During his media availability leading up to the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, Joe Sakic was playing coy whenever he was asked about his plans for the offseason. The General Manager of the Colorado Avalanche repeated his usual non-committal tone while telling anyone who would listen that he was not planning to make any significant changes to his roster.
With still more than two months before we’ll see the Avalanche back on the ice, the team that Sakic has assembled has a few key differences from the one that finished second in the Western Conference last season. Sakic didn’t make a lot of moves but the ones he made will have a big impact on Colorado’s quest to take the next step towards a Stanley Cup.
Brandon Saad (LW)
Devon Toews (LHD)
Dennis Gilbert (LHD)
Kiefer Sherwood (F)
Michael Vecchione (C)
Miikka Salomaki (W)
Nikita Zadorov (LHD)
Matt Nieto (W)
A.J. Greer (W)
Anton Lindholm (LHD)
2nd round picks (2021 & 2022)
The one big departure for the Avalanche is Nikita Zadorov. Traded to the Chicago Blackhawks, Big Z was one of the longest tenured players on the Avs roster, but he was a guy whose time had run out. A big, bruising defender, Zadorov’s ability to throw a huge hit often helped fans overlook the rest of his play. Poor decision making and bad penalties let Zadorov to be one a guy that the coaching staff couldn't rely on.
He would have been a decent third paring defender in Colorado, unfortunately, his $3.2m price tag was just far too high for that role. It was time to move on and like the magician he is, Sakic wasn’t only able to get a high-impact player in a trade for Zadorov, but he was also able to replace him with a much better left-handed defender.
The headline so far is that Brandon Saad and Devon Toews are now members of the Colorado Avalanche and while those are some big acquisitions, Sakic also spent the weekend bringing in a number of depth options that will likely start the season in the AHL with the Eagles.
A.J. Greer and Anton Lindholm have been replaced on the depth chart by Kiefer Sherwood and Dennis Gilbert. Sherwood and Gilbert are both young players with NHL experience who will be in Loveland in case the team runs into the same ridiculous injury problems we saw this past season. They aren’t going to surprise anyone by making the Avs out of camp but they are steady AHL hands that are very good to have at your disposal.
Like the other two, Miikka Salomaki is probably destined for the AHL as well - though he is the one that could be kept with the Avs as the team’s 13th forward.
Beyond the depth moves, Sakic made two acquisitions that will make a huge impact this coming season. Brandon Saad comes over from the Chicago Blackhawks as one of the best play driving wingers in the NHL.
Saad’s ability to to carry the puck through the neutral zone and create high-danger scoring opportunities for himself and his linemate is something that will be very valuable to Colorado’s second line. He scores a lot himself but what could help out guys like Andre Burakovsky and Nazem Kadri is that he is a very high-end playmaker - something that isn’t necessarily reflected in his assist totals. What might be most impressive is that he’s done so while facing top opposition defenders most nights.
Saad is a player who generates offense at an elite level and with a little puck luck - and better linemates - he could see his point total take a huge leap this season.
Though his 5v5 defensive numbers haven’t been good, Saad is a very strong penalty killer. Playing on Chicago’s second PK unit, he had above average results and will likely be counted on to play the same role with the Avalanche.
With only one year remaining on his contract - and Chicago retaining $1m of his salary - the Avs will have the flexibility to leave him exposed in the expansion draft while still being able to re-sign him if he’s the one claimed by Seattle. Sakic mentioned that he would be looking for players on short term contracts and Saad definitely fit that mold.
As big an acquisition as Saad was, the trade for Devon Toews is a move that could have an even bigger impact on the Avalanche going forward. Toews is a restricted free agent who the New York Islanders were forced to move because of salary cap constraints. Thanks to some very bad contracts for depth veterans, Lou Lamoriello is being forced to give up on a very good players in order to re-sign Mathew Barzal and Ryan Pulock.
A late bloomer, Toews is one of the most underrated two-way defenders in the NHL. A full-time NHLer for the first time in his career, Toews put up six goals and 28 assists in 68 games this season before contributing 10 points in New York’s 22 postseason games.
He is a player that shows elite level metrics on both sides of the puck. He’s not overly physical but Toews has the ability to shut down defenders through his positioning and willingness to be active in his own zone. More importantly - particularly with the style of play the Avalanche like to employ - Toews is a high end puck mover on both sides of the red line. He was the best on the Islanders in terms of controlled exits from his own zone and is the type of defender that leads the transition from defense to offense with ease.
On the offensive side of the puck Toews is a tremendous playmaker and in absence of Cale Makar, would likely have been given a chance to run Colorado’s top power play unit. With Makar around, expect Toews to be the quarterback of a much improved second PP group.
This is a player that a number of teams wish they could have bought at the discounted price of two second round picks.
There is a strong argument to be made that even with Samuel Girard on the roster, Toews instantly becomes Colorado’s best LHD. Between Girard, Toews and Ryan Graves, the Avalanche now have one of the strongest left sides in the league - and that’s before Bowen Byram even makes an appearance at the NHL level.
A a restricted free agent, Toews still needs a new contract but with only a season and a half in the NHL, it’s hard to see him demanding anything too high. Using Troy Stecher’s two year $3.4m contract ($1.7m AAV) would probably be a decent starting point. A shorter team contract with an AAV near $2m is likely where we’ll see Toews sign.
Once again, Joe Sakic appears to be playing chess while many of his peers are playing checkers. Two big trades and a few depth signings and all of a sudden, the Avalanche are significantly improved over the team that lost in Game 7 to the Dallas Stars last month. This Avalanche team getting better is something that fans around the league are starting to get very worried about.