Avalanche Draft Day Strategies

The Colorado Avalanche enter this season’s draft with a couple of valuable first-round picks. Everyone wants to know their strategy for who to select. Their answer?

The best available player.

It’s a simple plan. And one has to admire the brevity. But it’s not a particularly novel approach to the NHL draft. However, there is more to the Avalanche’s plans than that simple sentence. Avalanche Director of Amateur Scouting, Alan Hepple, provided some insights on how they are preparing for this year’s draft.

Scouting’s Approach to Draft Day

Hepple stated the team has changed some of their approach with the draft. The Avalanche are trying to focus on skill and hockey sense. All the players they are considering have both skill sets, along with other desirable attributes.

After the first two overall draft picks, Hepple considers the following selections “unpredictable”. The team has pinpointed who they would like with the fourth overall pick. However, zeroing in on who they should select at 16 is more complicated as the field opens up. They have talked with people around the league but it’s been tough to pinpoint who might be available.

The scouting department takes a number of factors into consideration when evaluating a prospect, like where they have played and where they will be playing (Juniors, NCAA, etc.)

At the Junior level, different teams produce some players better than others and develop players better than others. They take all of those factors into consideration.

He uses the progression of Cale Makar as an example. Makar went to a university where the Avalanche knew he was going to get a lot of ice time and be the face of the program.

University of Massachusetts' Mitchell Chaffee Cale Makar
Cale Makar celebrates a goal with his college teammates. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Hepple described how Makar helped turn the program around. The Avalanche want prospects who are looking to develop and become difference makers.

At the end of the day, it’s up to the players to take responsibility for their development and their career. Hepple believes the players are the only ones who can decide to do the extra things to help them improve, whether that’s in the gym or on the ice. The Avalanche do a lot of character checks and background to see if the prospect will be going to work hard.

Avalanche Eyeing Three Forwards

The organization has repeatedly stated its interest in acquiring a couple of key forwards. The question remains whether those forwards will come from free agency or the draft. Hepple outlined three forwards of interest to the team – Kirby Dach, Dylan Cozens, and Alex Turcotte.

Hepple described Cozens as a big centerman who skates well, has some skill, and sees the ice very well. He will have to get stronger, though, he adds.

He said Dach was very comparable – a guy who can control the puck with the power play and along the wall. He’s a bit bigger, nearly 6-foot-4, 200 pounds and has both the size and the play. According to Hepple, Dach doesn’t need to get bigger but he’s got hockey sense and sees the game well.

Kirby Dach Saskatoon Blades
Kirby Dach of the Saskatoon Blades has the size and the all-around skill to be a No. 1 centre in the NHL, so don’t expect him to fall too far in June’s draft. (Steve Hiscock/Saskatoon Blades)

Turcotte brings a slightly different flavor to the forward scouting mix. He played with the US under-18 national team. Hepple described him as a little smaller but tenacious, with great hockey sense and great skill. While he is a little bit shorter than the other two, Hepple doesn’t consider Turcotte to be a small guy.

All three are puck managers, good puck movers, have good skills, and can run plays, according to the Avalanche scouts. Hepple doesn’t see a big separation between the three. He thinks all three forwards have what the team is looking for, it’s just a matter of degree with their skills.

He believes these three prospects have the necessary skill set. They also have the compete and the upward speed. He adds that there will be a development curve, little things they will have to improve to compete at the NHL level. But, the Avalanche scouts like all three forwards.

Other Notable Prospects

When it comes to this year’s US team prospects, Hepple considers them the most scouted group as they have had an “exceptional” year. He believes Trevor Zegras will go ‘very’ high in the draft as he’s a skilled player with a swagger. He adds that a number of players are very close, with a very minute separation between them.

When asked about defenseman Bowen Byram, Hepple heaps on the praise. He described Byram as the “New Age defenseman in the NHL”. Hepple elaborates on his take. Byram skates, he moves the puck, and his puck management is “unbelievable.”

