The ‘New Age’ of the Colorado Avalanche has arrived. At least that’s what we have been told, but based on the off-season moves the Avalanche made, the start to the season, and the prospects in the pipeline – I’m not so sure that new age entails Stanley Cup Contention. At least not yet.
The Avalanche have a talented core of youthful forwards, and a world class goaltender. They are coming off a Central Division title, and a dream season which netted them 112 standings points, and captured the hearts of the city. With another year of experience under their belts, and the hunger from a bitter defeat to the Minnesota Wild to fuel them, this season seemed destined to be the next step towards becoming a true cup contender.
As a fan, my optimism is never in short supply. My glasses always have a burgundy tint to them, which is funny, because I don’t even wear glasses. However, entering this season, I had a bad vibe about this team. This isn’t to say I didn’t think they could have entertaining moments, and win a significant chunk of games. Even during this narrative, I believe the Avalanche are a playoff team.
With that being said, this whole thing feels off. There is a fox in the henhouse, if you will. I am calling it, the dichotomy of the Avs new age.
The key factors in this are; mismanaged drafts for the past five years (aside from top-five picks), prioritizing veteran players over players who can fit into a role and the system of this team, and poor asset management by Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy.
The Draft Failure
Rick Pracey was generally well-favored by fans during his time as the head scout within the Colorado Avalanche organization. Why wouldn’t he be? On the surface he brought the team Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly, Tyson Barrie, Gabriel Landeskog, and Nathan MacKinnon. Quite a haul to be sure.
The problem with Pracey, was his borderline atrocious success rate with draft picks outside the top-five on draft day. In 2009, Pracey had his best draft-class, and it really isn’t close. For those who need a reminder, the Avalanche landed Duchene with the third-overall selection, came away with O’Reilly and Stefan Elliott in round-two, and landed Tyson Barrie in the third-round. Duchene, O’Reilly, and Barrie are all cornerstone players in the Avalanche lineup this season, and Elliott remains a moderately valuable asset in the minors.
The problems for the Avalanche started in the 2010 draft. This is the year the Avalanche started to plant the seeds for the roster problems they are currently facing. Pracey and the Avs used their top selection on a diminutive, skilled winger from the Owen Sound Attack, Joey Hishon. Hishon is a player I have a soft spot for, and am hoping he will make an impact for the Avalanche, or at the very least some NHL team at some point in his career.
This selection was an off-the-board pick for the Avs, who took Hishon at 17th overall, despite his THN rating as the 46th best player in the draft that year. It also set a precedent for the type of player the Avalanche would draft during the Pracey era. Small, skilled forwards from Canada.
None of the skaters drafted by the team in 2010 are currently on the Avalanche roster, although it is interesting to note the Avs took the top-rated North American and European goaltender that year - Calvin Pickard and Sami Aittokallio.
In 2011, the Avalanche scored Gabriel Landeskog with the 2nd overall pick, and also took Duncan Siemens at 11th overall (a pick acquired in the Erik Johnson trade). Siemens is on the verge of impacting the NHL roster, but hasn’t done so yet. The rest of the draft, again, is full of Canadian skaters, all of which are players who aren’t close to impacting the Avalanche roster.
In 2012, the Avalanche were without a first-round selection (Hello Semyon Varlamov). The Avalanche certainly don’t regret the Varlamov deal, it has proven to be quite the acquisition for this franchise. We’ll talk about the impact of the two goaltender trades the Avalanche have made in a bit.
The Avalanche really missed on their second-round selection, Mitchell Heard, who is turning out to be a huge bust. They rounded out their draft with four more Canadian skaters. The most talented of the bunch are turning out to be Troy Bourke and Colin Smith. Much like Hishon, these guys are talented players, but lack size. This is making it very awkward to fit them into the Avalanche roster, and made this the third straight draft where the Avalanche acquired no impact players outside the first-round for their current roster.
