- Craig Custance
Patrick Roy knows the NHL draft can be a bit of a crapshoot. He lived it. In 1984, 50 picks were made before the Canadiens selected him in the third round at No. 51. 22 years later, he was in the Hall of Fame.
Armed with the No. 1 overall pick in his first draft as Avalanche coach and vice president of hockey operations, there are a couple of priorities. The first is finding a player who can make an immediate impact with the Avalanche. The second priority is removing as much risk as possible from the selection.
He's identified the player who best fits both characteristics.
During a Monday phone conversation, Roy said that if the Avalanche were picking right now, they would select Halifax center Nathan MacKinnon.
"If we move [to] second, we'll go [Jonathan] Drouin. If we go third, [Alexander] Barkov," Roy said.
They're all forwards. Two that Roy is extremely familiar with having competed against them in the QMJHL.
"The draft is the draft, there are surprises," Roy said. "At the same time, I know Drouin and MacKinnon, definitely without a doubt, are outstanding. It's hard for me not to go MacKinnon and Drouin. I know how talented they are ... they dominated our league from the first day to the last. When you're a winner, you're a winner. MacKinnon and Drouin are capable of bringing their team to another level."
Roy has had plenty of time to evaluate the Avalanche roster and examine exactly why Colorado was the 29th team in the league last year. He sees what everyone else sees. The need isn't at center, it's on defense. He's not in denial, even as the organization has made a very public decision to pass on the best defenseman in the draft.
He understands the biggest problem area on this team.
"Defensively, and I'm not pointing at the defensemen here," Roy said. "I'm pointing at the unit of six in their end -- defensively the team did not play very well. They've been allowing way too many goals. Certainly we need to be better as a team defensively. Can our D be better? Yes, for sure. At the same time, could our forwards be better? Yes, they can. It's going to be a team process."
Improving that defense is a longer process than plugging in a No. 1 overall pick. It's about identifying a couple NHL defensemen in the draft and then developing them. Roy points out that many of the league's top defensemen weren't picks made at the very top of the draft.
Kris Letang (No. 62 overall), Shea Weber (No. 49 overall), P.K. Subban (No. 43 overall), Duncan Keith (No. 54 overall) and Zdeno Chara (No. 56 overall) were all steals well outside the lottery. Franchise centermen -- like Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby, John Tavares and Evgeni Malkin -- are typically found at the top.
Roy doesn't have to look far for proof that picking a defenseman No. 1 overall doesn't always pan out. Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson was the first pick in the 2006 draft. The next four forwards chosen that year were Jordan Staal, Toews, Nicklas Backstrom and Phil Kessel.
This is all part of the thought process about picking the perceived sure thing over the bigger organizational need.
"You can always find good defensemen," Roy said. "They take a little bit more time to develop. Honestly, look at a guy like Chara -- sometimes a good stay at home defenseman or a good puck mover -- it's not necessarily a guy who will be drafted in the top five."
Taking MacKinnon provides Roy and team executive Joe Sakic valuable commodities if they want to trade for a defenseman down the road. Every team is searching for top-six centers, and the Avalanche would have four of them in Matt Duchene, Ryan O'Reilly, Paul Stastny and MacKinnon.
The short-term plan, Roy said, would be to move O'Reilly to the left wing where he'd skate with Duchene. Colorado's other top line would be built around Stastny and Gabriel Landeskog. That would leave MacKinnon third-line centering duties.
"It doesn't bother me to put a center to the wing," Roy said, pointing out that Sakic and Peter Forsberg had no issues playing together when called upon. He also said O'Reilly and Duchene played together successfully at the World Championships.
Conventional wisdom says Stastny would be the center to be traded if that's the route Colorado wants to take. O'Reilly can't be traded until February 28 because the Avalanche matched Calgary's offer sheet for him. Even then, Roy said there's no intention to trade O'Reilly.
"He's one of the hardest working guys on our team," he said. "Certainly not looking to move him."
Stastny is entering the final year of his deal that comes with a cap hit of $6.6 million and Roy didn't sound eager to trade him either.
"I'd be very surprised if we move Paul," Roy said. "Paul is a guy that is very happy in Denver. Paul is a team guy. I'm looking more to sit down with Ryan and see if he'll accept to play on the left [wing] with Matt."
The more likely trade remains one that includes the No. 1 overall pick. During Roy's introductory press conference he said the team had to explore the idea of moving the pick. Colorado's proclamation that they were passing on Jones at No. 1 brought even more phone calls to Roy and Sakic.
The return would have to be a package that could help the Avalanche fill a number of holes, bring back depth and players who Roy can plug in immediately to spark the turnaround in Colorado.
Those offers are coming, they just haven't been anything tempting enough to move the No. 1 pick yet.
"We have received different type of offers that are very interesting," Roy said. "We feel that if we could get something in return that's going to make us better, we will. We have to do what's best for our franchise. Our fans are trusting us."