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Conquering the avalanche, Cale Makar and the explorer’s ring

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Ten days before the NHL draft, where CH will choose first, it’s good to remember what state the Colorado Avalanche were in in the 2017 draft.

A few weeks before retiring for the 2016-2017 season, Patrick Roy abruptly left Avalanche due to a philosophical dispute with GM Joe Sakic. Jared Bednar, who ran the Cleveland school club in the AHL, had then found himself in command and on the squad at the last minute, by default.

And Avalanche, who fielded youngsters Nathan MacKinnon (21), Mikko Rantanen (19) and Gabriel Landeskog (23), followed with a record of 22-56-4 (48 points) which remains the worst performance of a NHL team since the beginning of the new millennium.

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And since bad luck never comes by itself, the avalanche was again mocked on lottery night. Joe Sakic, Gros-Jean as in the lead, then found himself with the fourth selection.

On draft night, the New Jersey Devils made Nico Hischier their first pick. The Flyers have bet on striker Nolan Patrick, who by all accounts would have been the first player to pick had he not been injured in his draft season. Then the Dallas Stars continued with the excellent Finnish defender Miro Hiskanen.

When Joe Sakic came to the microphone, he surprised many observers by announcing the choice of Cale Makar, a defender who wore the colors of the Brooks Bandits in the Alberta Junior A League.

Makar ranked 9th in the North American NHL Powerhouse rankings. Behind him was Nick Suzuki in 10th place and Ryan Poehling in 13th.

Joe Sakic chats with members of the media at Guy Lafleur’s state funeral.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Ivanoh Demers

Makar’s case illustrated the complexity surrounding the selection process for professional hockey prospects.

The best 18-year-olds come from various amateur programs and leagues (in North America and Europe) and various professional leagues (in Europe) whose playing levels vary greatly. Not to mention the fact that the wannabes who play in the European leagues are often underused by their manager because they play with the men.

Furthermore, the aspirants are selected well before they reach their physical and technical peak. Under these conditions, predicting human development is an extremely laborious exercise. The margin of error is usually enormous.

Cale Makar receives the trophy from NHL assistant commissioner Bill Daly.

Photo: Getty Images / Bruce Bennett

As proof: during the first 19 repechage of the 2000s, the first player selected was undoubtedly the best of his cohort only eight times (ie in 42.1% of cases). And the talent of these eight players (Crosby, Ovechkin, McDavid, Matthews, etc.) was so evident that almost anyone would have chosen them.

Makar had produced impressive statistics (21-54-75 in 54 games) in the Alberta Junior A League. But how much were these numbers worth compared to senior Canadian junior hockey? How much was his skill in the Junior A World Championship compared to the Junior World Championship?

To this day, NHL teams still hope to use artificial intelligence and big data analytics to gauge the value of each development league relative to the others. We wish them the best of luck. In the meantime, you need to trust the recruiters’ flair, experience, and level of trust.

Makar’s case was unorthodox. It was fitting that many teams (and NHL scouts) were careful with him. Also, when your job is at stake, you think twice before putting your head on the stakes to bet on a youngster who has come a little way.

In the 2017 draft, however, Avalanche scout leader Alan Hepple was convinced Makar was the best player available at number 4. And he didn’t hesitate to put his guts on the table.

Hepple, who now works for the Arizona Coyotes, also once said that Avalanche would contradict all the experts and bet on Makar if the organization had the first pick that year. We will never know if he was telling the truth.

However, on Sunday night, Cale Makar (23 years, 239 days) became the youngest defender since Bobby Orr (in 1970, aged 22 years and 51 days) to receive this Conn-Smythe trophy and to be proclaimed. Playoff MVP. He amassed 8-21-28 and played over 27 minutes per game to help the Avalanche achieve their third win in their history.

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Last week Makar also got his hands on the Norris Trophy, awarded to the NHL defender par excellence. He thus became the third player in NHL history to win these two prestigious trophies in the same year.

Five years after the 2017 draft, even though Nico Hischier and Miro Heiskanen have excellent careers, it’s clear that Cale Makar is the best player to come out of this cohort. It wouldn’t even be surprising if he won the Norris Trophy six, seven or even eight times like Bobby Orr did.

The conquest of Avalanche’s Stanley Cup therefore began on a beautiful evening in June 2017, on the floor of the United Center in Chicago, because Alan Hepple and his team of recruiters had an exceptional talent. Hopefully Joe Sakic will send a Stanley Cup ring to his former scout leader.

Meanwhile, all this puts into perspective the sibylline debates that animate the sports stands, or rather whether the CH should choose Shane Wright, Logan Cooley or Juraj Slafkovsky.

When no perspective stands out very clearly from the others, holding the first pick of an NHL Draft is a true poisonous gift. The experience of several decades and the extraordinary skill of Cale Makar remind us of this.

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