Saturday , July 2 2022

The nine critical decisions that made the Colorado Avalanche a juggernaut

DENVER — The Colorado Avalanche are no overnight success. Joe Sakic knows that better than anyone.

He was Colorado’s captain when the franchise last won a Stanley Cup, in 2001. Now, 21 years later, Sakic is the architect behind the Avalanche’s return to a Final, this one opening Wednesday against the Tampa Bay Lightning (8 ET, ABC and ESPN+).

Sakic took the reins as Colorado’s executive vice president of hockey operations in 2013, after serving as an advisor starting in 2011. He has built the Avalanche into a beast, but it wasn’t easy. Along the way there were tough decisions, lost seasons, coaching changes, heartbreaking losses, debilitating disappointments and painful doubt over whether Colorado would ever reach its potential.

The Avalanche stand just four wins away from that pinnacle.

When Colorado was the league’s worst team in 2016-17, Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog wasn’t sure his team would ever climb onto hockey’s biggest stage. Colorado had the talent to get there last season, winning the NHL’s Presidents’ Trophy only to fall in the second round of the playoffs. Just like they had the year before. And the year before that.

Sakic kept tweaking the recipe. Colorado got over its second-round malaise. And today, when he looks at the 2022 iteration of his Avalanche, there are obvious parallels to the championship team he helmed over two decades ago.

“[We had] depth,” Sakic said. “We had a lot of star players, a deep lineup, guys that played their role, who knew their role, accepted their role. In my mind, this year’s D corps is probably the best D corps since that [2001] D corps. A lot of similarities that way. And just the way we play. That year, we were really focused from losing two Game 7 conference finals, and we had our mission from the start to get home-ice advantage. It’s similar with this group from last year.”

Has Sakic assembled another champion? We’ll soon find out. Before that, here’s a look at Colorado’s road to the Final, punctuated by many correct decisions Sakic made along the way.

June 2013: Nate the Great

General managers love to say each draft is deep — at least publicly. The 2013 edition actually was.

Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Drouin were available. So were Seth Jones, Darnell Nurse, Elias Lindholm and Sean Monahan. But for Colorado, there was only one No. 1 choice: Nathan MacKinnon.

Sakic selected the Halifax Mooseheads center over the rest of that talented class, and it has been a franchise-defining move.

MacKinnon made his NHL debut on Oct. 2, 2013; at barely 18 years old, he was the youngest skater to ever suit up in an Avalanche uniform. He has been Colorado’s most productive player ever since, appearing in 638 regular-season games with 242 goals and 648 points. He has added another 39 goals and 87 points in 64 playoff tilts.

It didn’t take a hockey savant to know MacKinnon would be special. But Sakic still deserves credit for not only making the call but negotiating MacKinnon’s first big contract, which was tremendously team-friendly.

MacKinnon became a restricted free agent in 2016, and Sakic signed him to a seven-year, $44.1 million pact. That’s $6.3 million per season — for a player who netted 20-plus goals in two of his first three NHL seasons and won the Calder Trophy in 2013-14 as the league’s top rookie. There was no question about MacKinnon’s trajectory. He’d outgrow that contract in a hurry.

And MacKinnon did. He’s the league’s fifth-highest scorer (183 goals and 495 points in 420 games) since agreeing to that deal — and currently its 94th-highest-paid player, just above Montreal’s Jeff Petry.

When MacKinnon becomes an unrestricted free agent after next season he’ll be in the market for a raise. But having your best player signed to a seven-year deal at that price gave Colorado ample opportunity to fill out the roster elsewhere.

Sakic did right by the Avalanche in picking a near-generational talent like MacKinnon to essentially become face of the franchise — and then showed his mettle as GM at the bargaining table.


August 2016: Replacing Roy

Sakic never saw it coming. On a mid-August day in 2016, then-coach Patrick Roy abruptly resigned. He claimed to not have enough say in personnel decisions and felt his vision wasn’t aligned with management’s. Sakic said he asked Roy to think about it further. Roy was comfortable parting ways.

