Should Avalanche trade 2023 first-round draft pick at NHL deadline?

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — When pondering the present vs. the future, look to the past.

It might be illuminating for the Avalanche’s decision-makers as they deliberate their options before the March 2 NHL trade deadline. Particularly regarding one conflict that looms over the proceedings: Should Colorado (23-17-3) trade its 2023 first-round draft pick?

Let’s dive into whether it’s worth it.

Here is the central predicament: The Avs lack trade chips. They have spent recent years trading their 2022 and 2023 draft picks to prioritize a win-now strategy. It paid off, obviously. But it means their current youth talent pool isn’t as deep as it once was — and therefore riskier to trade.

Bo Byram is indispensable as the future of the franchise’s blueline, and his injury-littered career should lead to a more team-friendly deal when he becomes an RFA this offseason. It would feel counterintuitive to trade his fellow 2019 first-rounder, Alex Newhook, if the goal is to secure more forward depth. Newhook wasn’t ready to be 2C this season, but the team is confident in the 21-year-old’s development.

After those two, the organization’s next wave of prospects is limited, especially on defense. So it feels necessary to hold onto top blueline prospect Sean Behrens (a 2021 second-rounder currently at DU).

The Avs already their traded second-, third- and fourth-round picks for the upcoming draft — all worthwhile deals that landed Josh Manson, Alexandar Georgiev and Kurtis MacDermid.

But that makes the 2023 first-rounder feel even more valuable. Trading it would essentially be punting on the draft for the second year in a row. Colorado’s first pick would be in the fifth round. Last year, it was in the sixth.

And yet, if Chris MacFarland and Joe Sakic decide closer to the deadline a big swing is worth a shot (maybe even a Bo Horvat-sized swing), it’s hard to imagine a situation in which that pick wouldn’t be part of the return package. Otherwise a deal would likely require players Colorado either doesn’t want to part with or can’t afford to.

Now here’s the precedent: This franchise has excelled with its first-round picks for the last decade and change as a rebuilding team. The later-round picks have rarely hit. It’s easy to understand why the Avalanche would feel protective of the first-rounders in that sense. Before 2022, the Avalanche had used at least one first-round pick in eight consecutive years. The only time they have parted with one during the Sakic era was for Darcy Kuemper, which is a tad ironic considering the organization’s recent reputation for not prioritizing goaltending when it comes to the salary cap.

On the other hand, it’s the high first-round picks who have succeeded, not the low ones. Nathan MacKinnon was No. 1. Gabriel Landeskog was No. 2. Matt Duchene was No. 3. Cale Makar was No. 4. Byram was No. 4. Mikko Rantanen was No. 10.

In the last 15 drafts, the Avalanche made seven first-round picks outside of the top 10 overall. It’s too early to tell if Newhook or Oskar Olausson will pan out, but the other five have combined to play 82 games for the Avalanche. None are on the current NHL roster.

The most useful of those five turned into a trade for another player: Justin Barron (No. 25 in 2020) helped Colorado land top-liner Artturi Lehkonen. Martin Kaut (No. 16 in 2018) hasn’t performed consistently enough to stay in the NHL, and he was passed up by 31 teams earlier this season, clearing waivers. Conner Bleakley (No. 23 in 2014) is the only first-round pick in his draft class to never appear in an NHL game. Joey Hishon (No. 17 in 2010) appeared in 13 NHL games. Duncan Siemens (No. 11 in 2011) appeared in 20.

If the Avs are counting on contending, it means they’re counting on that 2023 pick being low in the first round. In that case, why not make use of it the same way they made use of Barron, and the same way they made use of last year’s first-rounder? Kuemper and Lehkonen were two vital reasons a new banner hangs in Ball Arena.

In fairness, a number of those picks predated Sakic’s and MacFarland’s jurisdiction. This administration will naturally have more confidence in itself to scout late first-round talent. Still, if the Avs are worried about going two consecutive years without a pick in the first four rounds, there are potential ways around it.

No 1: trying to get back a R3 or R4 pick at this deadline.

No. 2: trying to offer a 2024 first-rounder instead of the 2023.

For a deadline seller, the rationale for agreeing to take a 2024 pick would be to bank on Colorado regressing next season more than this season, when it still could end up as the West’s most talented team if health allows. The reason this 2023 pick might be more desirable: This is said to be a deeper draft class. (Then again, maybe that adds to the reasons for Colorado to keep it.)

The Avalanche’s eventual conclusion will obviously be dependent on where they are in one month. And where Gabriel Landeskog is in one month.

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