Makar made Avalanche big Lottery winners before helping them to Cup Final

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 pick #1, but ended up picking #4.

So they chose the defender Kal Makar.

It was remarkable bad luck turned luck, one that helped the Avalanche reach the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 2001. They will be on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; ESPN+, ABC, CBC, SN, TVAS).

But what would have happened if Colorado had won the lottery? Considered one of the best players in the NHL, would Makar even be in 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 debate.”

Video: Makar reacts to the election for 4th place overall

As it turns out, the New Jersey Devils, who had an 8.5 percent chance of taking first place, rose from fifth place and went to center Nico Hischier in the 2017 NHL draft. The Philadelphia Flyers, who were 13th before the lottery, jumped up to 2nd and took the middle Nolan Patrick. The Dallas Stars, who were in 8th place, jumped to 3rd and picked the defenseman Miro Heiskanen.

It gave the Avalanche a chance to select Makar, who caused some serious drafting buzz among scouts during the 2016-17 season when the Calgary native played for Brooks in the Alberta Junior Hockey League.

“He got a little traction in the first part of his year at Brooks,” Hepple said. “But then he jumped off the side at the World Junior A Challenge (in December 2016). He just jumped big. Skating, hockey feel, everything.”

He captained Canada West and led the tournament’s defenders 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 defenseman. At the RBC Cup, Canada’s junior senior team championship tournament, he finished second among all players with six points (two goals, four assists) in five games and was named tournament MVP.

Makar had been drafted by Medicine Hat of the Western Hockey League in the eighth round of the 2013 WHL draft, but at the time was 5’6″ and 125 pounds. He was 5-11, 180 in his NHL draft season.

“I think he was a bit of a late bloomer,” Hepple said. “Obviously he was a smaller guy … but we stuck with him. We went to Brooks and walked everywhere.

“We worked a lot on him.”

They also did a lot of work prior to the design and figured their choice would be either Heiskanen or Makar.

“We sort of figured out Hischier going to be No. 1, there was a good chance Nolan Patrick going to be No. 2,” Hepple said. “And then it was always like that, Dallas could have taken Makar, but we were in a fortunate position that if it hadn’t been Makar, it would have been Heiskanen. We had the best of both worlds.”

Heiskanen and Makar were almost evenly matched among the Avalanche scouts.

Heiskanen had 10 points (five goals, five assists) in 37 games with HIFK in the Liiga, Finland’s top professional league, in 2016/17. He had also played for Finland at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship and was named the best defender at the 2017 IIHF World U18 Championship after leading the tournament’s defenders with 12 points (two goals, 10 assists).

“It was a bit of a harsh judgement, a harsh assessment of these kids,” Hepple said. “It was such a range where they played back then.”

Players from the Liiga are traditionally highly selected; 13 had finished in the top 10 between the 1988 NHL Draft and the 2016 NHL Draft. But at this point, three players from the AJHL were first-round picks: center Brent Sutter (New York Islanders, #17, 1980 NHL Draft), center Joe Colborne (Boston Bruins, #16, 2008 NHL Draft), and defenseman Dylan Olsen (Chicago Blackhawks, #28, 2009 NHL Draft).

“We knew [Makar] was a good player, but in the back of your mind you always have the thought that he’s from the Alberta Junior League,” said Hepple.

When the draft started, the first two picks went as expected, with the Devils picking Hischier and the Flyers picking Patrick.

Then it was time to wait and see what the stars would do.

“You hope,” said Hepple.

The Avalanche’s hopes were fulfilled when the stars chose Heiskanen.

“The right guys got 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 get the player you think is the best, you draw the best player in the draft. When Heiskanen went 3rd…you get Makar.”

After two seasons at the University of Massachusetts, Makar joined Avalanche for the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, recording six points (one goal, five assists) in 10 games.

He won the Calder Trophy, which voted 2019-20 NHL Rookie of the Year, and is a finalist in voting for the Norris Trophy, awarded to the league’s top defenseman, for the second year running. His 28 goals and 86 points this season were the most by an Avalanche/Quebec Nordiques defender.

“He was a pretty good choice,” 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 watching the games and saying, ‘Holy cow, what have we done?'”

Makar leads the Avalanche with 22 points (five goals, 17 assists) in 14 games during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He had primary assist on Arturi LehkonenGoal in overtime in a 6-5 win over the Edmonton Oilers in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals 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 turned on primary assist Valery Nikhushkin‘s deciding goal of the series in a 5-3 win over the Nashville Predators in Game 4 of Round 1. “He could be one of the best [defensemen] ever play at that pace to the end of his career.”

Video: COL@EDM, Gm4: Makar fires through the screen while wearing a glove

In 178 regular-season games, Makar has 180 points (48 goals, 132 assists), placing him third among the 2017 draft picks behind Canucks Center Elias Petterson (221 points) and Hischier (206). But Makar’s 1.01 point-per-game average leads the players selected in this draft.

“He can do everything because he’s fast, he has hockey flair, he has a great shot,” said Hepple. “He’s got everything. He’s fat now (5-11, 187). I’m not sure what his weight would be like, but his legs, his body, he’s big enough to play with the big boys. They can didn’t catch him anyway so never mind he’s so fast you watch the highlights and it’s a highlight movie in its own right.

“We were kind of floored in Colorado. We catch him and suddenly he makes things tick. So now Nathan MacKinnon gets the puck, Mikko Rantanengets the puck now, [Gabriel] Landeskog. All these guys get the puck out of his zone because he’s great at zone exits and all that stuff. His skate opens the ice, but then he can move the puck. He can bring it to Nate MacKinnon, he can bring 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 appear to be the biggest winners of the 2017 draft.

“We were lucky this year that we were looking for a defender [Makar] fit what we’re looking for,” said Hepple. “Never that you choose a need, but you pick the best player and we sort of said we’ve got both.

“We had a need and chose the best player.”

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