Bowen Byram Vancouver Giants
Bowen Byram continues to make a case for himself as the top defenceman in the 2019 draft class and a potential top-five pick. (Chris Relke/Vancouver Giants)

Byram has a bite, a grit that is important to the game. He is not going to be stopped. The kid is really good. Hepple values all those qualities, especially in light of this year’s NHL playoffs.

When asked if goaltender Spencer Knight was on the Avalanche’s radar at 16, Hepple thinks Knight is near the top of everybody’s list. But, he adds, the Avalanche will have to see who is available at the 16th spot. The Avalanche compile their goaltender list separate from their forwards and defensemen, so they will select the best player available based on the combined lists.

Hepple also offers his take on why goaltenders tend to fall down draft lists to later picks. He believes goaltenders require more development time. He references how Stanley Cup winner Jordan Binnington took seven years from when he was drafted until he got his NHL shot. Teams have to be patient and willing to deal with growing pains. All of that factors into why goaltenders are less likely to get selected in the first round rather than the third.

Draft Day Plan

Hepple admits there is always pressure in the first round. He recalls how they got Mikko Rantanen and Tyson Jost at the 10th pick. Makar was selected fourth overall. There’s always pressure in the first round. But, he reasserts they will select the best player available with the fourth overall pick.

When asked about how the team will monitor Chicago, with the third pick just ahead of Colorado, he’s heard a few things from people, agents, and others in the league but he doesn’t really know. He concedes he has an idea who the Blackhawks might take but admits it’s not set in stone. Hepple then jokes that he told Joe (Sakic, the Avalanche General Manager – GM) to go ask them.

Colorado Avalanche Executive Vice President Joe Sakic
Colorado Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic has quality options in this year’s draft. (Photo by RJ Sangosti / The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Hepple knows he is not the GM and he reminds his scouting crew of that. He gives the list to the real GM – Joe Sakic. He asserts that Sakic knows the players, especially the top end ones, and he’s seen them all before draft day, whether live or recorded.

While Hepple acknowledges the Avalanche could use forwards right now, he understands the team might need defensemen by the time the kids are ready to play in the NHL. He believes the Avalanche will go with the best player actually available with the 16th pick, based on their internal analysis. He just doesn’t know who that will be yet.

When Hepple discusses the options available for the draft, he makes it clear Joe will make the final call. Sakic should have a good idea what the scouts see in the players before making the selection. Hepple believes the decision for the 16th pick will be made at the table on draft day, but it will depend on too many unknowns to predict right now.

Draft Takeaways

The Avalanche have their work cut out for them in this draft. With two first-round picks, everyone is hoping the amateur scouts are on top of their game. It could be years before Colorado gets another top-five pick, let alone two picks in the top half of the first round, if the team continues to progress.

There’s an important caveat to anything the Avalanche release regarding the draft. They are playing a high-level game of chess with 30 other teams. How much information, or even what information, is released could just be a bluff for another front office.

Colorado Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic
Colorado Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic is engaging in a high stakes gamble at the draft. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

If the Avalanche are serious about taking the best player available in the fourth spot, Byram appears the best candidate, assuming Chicago doesn’t take him. While Chicago needs defensemen, they have been actively covering forwards, so they appear to be passing on Byram. But the Blackhawks are a division rival and one should expect them to do everything possible to throw off their ‘local’ foes.

While the Avalanche need one or two key forwards, they may not get them at the draft. A lot depends on their plans for free agency. There aren’t too many players available who can be a significant upgrade and the ones remaining will cost a pretty penny. If Colorado thinks they can wrap up a quality veteran forward, they may very well select Byram in the fourth spot. If not, expect them to go all in on a forward, or two.

A fourth and a 16th first round pick should bring back solid returns for the Avalanche. Who they select could indicate the team’s approach to free agency. While the options are interesting, one can’t help but wonder about how much easier this draft would look if the Avalanche had one of the top two picks. Yet, this scouting crew found Makar at number four. Can they strike gold again?