Before we discover who the Colorado Avalanche will take in the 2011 NHL Draft, it makes sense to look at who the team has taken in recent years. Here's a brief history of the team's drafts since the Salary Cap Era began in 2005.
The first three years of the Cap Era (2005-2007) were a mixed bag, as Colorado tried bolstering an expensive and aging roster by borrowing against their future. These drafts suffered from a lack of commitment to a full rebuild, setting the franchise through a painful period of mediocrity. Not good enough to draft young talent, not wealthy enough to continue spending via free agency.
In 2008, the Avalanche finally learned from years of struggling to maintain their success in a salary cap world and hired new scouting personnel, including new Director of Amateur Scouting Richard Pracey. The following three drafts were under his watch and more accurately reflect the current draft strategy of the Colorado front office.
Second Round: Cameron Gaunce -- The Avalanche made their first pick of the draft count, as they selected a big, physical defenseman in Gaunce. He made his debut during the 2010-2011 season, and will be a strong candidate to make the Opening Night roster this fall.
Fifth Round: Mark Olver -- Olver is an undersized forward who saw limited time in an Avalanche sweater this past season. He is a strong candidate to make the team as a bottom six forward this upcoming season.
Sixth Round: Joel Chouinard -- This defenseman has made his way steadily up the Avalanche prospect list, being ranked #5 in Hockey Future's organizational ranking. He played in AHL Lake Erie last season with the possibility of an injury replacement next season.
Sixth Round: Jonas Holos -- This Norwegian defenseman was a regular fixture on the Avalanche blue line the second half of last season, and played well enough for a rookie. He should be penciled in as one of the final defensemen to make the team next season.
A solid first draft from Pracey that selected multiple quality defensemen for the long term. The organization is now starting to reap the benefits of this defense-centric draft.
First Round: Matt Duchene -- Colorado was able to select the best forward in the draft with the third overall pick (the franchise's highest selection since moving to Colorado). They have not regretted the pick, as Duchene made the team the first season after being drafted and has performed at an All-Star level.
Second Round: Ryan O'Reilly -- Two rounds, two home runs. In the second round, Colorado selected O'Reilly who was projected as a defensive-oriented forward. Like Duchene, he made the Opening Roster and became the team's best special teams forward his first season -- unheard of for a rookie. This past season, he saw time as a winger and began discovering his offensive touch. The ceiling may have been raised on O'Reilly, and he has become one of the team's franchise players.
Second Round: Stefan Elliott -- The hits keep coming. Elliott was named WHL Eastern Conference Defenseman of the Year this past season after scoring 81 points in 71 games as a defenseman. He is a major reason that Colorado was willing to let Kevin Shattenkirk go as part of the Erik Johnson trade.
Third Round: Tyson Barrie -- Barrie is another top defensive prospect. He was named WHL Western Conference Defenseman of the Year (sweeping the conference awards for Colorado prospects). Barrie scored 58 points in 54 games, giving the Avalanche plenty of depth with offensive-minded defensemen on the farm.
While it usually takes several seasons to evaluate NHL drafts, it's difficult to find another team that did better than Colorado in 2009. They found two starting centers (including one All-Star), and two potential quality defensemen who can play both ways and contribute on the power play. This is the type of draft that can turn a franchise completely around, and Colorado has already profited from this class.
First Round: Joey Hishon -- Hishon wasn't viewed as a first rounder heading into the draft. Talented? Sure. The center had suffered through multiple injuries the previous season and his draft stock slipped. Colorado caused many to scratch their heads when they selected him in the middle of the first round, and Hishon has produced. The undersized center scored 86 points in 50 games in the OHL, then led his Owen Sound Attack to the league championship with 24 points in 22 playoff games. He recently signed an entry level contract with the Avalanche, and could see some time on the roster this season.
Second Round: Calvin Pickard -- The Avalanche have always struggled to develop goalies. They may have their long-time solution in Pickard. Though he's only 19, he is showing quite a bit of promise in the WHL. Pickard faced 500 more shots than his closest competitor and still tied for third in the league with a .916 SV%. He recently signed an entry level contract with Colorado and could see some playing time in net for the Avalanche in a couple of years.
Third Round: Michael Bournival -- Another undersized center, Bournival had an excellent season in the QMJHL, scoring 64 points in 56 games. Colorado traded him this past season to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for defenseman Ryan O'Byrne, who added stability to the Avalanche blue line.
Another quality draft, as the Avalanche selected players that may have fallen on other team's draft boards for various reasons. The Hishon selection demonstrates a trust between the Avalanche front office and their scouting department -- and a willingness to take a chance on a high-quality player that may have slipped.
What Have We Learned?
The current Colorado scouting team really knows how to scout and develop undersized centers. They value players with speed and vision, and the ability to create opportunities for other players. Unfortunately, the organization is short on those playmakers. The lack of quality wingers on the team and within the farm system is a disturbing trend, and one that the Avalanche need to correct.
One of their greatest assets is a greater willingness to dig deeper in the draft. The Avalanche have shown a knack for finding diamonds in the rough (O'Reilly, Pickard, Barrie) and by going off the standard draft board with riskier picks in the middle rounds. The Hishon selection in particular suggests that we may see a complete unknown drafted at #11 in the first round.
Colorado also loves to draft smaller, offensive-minded defensemen who can move the puck beyond the blue line. With the emphasis on offense, there are few prospects that are comfortable sitting back in the zone. Combined with a lack of quality goaltending, this can be disastrous (see: 2010-2011).
Recent trades have shown the Avalanche front office moving away from the smaller defensemen model -- especially the acquisitions of Erik Johnson and Ryan O'Byrne -- and represent a significant philosophical shift that will likely continue on Draft Day.