As the calendar turns to June and a frenzy of NHL movement looms larger, it’s still unclear how Joe Sakic and the Avalanche will move forward after a disastrous season. Do they embrace their status as a league bottom feeder and attempt a “scorched earth” rebuild in the style of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers? Or do they try to claw their way back to respectability on the fly? In either event, can Joe Sakic survive this next, most critical transition?
It’s been a tough year for Avalanche icon Joe Sakic. His friend, teammate, and former head coach, Patrick Roy, bailed mere weeks before the start of the 2016-2017 season. His local Hobey Baker winning prospect, Will Butcher, has thus-far spurned the team’s advances and appears to be headed for free agency. His team finished as the worst in modern NHL history, then drew their worst possible draft slot, plummeting from the 1st to 4th overall pick in the draft.
In the next three weeks, Sakic will be forced to make a number of franchise altering decisions on behalf of the Colorado Avalanche. He is charged with preparing the team for the expansion draft, restocking the team’s prospect pool with just a pair of top 100 draft picks, hiring new assistant coaches, and most importantly, making the team’s biggest trade in over a decade when he moves eight year veteran and former face of the franchise, Matt Duchene.
At the risk of oversimplification, the NHL is a league of buyers and sellers. Contenders buy in an effort to push themselves over the top in pursuit of a Stanley Cup, while bottom feeders sell in order to acquire as many risky futures as possible in pursuit of young, long term solutions. While that’s an easy formula to track across the league, it’s unclear where exactly Sakic views the Avalanche on that continuum.
Throughout Sakic's tenure the team has twisted and pulled in opposite directions, trapped in a state of managerial cognitive dissonance. In 2016 they preserved Mikko Rantanen’s entry level contract, like a rebuilder biding their time for the future, while simultaneously acting like a contender, trading future picks and prospects for 20 game rentals, Mikkel Boedker and Shawn Matthias.
Last year the Avalanche repeated their middle path approach, using free agency to assemble a hodgepodge of both risk laden young pros like Wiercioch and Colborne, and over the hill veteran leaders like Fedor Tyutin and Rene Bourque. When the team fell out of the playoff race the Avalanche didn’t behave like normal rebuilders, auctioning off veterans for whatever they could get. Instead, Sakic was able to move just two of his handful of expiring contracts at the trade deadline and failed to obtain a single draft pick for the Avalanche in 2017. While rebuilding teams like the Hurricanes, Red Wings, and Devils all boast ten or more picks in this month’s NHL Entry Draft, the Avalanche own just seven, with only two picks coming in the first three rounds. A combination of luck and skill, the draft is like poker; and you wont win many poker hands if you only draw one card.
With the opportunity to sell veterans long past, and so few picks in the bank already, embracing a rebuild at this stage in the game would mean trading away what little talent the Avalanche do possess and embracing at least one more year of futility on the ice. While that path may be the best move for the franchise in the long run, allowing them to move on from prohibitively large contracts and reset the team culture, it’s hard to imagine Joe Sakic surviving another bottom five finish after three years of consecutive regression.
But what other option is there? Instead of pursuing draft picks and prospects years away from making an impact in the NHL, could Joe Sakic chase NHL ready players in an attempt to turn the team around quickly and save his job? Despite low finishes in 2015 and 2016, Sakic has been more than willing to take long term gambles on short term contributions from veteran players like Jan Hejda, Brad Stuart, Francois Beaucheminand Fedor Tyutin.
Coming off of a 48 point season, it would take a special single-season turnaround for the Avalanche to return to relevance. Between the 2016 and 2017 seasons the Toronto Maple Leafs made a 26 point jump from stinker to playoff team on the backs of a super star rookie class. The Leafs built that with the simultaneous additions of 1st overall pick Auston Matthews, and top prospects Mitch Marner and William Nylander. While the Avalanche are sure to see some improvement with NHL promotions for JT Compher and Tyson Jost, the player they take 4th overall is unlikely to see the NHL this coming season, and even so, that group pales in comparison to the one in Toronto.
Even if the Avalanche were to match Toronto’s 26 point turnaround, an impressive feat for any team, that would still give them just 74 points, enough points to finish 26th in the NHL last season. The high bar for improvement in 2018 is not so much a return to relevance, but a climb back into the NHL’s previous standards for basement embarrassment. Should Sakic seek immediate help, instead of long term health for the Avalanche roster, he may save his job by citing progress and a marked improvement in point totals, but he’ll bring them no closer to the playoffs or to the sustained success that has eluded the franchise for over a decade.
With the noose of public opinion tightening by the day, Sakic finds himself at a pivotal crossroads as a General Manager. Does he use the Avalanche’s limited trade capital to make tangible improvements on the ice this summer and seek to save his job? Or does he embrace the process of rebuilding? Focusing on acquiring younger players, draft picks, and assets for the team’s future even though doing so could mean throwing himself on the pyre next year.
There's no easy way out of the mess the Avalanche have made for themselves. There's no quick, over the counter remedy for the ills of a 48 point finisher. The simple truth is that repairing what's broken in Colorado will take time and sacrifice, and that sacrifice may have to come from Colorado's favored son, Super Joe. Joe Sakic, the all too rare franchise player, the captain who bled Burgundy and Blue through two Stanley Cups, 1378 games, and 20 years of NHL action faces a choice between what’s good for his longevity as a GM and what’s good for the franchise he’s devoted his career too. Either way, it’s lose-lose.