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.

Now, as Sakic prepares for the most critical month of his front office career, things are only getting tougher for the embattled GM.  In recent weeks, rumors surfaced that the Avalanche sought out a replacement, or at least some outside help for Joe Sakic. Whether Colorado’s interest in Toronto Assistant General Manager Kyle Dubas was supplementary and done with Sakic’s blessing, or, as Bob McKenzie reported, an attempt by Kroenke Sports Enterprises to intervene, it’s symbolic of a larger truth for Joe Sakic. Based BSN’s own reporting last week, on the Avalanche’s pursuit of Windsor Spitfires GM Warren Rychel, it appears Colorado is still serious about bringing new voices into the management team, but with the expansion draft less than two weeks away, they wont be adding any new blood to the front office in time to contribute to the busy weeks ahead. In a sea of uncertainty, Joe Sakic will have to navigate through this tumultuous offseason alone, a heavy burden for the man who now bears the weight of all the teams’ recent failures.

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 StuartFrancois Beauchemin and 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.

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Cole Hamilton

Cole is Vancouver born but a Colorado native at heart, spending 21 years in the Denver and Boulder area. This CU Boulder graduate started covering the Avalanche with Mile High Hockey in 2011 and after four years took over briefly as the site’s managing editor. After a year trapped in Chicago Blackhawk’s territory Cole is back in Boulder writing on the Avalanche and their prospects.

  • Eric Lessard

    I think Joe should keep seeking help in the front office and embrace the youth movement. Watching ROR, Duchene, etc grow up together was a pleasure in years past – hopefully they can learn from that experience and not repeat the ultimate outcome. Even if the Avs have another bad season, fans will enjoy watching a young team make mistakes more than middling older players.

  • Chris Hopkins

    I get the overall theme of the article, I just have two maybe slight disagreements with the thought process.

    The easiest one is about Joe. I don’t know him personally, but he’s never struck as ego driven, so continually pushing this as an either/or, either he goes for the rebuild or he tries to save his job, is an empty narrative. The most played highlight of his entire career will always be that of the only captain not to lift the cup first, I think that’s a statement on where his general mindset is. He’s always trying to do the right thing. I think he just got caught in this thing. Lest not forget Greg Sherman. Bad. Because of him, I think Joe got tossed into GM a little faster than he wished probably before he was ready, and I think his greatest flaw was he never really had a middle/long term plan. Everything was reactionary to what was going on. I think it was easier for him to add veterans because what did the Avs do literally every trade deadline of Joes career? Add. What did they basically never do? Develop youth/sell. I think he’s going to continue to do what he feels is best for the Avs until he decides to leave, now whether we agree with it or not is completely different.

    The second thing that bothers me is that why is hockey the only sport where everyone locks into a teams point total as the definitive end all/be all of how good a team is? There’s such a variance of outcomes in any given season and we witness only one “simulation” of potential outcomes. Other sports seem to understand this, yet hockey makes sweeping judgements based on that one run through. If they played the 2001 baseball season 1000 times, my Mariners would never win 116 games again. If they played the 2015-16 premier league season 1000 times, Leicester would never win the league again. Along with that, if we played the 2016-17 NHL season again, the Avs would be hard pressed to ever do worse than 48 points. But the NHL never sees it that way. They could toss the exact same team back on the ice next season and easily regress (yes, regression goes both ways) back toward an 80 point team and everyone would be blown away and wonder how they did it. The blue jackets are no clearer example of this. Every year that team is good, then bad, then good, then bad and every year they are labeled as a shocker!

    Point is this, this summer isn’t that much gloom and doom. Are there changes to be made? Sure. If Sakic does have a job that needs saving could he do nothing and save it? By NHL standards, yes, yes he could. For me the biggest factor of the offseason is to just look for signs of a longer term plan. There’s been signs starting to sprout this last year, as I was pleased Joe kept kids in SA to develop after the NHL ship had long sank and everyone’s knee jerk reaction was “sell everything and play the kids!” Now I just want to see more of it. Add a few more picks, hell even if those picks are 2018 picks, cuts ties with some guys with no role past this next season, just get your house in order to have a solid base from which to work. That’d be a win.

  • david 1.982k

    I think last year was a perfect storm of bad things happening. No one thought it would be nearly as bad as it turned out to be. I think the Avs are a lot closer to contending for a playoff spot than this hyperbole piece makes it seem. Although if Beauchemin gets protected for the expansion draft, then Joe must go. Mostly because it would indicate that he’s not living in reality. I think the future could easily be as bright for the Avs as Toronto, Mackinnon took a huge leap last year in his play at both ends, despite the scoring numbers not bearing that out. Sakic also pivoted well, bringing in Andrighetto, Nieto, and the best move of all Barbario, who looked like a legit top 4 D. Last year reminded me a lot of Roy’s first year, but in reverse, where that season the Avs were incredibly lucky, last year they were incredibly unlucky. I watched every game, although I have to admit I had to turn them off sometimes, I know that there isn’t any reason to panic unless Sakic hasn’t learned from these experiences. The Avs have a lot of good young pieces coming up, hopefully Sakic and Bednar will play them and move Sodaberg, Colbourne, and Beauchemin down to the AHL where play like there’s belongs, or buy them out. As far as getting more picks last year, would you have traded picks for guys who looked as checked out as the vets on this team did? I doubt it.

  • MikeL

    Go young and will live with it. But if you go with the old, can’t play anymore, don’t care quitters then I’m gone.

  • Durdles

    Can we get a GoFundMe started to buy out Beauchemin?