In the aftermath of the Stanley Cup victory and celebrations is the impending draft and opening of free agency with 31 other organizations asking how they can accomplish the same feat as the Colorado Avalanche just did. Some teams have either won in recent years or feel they are close while others preach patience and point to the rebuild in Colorado. But was it ever really a rebuild?
The new era of the Avalanche began in 2009 when Joe Sakic retired and handed the face of the franchise over to Matt Duchene who was just drafted at third overall. It would have been the kick-start of a tear-down and full commitment to asset gathering but the team made the playoffs in that 2009-10 season. They would then finish second to last the following year and drafted future captain Gabriel Landeskog but the organization also made several trades to help in the short term with the massive deal for Erik Johnson in 2011 and also the shocking trade of their first-round pick in 2012 for goaltender Semyon Varlamov.
After bottoming out again in the shortened 2012-13 season which gave them Nathan MacKinnon it was then the Patrick Roy era and he wasn’t brought in to oversee a losing effort. Veterans such as Jarome Iginla were signed for short-term help, young draft picks were kept in the minors and the team bought — not sold — at every trade deadline. Again, making the playoffs in the miracle year of the 2013-14 season so soon after failing the year before might have provided false hope that they were closer to winning than in reality.
Everything came to a head in 2016-17 when Roy abruptly quit before the season and Jared Bednar was named the new head coach. Contrary to popular belief the team did not just decide to tank then. Bednar was undefeated in preseason and then the Avalanche won their first two games of the season leading to jokes that Bednar might never lose. The squad had a respectable 9-10-1 record at Thanksgiving but everything unraveled when Varlamov went down with season-ending surgery and the team only won 13 more games the rest of the season. Iginla was the only player moved off of that team for an unattainable conditional fourth-round pick. It was truly rock bottom, an unplanned rock bottom.
At that point, Joe Sakic went to work with his patient approach to building the team which would eventually win the Stanley Cup. The consolation prize from all that losing in Cale Makar was the first big piece. Significant trades starting with Duchene in November of 2017 started filling out the rest of the core starting with Samuel Girard and the pick that would eventually become Bowen Byram in 2019. The Avalanche first made the playoffs in 2017-18 and never looked back building little by little the required depth to win a championship after the main core was set and experience in the playoff was gained.
What can other teams learn from the Avalanche?
Hitting on top draft picks to bring in elite talent is a key but so is creating an environment for that talent to thrive. It’s no coincidence that many players have exceeded their ceilings or had career-high years working with Bednar. He tends to get the most out of his players but also had the confidence to let those young cornerstone players such as Mikko Rantanen, MacKinnon, and Landeskog take the reins. So many teams are thwarted by old-school mentalities and unwritten rules but Bednar wasn’t afraid to challenge that, especially with his dynamic defensive core.
Staying away from the trap of Unrestricted Free Agency has done the Avalanche very well in keeping their cap sheet clean into the future and thus far being able to hold on to that talented core. While it may have been disappointing at the time to never land a big free agent the Avalanche weren’t caught paying the price for aging stars. Carl Soderberg’s five-year $23.75M (after trading for his rights) and Joonas Donskoi’s four-year $15.6M contracts were really the largest deals given out to bring in new players off the market during Sakic’s tenure as General Manager.
In that same vein, the Avalanche had to be smart with their assets especially as they weren’t hoarding draft picks or turning out depth contributors from their picks. The trades for Andre Burakovsky, Devon Toews, and Artturi Lehkonen were good uses of draft capital and took advantage of other teams who didn’t want to pay their non-superstar Restricted Free Agents. Ryan O’Reilly, Tyson Barrie, and the aforementioned Duchene, oddly enough are all from the 2009 draft class when the rebuild should have started. Those former key pieces were moved before they walked in free agency and brought back championship contributors such as JT Compher, Nazem Kadri, Girard, and Byram.
The accepted mantra of “Flags Fly Forever” is often used as justification for burning as many assets or as much money as needed when a team is close to winning it all. Aside from smart spending, which was labeled as frugality and an internal budget for so long, the Avalanche also proved that moving first-round picks are not necessary to get to the finish line. Sakic only traded one first-round pick in his tenure as GM in the deal for Darcy Kuemper and none at the 2022 trade deadline like everyone expected. Finding the right fits worked out better than making a big splash.
It takes time to gather enough pieces together who understand and believe in a system and each other. Roster building is part of any championship plan but it doesn’t require a full-scale teardown or accepted periods of losing if smart decisions are made and assets are utilized in the correct manner. It takes winning to fortify a foundation otherwise a team is just a collection of pieces. The Avalanche didn’t show how to rebuild but rather how to commit to patience in seeing a vision through to a championship.