As Bob Dylan sang in 1964, "the times they are a-changin.'" For the Colorado Avalanche, those lyrics certainly could ring true as they approach this year's NHL Draft with the fourth overall selection, a result of a brutal lottery loss to cap off a season mired by more losing than any modern day non-expansion team has experienced.
On a Monday afternoon conference call with the media, Avalanche Director of Amateur Scouting Alan Hepple delved into the upcoming selection process of the next wave of young talent and may have tipped the team's hand in their preference of Brooks Bandits defenseman Cale Makar of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. It would mark the second consecutive season the Avalanche used their first-round selection on a player from Canada's minor junior system but the first time they've selected a defenseman in the draft's opening round since selection Duncan Siemens 11th overall in 2011.
When comparing the top blueline prospects in this year's draft, Makar and Finnish star Miro Heiskanen, Hepple seemed to lean towards the smaller Makar.
"They're a bit of different player, came from different backgrounds a little bit. Cale Makar played Alberta junior level this year and Heiskanen played with the men, pro. He didn't get the points, he didn't get the offensive numbers that we thought he would but very good skater, very good puck mover. Cale Makar, probably a little lesser league but again great skater, put up great numbers and a very good puck mover. We'll have to see where that plays out but again they're two of the top guys and we'll see where that plays out on Friday."
Both Makar and Heiskanen are swift-skating defenders with very high upside but Makar is believed to have a more dynamic offensive profile and Heiskanen to be the steadier player in his own end. They also found themselves on opposite ends of the competition spectrum as Makar dominated the AJHL, which hasn't produced a first-round selection since Joe Colborne in 2008. Heiskanen played heavy minutes in all situations for HIFK of Finland's top professional league and subsequently dominated the U-18 World Championships at the end of the season, giving him a prominent international stage against top players from this draft as a final showcase to decision makers across the NHL. Makar had no similar stage and simply had to rely on being the regular season and playoff MVP in leading his Bandits team to a championship season. Hepple acknowledged the difficulties in separating the talent from the quality of competition in evaluating the two budding stars.
"It's a tough part of the evaluation but we'll use comparables from the past. A lot of the kids in Europe do play pro over in Europe and we've had kids come from tier two in Canada like Tyson Jost. He was a tier two kid that played in Western Canada and you use your knowledge on guys in the past to make the selection. [Makar's] got the brain, he's got the speed, he's got the skating. For him, he's a good player that's going to succeed at the NCAA level which should translate into a solid pro."
With the Avalanche so focused on dangling forwards Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog earlier in the year in search of young defenders, it would seem to make sense for the organization to focus on the position with the highest selection the organization has had since it drafted Nathan MacKinnon first overall in 2013. While they like the two defenders at the top, that doesn't necessarily mean GM Joe Sakic has issued a mandate to focus on the position.
"I've had that talk with Joe," Hepple admitted. "There's no pressure. We're taking the best player available. So there has been no pressure from Joe or anybody. At that point in the draft, we have to stay the course and take the best player available like the last two years with Tyson Jost and Mikko Rantanen. They were the best players available at the time and we'll continue to do the same thing this year."
In an oft-repeated theme throughout the 14-plus minute conference call, Hepple leaned on the "best player available" mantra time and time again. The other theme of the call was Hepple touching on the organization's desire to continue adding speed to its lineup and again seemed to be alluding to the strengths of the high-flying Makar.
"We want smart players, we want fast players. You see the NHL now, it's a track meet every night, it's fast. Not only do you have to skate fast, you have to think fast so that's what we're looking for now. I think the game has changed and we're trying to get there with some fast, hockey sense, and skill."
If the Avalanche do indeed fancy Makar, there remains the issue of the player actually falling to them at their fourth overall spot, something Hepple made sure to point out.
"We've had discussions about [the defensemen] but I think at that fourth pick it will be the best player available. There may be 'D' gone before then so we'll have to wait and see."
Should the two D be off the board, the organization sounds ready for the scenario and did not sound averse to potentially moving back in the first round.
"I think there's always a chance at trading back. We have to see what we're given and what's presented to us and we'll take it from there but we're ready for that scenario."
After an embarrassing season for the organization that will go down in the history books for all the wrong reasons, the pressure is on for the Avalanche to deliver a big weekend at the draft table, not only in potentially dealing long-time face of the franchise Matt Duchene but also in setting up the prospect pool for maximum success down the road.
"I think there's always pressure in that first round. We want that guy to play. We want that guy to be someone to come in and make an impact. It might not be right away but definitely down the road. Obviously, they're young players, 17-years-old when we pick them so there's a development time for those guys."
The path forward for the dynamic Makar should sound similar to Avalanche fans after watching last year's top selection Jost follow a very similar route. Makar is set to attend UMass-Amherst, located in one of college hockey's toughest conferences, Hockey East.
Following Hepple's conference call, BSN Denver's own Adrian Dater tweeted out some follow-up information he received:
Talking more with hockey people tonight: Avs are praying Makar is available at No. 4
There's still a lot of difficult decisions ahead for the Avalanche this week as they get set to lose a player to the Vegas Golden Knights in the upcoming Expansion Draft but by the sounds of the changing tides, Avalanche followers might want to prepare themselves for them to change the tune of draft to one that lands them the rare elite prospect along the blueline.