In a blink, Colorado was coach-less a month out from training camp. Sakic had to scramble.

Two weeks later, Sakic hired Jared Bednar to replace Roy. Bednar had never been an NHL head coach. And given the unexpectedly swift departure of Roy, Bednar didn’t have time to bring about his own staff. He didn’t know the Avalanche players. There was barely opportunity to put a system in place. It’s no wonder Colorado was dead last in Bednar’s debut 2016-17 campaign.

Sakic believed in Bednar’s long-term potential, though. The following season of 2017-18 saw the Avalanche improve by 47 points, making the playoffs for the first time in four years, and Bednar was a finalist for the Jack Adams.

In 2018-19, Bednar guided Colorado back to the postseason — marking the organization’s first back-to-back playoff draws since 2005-06.

Taking over from a franchise legend like Roy could have intimidated Bednar. Sakic felt confident in Bednar’s demeanor to handle it. He described a “connection” with Bednar off the bat, and went with his gut in believing Bednar belonged behind Colorado’s bench. And he did.


June 2017: The fall for Makar

Colorado had to think finishing last in 2016-17, with a measly 48 points, would be that season’s low point. It wasn’t.

The Avalanche suffered the indignity of that 22-56-4 campaign to then not only lose the NHL draft lottery, but land in their worst possible pick position at No. 4.

So long, potentially selecting Miro Heiskanen or Nico Hischier or Nolan Patrick. Sakic & Co. would miss out on the real top-tier talent. Right?

Wrong. Five years later, we can say that the Avs were the lucky ones.

Sakic announced the pick at No. 4: Cale Makar, a defenseman for the Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. Sakic had just changed the course of Colorado’s future, whether he fully knew it or not.

Makar didn’t immediately join the Avalanche. He stuck by previous collegiate hockey commitments by playing two seasons at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and won the Hobey Baker Award as the NCAA’s top player in 2019.

In April 2019, Makar signed his NHL entry-level deal, and scored on his first shot in his NHL debut — a playoff game against the Calgary Flames.

Since stepping into the league, Makar has surpassed every expectation as a dominant force on Colorado’s blue line. The 23-year-old is an elite defender with a dangerous offensive flair, generating 48 goals and 180 points in 178 games (fifth overall among NHL defenseman since 2019-20). He can create unlike anyone else on the ice, and is fantastic at even strength and on special teams.

Makar was a Norris Trophy finalist in 2021. He’s the front-runner to win that award this season. Colorado would not be on the verge of a Stanley Cup without him.

From the ashes of Sakic’s draft disappointment came one of his most critical decisions to date.


November 2017: Moving on from Matt

Matt Duchene wanted out of Colorado. Sakic took his time making that happen. While Colorado was struggling through the abyss of 2016-17, Duchene approached Sakic and requested to be traded.

Duchene had been drafted third overall by Colorado in 2009, and was one of their top-producing forwards. Sakic had a high asking price for the then-26-year-old, and wouldn’t budge.

The right trade materialized in November 2017. It was a three-team deal with the Ottawa Senators and Nashville Predators: Duchene went to the Senators, for Andrew Hammond, a first-round pick in 2018 or 2019 and a third-round pick in 2019, plus forward Shane Bowers. Kyle Turris went from Ottawa to Nashville, and the Predators sent Samuel Girard, a second-round pick in 2018 and forward Vladislav Kamenev to Colorado.

Let’s just say that Sakic won that one handily.

That first-round pick from Ottawa could have been for 2018 or 2019. The Senators opted for the latter. They drafted Brady Tkachuk seventh overall in 2018 and rolled the dice by delivering their 2019 choice to the Avs.

Right before that regular season started, Ottawa also traded top defenseman Erik Karlsson to San Jose. Ouch.

The Senators went belly up in 2018-19, finishing 29-47-6. They weren’t going to re-sign Duchene and traded him to Columbus ahead of the deadline. And Colorado wound up with the fourth overall pick in 2019. Hello, Bowen Byram.

