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How Sakic Duped Other General Managers: poaching restricted free agents

Burakovsky, Toews and Lehkonen have provided more value than their previous organizations expected.

Colorado Avalanche v St Louis Blues - Game Three Photo by Scott Rovak/NHLI via Getty Images

After watching the team he built ascend to the Stanley Cup Final, Joe Sakic should be at least in the running for General Manger of the year, if not the favorite. From hiring and retaining head coach Jared Bednar to the fruitful Matt Duchene trade to drafting the league’s best defenseman in Cale Makar a lot has gone right for the Avalanche to get to this point.

What stands out the most in acquiring the players needed to fill out the roster, not just for depth but in key roles, has been the use of savvy trades. One such move was turning the last year of Tyson Barrie’s contract for three years of Nazem Kadri. With that, even more impact has been made through targeting Restricted Free Agents and poaching them from other clubs.

This is an emerging phenomenon and market inefficiency that Sakic and the rest of the Avalanche front office staff were ahead of the curve on and have reaped the benefits of. With teams needing to allocate a lot of salary cap space to their young and aging stars the middle class gets squeezed out. The fear of high qualifying offers plus arbitration rights has made better talent available than should get sold just for futures. Each of Andre Burakovsky, Devon Toews and Artturi Lehkonen are examples of this and have provided steady production in the regular season on top of big goals on the way to the Stanley Cup Final.

The Avalanche first pounced in June of 2019 with Andre Burakovsky when the Washington Capitals did not want to invest a $3.25M qualifying offer on a two-year $6M expiring contract. All it took was a second round and a third round pick in 2020 and then they subsequently signed Burakovsky to a one-year deal worth that qualifying offer. It was seen more of a risk at the time because although he was part of the Capitals’ Stanley Cup championship team in 2018, Burakovsky was coming off consecutive 25 point seasons with a career high of 38 points. Clearly the Avalanche saw upside but it would have been an expensive move for just a fourth liner.

The true coup occurred in the fall of 2020 when the Avalanche picked up a top pair defenseman in Devon Toews for second round picks in 2021 and 2022. While he hadn’t truly broken out at the time after just 116 career NHL games, Toews was considered an analytics darling and not an expendable commodity by the hockey community with easily top-four ability. Still, a larger contract than the New York Islanders wanted to stomach was looming and he was traded one day after filing for arbitration which was eventually settled with a four-year $16.4M contract in Colorado.

Toews was caught in the middle class as the Islanders had to pay their stars like Mathew Barzal and Ryan Pulock. Plus, they wanted to commit to youngster Noah Dobson. It’s a shocking trade looking back now nearly two years later knowing how important Toews has become to the Avalanche but he very much was part of this RFA devaluation phenomenon.

They had one more trick up their sleeve as the Avalanche added another soon-to-be RFA to their arsenal with Artturi Lehkonen. The surprising part of this trade is that Sakic was able to grab Lehkonen at the 2022 trade deadline before the Montreal Canadiens had all summer to field offers. Giving up prospect defenseman Justin Barron in addition to a 2024 second round pick probably was what sealed the deal and made this the most expensive of the three deals. Still, to add Lehkonen as playoff depth but also a piece for the future was a huge win and worth the price.

The next question to address is what kind of contract Lehkonen will get this summer as he has the ability to file arbitration again but unlike in Montreal there’s no question to the organization he’s proven worthy of a multi-year contract. Perhaps in the same vein as the Toews extension. The one-year $2.3M contract Lehkonen signed last summer was actually 100k cheaper annually than his previous two-year deal but with his production in Colorado, especially the 11 points in 14 playoff games thus far, a raise is certainly on the horizon.

It hasn’t been just Sakic who figured out this avenue of acquiring talent as other General Managers have quietly exploited the talent availability and added to their arsenal. The St. Louis Blues scooped up Pavel Buchnevich from the New York Rangers for a 2022 second round pick and depth forward Sammy Blais. Another smart grab was Sam Reinhart who went to the Florida Panthers from the Buffalo Sabres for what will be the 28th overall pick in the upcoming draft and prospect goaltender Devin Levi. That cost was higher than a second round pick because Reinhart was more established with a 65 point season under his belt. Each of the Avalanche, Panthers and Blues organizations took a step forward this year by adding talent who were priced out of their current situation for basically only futures in return. Who will be next this summer?