By STEPHEN WHYNO
AP Hockey Writer
DENVER (AP) — The Tampa Bay Lightning’s lean years helped them land Steven Stamkos with the first pick in the 2008 NHL draft and Victor Hedman second in 2009. Same for the Colorado Avalanche with Gabriel Landeskog going second in 2011, Nathan MacKinnon first in 2013 and Cale Makar fourth in 2017.
The Lightning and Avalanche started from the bottom, and now they’re here in the Stanley Cup Final, in large part to nailing those high picks.
“You have to go through tough times to get those players,” Colorado general manager Joe Sakic said. “You’re not getting those players in the middle rounds.”
Well, sometimes. Brayden Point, Tampa Bay’s leading goal-scorer in its past two Cup runs, was a third-round pick. But this final is an example for the league’s other 30 teams just how important it is to not swing and miss in the top five of the draft.
“There’s no question that talent is a commodity that’s hard to come by,” said six-time Stanley Cup champion Mark Messier, who’s working the final as an analyst for ESPN. “Then you add commodity with heart and grit and determination and skill and hard work and all the other things, then you got something. Talent alone will never get you to the championship. But you need talent.”
A handful of 2022 top prospects saw that talent up close Saturday at Colorado’s morning skate and were slated to watch Game 2 against Tampa Bay. Shane Wright, the front-runner to be Montreal’s choice with the No. 1 pick, said a quick hello to MacKinnon.
But in the long run, Wright wants to be in his skates on this stage with the Canadiens or whoever winds up taking him.
“That’s what you work for your entire life,” Wright said. “It was definitely inspiring to see those guys here, see how hard they worked and see what it takes to make it at this level here.”
It took plenty of things going right along the way, but drafting well is the key for almost all winning franchises. Stamkos was the obvious choice for the Lightning, who got Hedman after John Tavares went first in ’09 to the New York Islanders, and the Avalanche were fortunate Makar fell to them eight years later.
Sakic and his staff faced a major question five years ago when MacKinnon, American defenseman Seth Jones and Finnish center Aleksander Barkov were the options for the top pick. Many considered Jones the best option for the rebuilding Avalanche, but they decided well before draft day that MacKinnon was their guy.
“Those top three player have all had great careers, but he was the one game-changer that could really entertain fans, as well,” Sakic said. “We are extremely fortunate we have Nathan on our team.”
Wright understands it’s a process. The Canadiens, New Jersey Devils or wherever he lands probably won’t be in the Stanley Cup Final right away, but he’s ready to take that ride.
’The draft really impacts the structure of a team and the trajectory of a team and where they want to go,” he said. “Tampa and Colorado both had first overall picks a number of years back and now they’re finally contenders. Well, Tampa the last couple years, but Colorado more so this year is now a contender — one of the best teams in the league.
“Definitely it takes a couple years to build those draft picks up and draft the right pieces and get the right pieces in place, but it’s definitely cool to see, for sure.”
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham contributed.
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