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 dead last in the NHL in 2016-17 become the toast of the league in four years? And how did they do it without sacrificing the future?
Well, look no further than the work that Joe Sakic has done as general manager. The former team captain who led the franchise to its two Stanley Cups in a Hall of Fame career has added expert builder to his robust resume of accomplishments. He might have the Avs’ records for games played, goals and assists, but it wasn’t necessarily predestined that Sakic would also be a wizard in the Colorado front office. Atop the hockey operations department since 2013, he oversaw some early stumbles.
The 2016-17 Avalanche were one of the biggest, going 22-56-4 and allowing more goals than any other team in the NHL while scoring more than no one. They ranked last in power-play efficiency and second to last in penalty kill. In fact, it was the worst season the Avalanche had experienced since moving to Denver and the second-worst season in franchise history. (The 1989-90 Quebec Nordiques won just 12 games.)
That might have been rock bottom, but it was a necessary hiccup for both the organization and Sakic. Since that point, the GM has seemingly made all of the right moves. Only four regulars from that roster — Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog and Erik Johnson — remain with Colorado today. Over those four years, the Avalanche have systematically overhauled their depth chart, keeping the team’s core in place and adding to it through trades, free agency and the draft. Today, they are among the most elite rosters in the NHL. And what has made Sakic’s past few years even more intriguing is that Colorado isn’t only set up to win now. It’s set up to be an annual contender with more help on the way in the form of top prospects including Bowen Byram and Alex Newhook.
So how did he do it? Here’s a look at the key decisions, deals and draft picks of the Sakic era that led Colorado to this point, with some insight from a former NHL executive.
All good teams need to have an established core, and the Avalanche certainly have one.
It, of course, all starts with MacKinnon, who was drafted just over a month after Sakic was named the executive vice president of hockey operations. Landing MacKinnon was one thing, but arguably the bigger win was MacKinnon’s breakout coming only after he signed his second NHL deal. With a $6.3 million cap hit for one of the best players in the world, there is no better value in the NHL than MacKinnon’s current deal, which runs through 2022-23. He has put together three straight 90-plus point seasons.
The Avs also have longtime captain Landeskog, elite playmaker Rantanen and veteran defenseman Johnson. They have remained committed to building around that group and adding to the core as they go. Defenseman Cale Makar has become part of that group with his play over the past two seasons, and the Avs also made a long-term commitment to blueliner Samuel Girard. Makar, the fourth pick in 2017, won the Calder Trophy last season after dropping 50 points.
“The unique thing about Colorado’s core is how it’s growing,” said a former NHL executive who worked in the Eastern Conference. “Cale Makar is part of that, Sam Girard is going to be part of that. Maybe [center] Nazem Kadri is part of that. The beauty of their core is that it’s still growing. Byram and Newhook are two tremendous players. Those two might be able to take the place of guys like Johnson and Kadri someday.”
The value of MacKinnon’s contract is going to allow the Avalanche to spend more to keep the core players, and the team has not overextended itself with depth signings. There is not one player outside of the team’s core who makes more than $6 million per season, and most are not under contract for longer than the next two to three years.
“Colorado is a team that isn’t going to sign a guy to a seven-year deal from outside of the organization,” the former executive said. “They keep their core players and let their analytics and scouting staffs add to the bottom of the lineup. They might only have $1 million to add a fourth-line center, but they’re making sure they add the best guy possible at that amount rather than losing a star because they didn’t have the extra $500,000 to pay.”
The coaching change
Sakic’s tenure started with a bang. He hired Patrick Roy, a former teammate and fellow Hockey Hall of Famer, to be the team’s head coach, and the Avs won the Central Division in 2013-14, tying a franchise record with 52 wins. Roy took home the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year. But even so, cracks showed in that team, and many analytics experts predicted a dramatic fall was nigh. They were right. Colorado didn’t come close to the playoffs in either of the next two seasons, finishing at or near the bottom of the Central.
Just prior to the 2016-17 season, Roy abruptly resigned, leaving the Avalanche little time to find a replacement. They hired Jared Bednar, who had won championships at the ECHL and AHL levels but had no NHL coaching or playing experience.