At this point, the next two drafts are still pretty fluid in terms of evaluating their future impact for the Avalanche. There are certainly some exciting pieces in each draft, but they will take some time before impacting the NHL. These are also the first two drafts where Roy was on-board and Joe Sakic had the final say.
There was a clear shift in priority at the 2013 NHL draft, as the Avalanche moved away from the small-skilled player profile that Pracey loved to target. The Avs, of course, nabbed MacKinnon with the first overall selection. Despite lacking blue-collar defenseman in their system, and Seth Jones being on the board, MacKinnon was the clear choice. He’s going to be a helluva player for the Avalanche, but in a way, the team missed out on addressing their greatest need of a big versatile blue-liner.
The Avs finished off the draft, by selecting six straight defenseman. Chris Bigras, Mason Geertsen, and Will Butcher all are intriguing prospects, but all will require another year or two of seasoning, at minimum, before they are NHL ready.
In 2014, size was on the agenda for the Avs. Won’t go into too much detail about this draft, other than the fact that Conner Bleackley was the first-round selection. The Avs had a diverse set of picks, landing two defenseman, a goalie, a couple of wingers, and a couple of centers.
The real take home message from the Pracey draft era, is the quantity of players who have made an impact for the Avalanche is way too low. The Avalanche should be reaping the benefits of having some guys drafted in the 2010-12 draft window ready to jump in and impact this roster, but they don’t. The Avs prospect pool is barren. This is the core that the rest of the problems have been built upon.
Furthermore, the Avalanche focused premium picks on smaller skilled guys far too often. The players that do seem to have some talent, all are poor fits for a bottom-six role in the NHL, due to their tiny stature.
Sakic and Roy aren’t oblivious to this. Pracey was recently removed from the organization, and this past summer, the team went out and signed Dennis Everberg, Borna Rendulic, and Samuel Henley to free agent contracts. These three guys are all over 6’3" tall and weigh over 200 lbs, and have some skill to go with their brawn.
They are entirely different breed than the small, gritty, overachievers Pracey loved to target, and ultimately (hopefully) all project into high impact bottom-six players for the Avalanche. Everberg and Rendulic are also European skaters, which is a type of player that Pracey’s draft classes ignored entirely.
The Avs also were very interested in Kevin Hayes, and were close to winning the sweepstakes for his signature on the dotted line. Hayes is a monster, at 6’5", 225 lbs, and would have had a great shot at making the roster out of training camp.
All of these moves were made necessary by the poor draft history the team has had over the last half decade.
The Good Old Boys
The Avalanche needed to fill out their roster as best they could, without the prospect pipeline doing them any favors. A clear theme with the moves made by the Avalanche, suggest an infatuation with a specific type of player. We’ll call them "good old boys."
The Avalanche have acquired Maxime Talbot, Daniel Briere, and Brad Stuart in trades to fill in holes in their roster. In each instance, they gave up either a younger more dynamic player, or future assets.
The Avalanche seem to be prioritizing experience and reputation, rather than actually targeting players who can fit their system and make a positive impact at correcting weaknesses in the roster. In theory, grabbing veteran guys sounds good, but in reality, the guys the Avalanche have brought in aren’t positively impacting the team. Even Jarome Iginla, as fantastic a career as he has had, is in many ways an odd fit for this team.
Here’s where Roy comes in. Love Roy to death. His line-up management again is favoring the good old boy mentality. Marc-Andre Cliche, Cody McLeod, and Max Talbot are all guys who are supposedly defensive specialists for the team. At least they better be, because they bring nada-zilch-nothing on the offensive end of the rink. In some ways the Avs are backed into a corner, because they haven’t drafted prospects who are ideal for the bottom-six role. However, the Avalanche went out and signed some guys, namely Everberg and Rendulic, who I think could really positively impact this team. Even Joey Hishon could be a spark-plug type player as a third line center. (Note: Everberg is back! Positive sign! One of the drawbacks of writing an article over a couple of days)
In my opinion, you want your bottom lines to be able to do two things. First, you want them to be flipping ice-position. If they start in the d-zone, you want them to be able to take the play into the offensive end of the rink, or at least relieve the pressure in their own zone. You also want them to force the other team into playing stressful minutes. This will wear on the opponent, and open up chances for your franchise players to impact the game. The Avs bottom line is currently failing miserably in both regards. Any scoring is a bonus, but hey, that hasn’t happened either.
