The reported interest of the Colorado Avalanche in Nathan MacKinnon has been upgraded from 'shell game' to 'point of no return.' A series of on the record statements from Avalanche executives over the last week first helped the public determine that Colorado would pass on No. 1-ranked Seth Jones and take a forward, while on Monday the two newest members of the team's executive class suggested that MacKinnon would be the No. 1 pick if the draft were held that day.
If Colorado floated the news that they were willing to trade down in the draft through a series of leaks and headlines starting with 'Sources' or 'Reports,' perhaps you could forgive the team for going back on its word. If the Avalanche keep the No. 1 pick on Sunday's NHL draft (2:30 p.m. ET/11:30 PT, TSN) and take somebody other than MacKinnon, they'll be criticized for fomenting false hope and going back on their words.
Let's assume at this point that MacKinnon is the Avalanche's man and not Jones. A month ago, it was difficult to envision this scenario playing out. Jones grew up in Denver, and Sakic, who is the new VP of hockey operations there, coaxed Jones into playing hockey when both he and Jones' father Ronald "Popeye" were playing there during their days as pro athletes.
But there's an old saying, "if something is too good to be true, it is." Seth Jones re-uniting with the man that introduced him to hockey is an excellent story and given the hype surrounding Jones as a top prospect that grew up in the area, would help rejuvenate the fan support in a market that has fallen from prominence since Sakic's and new head coach Patrick Roy's playing days ended.
Further making things more obvious is that the Avalanche are stacked with young forwards. After matching the Calgary Flames' offer sheet to young two-way centre Ryan O'Reilly, the Avs had a stable of O'Reilly, Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny and Jamie McGinn. They traded defenceman Cameron Gaunce to Dallas for winger Tomas Vincour, and have an excellent collection of forwards while being thin on D. (note: it's been pointed out that Vincour signed with a team in Russia this summer)
Kudos, though, to Sakic and Roy for not bowing to what is surely a lot of pressure to use the No. 1 pick on Seth Jones. While Jones seems like the natural fit for the Avalanche, that shouldn't get in the way of the team using a highly valuable resource the best way possible—improving the team as they see fit.
There is a lot of disagreement as to which player among the 'Big Three' in this year's prospect group is the best. The Avalanche, who had a lousy record all season, certainly did their diligence in scouting the top junior talent in the world in anticipation of having a high pick. Roy, who coached against MacKinnon and teammate Jonathan Drouin in the QMJHL this season, also has plenty of expertise. While coaches rarely get involved in the NHL draft process, this being such a big year for the Q it's worth it for the Avalanche to use Roy's expertise. As the coach and general manager of the Québec Remparts, he was one of the league's most successful executives over the last decade.
Rankings differ. Jones ranked No. 1 in Central Scouting, but MacKinnon topped the all-important "Jeff Skinner rankings." The conventional wisdom is that Jones, MacKinnon and Drouin are very close to one another. If the Avalanche have MacKinnon slightly higher than Jones, than they should take MacKinnon and ignore the storybook possibilities of Seth becoming a superstar in Denver. Ultimately, what fans crave is victories, and the Avalanche should take the player they believe will bring them the most victories over the next seven-to-nine years while the player is under team control.
Drafting for a positional need is tempting, but the best thing that a team can do at the draft is get the most good players they can and let the rest of it sort itself out as the players mature from junior stars into NHL regulars. No lottery team is going to become an instant contender just by adding that one extra piece in June. Perhaps by the time MacKinnon or Jones are ready to be real top contributors at the NHL level, the Avs will have traded away a forward. Or signed a good defenceman. Or developed somebody from the system nobody foresaw as a big minute player in the NHL. So much can change over the course of a summer.
Perhaps you can quibble with the player the Avs have their sights on, but at least you can't criticize the team for acting unconventionally or thinking outside the box.