Despite a 3-3 start, the Colorado Avalanche are one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup this season. But how did they get here? How did a team that finished last in the NHL in 2016-17 become the star of the league in four years? And how did they do it without sacrificing the future?
Look no further than Joe Sakic’s work as CEO. The former captain of the team that led the Hall of Fame franchise to two Stanley Cups has added a constructionist to his solid resume of accomplishments. He may have Avs records for games played, goals scored and assists, but he’s not necessarily a Colorado front office wizard either. As head of the field hockey department since 2013, he has made a few missteps.
The Avalanche were one of the top teams in the NHL in 2016-17, winning 22-56-4 while giving up more goals than any other team. They ranked last in power play efficiency and second in penalty kill efficiency. It was the worst season for the Avalanche since moving to Denver and the second worst season in franchise history. (The Quebec Nordiques won only 12 games in 1989-90).
It may have been the bottom of the well, but it was a necessary setback for the organization and Sakic. From that point on, GM seems to have made the right decisions. Only four of the regulars on that list – Nathan McKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog and Eric Johnson – are still in Colorado today. In those four years, the Avalanche have systematically revamped their roster, retaining the core team and adding trades, free agency and recruiting. Today they are one of the best teams in the NHL. And what has made the last few years of Sakic even more intriguing is that Colorado is not only ready to win now. They are on track to become an annual contender, with the help of top contenders like Bowen Byram and Alex Newhawk.
How did he do it? Here we look at the key decisions, exchanges and designs from the Sack era that brought Colorado to this point, with insights from a former NHL executive.
All good teams must have a solid backbone, and Avalanche certainly has one.
Of course, it all starts with McKinnon, who was drafted just over a month after Sakic was named executive vice president of field hockey operations. Bringing in McKinnon was one thing, but perhaps the biggest benefit was McKinnon’s breakthrough after signing only his second NHL contract. At $6.3 million from one of the best players in the world, there is no better value in the NHL than McKinnon’s current contract, which runs through 2022-23. He has three consecutive seasons with more than 90 points.
The Avs also have a captain with a long track record, Landeskog, a top player, Rantanen, and a veteran defender, Johnson. They are determined to build around this group and gradually add to the core. Defenseman Cale Makar has been part of the group for two seasons, and the Avs have also made a long-term commitment to bluesman Samuel Girard. Makar, a fourth-round pick in 2017, won the Calder Cup last season after scoring 50 points.
“The uniqueness of the Colorado core is the way it develops,” said the former NHL executive who worked in the Eastern Conference. “Cale Makar is part of it, Sam Girard will be part of it. Maybe Nazem Kadri will be part of it. The beauty of their core is that it continues to grow. Byram and Newhook are both great players. Those two may one day take the place of guys like Johnson and Kadri.
The value of MacKinnon’s contract will allow the Avalanche to spend more money to retain their key players, and the team has not overused depth signings. No player outside the core team earns more than $6 million per season, and most are not under contract for more than two or three years.
“Colorado is a team that doesn’t sign a seven-year contract with a player from outside the organization,” the former manager said. “They keep their key players and let their analysts and prospecting staff improve the bottom line. They might only have a million dollars to contract a fourth-line center, but they make sure they contract the best player for that amount and they don’t lose a star because they couldn’t pay $500,000 more.
Change in management
Sakic’s term began with a bang. He hired Patrick Roy, a former teammate and member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, as the team’s head coach. The Avs won the Central Division in 2013/14 and set a franchise record with 52 wins. Roy received the Jack Adams Award as Coach of the Year. However, cracks appeared in the team and many analysts predicted a dramatic decline. They were right. Colorado did not come close to making the playoffs in the next two seasons and finished in last place in Central.
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Just before the 2016-17 season, Roy abruptly resigned, leaving the Avalanche with little time to find a replacement. They hired Jared Bednar, who had won the ECHL and AHL championships but had no experience as an NHL player or coach.
And if his first season was difficult, Bednar was not meant to be a scapegoat for the final spot. Sakic allowed the rookie bank boss to develop in the role. It paid off. In the years that followed, Bednar helped stabilize the team and led the club to three consecutive finals in the postseason – the first postseason victory for the club since 2008 – and now to a serious race for the Stanley Cup.