On defense, Brad Stuart and Nate Guenin are the major suspects. Stuart is an awful fit for the brand of hockey the Avalanche are trying to play. He is immobile, and his underlying possession metrics have been consistently slipping for a couple of seasons. He has had his flashes of decent play this season, but overall he gets pinned in his own zone way too often. Stuart’s outlet passing is a mythical creature yet to be seen. He resorts to chipping the puck along the boards. every. single. time he touches the puck. Guenin is like Stuart, without the prior reputation.
It is frustrating to watch our defensive core turn our talented forwards into puck retrieval units along the boards, rather than springing them in transition with crisp outlet passing. Zach Redmond seems like a very promising fit, yet he has only seen the ice in 30% of the team’s games so far.
Going forward, Roy and Sakic will need to be a little more open to targeting players based on their skill-set and fit with the core of this team. This good old boy mentality isn’t ideal, and I hope they have realized this.
Poor Asset Management
The final factor in all of this is poor asset management. In the past five years, the Avalanche have spent a lot of premium draft selections on goaltending. They have used a first, three seconds, and a fourth round pick to complete their current ensemble of netminders.
In isolated instances, you can rationalize every time the Avalanche used up picks. When you really look at it though, the 2010 draft should be hitting home for the Avalanche this season. However, the Avs used a second-round pick on Pickard, and a fourth-rounder on Aittokallio. Nice to have some goalie depth in the system. But when over the next couple of years you are throwing another pair of second-round picks, and a first-round pick to line-up your NHL goaltending duo, the net sum of resources expended begins to get a bit outrageous.
The Avalanche also have made some poor trades, and curious contract extensions since Roy and Sakic took over. The big take home from these is the fact that, like I said before, the Avs often are giving up more talent in the trade to acquire a specific "good old boy" player for their roster. With the contract extensions they are limiting their flexibility. Stuart, Guenin, Cliche, and McLeod are all guys who are locked into deals, which are preventing the Avalanche from easily exploring other options. I wrote a detailed piece on asset management about a month ago. I encourage you to take a look at that if you want more details on how Roy and Sakic have a plenty of room to learn about asset management.
The dichotomy of the Avs New Age
In reality, the New Age is an illusion. The Avalanche have some world-class young players thanks to years of basement dwelling in the NHL standings. Aside from the high-end draft selections, the Avalanche have struggled to perform well in three key areas of developing a successful team. Their draft history over the last half-decade leaves a lot to be desired, with a small caveat being the most recent two drafts are still relative unknowns. They are relying too heavily on a specific brand of veteran player, but those guys aren’t positively impacting the team. In many cases the Avs have offered these problem spots contract extensions, rather than pruning them from the tree of despair. And finally, the asset management of Roy and Sakic leaves something to be desired.
The so-called New Age is being sunk by old players, old problems, and old mindsets.
Are the Avs still in good position to quickly become a contender? Sure, but let’s not kid ourselves Avalanche Nation. Even if this team makes the playoffs, they aren’t close to being a contender. A high scoring nucleus of players, and Varlamov are going to cover a lot of shortcomings when they are playing well. As this team is composed, playoff hockey will hang them out to dry.
Avs fans will need to show a little patience, and have a little faith that Roy and Sakic are learning some valuable lessons. They have made some good moves, along with the bad. Their heavy pursuit of Everberg, Rendulic, and Henley is a big positive in my mind, and am thrilled to have all three guys in the pipeline.
I’m all for the Avs New Age, and selling that to the fans. However, if the Avalanche truly believe what they are selling, we’re in trouble.