And while his first season was rough, Bednar wasn’t made to be the scapegoat for a last-place finish. Sakic allowed the rookie bench boss to grow into his role. It paid off. In the following years, Bednar has helped stabilize the team, leading the club to three consecutive postseason berths, the franchise’s first postseason series win since 2008 and now onto serious Stanley Cup contention.
A core is needed. As is the right coach. But the turning point in Sakic’s managerial career came with the deal that sent Duchene to the Ottawa Senators in November 2017.
Everyone on the planet knew the Avs had to trade Duchene. He wanted out, and the team was looking at a bit of a rebuild. While reports suggested Sakic was getting a lot of phone calls about Duchene, the 2017-18 season began with the center still on the roster, leading to the unforgettable image of a visibly sullen Duchene participating in the team’s preseason promotional photoshoot. But then a three-team deal materialized.
“Any time you see a three-team deal, you’re surprised. There’s so much that goes into it,” the former executive said. “The most impressive thing, regardless of the outcome, was how patient Colorado was with Duchene. Everyone knew he was getting dealt, everyone knew it wasn’t a healthy situation, but it seemed like Joe was patient and waiting for a deal that made sense for them.”
The Avalanche’s two key returns were a lottery-protected first-round pick from the Senators and Girard from the Nashville Predators. The first-round pick, which was deferred a year, ended up becoming Byram, one of the very best defensive prospects in the league. He actually debuted last week and has an assist through three games.
Girard was a huge pickup, too. He played the rest of the 2017-18 season with Colorado, getting significant minutes and is now a top-four defenseman in the first year of a seven-year contract at exceptional value with a $5 million annual average value. Girard had 30 assists last season and skated more than 21 minutes per night.
More than anything, the Duchene trade showed Sakic’s savvy and unfaltering patience in making only the moves he wants to make and making them only when he’s ready — regardless of outside pressure.
“What it truly comes down to is the pressure you’re feeling in your locker room. Is this a toxic situation or is it something we can live with? Then there’s pressure from ownership. If it’s not destroying your locker room, and your ownership supports your process, the pressure isn’t as great as maybe Twitter would suggest,” the former exec said.
The full impact of the Duchene trade has not yet even been realized. Vladislav Kamenev is in the KHL, while Shane Bowers is currently on the Avs’ taxi squad. One of the second-round picks acquired from Nashville could pay dividends, too. The Avs traded the 58th overall pick in the 2018 draft for the 64th and 146th picks. At No. 64, Colorado took Justus Annunen, the system’s top goaltending prospect. He has a chance to be the best homegrown goalie in years for the Avalanche. At No. 146, the club picked defenseman Daniil Zhuravlyov, who had a great World Junior showcase in 2020 and looks really good in the KHL this season.
Key moves elsewhere
Building around the edges of the core is often more challenging than Sakic has made it look. Through a series of high-value, low-risk additions at reasonable cost, the Avalanche built a supporting cast that has turned this team from rebuilding project to contender.
At the time, it looked like nothing more than a minor league transaction near the February 2018 trade deadline. The Avs gave up Chris Bigras to the New York Rangers for Graves straight up, and no one took much notice. Graves had not played a single NHL game to that point and seemed to have fallen out of favor in New York.
In 2019-20, Graves became a top-four defenseman — playing primarily with Makar and averaging over 20 minutes per game. He wasn’t just a passenger for Makar, either. Graves scored 26 points while also leading the league with a plus-40 rating as a shot-blocking physical presence. This is one of Sakic’s more underrated wins as an exec.
The Avalanche’s goaltending remains a bit of a question mark. One of the failings of the organization as a whole is that they haven’t had a homegrown starting goaltender since Peter Budaj, who appeared in 242 games between 2005 and 2011 for Colorado. So when they let Semyon Varlamov walk in free agency, they plugged the hole with Grubauer in a draft-day deal with the Washington Capitals in 2018.
The cost? A second-round pick and the cap space required to buy out defensman Brooks Orpik, who was also acquired from the Caps in the deal. Grubauer was signed to a reasonably priced extension with a $3.3 million cap hit. In all, Colorado has just $5.3 million sunk into its goaltending between Grubauer and undrafted free-agent signing Pavel Francouz. Whether Grubauer can backstop a Cup contender is up for debate. But the Avs have been able to focus their funds in other directions without having an untenable situation in net.
