With the lights dimmed and the stage torn down on the floor of the United Center, the scene of destruction betrays what was a weekend of building for the NHL’s 31 teams. The Colorado Avalanche, in particular, had an interesting weekend as they were at the center of the “will they, won’t they”break up in their relationship with star forward Matt Duchene.
It turns out the Avalanche weren’t quite ready for the breakup to be official and hung on for at least one more weekend. While that was going on, the Avs had plenty of work to do as they had seven selections the seven rounds of the NHL Draft.
In the spirit of analyzing everything to death as quickly as possible, we’re going to grade each of Colorado’s seven picks and then toss them an overall grade at the end.
Cale Makar, 4th overall – Seen by some as a wasted pick because Makar is a small defenseman from a league that doesn’t traditionally produce much NHL-caliber talent, others saw Colorado selecting the dynamic Makar as them recognizing their biggest organizational weakness and attacking it with its highest value asset.
Makar is an explosive skater with high-end puck skills and hockey sense. That combination should be enough to mitigate his less-than-ideal stature and elevate him to the upper echelon of point-producing NHL defensemen someday. What remains to be seen is how he develops in his own zone and how much of a limiting factor it will be on his star power.
Should Makar develop the way many see possible, he could reasonably become the best player from this draft class. For the Avalanche, it was a chance they desperately needed to take for once after years of playing it safe. It was nice, just once, to see the Avalanche meet a moment that didn’t overwhelm them.
Conor Timmins, 32nd overall – Consider this one a bit of a surprise. Colorado hadn’t selected a defenseman in the first round since 2011 and until this year had not drafted defensemen with their first two selections since 2007 (Kevin Shattenkirk, Colby Cohen) and it was just their second time doing so since moving to Colorado in 1995.
Timmins is a much more developed player in his own zone than Makar but lacks the elite skating ability of his draft counterpart. He possesses plenty of offensive upside after dropping a 61-point season on the OHL last year but doesn’t represent the kind of game-changing upside of Makar. He’s a very heady player who provides steady and reliable minutes for his team and rarely makes mistakes.
It’s that high hockey IQ that sticks out most when watching Timmins. The Avalanche were certainly fortunate to a talent that was widely considered first-round-caliber drop to their selection at 32nd overall. As another right-handed defenseman, there are questions about his overall fit but ultimately the talent was too intriguing to pass up.
Nick Henry, 94th overall – Henry was a very interesting pick for the Avalanche and really represented them breaking out of their draft shell in some ways. He doesn’t have impressive size at just 5’11” and his skating is among his largest weaknesses. So what the hell, Colorado? Well, he can flat out shoot it to the tune of a 35-goal season for the Regina Pats in the WHL.
While playing on the powerhouse Pats certainly inflated his numbers some, there was plenty to like about his all-around game as he was another guy with high hockey IQ and sense that thinks his way through games at a high level. He plays a rugged, grinder style of game when the situation calls for it and has shown great effectiveness in that role.
His feet, however, are the big reason he was available with the 94th selection as his skating needs significant work. While none of the rest of his skills are outstanding, only the skating stands as a true limiting factor in determining Henry’s ceiling. If he improves his skating just enough to maximize the rest of his talent, he could be a legitimate top-six forward down the road.
Petr Kvaca, 114th overall – Acquired from the New York Rangers in exchange for Nick Holden, this selection turned into Colorado’s second consecutive foray into overage European goaltenders following their fifth-round invest in Adam Werner last season.
Not much is known about Kvaca overall as he was not on many scouting service’s radars and him playing in the lower Czech leagues certainly isn’t where you go to get noticed too much. Still, his strong second half of the season in leading his team to a championship was enough to catch Colorado’s eye and he’s their next try to finding a goaltender of the future.
Given the relative strength of this goaltending class and the quality goalies still available on the board at this pick, it strikes me as a curious decision why to take the chance on this type of player this early. We saw a number of quality goaltending prospects go two rounds later and you can’t help but wonder if maybe the Avalanche reverted to some of their bad habits in taking a leap of faith on a prospect with questionable upside.