We need a core. Just like a good coach. But the turning point in Sakic’s career as a manager was the deal that sent Duchene to the Ottawa Senators in November 2017.
Everyone on the planet knew that the Avs needed to trade duchies. He wanted out and the team wanted to regroup. While Sakic reportedly received many calls about Duchene, the 2017-18 season began with the center still on the roster, resulting in a memorable image of a visibly grumpy Duchene participating in a pre-season promotional photo shoot of the team. But then a three-team deal was reached.
“Every time you see a deal with three teams, you wonder There’s still so much to do,” the former executive said. “The most impressive thing, regardless of the outcome, was the patience Colorado showed with Duchene. Everyone knew they had a deal with him, everyone knew it was an unhealthy situation, but it seemed that Joe was patient and expected a deal that made sense to them.
The Avalanche received two key lottery picks in the first round from the Nashville Senators and Girard from the Nashville Predators. The first-round pick, who was set aside for a year, ended up being one of the top defenders in the league. He made his debut last week and has already notched an assist in three games.
Girard was also an outstanding backup. He played the rest of the 2017-18 season at Colorado, earned a significant number of minutes and is now in the top four defensemen in his first year of a seven-year contract at an exceptional rate averaging $5 million per year. Last season, Girard had 30 passes and skated more than 21 minutes a night.
Error. Film not specified.Samuel Girard has become an important part of the Colorado Blue Line. John Cordes/Icon Sportswire
More than anything else, the Duke trade has shown Sakic’s wisdom and unwavering patience, taking only the steps he wants to take and only when he is ready – regardless of outside pressure.
“What really counts is the pressure you feel in the locker room. Is it a toxic situation or one we can live with? And then there’s the pressure of ownership. If it doesn’t destroy your locker room and your owners support you, then the pressure is not as great as it sounds on Twitter,” the former actor said.
The impact of Duke’s trade hasn’t even been fully realized yet. Vladislav Kamenev is in the CHL and Shane Bowers is currently on the Avs’ tactical team, and one of the second-round picks Nashville acquired could also pay off. The Avs traded the 58th pick of the 2018 draft for picks 64 and 146. At number 64, Colorado picked Justus Annunen, the best goalie in the system. He is fortunate to be the best local Avalanche goalie in years. At number 146, the club selected defenseman Daniil Zhuravlev, who won a major World Junior Championship in 2020 and was a big hit in the CHL this season.
Building around the core is often more complicated than Sakic led you to believe. Through a series of low-risk, reasonably priced, expensive acquisitions, the Avalanche have built a team that has made this rebuilding project a competitor.
At the time, it seemed like a small undertaking just before the February 2018 deadline. The Avs immediately gave Chris Bigras to the New York Rangers for Graves, and no one paid attention. Graves had not played a single NHL game up to that point and seemed to be off the radar with the New York Rangers.
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Graves was one of the top four defenders in 2019-20, playing mostly with Macar and averaging over 20 minutes per game. He wasn’t just a setter for Macar. Graves scored 26 points and led the league with a rating of over 40 for his “physical presence when blocking shots. It was one of Sakic’s most underrated wins as a performer.
The Avalanche goalie remains a question mark. One of the shortcomings of the entire organization is that it hasn’t had a regular goalie since Peter Budaj, who played 242 games for Colorado from 2005 to 2011. So when they let Semyon Varlamov go to free agency, they filled the gap with Grubauer in a 2018 draft deal with Washington Capitals.
Cost. Brooks Orpik, who was also bought out by the Caps as part of the deal, needed a prime space and second round cap to buy out defenseman Brooks Orpik. Grubauer was signed for a reasonable price with a cap of $3.3 million. In total, only $5.3 million was invested in Grubauer’s capital in Colorado and Paul Francouze signed as a free agent. Whether Grubauer can back a Cup candidate is debatable. But the Avs were able to concentrate their resources elsewhere without having an unfavorable net position.
