They call it the weakest draft in years. They say hockey fans have been spoiled these past few seasons, with names like McDavid, Matthews, Ekblad, and Eichel gracing underachieving teams. They say this year is different than all that. No future Hall of Famers, no “Next One,” just a write-off and an easy excuse to trade picks… they say.
In some ways they may be right, but don’t count the 2017 NHL Draft out just yet.
On June 23, a team will walk up to the podium and make their 1st overall selection. That team will likely be the Colorado Avalanche, their dismal 21-54-3 record making for a lowly 45 points. Everything has gone wrong for the Avs this season — coach Patrick Roy stepped down a few weeks before taking the ice, key players have been lost to injury, and those who have stayed healthy comprise a cast of thousands, who for unknown reasons, have failed to show why they’re still in the NHL.
Come tonight, the Avs will be treated to the possibility of having their first 1st overall pick in four years, following Nathan MacKinnon in 2013. To some, that’s where the good part ends.
As has been said, there’s no McDavid in this draft, no player that can singlehandedly change the shape of the league, let alone a team. But where the draft fails in bona-fide superstars, it excels at players who can develop into key components.
Take the likely 1st overall pick, Nolan Patrick. Patrick has had a rough year, losing many teammates to the NHL, and missing 35 games with a lower-body injury, one that would force him to sit out the World Juniors last December. These struggles have cost the Wheat King centre’s draft stock in the eyes of scouts and execs. Even if the Avs don’t get that coveted #1 spot, there’s still some chance Patrick could find himself headed to Denver. At the same time, Patrick’s recurring injuries don’t spell well for a team that’s had their fair share. Despite Patrick’s unmistakable talent, there are other equal choices should there be doubts.
Dynamic Swiss Nico Hischier, or Finnish D-man Timothy Liljegren — both frontrunners alongside Patrick for the #1 spot — are anything but consolation prizes. Hischier has 86 points in his first full season in North America, and while not a clear-cut talent like Patrick, has room to improve. Liljegren has the potential to be a franchise defenceman, something the Avs have needed this season with their three key D-men on the sidelines.
The Avs might have the bottom spot to themselves, commanding the best chances to win the draft lottery, but they aren’t a shoo-in. The Arizona Coyotes, New Jersey Devils, and Vancouver Canucks are among the names eyeing that #1 spot, alongside newcomer Vegas Golden Knights. Like those teams, the Avs are ready to implode, with names such as Landeskog and Duchene rumoured to be on the move this summer. It’s become a question of when, not if, GM Joe Sakic will step down — better than being fired by the franchise he captained for 17 seasons — and coach Jared Bednar’s firing is all but guaranteed. Sakic and Bednar aren’t even the biggest names fans want gone – PP specialist (if you can even call him that) Tim Army’s head has been called for more than once.
And that’s where the possibility of not picking 1st comes back. The Avs have nothing to lose — if Patrick isn’t a viable option, there’s two others they’ll gladly take without question.
The lowest the Avs can pick is fourth, and the big three are only the tip of the iceberg. Sniper Owen Tippett could fit in well on a team that lacks offensive talent. Once he has had time to develop, putting Tippett on the wing could have him with MacKinnon or Duchene (on the chance they keep him). Tippett’s development could feasibly go the same way Toronto’s Mitch Marner’s has, a player that has become a steal in his rookie season, despite being picked fourth in a very stacked draft. Other wingers such as Eeli Tolvanen could also fit in that position, a role the Avs have desperately needed to fill with something other than aging veterans and fourth line talent.
In any case, the Avs could walk away from the draft with a Patrick, Hischier, or even a Tippett jersey, and they could come out winners. They may not be a McDavid per se, but for a team that needs everything, it’s a start.