Igor Shyvrev, 125th overall – This is one of the more interesting selections Colorado made not only this year but in the last several years. Shyvrev is widely agreed upon as an electrifying talent who could be an impact player in the NHL down the road. He put up impressive point totals last year in the MHL, scoring 70 points in just 40 games played, placing him tied for fourth in the league in scoring.
So why did he last until the fifth round? For one, this is his second year as a draft-eligible player so he’s an overager. Second, there’s a very real chance he never wants to leave Russia. That concern was a big reason he was largely overlooked in the draft process because many teams view the pick as a waste from the moment it’s made. Colorado obviously felt differently.
Given it’s 125th overall and the talent Shyvrev possesses, it’s a smart gamble by the Avalanche. They have a budding Russian pipeline with several already on the NHL roster and recent import Andrei Mironov only adds to their coffers so Shyvrev will be able to get an honest opinion from his countrymen. Mainly, though, Colorado needs to add talent in every avenue possible. Their lack of movement before and during the draft only increased the pressure to do well with their original selections and this is the kind of chance you take in the fifth round.
Denis Smirnov, 156th overall – Another interesting selection, Smirnov was a star for Penn State last season as a freshman, leading the Nittany Lions in scoring and generally impressing everyone who saw him play. Unlike the Shyvrev selection, which was all about a player with an exciting skill set that dominates, Smirnov is all about flat out producing.
As a third-year draft-eligible prospect, it says a lot about the season Smirnov has that he was even drafted at all. After a lengthy stay in the USHL, the soon-to-be 20-year-old exploded on the scene in the Big Ten last season, scoring 47 points in 39 games. While tearing up the Big Ten isn’t quite the same as beating up Hockey East or the NCHC, it’s still an impressive accomplishment, especially for a freshman.
Moving forward, the hope is Smirnov is able to duplicate that success before signing a contract with the Avalanche in his early 20’s and embarking on a pro career. He’s yet another roll of the dice by the Avalanche as they bank on his high hockey IQ and strong skating ability to turn into an NHLer down the road. In the sixth round, it’s a decent chance to take, even if the overall upside appears limited.
Nick Leivermann, 187th overall – This is like Nathan Clurman all over again! With their final selection, the Avalanche rolled the dice on a high school kid with great skating ability in Leivermann, who played alongside Casey Mittelstadt at Eden Prairie last season. His path forward is an interesting one as he will head to the Penticton Vees of the BCHL before heading to Notre Dame in 2018, giving Colorado their third Junior-A and Notre Dame player in the past two years (Jost, Makar, Morrison, Clurman).
The book on Leivermann begins with his skating and ends with a question of what other facets of his game there really are. Given Colorado’s affinity for skilled skaters in recent years, it’s no surprise they took a good one in the seventh round. The big question for Leivermann will be how he adjusts to higher competition that will be able to match his skating ability and how his overall game develops.
For the 187th selection, you’re not looking for much more than a single tool or two that can hopefully be developed well enough to justify advancing to and through the pro ranks. For Colorado, it makes sense to err on the side of skill here instead of targeting size and hoping he happens to be any good like we’ve seen in the past.
It’s hard for me to look at the class and say the Avalanche did poorly on draft day. They filled a significant need with the addition of Makar and then doubled down on it with Timmins in round two. After that, things got interesting as the Avalanche largely targeted skill at positions they needed help with. The only truly questionable pick was Kvaca and it was as much about the timing of the selection as the prospect himself. Shyvrev is a legitimately exciting talent in the fifth round and there were no selections this year that immediately raise significant red flags like last year’s selection of Josh Anderson.
Their best picks were at the top and that’s how it should be so Colorado gets credit for getting it right with Makar and Timmins. Henry could be a legitimate steal and also fills a real need along the wall.
Still, if you take a step back, the class includes a Junior-A player who was older than most of his fellow first-year eligibles in Makar, three overage players, and one high school player who is still over a year from beginning his college career. The Avalanche appear to have done well on the surface but there’s enough talent and underlying red flags to say this class could either be a franchise-changer or a complete bust. For once, it was nice to see the Avalanche not play it quite so safe on draft day.
Class Grade: A-