The Avalanche had finished the 2016-17 season 22-56-4 with an NHL-low 48 points, 21 behind the next closest team, the Vancouver Canucks (69). They had the best odds (18 percent) of winning the No. 1 pick but ended up with the No. 4 selection.
So they settled for defenseman Cale Makar.
It was a remarkable stroke of bad luck turning into good luck, one that has helped the Avalanche reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2001. They will host Game 1 of the Final on either June 15 or June 18 against either the New York Rangers or Tampa Bay Lightning.
But what would have happened if Colorado had won the lottery? Would Makar, considered one of the best players in the NHL, even be on the Avalanche?
“I’m not 100 percent sure [he] would have been,” said Alan Hepple, Colorado’s director of amateur scouting from 2009-21. “…There was a lot of discussion.”
Video: Makar reacts to being chosen 4th overall
As it turned out, the New Jersey Devils, who had an 8.5 percent chance of getting the top pick, did so by moving up from the fifth spot and went on to select center Nico Hischier in the 2017 NHL Draft. The Philadelphia Flyers, who were in the 13th spot before the lottery, jumped all the way to No. 2 and took center Nolan Patrick. The Dallas Stars, who were in the eighth spot, jumped to No. 3 and chose defenseman Miro Heiskanen.
It gifted the Avalanche with the chance to pick Makar, who began generating serious draft buzz among scouts during the 2016-17 season, when the Calgary native was playing for Brooks of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
“He got some traction a little bit in the first part of his year in Brooks,” Hepple said. “But then he jumped off the page at the World Junior A Challenge (in December 2016). Just jumped up big. Skating, hockey sense, everything.”
He was the captain for Canada West and led defensemen at the tournament with eight points (four goals, four assists) in four games.
Makar then finished sixth in the AJHL with 75 points (24 goals, 51 assists) in 54 games and was named the league’s most valuable player and top defensemen. Then at the RBC Cup, Canada’s championship tournament for Junior A teams, he was tied for second among all players with six points (two goals, four assists) in five games and was named the tournament MVP.
Makar had been selected by Medicine Hat of the Western Hockey League in the eighth round of the 2013 WHL draft, but was 5-foot-6 and 125 pounds at the time. He was 5-11, 180 in his NHL Draft season.
“I think he was a little bit of a late bloomer,” Hepple said. “Obviously he was a smaller guy … but we stayed on him. We went to Brooks and went all over.
“We did a lot of work on him.”
They did a lot of work ahead of the draft too, and figured their pick would come down to either Heiskanen or Makar.
“We kind of found out that Hischier was going No. 1, there was a good chance Nolan Patrick was going No. 2,” Hepple said. “And then it was always, Dallas could have taken Makar, but we were in a fortunate place that if it wasn’t Makar it would have been Heiskanen. We had the best of both worlds.”
Heiskanen and Makar were on almost even standing among Avalanche scouts.
Heiskanen had 10 points (five goals, five assists) in 37 games with HIFK in Liiga, the top professional league in Finland, in 2016-17. He also had played for Finland at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship and was named the best defenseman at the 2017 IIHF World Under-18 Championship after his 12 points (two goals, 10 assists) led defensemen at the tournament.
“It was a little bit of a tough judgment, a tough assessment of these kids,” Hepple said. “It was such a range on where they were playing at the time.”
Players from Liiga traditionally have been selected high; 13 had gone in the top 10 between the 1988 NHL Draft and 2016 NHL Draft. But at that time, three players from the AJHL had been first-round picks: center Brent Sutter (New York Islanders, No. 17, 1980 NHL Draft), center Joe Colborne (Boston Bruins, No. 16, 2008 NHL Draft) and defenseman Dylan Olsen (Chicago Blackhawks, No. 28, 2009 NHL Draft).
“We knew .” [Makar] was a good player, but there’s always that thought in the back of your head that he’s coming from the Alberta junior league,” Hepple said.
When the draft began, the first two picks went as expected, with the Devils choosing Hischier and the Flyers selecting Patrick.
Then it was wait and see for what the Stars would do.
“You’re hoping,” Hepple said.
The Avalanche’s hopes were answered when the Stars chose Heiskanen.
“The right guys went Nos. 1 and 2, then you know you’re getting a good player,” Hepple said. “Is there always a 100 percent guarantee? No. But you know you’re getting the player that you think is the best, you’re drafting the best player in the draft. When Heiskanen went No. 3 … you get Makar .”
After two seasons at the University of Massachusetts, Makar joined the Avalanche for the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs and had six points (one goal, five assists) in 10 games.
He won the Calder Trophy voted as NHL rookie of the year in 2019-20, and is a finalist in the voting for the Norris Trophy, awarded to the best defenseman in the League, for the second straight season. His 28 goals and 86 points this season were the most ever by an Avalanche/Quebec Nordiques defenseman.
“He was a pretty nice pick,” said Hall of Fame goalie Patrick Roy, who helped the Avalanche win the Stanley Cup in 1996 and 2001 and coached them for three seasons (2013-16). “I’m sure there are three teams that are watching the games going, ‘Holy cow, what did we do?”
Makar leads the Avalanche with 22 points (five goals, 17 assists) in 14 games during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He had the primary assist on Artturi Lehkonen‘s overtime goal in a 6-5 win against the Edmonton Oilers in Game 4 of the Western Conference Final that sent the Avalanche to the Cup Final.
“He might be the best player in the League right now,” Colorado center Nathan MacKinnon said after Makar had the primary assist on Valeri Nichushkin‘s series-clinching goal in a 5-3 win against the Nashville Predators in Game 4 of the first round. “He might be one of the best [defensemen] to ever play by the end of his career at this rate.”
Video: COL@EDM, Gm4: Makar fires it by glove through screen
In 178 regular-season games, Makar has 180 points (48 goals, 132 assists), third among players selected in the 2017 draft, behind Canucks center Elias Peterson (221 points) and Hischier (206). But Makar’s average of 1.01 points per game leads players chosen in that draft.
“He can do it all because he’s got speed, he’s got hockey sense, he’s got a great shot,” Hepple said. “He’s got everything. He’s thick now (5-11, 187). I’m not sure what his weight would be but his legs, his body, he’s big enough to play with the big guys. They can’t catch him anyway so it doesn’t matter, he’s so fast.
“We were kind of flatlined in Colorado. We get him and all of a sudden he makes things tick now. So Nathan MacKinnon’s getting the puck now, Mikko Rantanen‘s getting the puck now, [Gabriel] Landskog. All these guys are getting the puck coming out of his zone because he’s great at zone exits and all that stuff. His skating opens up the ice, but then he can move the puck. He can get it to Nate MacKinnon, he can get it to Mikko Rantanen. He’s so good.”
After losing 56 games in 2016-17, and losing three times in the 2017 lottery draw, the Avalanche appeared to be the biggest winners from the 2017 draft.
“The lucky thing that year, we were looking for a defenseman, so [Makar] fit what we’re looking for,” Hepple said. “Never that you pick for a need, but you pick the best player, and we kind of said we got both.
“We had a need and we picked the best player.”