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Colorado Avalanche

Why The NHL Draft Might Have Been The Difference In The Second Round

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Jean-Luc Foudy nhl avalanche

The margin for error in the NHL playoffs gets smaller and smaller the deeper it goes, and that was very apparent in the series between the Avalanche and the Stars. Outside of Game Four, where there were some extenuating circumstances involved, all the games were pretty close. Each team had stretches in games where they looked better than the other, but they never lasted long enough to say one team dominated. It was a tight series.

However, looking at the rosters of the two teams, one thing stood out that might have given the Stars the ultimate edge in the series.

Amateur drafting.

Two massively important players for the Stars in the series were Wyatt Johnston and Logan Stankoven. Both of them are just 21 years old and were drafted in 2021. Neither were super high draft picks either, with Johnston going 23rd overall and Stankoven falling to the second round. Colorado’s first round pick in that draft, Oskar Olausson, has been pretty underwhelming in the AHL, although he did show some growth this year.

On the backend, Thomas Harley, a mid-to-late first round pick in 2019, played big minutes for Dallas. All three of these guys are still playing on their entry-level contracts, and the Stars have another late first rounder waiting in the wings, as Mavrik Bourque produced at over a point-per-game in the AHL this season.

Young talent coming in and filling important roles on entry-level deals is the key to winning in the NHL these days. The Avalanche were able to benefit from that in 2022 when Bowen Byram and Alex Newhook were playing for peanuts. When you have young talent that you can plug into your lineup for under a million, you can spend more money elsewhere and you don’t have to constantly go hunting for talent in the offseason.

The Avalanche have just one first round pick since 2016 currently on their roster, and that’s Cale Makar, a top five pick. Bowen Byram and Alex Newhook would have fit that mold, but were dealt in the last year to fill other holes on the roster. In addition, the likes of Justin Barron and Drew Helleson (who haven’t exactly panned out), as well as a first and second round pick were dealt back in 2022.

Those trades helped the Avalanche win a Stanley Cup, so you can’t argue with the results there, but there was always the potential for long-term consequences with moves like that. Are we seeing that right now? Colorado’s inability to draft, develop, and maintain younger talent in recent years was eventually going to catch up to them in a salary cap world.

Just look (again) at the team that eliminated them. Dallas has five of their own first round picks since 2017 currently on their NHL roster, as well as two second round picks (Stankoven and Robertson). The previously mentioned Bourque was also a first rounder, and could join that group as early as next season. This is a team that looked like they might be aging out of their Cup window a few years back. Suddenly, strong amateur scouting has saved them and given them a chance to extend that window.

Early returns from the 2023 draft for the Avalanche are strong, but they likely won’t reap the benefits of it for a few years. Barring a massive summer and training camp, I’d bet on Calum Ritchie heading back to the OHL next season, and Mikhail Gulyayev has two more years left on his KHL contract. Either way, it’s a start.

Colorado’s best hope for an infusion of cheap talent next season will be the likes of Nikolai Kovalenko, Sam Malinski, and Jean-Luc Foudy. Malinski will be 26 when next season starts, and Kovalenko will turn 25 soon after, so they’re not exactly the youngest guys, but they are cost-controlled, and that’s big. Both should be in the NHL next season, and given time to figure things out, because the upside in doing that is likely greater than what you’d find on the free agent market. If the NHL trade deadline has shown us anything, it’s that you can find players for next to nothing to fill out the bottom of your roster if you need to.

The Avalanche are going to be in a bit of a cap crunch over the next few years with most of their stars making a lot of money, especially with the situations surrounding Gabriel Landeskog and Valeri Nichushkin. Cheap, young talent is one way to survive when money is tight. Colorado doesn’t exactly have a ton of that at the moment.

We’ll see if that comes back to bite them over the next few years.

Colorado's premier coverage of the Avalanche from professional hockey people. Evan Rawal, Editor-in-Chief. Part of the National Hockey Now family.

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