Sakic waxed poetic about Byram before and after selecting the defender. And while Byram has dealt with some scary concussion issues early in his young career, he’s 21 years old and projects to be a top-four contributor on Colorado’s blue line for years to come. Advantage: Sakic.

Then, there’s Girard. It was a blow to the Avalanche’s backend when Girard suffered a broken sternum in Game 3 against St. Louis that forced him out for the remainder of this Cup run. But Girard was a crucial piece in getting Colorado to this point. He has appeared in 335 games since the trade, notching 21 goals and 141 points while averaging 20:34 of ice time per game.

Plus, Sakic was able to turn one of Colorado’s acquired second-round picks into Justus Annunen, who could be a goaltender of the future in the organization.


July 2019: An unpopular choice

Ball Arena is often full of Tyson Barrie sweaters, even if he’s no longer often on the ice.

Barrie was a beloved member of the Avalanche. From 2011-12 to 2018-19, he was a productive offensive defenseman, leading all Colorado blueliners with 75 goals and 307 points in 484 games. Barrie was the Avalanche’s power-play quarterback, a dynamic contributor and all-around talent. Then, Sakic made a call.

On July 1, 2019, he traded Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Nazem Kadri and Calle Rosen. Barrie had a year left on his contract at the time. Sakic knew Makar was in the pipeline, which would change the complexion of Colorado’s defense. Kadri would shore up the Avalanche at second-line center and was signed through 2021-22 at a team-friendly $4.1 million per year.

It made plenty of business sense. But the trade did not immediately go over well in Colorado.

Kadri was coming off another postseason suspension, his second in as many years. He had also been a third-line center in Toronto who, despite recent 30-goal seasons, wasn’t the flashiest addition. Then his first regular season with the Avalanche was also unremarkable (11 goals and 32 points in 56 games).

Along came the 2020 playoffs. And Kadri was in hot water again. He quickly received an eight-game ban for a head hit against St. Louis’s Justin Faulk during Colorado’s first-round series. It could have been an “I told you so moment” for Colorado fans, who didn’t have their beloved Barrie and watched Kadri work his way out of another postseason.

One year can make all the difference.

Kadri catapulted this season, with a career-best 28 goals and 87 points in 71 games. He has been a beacon of consistency for the injury-taxed Avs. Kadri was also having a sensational playoff run, too (14 points in 13 games), before breaking his thumb in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals.

The outcry over his loss only proves how far Kadri has come, and how much the narrative of that Barrie trade has changed as well. It might not have gone over well two years ago, but looking back, Sakic seemed to know it was what Colorado needed to reach its long-term goals.


October 2020: Long Island hustle

Colorado acquired one of its top-pairing defensemen without giving up a first-round pick.

In this instance, the GM traded for Devon Toews from the New York Islanders in October 2020 for second-round picks in 2021 and 2022. It was a shrewd move from Sakic, who took advantage of the Islanders’ salary-cap constraints amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Toews was (and is) a talented defender, who had been a staple on the Islanders’ blue line. He was also set to become a restricted free agent, and New York might not have the desire to keep him. A week after Sakic orchestrated the trade, he signed Toews to a four-year, $16.4 million contract.

It was a reasonable deal, following an exceptionally sensible swap for the Avalanche. Toews has been a dynamite addition to Colorado’s back end, lining up with Makar and playing over 25 minutes per game while generating 22 goals and 88 points in 119 games.

Like Makar, Toews is versatile enough to contribute on both special teams units and is the perfect complement to Makar’s more aggressive offensive side.

On this Cup Final run, Toews has stepped up his game further by trailing only Makar in ice time for the team (25:50 per game) and scoring 13 points in 14 games. Toews might not generate the same headlines as Makar but his contributions have been incredibly important for the Avalanche.


July 2021: The (not-so-certain) return of the captain

For a moment last summer, it looked like Colorado would need a new captain. Until Sakic came through again.