The Avs find players who just need a better opportunity. They did it with Graves. And then they did it with Burakovsky, a cap casualty in Washington. Colorado gave up some decent draft capital in the 2019 deal, but they plugged another top-six hole with an affordable option. Upon acquiring him, the Avalanche gave Burakovsky a one-year, $3.25 million show-me deal. Burakovsky showed them, too. He had a career season with 20 goals and 25 assists, making good on the best usage of his career. Colorado extended him with a two-year contract paying $4.9 million per season for his efforts.
As the first day of 2019-20’s free agency was winding down, Sakic plugged the largest remaining hole on his roster while also taking advantage of a team in a significant cap crunch. Attempting to avoid becoming just a one-line team, the Avalanche desperately needed a center to play behind MacKinnon. Defenseman Tyson Barrie was on the last year of his contract, and the emergence of Girard and Makar made the talented puck-mover expendable despite his leadership qualities.
Sakic moved Barrie, forward Alexander Kerfoot and a sixth-rounder to Toronto for defenseman Calle Rosen, a third-rounder and the prize of the deal: Kadri. The Avs had to retain half of Barrie’s salary to get the deal done, but the fact that Kadri had term left on his contract gave them a little cost certainty. And because his contract was set to expire before MacKinnon would need a new deal, it bought them time while plugging the hole down the middle.
Kadri came in and did exactly what he was supposed to do, becoming a strong No. 2 centerman who can play in all situations. He played his best hockey during the playoffs, posting 18 points in 15 games to ensure that Colorado wasn’t overly reliant on MacKinnon. Kadri was a big value add for the Avs, who paid a reasonably steep price but got what they needed.
In October 2020, the Avs added two more key pieces. The first of which was Saad, a player with two Stanley Cups and one year remaining on his current contract. Colorado shipped out physical defenseman Nikita Zadorov, who was due a new contract as a restricted free agent, and welcomed Saad into the team’s top six.
The second move — coming two days later — saw Colorado manage to upgrade its blue line with Toews, who took over Zadorov’s spot and provides a bit more versatility. All it cost the Avs was a pair of second-round picks headed to the New York Islanders. Toews was due to head to arbitration, but Colorado offered him a reasonable four-year deal with a $4.1 million cap hit.
The Saad and Toews adds were finishing-touch-type trades that filled the gaps, providing even more depth and experience to a group that was on the cusp of achieving new heights.
An extended Stanley Cup window
The present is pretty exciting for the Avalanche, but the future could be even brighter.
Byram and Newhook were ranked 15th and 16th, respectively, in my most recent top-100 NHL prospects ranking. Byram adds a dynamic element to a blue line that already boasts Makar and Girard as key players. And Newhook could be the natural replacement for Kadri after an understudy year next season, assuming he signs an NHL deal after his sophomore campaign at Boston College. Kadri remains under contract for just one more season after this one.
Annunen could be the home-grown goalie of the future, too. He is now under contract and likely headed to North America next season, where he should spend some time in the AHL before making the jump to the big club in the ensuing years. Others, such as Bowers and 2018 first-rounder Martin Kaut, are close to becoming everyday NHLers. Center Tyson Jost is still only 22 years old and is playing on a prove-it contract. And beyond Byram, the blue line boasts a pair of promising prospects in Conor Timmins and Justin Barron, who made Team Canada’s World Junior team despite steep competition on defense.
So yes, the present and future are bright for Colorado. Sakic might not be done, either. The Avs could stay aggressive on the trade market this year.
“I get the impression that for the last year and a half, Colorado’s been in on everything,” the former executive said. “I think they know how close their team is. Adding another big-time player to that core, that might put them over the hump. We all know they’re past the rebuilding and development stage. Even though they don’t have to win this year, they’re in a win-now window. Any big trades available at the deadline, Colorado is going to be in on that deal.”
It’s hard to believe how far the Avalanche have come since that 2016-17 season. Despite the murkiness — and at times chaos — within the organization, Sakic’s patience and vision shone through. In the end, it turns out that some of the qualities that helped him lead Colorado to two Stanley Cups as a player have translated rather favorably to him getting the team back into that picture as an executive. Will this be the year he gets his third — and first as a GM?