Seth Jones fell in love with hockey watching Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy win a Stanley Cup in Colorado when he was 6 years old. Twelve years later, Jones is the possible No. 1 pick of the Avalanche and Sakic in this weekend’s National Hockey League draft.
The son of former National Basketball Association player Popeye Jones is the top-ranked prospect among North American skaters, according to NHL Central Scouting. At 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, he had 14 goals and 42 assists in 61 games for the Portland Winterhawks during the 2012-13 season to lead Western Hockey League defensemen in points.
The Avalanche hold the top pick in tomorrow’s draft and their choice probably will come down to a defense-versus-offense decision between Jones or center Nathan MacKinnon, who was the No. 2-rated North American draft-eligible player after totaling 32 goals and 43 assists in 75 games for the Halifax Mooseheads. Sakic, the 43-year-old former Avalanche captain and now the team’s vice president of hockey operations, will announce the No. 1 pick at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.
“We’ll be selecting the prospect that is the best player available,” Rick Pracey, Colorado’s director of amateur scouting, said on a conference call this week. “We see an opportunity here to potentially add a core player. This is a building block, we’re hoping for 10- or 15-year type of investment and a type of player that we believe is NHL ready.”
If Jones is the top choice, he’d be the first American to go No. 1 since Patrick Kane in 2007.
“Everyone wants to be the best in the world, that’s why you play the game,” said Jones, who could also be the first black player selected with the first pick in the NHL draft. “You have your individual goals and you get put on a team and you have your team goals as well.”
Jones said he knew he wanted to become a professional hockey player when he sat at center ice for the decisive Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2001 and the Avalanche beat the New Jersey Devils for their second title in five years.
Popeye Jones was playing then for the NBA’s Denver Nuggets, who shared their arena with the city’s NHL team that included Sakic and Roy, the goaltender who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason’s Most Valuable Player. Sakic now runs the Avalanche’s front office, while Roy is the coach and vice president of hockey operations.
The Avalanche had the NHL’s second-worst record last season at 16-27-5 and have the first pick in the draft for the first time since moving from Quebec City in 1995.
“Seth has a very good understanding of the game and his position,” said Dan Marr, the NHL’s director of central scouting. “He inherited an athletic pedigree from his father. He’s been a winner at every level that he’s played. He’s one of those few players that scouts can say, ‘You know, we think this guy’s got potential to be a real game-changer.’”
While affirming the Avalanche have a “high amount of interest” in Jones, Pracey said the organization may be leaning toward taking a forward. The last defensemen taken with the top pick in the draft were Erik Johnson by the St. Louis Blues in 2006 and Chris Phillips by the Ottawa Senators in 1996.
“In terms of point production in the league, four of the top five were first overall picks,” Pracey said. “If we look at the last five years in the top 20 scoring, around 48 to 50 percent of players were top five picks in the draft. That is something in particular that helps the forwards’ cause.”
The Florida Panthers have the second pick in the seven-round draft, followed by the Tampa Bay Lightning, Nashville Predators, Carolina Hurricanes, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils. The New York Islanders have the 15th pick, while the New York Rangers don’t have a selection in the first two rounds.
The draft’s No. 3-rated prospect is left wing Jonathan Drouin, who played alongside MacKinnon in Halifax and had 41 goals and 64 assists while helping lead the Mooseheads to the 2013 Memorial Cup. Defenseman Darnell Nurse of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and center Sean Monahan of the Ottawa 67’s are other top prospects, according to NHL Central Scouting.
“These are players you can build your team around, so what kind of player do you want to build with?” Marr said. “Do you want to build from the back-end out, or do you want to build up the middle? There’s no steadfast answer, so the projection is what the player will mean to the team.”