WEEHAWKEN, N.J. - The Colorado Avalanche say they have crunched the numbers and they are looking for offence in Sunday's NHL draft.
Top prospects Nathan MacKinnon and Seth Jones insist they are both in the dark about whose name will be called first at the Prudential Centre in Newark., N.J. But the Avalanche are not shy about saying that they are leaning towards MacKinnon, a forward, with their first overall pick.
Jones, a defenceman from the Portland Winterhawks, is the top-ranked North American skater on the NHL Central Scouting list. But Rick Pracey, Colorado's director of amateur scouting, says their research shows that picking an elite forward at the top of the draft pays dividends.
Pracey notes that four of the top five scorers this season were No. 1 overall picks in the draft (Steven Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane). The exception was the undrafted Martin St. Louis.
And over the last five years, some 48 to 50 per cent of the top 20 scorers were selected in the top five of the draft.
So the Avs—who ranked 27th in scoring this season with 116 goals—are looking to a forward.
"We're leaning towards Nathan MacKinnon," Pracey told The Canadian Press, adding his voice to that of Avs executive vice-president of hockey operations Joe Sakic and new coach Patrick Roy.
Colorado likes the 17-year-old MacKinnon's history of elevating his game when it counts and his ability to handle pressure.
"We think he has elite speed. We like his (hockey) sense, we like his offensive ability and we think he comes to play," Pracey said. "His competitive nature is another factor in his game that we're fond of."
Halifax Mooseheads winger Jonathan Drouin and Finnish Elite League centre Aleksander Barkov are also on the Avs radar.
Scouts say Drouin reminds them of a young Joe Sakic, according to NHL Central Scouting director Dan Marr. Barkov, who is coming off a shoulder injury, has been playing against men since he was 16.
The three forwards, along with Jones, represent the cream of a crop seen as rich towards the top. Colorado has first crack at the talent, followed by the Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Nashville Predators and Carolina Hurricanes.
NHL Central Scouting ranked Jones first ahead of MacKinnon and Drouin among North American skaters. Barkov was rated the top international prospect.
Ask MacKinnon and he will tell you Drouin is the most skilled player in the draft.
"The things he can do with the puck are pretty cool," he said. "He slows the game down, he kind of controls the tempo."
But as to who goes where Sunday, Marr said nothing would surprise him.
"It's going to be a difficult choice but it's going to be a great one for their franchise," Marr said Friday at a New Jersey media availability overlooking Manhattan.
Marr said all four could be NHL-ready.
Of course, Colorado's open-door policy on its pick could be subterfuge. But Pracey repeated the franchise line, that the Avs wanted to keep their fan base in the loop.
That Jones has Denver ties might be a factor in that transparency. The prized defenceman essentially took up the sport in Colorado while his NBA-playing father Popeye Jones was with the Nuggets. By pointing to MacKinnon, the Avs have played down talk of taking the local boy.
Still, Pracey had dinner with Jones in Dallas last week.
Marr sees Jones as a rare talent built for today's NHL—smart, a fluid skater with a good passing touch and with a big-game sensibility.
Both MacKinnon and Jones are old beyond their years, both on and off the ice. They handled the media with aplomb Friday, having done it all before at the NHL Combine and Stanley Cup final.
Although MacKinnon's Mooseheads beat Jones' Hawks in the Memorial Cup final, the two have become friends and are rooming together here. Asked about what Jones is like away from the ice, MacKinnon mischievously offered that he is always willing to order room service.
They both say they are in the dark about who will go where on the draft menu Sunday. MacKinnon says he is not paying attention to draft talk, saying he doesn't want his expectations too high.
The Avs have said nothing to them, the two players said when asked.
MacKinnon did say he would look forward to working under Roy, who coached Quebec in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League this season.
"It would be an awesome experience," MacKinnon said. "He develops young players very well."
Colorado won the opportunity to go first in the draft lottery, dropping Florida to second spot. The Panthers had the worst record in the league in 2012-13 at 15-27-6, finishing three points behind Colorado (16-25-7).
The Avalanche, during their days as the Quebec Nordiques, picked first overall three time before. They scooped up some marquee names in Mats Sundin (1989), Owen Nolan (1990), while Eric Lindros (1991) held out and forced a trade to Philadelphia.
At No. 6, Calgary holds the highest pick among Canadian teams. The Flames also pick 22nd (St. Louis, via the Jay Bouwmeester deal) and 28th (Pittsburgh, Jarome Iginla trade) in the first round.
Edmonton selects seventh followed by Winnipeg at No. 13, Ottawa at No. 17, Toronto at No. 21, Vancouver at No. 24 and Montreal at No. 25.
Like Calgary, Columbus has three first round-picks—its own at No. 14, the Rangers' 19th pick (from the Rick Nash trade) and L.A.'s 28th pick (from the Jeff Carter deal).
Buffalo (eighth and 16th) and Dallas (10th and 19th) have two first-round picks apiece, meaning four teams—Buffalo, Calgary, Columbus and Dallas—control one-third of the first round going into the draft. That combined with the decrease in salary cap for next season could lead to deals ahead of Sunday.
Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds defenceman Darnell Nurse is also expected to go high. Marr sees him as having a bit of Shea Webber in him.
Nurse, the son of former CFL receiver Richard Nurse and nephew to former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb, says he has pondered over who might take him. But he added ultimately it doesn't matter.
"I'd like to play anywhere in the NHL," said Nurse, who grew up a Devils fan. "That's the honest truth."
The goalie crop is seen as thin but not without talent. Marr enthused about Halifax's Zachary Fucale, citing his mental toughness.