The Colorado Avalanche franchise is known for scoring goals. From their high-flying WHA as the Quebec Nordiques with Real Cloutier to today with Nathan MacKinnon, the teams’ history boasts a decorated group of forwards. Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, the Stastny brothers, Milan Hejduk, Mikko Rantanen... the list goes on and on.
Can you name many defenders though? Excluding our outstanding crop of current defenders; that might prove difficult.
Sure, the Avalanche had Ray Bourque and Rob Blake at the end of their respective careers. Sandis Ozolinsh was a nice player for a while after coming in from the Sharks during the first Cup run. All good players for the Colorado blue-line, all acquired via trade. Samuel Girard, while more likely to play a significant portion of his career in the burgundy and blue than the previous names mentioned, was still acquired via trade.
Can you name the last “franchise” defender Colorado drafted and developed?
Would it surprise you that this player was drafted all the way back in 1989 when the team was still in Quebec?
Yes indeed, the last franchise defender drafted and developed by Colorado that would play a major role for the team was two-time Stanley Cup champion Adam Foote. Taken with the 22nd overall pick in the second round of the 1989 NHL entry draft, Foote would go on to play in 1154 NHL games, with all but three of his 19 year career spend patrolling the Avalanche blue line.
If you’re counting along, that’s a 32 year stretch without drafting a great NHL defender. If we’re being honest, calling Foote great in the context of all-time NHL great defenders is probably a stretch, but he’s the benchmark for Colorado. While we all have a soft spot for John-Michael Liles, he’d be an even greater stretch.
That’s not to say the Avalanche haven’t drafted some talented defenders who went on to have solid careers elsewhere. However, the faint of heart may wish to look away from these next few paragraphs, as the Colorado history of drafted defenders is ugly.
In order to keep this article from being a full analysis of every defender drafted by the Avalanche, only players taken in the first three rounds prior to 2014 will be considered. Let’s get the no NHL experience list over with first.
2014 3rd – Kyle Wood
2006 2nd – Nigel Williams
2002 3rd – Eric Lundberg
2000 2nd – Agris Saviels
1997 1st – Kevin Grimes (26 overall)
1994 1st – Jeff Kealty (22 overall)
1994 3rd – Sebastien Bety
The two first round picks are long enough ago that our current GM was skating for the team when they were made, but were part of a long list of less than stellar drafting by GM Pierre LaCroix. The legendary Avalanche general manager constructed the roster largely through trades, especially on the blue-line. However it is not hard to imagine that his hand may have been forced by misses on defenders like Grimes and Kealty.
Next up are the group of players that played under 300 NHL games in their careers. Some names you may recognize, but franchise defenders generally stick around for more than four NHL seasons.
1996 1st - Peter Ratchuk (32)
1997 3rd - Rick Berry (197)
1999 2nd - Martin Gernier (18)
2003 2nd - Dave Liffiton (7)
2007 2nd - Colby Cohen (3)
2008 2nd - Cameron Gaunce (37)
2009 2nd - Stefan Elliot (87)
2011 1st - Duncan Siemens (20)
2013 2nd - Chris Bigras (46)
Another list of names that are very underwhelming. Only Berry out of these defenders even hit the 100 game plateau. We are now up to sixteen defenders that provided the Avalanche with little to no value in relation to their draft status. Duncan Siemens in particular sticks out as a big miss by the previous regime. Billed as a big defender with good skating ability and a bit of a mean streak, Siemens is now a career AHL player due to his lacking puck skills, after being drafted 11th overall (nine picks after current captain Gabriel Landeskog) in 2011.
Now we get to the near-misses. Six players that have gone on to have solid NHL careers, but weren’t the kinds of players that previous Avalanche general managers decided were worth building around.
The number 12 overall pick from the 1994 draft, Belak went on to have a 549 game NHL career mostly known for racking up big penalty minutes at the turn of the millennium for Toronto and being a piece in the Eric Lindros trade. An imposing defender standing 6 foot 5, Belak would only play 35 games over three seasons for Colorado, before being shipped to Calgary along with the next player on our list for Theo Fleury and Chris Dingman.
