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.

Finally.

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AJ Haefele

This Aurora, Colorado native moved to Katy, Texas at a young age but found himself right back at home in 2009 and would begin covering the Avalanche a year later.

Before joining BSN Denver, A.J. had been writing for and briefly managed the popular Avalanche blog, Mile High Hockey. A.J. has been providing detailed practice reports, training camp coverage, and in-depth looks at the Avalanche and their divisional foes since 2010.

  • Jose

    Well done. Now we enter the “hope” stage. Have we been there before?

    • Carter J

      Is it the “hope” stage? It seems more like an enjoyment stage watching these young kids play. Exciting!

  • Charlie Anderson

    Who needs the “agony of victory” anyways? The “thrill of defeat” last year was spectacular. I just like watching these young guys play, these games are so exciting. I really could have done without watching/hearing (everyone heard the snap, right?) Komanov’s arm break though.

  • Ace O’Dale

    To further add proof to Sakic’s commitment to this being a rebuild year with young, developing talent, look at the summer FA adds of Kerfoot and Toninato.

    These signings were moves that caught some of us completely off-guard. Instead to getting older, slower, the Front Office actually lured young, blue-chip prospects to Denver. Both of these kids were captains of their respective NCAA teams and have been electric to watch.

  • dstal89756

    The predominant issue with the Fall and Decline of the Avalanche is drafting.The narrative on the Johnson trade would be much different if the Siemens pick had been spent on Saad or Kucherov or JT Miller. Players who were still on the board at the time that Siemens was selected.

    It is always interesting to play the what if game. For example what if the Avalanche had been able to workout a long tern deal with Craig Anderson or at the very least used an Offer Sheet on Varlamov limiting their exposure in assets to a first round pick?

    Colorado has quietly stacked up three consecutive solid drafts and the 2018 draft is shaping up to be a watershed moment for the team if it can continue its approach of selecting quality prospects. Team depth has improved considerably, salary cap flexibility is available as well.

    Now that the Avs have committed to Girard and both Timmins and Maker are on the horizon would one additional major trade be approaching in 2018-19? Johnson and Landeskog are providing valuable veteran leadership but could Tyson Barrie prove to be expendable as the younger defensive prospects earn more opportunity with the Avalanche?

    Credit to Joe Sakic and company for finally getting this rebuild right. It seems now in hindsight that the addition of MacFarland was the turning point and once the internal power struggle with Roy was decided the personnel moves have a much clearer direction towards the future.

    • bob_w

      Something not often discussed is how the changes in the scouting staff that Sakic (and Roy) made a couple of years ago has effected the outcomes of subsequent drafts and players acquired via trade. While GMs get most of the credit for obtaining talent it is really their selection of a scouting staff that is critical as those are the people who do the work and build the reports that are used to make the selections/trades.

      • wflan

        I dove into this a little above

  • Pixelrebirth

    Even if they had 5 more losses this year already, I would be enjoying this year much more than last knowing the direction things are moving. Would love to see more assets come our way for Comeau or Nieto or maybe even Soda— we need the roster spots for all these talented players to slot into.

    Looking forward just watching them next game, and the next.

  • wflan

    I agree with dstal89756, drafting is at the center of the stalled rebuild. Before the Duchene era, there was year after year of underwhelming draft classes and traded high round picks. No first rounder in 2001, 2003, 2005, or 2008. The first draft year with two firsts since 1998 was 2011 (Landeskog/Siemens). 2009 Was a great year, but it is 100% an outlier. In 2010, here’s the selection (and NHL games played):
    Hishon (13), Pickard (86), Bournival (108), and Aittokallio (2), then (0) (0) (0) (0).
    Here’s 2011:
    Landeskog (428), Siemens (4), then (0) (0) (0) (0)
    Here’s 2012:
    (0) (0) (0) Blandisi (68), Smith (1)
    Here’s 2013:
    MacKinnon (300), Bigras (31), Martin (3), (0) (0) (0) (0)
    After that, only Greer, Rantanen, and Jost have any NHL games played, with the caveat that you’re getting into picks where they’re too recent to tell.

    Hopefully they’ve turned it around.

    Undervaluing picks and tossing them around like candy at the end of October had long been a hallmark of the Avalanche strategy. The Avs management record is full of atrocious things like spending Craig Anderson, Brian Elliott, Filip Forsberg, and two second round picks to get Varlamov and Berra.

    The Avs were terrible because they weren’t good at evaluating talent. With the benefit of hindsight, you could build a cup winner out of players the Avs dumped or passed over in the draft. It started before Roy was obsessed with heavy hockey while the league went the opposite way. It seems as though that era is over. Cross your fingers, and let’s chat in four or five years…

  • cerveau

    As much as I like our progress I also feel nervous about going too much in the “small and fast” direction after seeing how Nashville pretty much dominated us because they seemed able to out muscle us.

    • Jim C

      You have to remember that we aren’t necessarily going “small and fast”, but with these ultra young players they are going to be on the light side of 200. Yes Girard is a smaller guy but I don’t know about you but I had no problems adding 20-30lbs from 19 to 21. Makar is 5’11” 190, so easy to see him playing at 210. Miko is already a big boy, as is Landy. Toninato is listed at 6’2” 200, Khamenev 6’2” 192, Compfer 6’ 200, MacK 6’ 205, Greer 6’3” 205, even Jost is listed at 191. The defense has some size as well in the obvious big boys EJ, Z, Mironov is decent sized, Nemeth is 6’3” 215, