Avalanche eyeing defenseman Bowen Byram with No. 4 pick?

Despite its exciting young group of explosive offensive-minded defensemen and a need of an elite second-line center, the Avalanche might select the best defenseman available with its No. 4 pick in the first round of the June 21 NHL draft.

In his annual pre-draft conference call Thursday, Avs director of amateur scouting Alan Hepple hinted that defenseman Bowen Byram will be difficult to pass on if he’s not selected by Chicago at No. 3. The top two picks will likely be Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko, according to all draft projections.

Byram, a 6-foot-1, 195-pound Canadian for major-junior’s Vancouver Giants, turned 18 Thursday. He could force the Avs to pass on elite centers Kirby Dach (No. 3-ranked North American skater), Alex Turcotte (No. 4) and Dylan Cozens (No. 5).

“He’s the new-age defensemen here in the National Hockey League,” Hepple said. “He skates, he moves the puck, his puck management is unbelievable. His sense for the game — he’s got that little bite in his game, that grit, that I think is important … He’s not going to be stopped. This kid is really good.”

To back up his support of Byram, Hepple said the Avs — who have two first-round picks and five in the first three rounds — will take the best player available at No. 4 and No. 16.

“We give (general manager) Joe (Sakic) the list and then he makes the call at the end of the day — especially the top-end picks, based on the fact that he knows them, that he’s seen them,” Hepple said. “Down the road, yeah, we need forwards right now but by the time some of these kids are ready to play we might need defensemen again. So it will be the best player (available), no matter, at 1 and 16.”

The Avs are poised to begin next season with explosive puck-moving, offensive-minded defensemen Tyson Barrie, Cale Makar and Sam Girard, plus possibly Conor Timmins, who missed all of last season with concussion-like symptoms.

Barrie, 27, enters next season in the final year of his $5.5 million annual contract. Makar, 20, and Girard, 21, are in their entry-level contracts. Colorado also has defensemen Erik Johnson, Ian Cole and Mark Barberio under contract next season, and is expected to resign restricted free agents Nikita Zadorov and Ryan Graves.

Byram could potentially play in the NHL next season, but also return to Vancouver for another year in the Western Hockey League.

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