The Colorado Avalanche have a long list of successful first-round picks, including many near the top of the NHL Entry Draft. Nathan MacKinnon is an All-Star first-overall selection, and longtime captain Gabriel Landeskog was chosen with the second-overall pick. More recently, the defending Conn Smythe Trophy winner, Cale Makar, was picked fourth overall in 2017.
However, the difficult work is finding gems in the later rounds, digging through prospects in countless leagues to try and find that one player who might blossom into a long-term NHLer. Since coming to Colorado in 1995, the Avs have uncovered a few of these late-round gems, including a couple of fan favorites. Here’s a look at the team’s best late-round draft selections, including a couple that were drafted by the Quebec Nordiques but had a lasting impact on the team’s time in Colorado:
Taken in the fourth round with the 87th pick of the 1994 NHL Entry Draft, Milan Hejduk went on to become one of the best players in Avalanche history. He spent his entire career in Colorado, playing in 1,020 games over 14 seasons, and is one of just four team captains since they relocated from Quebec in 1995. Hejduk is also one of six Avs to have his jersey number retired.
Even with all of the impressive firepower in franchise history, Hejduk’s name still stands out in the record books. He is the only Avs player to win the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy – taking home that hardware in 2003 when his 50 goals led the NHL; he racked up an impressive 375 goals and 430 assists for 805 points. He’s fourth in goals and points in franchise history and dropped to sixth in assists when MacKinnon passed him in the 2022-23 season.
Taken in the fifth round of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, John-Michael Liles turned into a very good find for the Avalanche. The steady defenseman played 836 games for the club, notching 283 assists on the way to 370 career points. He didn’t take long to make a splash, either, scoring 34 points in his rookie campaign in 2003-04 while being named to the All-Rookie Team that season.
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Liles played 13 seasons in the NHL – seven of those were in Colorado. He was a solid two-way defenseman for most of that time and entered the league after a great career at Michigan State. He was one of Colorado’s top offensive defensemen before the team traded him to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2011 after the emergence of Tyson Barrie.
One of the most important figures in Avalanche history never played a minute in Colorado, but he had his fingerprints on all of their early success. In the Nordiques’ first draft in franchise history, Quebec took a defenseman named Pierre Lacroix in the fifth round. He only played 274 games with the team over four seasons in the NHL, but his love and appreciation for the franchise kept him with the team after his playing days were over. His time in the front office solidified his place in team history.
Lacroix served as the team’s general manager from 1994-2006 and is considered the architect of the team’s first two Stanley Cup runs. One of his most memorable moves was trading for disgruntled star goaltender Patrick Roy to set up the 1996 crown. For his efforts, in 2021, he was honored with a banner raised to the rafters at Ball Arena to hang alongside the banners of the six players that have had their jerseys retired. Lacroix passed away on Dec. 13, 2020.
Radim Vrbata only played a couple of seasons with the Avalanche, but this seventh-round pick went on to have a very good NHL career. The 212th player taken in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft, Vrbata played 1,057 NHL games, including a nomination to the All-Star Game in 2015, when he had the best season of his career. Vrbata had 31 goals and a career-high 63 points with the Vancouver Canucks last season.
Vrbata scored at least 20 goals six times, and had an 18-goal campaign in his rookie season in 2001-02. He also scored 16 goals and 19 assists through 76 games with the Avs in his second season but was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes for Bates Battaglia late in the 2002-03 season. Battaglia played just 17 games for the Avs and had just one more full season in the NHL, while Vrbata went on to score 284 goals and 623 points over a 16-year career.
David Jones might not be a recognizable name, but this ninth-round pick in 2003 had some good years in Colorado. Jones led the team with 27 goals in 2010-11 and finished his 10-year career with 104 goals and 191 points in 462 games, not bad for the 288th pick in the 2003 Draft. Marek Svatos, the team’s seventh-round pick in 2001, had six solid years with the Avs, including a 32-goal rookie campaign that saw him finish fifth in the Calder Trophy voting in 2005-06. He finished his seven-year NHL career with 100 goals and 172 points.
Valeri Kamensky was a great seventh-round find for the Nordiques in 1988, spending parts of eight seasons with the franchise, including the last four in Colorado. He played an integral role in the club’s 1996 Stanley Cup run, scoring 22 points en route to the club’s first title. Only Joe Sakic had more points in that postseason for the Avalanche.
The early-round stars will always be the most popular players, but the club has unearthed several important contributors in the later rounds. Making it in the NHL is difficult, especially for late-round picks and not all of these players have their names hanging from the rafters, but they persevered and left a lasting impression on the Avalanche and the league.
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Lifelong storyteller and experienced hockey reporter that has covered everything from major juniors to the NHL. Worked for various newspapers across Minnesota and North Dakota, and now covering the Colorado Avalanche for THW.