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Leaning Towards A Forward

by Ron Knabenbauer / Colorado Avalanche

The 2013 NHL Draft is still four days away, but if the annual selection was held on Wednesday the Colorado Avalanche would likely choose a forward with the first overall pick, more specifically Nathan MacKinnon.

Colorado Avalanche director of amateur scouting Rick Pracey reaffirmed what executive vice president of hockey operations Joe Sakic and head coach/vice president of hockey operations Patrick Roy have said in the past week, that the organization is leaning towards the star center from the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

"One thing about Nathan, clearly his body of work throughout the year has been really good," Pracey said during the organization's annual pre-draft conference call with the media on Wednesday. "He's a player that has withstood the pressures of a draft year. He has withstood the pressures of high expectations and the comparables that he has been held accountable to, not only this year but the past couple of years."

For the first time since relocating from Quebec, the Avalanche will have the first overall selection at the draft after the team won the NHL Lottery on April 29. The Avalanche/Nordiques franchise has drafted first overall on three previous occasions: 1989 (Mats Sundin), 1990 (Owen Nolan) and 1991 (Eric Lindros).

Nathan MacKinnon of the Halifax Mooseheads.

The current state that Colorado finds themselves in at picking early in the first round isn't too unfamiliar as they have chosen in the top three before: Matt Duchene at No. 3 overall in 2009 and Gabe Landeskog second in 2011.

And just like in past years, the club will select the best player available on the draft board.

"Our philosophy hasn't changed. Everything remains consistent. We'll be selecting the prospect that is the best player available," Pracey said. "We see an opportunity here to potentially add a core player. This is a building block, we're hoping for 10- or 15-year type of investment and a type of player that we believe is NHL ready."

While MacKinnon is at the top of the list currently, Pracey said that there has been fluctuation on the top of the team's internal draft boards throughout the year and it still may change in the coming days after more internal discussions. That means forwards Jonathan Drouin (Halifax, QMJHL) and Aleksander Barkov (Finland) and defenseman Seth Jones (Portland, WHL) are still a possibility.

Jones is NHL Central Scouting's top-ranked North American prospect in its final rankings and the Avalanche could still pick him on Sunday at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.

"We've done our diligence in every capacity and we believe that Seth Jones is a very, very good player," Pracey said. "He has elite size, elite skating ability, he can move the puck and aid in the transition game. He offers a second-layer of offense coming up the ice. There is a lot to like. He is going to be a very good player in this league.

"We still have a high amount of interest in him."

Aleksander Barkov played professionally in Finland last season.

Maybe a sleeper among the top four is Barkov, who played last season in SM-Liiga – the top professional Finnish league. Barkov finished second on his Tappara team in 2012-13 with 48 points (21 goals, 27 assists) and has represented Finland at the last two world junior championships.

"This is an individual with elite size, elite hockey sense and transitional offense and high-end skill," Pracey said of Barkov.

Drouin also wouldn't be a bad selection as he scored 105 points (41 goals, 64 assists) last season for Halifax and was named the QMJHL MVP and the Canadian Hockey League's Player of the Year.

"We believe these are good players," Pracey said. "They have all spent time at the top of our list and for good reason."

But as of today, MacKinnon – the reigning Memorial Cup MVP and the Nova Scotia native who totaled 75 points (32 goals, 43 assists) for the Mooseheads during the regular season – would be the organization's choice.

Pracey said MacKinnon's great postseason in QMJHL playoffs and in the Memorial Cup hasn't necessarily played a part in their decision, but that doesn't mean they didn't take notice of it. MacKinnon had 13 points (seven goals, six assists) in the four Memorial Cup games that Halifax played.

"We are very cautious with tournament play, whether that is on the international stage or world junior," he said. "League play overrides a lot of it. Consistency, the peer group evaluation. In saying that, it is difficult not to appreciate the way Nathan stepped up and delivered at key times [during the Memorial Cup]. That is more supporting evidence."

With four days until the draft, there is still a possibility of the team trading the top pick, which is something the organization would consider depending on the offer. Pracey said that Sakic and Roy have been dealing with potential offers with the No. 1 overall selection.

"Certainly as we get closer, it’s a potential for that to happen," Pracey said. "I remember in 2009 when we were picking No. 3, a team offered us a whole draft in exchange for the third overall pick. At being No. 1, I would anticipate offers, if there is enough there to get us to thinking or if there is enough of a package to intrigue us, it remains to be unseen."

Rick Pracey with the Avalanche's top three 2009 draft picks (from left): Matt Duchene (No. 3), Ryan O'Reilly (No. 33), Stefan Elliott (No. 49).

While a lot of attention has been put on Colorado's first round pick, what has often been overlooked is that the team can steal a high-quality player early in the second round because the draft is so deep at the top. Pracey compared this year's draft to 2009, when the team selected Matt Duchene at No. 3 and Ryan O'Reilly at No. 33 – two quality players that have contributed to the team from day one.

Pracey said that the depth at the top goes to the mid-second round and picking at No. 32 won't be any easier then at No. 1.

"We keep coming up with the same equation, not all of these players can go in the first round," he said.

"We think that there is a chance that there could be four players there that are of great interest to us, and we are having a difficult time separating that group on what would be the best selection."

Yet, the Avalanche is not taking the responsibility of picking first lightly as they know whoever they choose will likely have a huge impact for franchise for years to come.

And who will decide which player the Avalanche will choose first? Pracey said it would be a group decision.

"The first overall selection, this is huge, and that is probably an understatement in that description," he said. "This is an organizational call. We've had our meetings, we've had our discussions, Joe, Patrick, our pro group, and we've discussed our options about our lineup. The first overall selection, that clearly is an organization decision."

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