When the Colorado Avalanche ripped off the band-aid with their trade of Matt Duchene, it revealed the scarring of a scab too frequently picked at that clearly never properly healed. That scar is the original rebuild operation the Avs began after the 2008-09 season when they overhauled their decision-makers in the front office and found themselves with the third overall pick, their highest at the time since moving to Colorado.
They used that selection on Duchene and followed it up with what should have been a franchise-altering draft class that included Ryan O’Reilly and Tyson Barrie. Getting three All-Star caliber players in the same draft is extremely difficult and ideally would have set Colorado up for the perfect transition from the Joe Sakic-era into the great beyond.
Unfortunately, what followed was a comedy of errors from a front office too easily fooled by on-ice results that led them astray in the rebuilding process. Instead of continuing to pour resources into the draft and develop young players, Colorado saw their young guns succeed immediately with a surprise playoff run led by goaltender Craig Anderson, who finished fourth in Vezina Trophy ( given annually to the NHL’s top goaltender) voting that year.
The Avalanche used their top draft selection in 2010 on forward Joey Hishon, whose career was derailed by concussions, and after being unable to come to terms on a contract extension with Anderson, traded him just a year after he backstopped them to the postseason. Colorado also dealt top young players Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk to St. Louis in exchange for Erik Johnson, who was the first overall selection just six years earlier.
Colorado became intent on building around Duchene, O’Reilly, Paul Stastny, and the newly-acquired Johnson. The Avalanche then used the second overall selection in the 2011 draft to nab future captain Gabriel Landeskog and defenseman Duncan Siemens 11th overall, a pick acquired in the Johnson trade. The front office followed by taking advantage of a contract stalemate between the Washington Capitals and young goaltender Semyon Varlamov and traded their 2012 first and second round selections for the netminder.
While the acquisitions of Johnson and Varlamov are still on the roster and are arguably two of the keys to success for Colorado today, the cost to acquire them came down to three first rounders (Stewart, Shattenkirk, and Filip Forsberg, who was selected 11th overall by the Capitals) and two second-round picks (2011 and 2012). Given their rosters weren’t anywhere close to contending, the consolidation of assets for Johnson and Varlamov arguably set the franchise back years.
Meanwhile, Colorado continued struggling at the draft table and with limited selections thanks to their trading ways, their mistakes became magnified when the allure of playing for the once-storied Avalanche franchise dried up in free agency. The Avalanche were short on young NHL talent and even shorter on quality prospects.
The lockout-shortened season of 2012-13 saw the Avalanche maintain their bottom-feeding habits, leading to the dismissal of head coach Joe Sacco and the hirings of Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy to turn the moribund franchise around. The team won the draft lottery, selected Nathan MacKinnon first overall, and rode the wave of good fortune from Roy’s first year and Varlamov’s brilliance (he finished second in Vezina voting) to one of the unlikeliest division titles in recent NHL history.
Once again, the on-ice results deceived a front office slow to embrace the advanced statistics that were telling the world the Avalanche were in for a crash. Stastny left in free agency for a division rival and the organization seemed to get it when they traded O’Reilly for a bundle of future assets. Instead of lighting the path towards a legitimate rebuild, the O’Reilly trade served as the anomaly for the Roy-Sakic partnership and the allure of winning remained too much, especially for the notoriously competitive Roy. They tried patching the holes with older players, both via free agency (Jarome Iginla, Francois Beauchemin) and trade (Brad Stuart), further depleting future assets in an attempt to jumpstart the franchise into winning.
This attitude peaked at the trade deadline in Roy’s final year when they traded future assets for Shawn Matthias and Mikkel Boedker as they desperately pushed for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. A lengthy losing streak to finish the season kept them from achieving their goals and Roy ultimately lost the front office power struggle, leading to his resignation and the mismatched roster that put up 48 points last season. All of this led up to the Duchene situation, including his request to be traded last winter, and ultimately his being dealt to Ottawa this season for a mixture of prospects and future assets.
The Duchene trade drew a line in the sand for the franchise – one that admitted they were accepting another difficult season that likely sees them lose more games than they win. This is the approach the Avalanche should have adopted in the summer of 2009 after doing yeoman’s work on the draft floor. Instead, they continued to be seduced by two unlikely playoff runs and sacrificed asset after asset to try to find the right mix at the NHL level.
Where Sakic and assistant general manager Chris MacFarland have changed their approach is their acceptance of losing at the NHL level – for now. Colorado is already icing the second-youngest roster in the NHL and seeing immediate dividends from the Duchene trade in the form of Sam Girard’s early strong play. They are dedicating this season to developing their abundance of young talent while also boasting arguably their most intriguing pipeline of prospects in the last ten years.
Not even counting 19-year-old Girard or 21-year-old Vladislav Kamenev, another key piece of the Duchene trade who found bad luck when he broke his arm in his Avalanche debut last week, the Avalanche still have more young players coming. And while that may sound like the same old rhetoric to many Avs fans who feel the team has been in perpetual rebuild since ’09, it simply isn’t the same conversation.
Tyson Jost, Cale Makar, Shane Bowers, Conor Timmins, and Cam Morrison are all players selected in the top two rounds of the last two drafts who will be knocking on the Avalanche door sooner than later. Add those players into the four more Colorado is likely to draft in the first two rounds at the 2018 NHL Draft and you see something this franchise has lacked throughout its entire history since moving to Denver – a plan for the future.
While it’s no doubt difficult for Avalanche fans to have to sit through yet another potential losing season and believe in the future, they need only look down the street in LoDo to the Colorado Rockies for what a difference a coherent plan and solid execution can do for an organization. After years of being a directionless franchise with a bleak future outlook, the Rockies finally got a front office that had a grand idea (draft talented players, develop them into MLB-caliber players, win more games) and stuck to it.
At the Pepsi Center, the Sakic-led front office has been freed from the shackles of expectations after the 48-point fiasco resulted in a unanimous writing off of Colorado’s decision makers as competent individuals. All the Avalanche front office needs to do is capitalize on the opportunity they’ve built for themselves.
If this upstart squad is still competing for a playoff position come trade deadline day in late February, Sakic and Co. need to stick to their guns and not acquire veteran talent. They need to stay the course and continue looking to build up their asset base. If the phone rings and a team is interested in the resurgent Blake Comeau or steady Mark Barberio, Colorado should be quick to get what they can for the upcoming unrestricted free agents and continue plugging the holes with the young depth they’ve accumulated.
In order for this particular attempt at a rebuild to be successful and produce winning seasons and playoff competitiveness, Sakic needs to maintain his edge and remain committed to the success of tomorrow, even if it comes at the expense of winning a few extra games this year.
After more false starts than the current Broncos offensive line, the Avalanche organization is headed in the right direction. Eight years after they sort of started trying, it appears the Avalanche have figured out how to rebuild.