We’re now several weeks into an NHL postponement and there is still no clear timeline on when professional hockey will return. While fans of the sport have received small tidbits of news over that time, including college signings and contract extensions, the thirst for discussion has rarely been quenched.
With that in mind, we’re happy to introduce a new feature: The PHR Panel. Three times a week, our writing staff will give our individual takes on a question many hockey fans have been wondering about. If you’d ever like to submit a subject for us to discuss, be sure to put it in the comments. This series will run each Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Today, we’ll each give our thoughts on who we would want to build a franchise around.
Q: If you had to build a team around one player drafted in the past three years, who would it be?
Brian La Rose:
It’s the age-old debate of what’s more valuable—the number one center or the number one defenseman. Two players from the 2017 draft immediately jump to mind in Colorado’s Cale Makar and Vancouver’s Elias Pettersson.
In Makar, Colorado has a dynamic offensive threat from the back end and considering he has just one full season under his belt, it’s certainly reasonable to expect that he will improve considerably from where he is now.
Meanwhile, Pettersson has immediately stepped into a key role in Vancouver and this season, he proved that his rookie campaign was no fluke. He has shown that he can handle the rigors of playing down the middle without too much difficulty.
Makar is going to be an elite offensive weapon in the NHL. He basically already is. But I’m not sure his defensive game gets quite to that level. Meanwhile, Pettersson has made some strides defensively and has the potential to be that all situations type of player.
If I’m a GM building a team around one of the two, I’d take Pettersson as a result. There are no limitations with him—he should soon be a point-per-game player or better and number one centers are extremely hard to acquire outside of the draft. Makar is an electric player already with room to get even better but will his defensive play improve to where he can be that all situations player? I’m not as certain about that so I’ll take the safer play with Pettersson.
There are a number of impressive prospects who have made quite an impact early in their careers and while I could easily go with a defenseman like Makar or Quinn Hughes as the anchor to my team’s defense and quarterback of my power play, I am still of the belief that if possible, it’s always better to build around your centers, just like the New Jersey Devils have done over the past three years, picking up both Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes.
Looking at all the top centers drafted over the past three years, I’m inclined to pick the Canucks’ Pettersson as the player that I would build around. Pettersson spent his first season in the SHL where he broke numerous rookie records and was often compared to the great Sedin twins. He came to North America and had an impressive rookie season in 2018-19 in which he posted 28 goals and 66 points. He matched that production again this year with a 27-goal, 66-point campaign in 68 games, while avoiding a major injury.
The skilled forward has taken the Canucks to a whole new level of play this season and had them in the middle of a playoff race before the shutdown. Pettersson still has plenty of room to take his game up a level or two and in my opinion, makes the most sense to build a team around.
I am a firm believer in building a team around the literal centerpiece of your lineup: a top line center. Look back through the annals of NHL history and you will be hard-pressed to find a Stanley Cup winner that didn’t have an elite center on their first line and usually a top option on their second line as well. A top contender is built down the middle.
The problem with this premise and the past three draft classes is that too few centers have yet to establish themselves as “elite” in the NHL. The jury is still out on 2019 No. 1 pick Jack Hughes, who disappointed as a first-year pro, and New Jersey Devils teammate Nico Hischier is a solid two-way player, but to this point has shown limited star power. Carolina’s Martin Necas, Vegas’ Cody Glass, and Chicago’s Kirby Dach are among a large group who simply have too small of an NHL sample size as well.
Vancouver’s Elias Pettersson is the only player who might fit the bill. The reigning Calder Trophy winner has posted 66+ points in back-to-back seasons to begin his NHL career and has shown strong offensive instincts and a sniper’s touch. However, it remains to be seen whether he will actually continue to line up at center for the Canucks, who have used him on the wing more often than not this season. The winger role would seem to align better with his style and tendencies, but does bring down his value somewhat. Petterson is a hard player to pass up, but I’m not entirely sold that he can be a team’s best player.
So if not Pettersson, then who? If not a center, then what position? A superstar defenseman is another highly valuable asset and there are at least four who fit the mold among the past three classes: Buffalo’s Rasmus Dahlin, Dallas’ Miro Heiskanen, Vancouver’s Quinn Hughes, and Colorado’s Cale Makar. While all project to be elite, top-pair defensemen, only one to me is destined to be a perennial Norris Trophy candidate.
Makar is my choice as the best available player to build around. Between his collegiate career, taking UMass from an unknown to the National Championship game, to his NHL start, a strong playoff debut followed by what could very likely be a Calder-caliber rookie season, Makar has left few questions unanswered. A generational puck-mover who already skates and sees the ice as well as anyone, Makar is also not afraid to throw his weight around and shows good defensive awareness and the speed to make up for any mistakes. Perhaps most importantly, Makar has already shown some prize intangibles in college and the pros, including leadership ability and the ability to excel under pressure. Even on a loaded Avalanche roster, it is not hard to see a day when Makar could be the team’s very best player, as he could for most NHL clubs.
In a year’s time you may be talking about Jack Hughes, Kaapo Kakko or Kirby Dach as potential options here, but there just hasn’t been enough time for any of them to prove they can be franchise-altering talents. That’s the kind of thing they’re going up against when you look back at the 2017 and 2018 drafts, which provided a huge number of potential league superstars.
It’s hard to argue with the selection of Pettersson, who looks like he’ll be a first-line center for years to come in Vancouver. Hughes, his teammate, would also be an outstanding pick and gives the Canucks a dynamic duo that will make opponents regret taking any penalties over the next decade. Either one would be a great building block for your franchise, just as players like Rasmus Dahlin, Andrei Svechnikov, Miro Heiskanen or even Hischier—who is routinely overlooked when discussing up-and-coming talents—would be.
But my choice lies in Colorado, where Makar has quickly taken over as the second-best player on a team already loaded with other top talents. It’s easy to forget that just three years ago the toughest competition Makar had faced was in the AJHL, and now he’s making NHL opponents look silly on a regular basis. The 21-year old simply doesn’t have an offensive ceiling and could well be competing for the Norris Trophy instead of the Calder in a year’s time.