DENVER -- In keeping with a philosophy of drafting the player they believe to be the best available rather than for need, the Colorado Avalanche likely will select Halifax Mooseheads center Nathan MacKinnon with the first pick in the 2013 NHL Draft on Sunday (3 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TSN), rather than Portland Winterhawks defenseman Seth Jones.
Wednesday, Rick Pracey, the Avalanche's director of amateur scouting, reiterated earlier comments by executive vice president of hockey operations Joe Sakic and coach Patrick Roy that the team is leaning toward selecting one of three forwards with the top pick, and that MacKinnon is the front-runner.
The Avalanche haven't ruled out trading the pick and have generated plenty of interest from other teams, but MacKinnon has moved to the top of the team's list if it stays at No. 1. Halifax left wing Jonathan Drouin and Aleksander Barkov, a center with Tappara in Finland, are the other forwards under consideration.
"We believe they offer transitional offense at the [NHL] level, and that is something that is very coveted," Pracey said of MacKinnon, Drouin and Barkov. "If you look even recently at the top five scorers in terms of point production in the League, all of the top five were first-overall picks. If you look at the past five years in the top-20 scoring, a good percentage of them were top-five picks in the draft.
"We think it's a special day for our franchise. We see this as an opportunity to add a potential core player, a building block for the next 15 years, a player who is NHL-ready."
Most experts tabbed Jones as the Avalanche's probable top pick after the team won the NHL Draft Lottery on April 29. The Avalanche, who finished 29th in the League standings, need plenty of help on defense and Jones is a talented 6-foot-3.5, 205-pound blueliner who learned to play hockey in the Denver suburbs and whose father, Ronald "Popeye" Jones, spent part of his NBA career with the Denver Nuggets. He is considered the best defensive prospect in several years.
Any reason Jones' stock apparently has dipped in the Avalanche's eyes?
"Nothing in particular," Pracey said. "Seth Jones is a very, very good player. He has good size, elite skating ability, he can move the puck. He's going to be a very good player in this League and we still have a high amount of interest in him."
Twelve defensemen have been taken with the first pick since the NHL instituted the draft in 1963, and few went on to have elite careers. The Avalanche's Erik Johnson was the last defenseman taken first, by the St. Louis Blues in 2006, and he has yet to live up to expectations.
"I think it's the nature of the position and the responsibilities that go with it," Pracey said. "The development curve, the adjustment to the League in terms of size … another argument is their ability to handle big men."
MacKinnon, 6-foot, 182 pounds, missed some time with a knee injury this season but finished with 32 goals and 43 assists in 44 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League games. Fully recovered for the playoffs, he had 11 goals and 22 assists in 17 games and led Halifax to the Memorial Cup championship while earning most valuable player. MacKinnon had a hat trick in the Mooseheads' title-clinching 6-4 win against Jones' Winterhawks.
Pracey said the impressive postseason performance didn't necessarily move him to the top of the Avalanche's list.
"We're very cautious about tournament play," he said. "League play is something that overrides a lot of things in terms of our evaluations. But in saying that, it's difficult not to appreciate the way Nathan stepped up and delivered at key times. I don't think the Memorial Cup was a 100-percent factor. Is it a factor? Maybe a shade."
The Avalanche never have had the first pick since the franchise moved from Quebec to Denver in time for the 1995-96 season. The Nordiques drafted first three times, choosing Mats Sundin in 1989, Owen Nolan in 1990 and Eric Lindros in 1991. The Avalanche's previous high pick came in 2011, when Landeskog was taken with the second choice.
The Avalanche have seven picks for this year's draft, one in each round, including the second pick in rounds 2 through 7.