The Avs find players who just need a better chance. They did it with Graves. And then they did it with the injured Burakovsky in DC. Colorado gave up a decent asset in the 2019 draft, but filled another hole in the top-six with an available option. After his acquisition, the Avalanche gave Burakovsky a one-year, $3.25 million contract. Burakovsky showed that, too. He had a season with 20 goals and 25 assists, and that was the best performance of his career. Colorado extended his contract for two years and paid $4.9 million per season.
On the first day of the 2019-20 Free Agency, the largest remaining hole on the roster was closed, and Sakic took advantage of a team that was in a player shortage situation. Not wanting to become a one-line team, the Avalanche desperately needed a forward who could play behind McKinnon. Defenseman Tyson Barrie was in the final year of his contract, and the emergence of Girard and Makar made the talented puck hunter unavailable, despite his leadership qualities.
Sakic moved Barrie, shoved Alexander Kerfoot and the Sixers to Toronto to protect Calle Rosen, a third-round pick and a bargain price: Kadri. The Avs had to withhold half of Barrie’s salary to close the deal, but the fact that Kadri still had a contract gave them valuable insurance. And because his contract expired before McKinnon needed a new one, he saved them time by plugging a hole in the middle.
Wrong. Film not specified.Joe Sakic was named Executive Vice President of Hockey on May 10, 2013 and has had his ups and downs during his tenure. Michael Martin/NHL/Getty Images
Kadri came in and did exactly what he needed to do, become a solid center of two who can play in any situation. He played his best field hockey during the playoffs, scoring 18 points in 15 games and making sure the Colorado didn’t have to rely on McKinnon too much. Kadri was a great asset for the Avs, who paid a pretty high price, but got what they needed.
In October 2020, the authors added two other key pieces. The first is Saad, a player who has won two Stanley Cups and has one year left on his current contract. Colorado dropped Nikita Zadorov, a restricted free agent who would receive a new contract, and added Saad to the team’s top six.
With the second move – two days later – Colorado was able to improve on the blue line, with Toews replacing Zadorov and with a little more versatility. The only thing it cost the Avs were two second-line moves that went to the New York Islanders. Toews was supposed to go to arbitration, but Colorado offered him a reasonable four-year contract with a $4.1 million cap.
Saad and Toews finished it off, filling in the gaps and adding depth and experience to a group that was about to reach new heights.
Stanley Cup Window Extension
The present is exciting enough for Avalanche, but the future could be even better.
Byram and Newhawk ranked 15th and 16th respectively in my latest Top 100 NHL Prospects rankings. Byram adds a dynamic element to a blue line that already has Makar and Girard as key players. And Newhook could be a natural replacement for Kadri after his dual season next season, assuming he signs with the NHL after his second year at Boston College. Kadri will remain under contract for another season after that.
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Annunen could also be the goalkeeper of the future. He is currently under contract and will likely travel to North America next season, where he should spend some time in the AHL before making the jump to the big club in the next few years. Others like Bowers and Martin Kauth, the No. 1 of 2018, are on the verge of becoming regular NHL goalies. Tyson Jost Centre is only 22 years old and playing under contract. And behind Byram, the blue line has two promising talents, Conor Timmins and Justin Barron, who made it to the Canadian National Junior Team despite strong defensive competition.
So, yes, the present and future are bright for Colorado. Sakic may not be done yet either. The Avs could continue to be aggressive in the transfer market this year.
“For a year and a half, I felt like Colorado was involved in everything,” the former executive said. “I think they know how close their team is.” Adding another major player to that core group could embarrass them.” We all know they have been through a period of restructuring and development. Even if they don’t have to win this year, they are in a position to do so. If there is a big deal at the deadline, Colorado will be part of it.
It’s hard to believe how far the Avalanches have come since the 2016-17 season. Despite the organization’s troubled – and sometimes chaotic – situation, Sakic’s patience and vision have served him well. In the end, it appeared that some of the qualities that helped Colorado win two Stanley Cups as a player worked in his favor when returning to the team as leaders. Will this be the year he wins his third – and first – gold medal as GM?
Frequently asked questions
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Colorado Avalanche – Wikipedia
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The 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Five reasons why the Avalanche were eliminated against the Stars.
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Colorado Avalanche: Top 10 players in franchise history