The Colorado Avalanche appears to have played the long game with its selections in the 2021 NHL Draft.
In a year like no other where games were far less than normal for draft-eligible players and live viewings of the prospects for scouts were even more limited due to COVID-19, allowing a little extra time for seasoning might not be the worst thing for the newest crop of NHL talent.
The Avalanche had four picks, one each in the first three round and another in the seventh (fifth to last), and chose three players that are committed to playing in college and another that is skating in Sweden and has options for his development. The four draft choices were the fewest the franchise has ever made in the entry draft.
Each of Colorado's three selections on Saturday are set to play NCAA hockey in 2021-22, with the club selecting defenseman Sean Behrens from the U.S. National Team Development Program at No. 61, center Andrei Buyalsky of the Dubuque Fighting Saints at No. 92 and closed the draft with left wing Taylor Makar of the Brooks Bandits at No. 220. Behrens is heading to the University of Denver, Buyalsky to the University of Vermont and Makar to the University of Massachusetts.
Behrens was the No. 24-rated North American skater on NHL Central Scouting's final prospect rankings for this year's draft after recording 35 points (seven goals, 28 assists) in 46 total outings during the 2020-21 campaign. He will be able to develop just down I-25 from Ball Arena at DU, allowing the defenseman the benefit of getting plenty of looks from the Avs staff, which has four years to sign him.
"Our guys are really excited to have him. He's not the tallest D-man in the world, but he plays hard," said Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic. "He plays at a bigger size than he really is. A really competitive guy that is in your face, moves the puck, really shifty, plays a complete game. For somebody that doesn't have any weaknesses, he does all of the little things right. He's going to a great spot at DU. So it's going to be nice right up the road watching him develop the next few years at DU."
As a 20-year-old, Buyalsky was in his final year of draft eligibility and was the only selection from Kazakhstan and Colorado's first from the nation. After playing in his home country for his entire life, the forward took the leap and skated in the United States Hockey League with Dubuque this past year. He had 32 points (15 goals, 17 assists) in 36 games and might continue to get the opportunity to develop as a center with his 6-foot-3 frame with the UVM Catamounts.
Makar, 20, was also in his last year of eligibility after skating with the Brooks Bandits for the past three-plus seasons in the Junior-A ranks in Canada. The younger brother of Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar, Taylor is following the family's lineage to the University of Massachusetts, the school where Cale won the Hobey Baker Award in 2019.
Taylor Makar had 17 goals and 44 assists in 104 career Alberta Junior Hockey League contests with Brooks, but he averaged more than a point per game last season when he had 19 points (five goals, 14 assists) in 16 outings.
"He's come a long way. Every year he's gotten better and better," Sakic said of Taylor Makar. "He really took a big step, and we're excited. Obviously, he's going to UMass as well and he has a lot of time to develop. So we're excited to have him. He's a competitive guy that is a bigger guy, 6-3, that we have high hopes for down the line as he develops."
Cale has his own scouting report of Taylor that he gave earlier in the day while doing media availability after signing a new contract with the Avalanche, an event that began a big day in the Makar household.
"He is just a very hard-working kid. I compare him to kind of like, similar to like a Josh Anderson but the peskiness of one of the Tkachuk brothers, like a Matthew Tkachuk and stuff," Cale said. "He's definitely got a bright future, and he is already taller than me. I think he's 6-2 or 6-3 now."
The Avalanche's first selection of this year's draft did not choose the college route, as Oskar Olausson is planning on staying in Sweden in 2021-22 for his first full professional campaign with HV71 in the Allsvenskan league.
Olausson, 18, split his time between HV71's junior squad and in the pro ranks with the club's senior team and Sodertalje last season, and a full year of playing against men could be a big boon to his development. He still had a scoring knack as he tallied six pro goals in 2020-21 to go along with his 14 markers and 13 assists in the juniors. As a European, he has four years to sign with Colorado, but he's also eligible to play in the American Hockey League with the Avs' affiliate if all parties agree.
"He's a big, mobile, good skating winger whose got a great shot," Sakic said of Olausson. "A knack for scoring goals. He's hard on the puck and he takes pucks to the net, and we're excited for that skillset."
Prior to the draft, Avalanche director of amateur scouting Wade Klippenstein noted of the uniqueness with this draft class and said, "with mystery comes opportunity."
Colorado seems to have given its four draft choices opportunity to develop at their own pace, but the players also need to reward that the Avs' faith in picking them in the coming years.