He had a limited window in which to sign free agent Landeskog to a maximum eight-year term extension, or else be limited to just a seven-year pact. Landeskog wanted the full freight but could also command a higher salary elsewhere if necessary.

With only an hour remaining before the deadline, Sakic signed Landeskog to an eight-year contract worth $7 million per year. It was less money than Landeskog might have commanded from another team, and it meant Sakic had to kick in the additional year of a term to a then-28-year-old skater. Ultimately, it was the best thing for Colorado.

Landeskog had worn the Avalanche’s “C” for nine seasons. He was a heart-and-soul guy who didn’t balk when Colorado struggled. And Landeskog proved his worth all over again this past season by producing 30 goals and 59 points in 51 games while battling injury issues.

He has also had a sparkling postseason to date, tallying eight goals and 17 points in 14 games.

Colorado could have survived without Landeskog. But it might not have thrived to this degree. Sakic could see that potential. To meet in the middle and keep the Avalanche’s core intact is testament to Sakic’s negotiating tactics and Landeskog’s loyalty.


July 2021: Securing the crease

This past summer, the Avalanche were at a crossroads in net. Sakic had to make a choice.

Colorado’s incumbent starter Philipp Grubauer became an unrestricted free agent. Grubauer was coming off a terrific season, going 30-9-1 with a .922 save percentage and 1.95 goals-against average that made him a finalist for the Vezina Trophy. The Avalanche opted not to re-sign him. He went on to ink a six-year, $35.4 million deal with the expansion Seattle Kraken.

Meanwhile, Sakic traded with the Arizona Coyotes for Darcy Kuemper, in exchange for Conor Timmins, a 2022 first-round choice and a conditional third-rounder in 2024.

The transition from Grubauer to Kuemper was seamless. Kuemper started slow but wound up one of the NHL’s top goaltenders in 2021-22, going 37-12-4 with a .921 SV% and 2.54 GAA.

In Seattle, Grubauer was 18-31-5, with an .889 SV% and 3.16 GAA.

Granted, Colorado is a better overall team than Seattle. But Kuemper is a big part of what made them great, and he has been a key piece of in the Cup run as well.

Sakic clearly had reasons for not wanting to go all-in with Grubauer. In Kuemper, he found an excellent goaltender who has checked every box for the Avalanche at a key position. And the tender who backstopped the Avs to three of four victories in their sweep of the Oilers? Sakic inked Pavel Francouz to a two-year, $4 million deal back in February 2020.


March 2022: Adding Artturi

Sakic went deep at this year’s trade deadline. Colorado needed a little something up front. Not a big name, but an impactful one. Their GM found it in Artturi Lehkonen.

Colorado sent prospect Justin Barron and a second-round pick in 2024 to Montreal for Lehkonen. It wasn’t a splashy move at the time. Lehkonen will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, and the Avalanche don’t know whether he’ll want to re-sign. That doesn’t much matter now. Lehkonen is everything Colorado needs in the present.

Thus far, Lehkonen has six goals and 11 points in 14 postseason games. He leads the Avalanche in game-winning postseason goals, none of which were greater than his overtime score in Game 4 against Edmonton that sent Colorado to the Cup Final.

Lehkonen’s reputation has been built on his defensive play. But in these playoffs especially, he has displayed how well-rounded his offensive attributes are too. When Kadri was lost to injury, Lehkonen took his spot on the Avalanche’s power play for Game 4; the team went 2-for-2. He’s a spark plug, capable of jumping in just about anywhere.

Sakic has referenced his team’s depth when it comes to Colorado’s success this season. Lehkonen is the perfect example of why it matters so much. Getting past Tampa Bay will require superstar performances and players like Lehkonen who can tilt the ice with their versatility. Regardless of whether he commits to Colorado after this run, Lehkonen will play a key role in whether the Avalanche raise another banner.

If they do, it’ll be thanks to a series of wise decisions by the GM and his front-office personnel.


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