could potentially go first overall. Within those four, there is very little consensus as to who will end up going where. To give you an idea of how little consensus there is, the player that both THN and TSN have rated number one overall (Sam Bennet) is rated 4th by ISS. It seems increasingly likely that Florida will use the first pick on Aaron Ekblad (rated 2nd by ISS) but beyond that there is little to agree on.
4) For the Edmonton Oilers, who need a stalwart defender rather desperately after passing on them in the drafts where they held the first overall pick, having Aaron Ekblad go first overall to the Panthers would be a major slap in the face, but by now they must surely be expecting it. Ekblad is the kind of defenseman that just doesn't come around very often, the kind who does absolutely everything well. He can play shutdown, or power play quarterback equally well, has a bomb of a shot, and has the size (6-4 216 lbs.) to be physically dominant. There is so much Shea Weber there it's scary, and watching Ekblad play at the junior level, you really got the sense at times it was almost too easy for him. So Edmonton would love to get him, but probably won't.
5) What would really constitute disaster for Edmonton is if Ekblad went number one, followed by Leon Draisaitl at number two. Both Bennet and Reinhart are seen as having more top-end skill than Draisaitl, but not by much, and Edmonton needs a skilled forward with size far more than they need another small, skilled forward. The smaller skilled lineup hasn't panned out the way the Oilers have been hoping, and getting a player who has been compared to Anze Kopitar would be a huge boost to their lineup (make no mistake, Draisaitl is NHL ready next season). So if one of Ekblad or Draisaitl is still available at number three, expect them to get snapped up by Edmonton regardless of who else is on the board.
6) This may seem like drafting for need over skill, but the skill gap between Draisaitl and Bennet, for example, isn't all that big; any time you're being compared to Kopitar there is skill there. Draisaitl put up 105 points in just 64 games for a Prince Albert Raiders team that featured no real offensive weapons aside from himself and Winnipeg Jets first rounder Josh Morrissey. Draisaitl plays a power game, though he is not overly physical, and he is extremely competitive. Just like Joe Thornton and Kopitar, he uses his size to make space for other players, and is an excellent setup man. His size is actually closer to that of the Avs own Gabe Landeskog, but he doesn't have quite the same physical edge our captain does. He has better vision, however. He is everything the Edmonton Oilers need.
7) Bearing all that in mind, the teams drafting fourth and fifth overall (the Flames and Islanders) have the two easiest choices in this draft. For the Flames, it's very easy: just take whoever of the big four is still left over after the other three teams have drafted. That means a player who could easily have gone first overall (and one who probably would have if a different set of teams had been drafting) will slip to the Calgary Flames at fourth. As hard as this would have been to imagine at the start of the year, something tells me it's going to end up being Sam Reinhart. As amazingly skilled as Reinhart is, as much talent and vision as he has, Bennet's skill set places him a step above Reinhart, and Bennet has more of a mean streak (as do Draisaitl and Ekblad). Then too, Bennet and Draisaitl are both seen as being more competitive, consistent, and versatile than Reinhart according to scouts. Of course, with the wackiness of this years draft, I could turn out to be completely wrong on this.
8) Pick number five should also be an easy choice for the New York Islanders, although this is the Islanders we're talking about so who knows? They may go a bit off the board, but something tells me even the eccentric Islanders management group knows better than to pass on sniper Michael Dal Colle. With 39 goals and 95 points in 67 games for a good but not great Oshawa team, Dal Colle has the skills to take over games, and the size to make space for himself and go to the dirty areas. Expect him to be gone early.
9) After the first five go, and some would argue even within those five, this draft quickly becomes a crap-shoot. After number five there are as many as half a dozen players who could potentially go number six overall, and even more beyond that. Nikolai Ehlers and William Nylander are the two most skilled players after Dal Colle is off the board, but there are other intangibles; both are small, and the Canucks may end up taking local boy Jake Virtanen, who has both size (6-1, 209 lbs.) and skill, putting up 45 goals for a mid-range Calgary Hitmen team. Or they could go even bigger (6-2 226), and even meaner (136 PIMs), and take Nick Ritchie. Or they could decide they want a defenseman and take Haydn Fleury. Or... the list goes on, but once the first five have gone the draft becomes far harder to predict. My bet? The Canucks have had some luck with skilled Swedes in the past, so I'm betting they add another to the list and take William Nylander.
10)This draft is very very thin on defensemen. The next best d-man after Ekblad is Haydn Fleury, and the gap between the two of them is sizeable. The gap between Fleury and the next several d-men is even larger, so if you're drafting in the mid first round and need a defenseman you could find yourself taking a step back in terms of overall talent to fill a need. The next best defensemen after Fleury are Julius Honka, Roland McKeown, and a player who is quickly turning into a Mile High Hockey favourite, Travis Sanheim, but there's quite a gap between him and them (a minimum of eight picks worth if you believe The Hockey News and ISS). As for Fleury himself, he's Ekblad light. He's big... just not as big as Ekblad (6-2 203 lbs). He's got a hard shot... just not as hard as Ekblad. He can play physical... just not as much as Ekblad. He does skate very well, and he is very mobile for his size. There are some questions about his consistency with the puck. He's still going to make some team very happy on draft day however.
So those are my draft day thoughts for now. Sometime tomorrow or the day after I'll focus on the players that are actually in the range the Avs are going to be picking, as well as a few others of note. As a side note, if any of you are interested in seeing highlights from various draft eligible players, check out the YouTube channel of bigwhite06, who has a whole archive of prospect highlights with pretty much any top end prospect you can ask for.