Regehr never suited up for Colorado after being selected with the 19th pick of the 1998 draft, but was a key member of the 2003-04 Calgary Flames Stanley Cup runner-up squad, donning the A for a majority of his career with Calgary. A stay at home defender with little offensive acumen, Regehr carried a 100-plus game goal scoring drought into the 2003-04 season. Fun fact - Regehr was born in Brazil.
A key contributor to the 2000-01 championship team as a third-pair defender, Skoula spent 4+ seasons in Colorado. Drafted 17th overall in 1998, Skoula amassed 776 NHL games with six NHL teams before heading to the KHL and then finally a single season in the Czech league to cap a long career.
The former New York Islander defender was a second round pick in 2002 for the Avalanche. Boychuk never really got a foothold in the Colorado lineup, playing only four games for the team in 2007-08 before getting traded to Boston for Matt Hendricks. The defender won a Stanley Cup in 2011 with the Boston Bruins. Boychuk was sadly forced into early retirement due to an eye injury sustained during the 2019-2020 season.
Shattenkirk is the first of two current NHL players on this list. Drafted in the first round at 14 overall in the 2007 draft, Shattenkirk was shipped to St. Louis after only 46 games in an Avalanche sweater in the deal that netted Colorado current defender Erik Johnson. Three-times scoring over 50 points, Shattenkirk has proven to be a capable offensive-minded NHL defender. Last season, he helped the Tampa Bay Lightning lift the Stanley Cup before signing a deal with Anaheim this offseason. He is currently having a disappointing first season with the Ducks with only 15 points in 48 games.
The most recent member of the Colorado blue-line will cap off our list. Barrie was a solid defender for the Avalanche and quarterback of the powerplay before his presence was made redundant by the electric Makar. Barrie was a surprise find for the Avalanche, drafted 64th overall in the 3rd round. The top defender for the Avalanche for a number of years, Barrie is probably the closest the Avalanche came to drafting and developing an all-star level defenseman since Foote, prior to Makar and Byram. Traded to Toronto after the 2018-19 season in the deal that netted Colorado Nazem Kadri; Barrie struggled in his single season in Toronto and moved to Edmonton as a free-agent in the off-season. Uniting with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl has reignited Barrie, who as of writing is at 38 points in 45 games - the best point pace of his NHL career.
That is a list of 22 defenders that have been drafted since 2014 in the first three rounds. Only six had note-worthy NHL careers. None have had the potential held by our two newest members of the Colorado blue-line family tree.
The 19-year old Byram has played in 19 games this season - his first in the NHL after being drafted fourth overall in 2019. In those 19 games, the hockey world has seen the young defender step into the lineup of a Stanley Cup contender and look right at home (for the most part). That alone speaks to the type of talent contained in the 6’1” frame of Byram. A captain of the Canadian U-20 World Juniors squad; Byram draws rave reviews for his skating, hockey sense, puck moving and physicality. He has even drawn comparisons to All-Star defender Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings - high praise for such a young player. While an injury has put a damper on Byram’s rookie season, the future is very bright for the young defender.
Byram has a great chance to become an all-star and franchise type defender as he develops. However, there’s a defender who many would claim (myself included) is already an all-star level, franchise type blue-liner on the roster.
What else can be said about Makar that hasn’t already been said. Our own Jackie Kay makes a brilliant case for Makar to be included in the Norris discussion for this season. His skating is other-worldly. He’s an elite offensive presence and solid (if slightly inconsistent) in his own end. The number four overall pick in the 2017 draft is already a star. If injuries don’t derail Makar, there’s a chance he ends his career with more than one Norris trophy, even if he misses out this year. While Byram gets compared to all-star defenders like Doughty, the comparisons for Makar are even loftier. Recent comps bring to mind a healthy Erik Karlsson. Makar has a chance to be even better. Two names come up frequently, the highest of praise for Makar as historical comparisons - Scott Niedermayer (from one of our editors) and my personal choice, Paul Coffey.
Yes, he could be THAT good.
While the Avalanche have historically struggled to draft and develop defenders on the NHL level, Sakic has drafted two gems in recent years. For a franchise that has always developed elite goal-scorers and “figured it out” on the back end; Colorado has turned a corner in the last three to five years. With Makar and Byram, the Avalanche are set up to have their first homegrown all-star defenders. Combine that with Girard, and fans will need to get used to hearing “shut-down defense” and the Colorado Avalanche in the same sentence FAR more often.