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Colorado Avalanche need to start getting defensive development right

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The heavy emphasis on defense at the top of the 2017 draft is a new turn for the franchise, and a new test.

NHL: NHL Draft David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

With their 2017 selections, Colorado called a lot of names to feel good about. But they haven’t selected this much top-end blueline talent in a long time. Cale Makar (1st round) and Conor Timmins (2nd) may end up bellwethers for this organization’s ability to develop defenders—something they have struggled with mightily.

The Avalanche selecting three defenders in this draft isn’t a particularly new thing. They’ve done so more often than not in the last ten years, with the most notable exception being the catastrophic 2012 class, which featured nothing but forwards who have combined for exactly 1 NHL game played. But this is the first time in that ten-year period they have taken defenders with their top two selections, and only the second time they’ve taken defenders in both the first and second round. (The only other time, 2007, they had 3 second round picks, and spent the first on F T.J. Galiardi.)

The best Avalanche defender whom they drafted and developed themselves in the last ten years is unquestionably Tyson Barrie (3rd round, 2009). A technical argument can also be made for Kevin Shattenkirk (1st round, 2007), although the team then traded him to the Blues. As for the rest of the list... Here’s every defender the Avs selected Round 1-2 since 2007:

Kevin Shattenkirk (490 GP, 68-230-298)
Duncan Siemens (4 GP, 0-0-0)
Colby Cohen (3 GP, 0-0-0)
Cameron Gaunce 32 GP, 2-3-5)
Stefan Elliott (84 GP, 8-16-24)
Chris Bigras (31 GP, 1-2-3)
Nicolas Meloche (0 GP)
Cale Makar
Conor Timmins

That’s it. To be fair, a few of the names here may still grow into NHL talents, specifically Bigras (2013 2nd), Meloche (2015 2nd), and Siemens (2011 1st), but the Avalanche have drafted 7 defenders in the top 2 rounds since 2007 and precisely 1 of them has had a meaningful NHL impact. (Elliott kind of almost did, so you could call that 1.5 of them if you want.) Tyson Barrie doesn’t join the party until we add 3rd rounders, and then he’s the end of the list. The only other homegrown defenders with NHL time are Jonas Holos (6th round, 2008) and Anton Lindholm (5th round, 2014) last season.

But for the most part, Colorado’s defender draft history is a wasteland of questionable picks and players who never panned out. Siemens was selected 11th overall and has had barely a sip of NHL coffee in 6 years. Bigras has been on the cusp of developing into something big longer than nuclear fusion. If either of them finally make a jump this year, they will be the first defenders developed to an NHL level by the Avalanche since 2009’s Tyson Barrie. Where does this leave a young hotshot defender in Makar and a technically-second-rounder in Timmins?

Everyone involved may benefit from Makar’s development starting outside of the Org, with UMass. The Avalanche have clearly struggled to develop their own homegrown defensive talent, but on the positive side, they appear to know that. At the NHL level, assistant coaching changes this season should help, as the old guard stylistically may not complement the younger and quicker NHL defender. At the AHL level, new coach Eric Veilleux has had a single season of work with these players, and even that was cut short by injury for Bigras in particular. If the problem has been with which talent specifically was selected, the scouting staff has rolled over dramatically in recent years. And with Craig Billington’s being named an AGM, David Oliver has slotted into the head player development role, consulting with old friends Brett Clark, Adam Foote, and Brian Willsie.

The 2017 draft class presents these new (ish?) faces with a new challenge. The best talent you brought home from this draft are defenders. Can you develop them into NHL players? Can you take the 4th overall pick, who has been described as a diet Erik Karlsson, and give him the opportunities, trust, and patience he needs to succeed in the NHL? Can your 2nd round selection become a valuable addition to your NHL roster? Will your 7th round pick turn into anything?

It’s been a long time since this organization was able to make those things happen on the blue line. Now’s your chance, Avs. What will you do with it?

Shoutout to heretic48 and others for headline input.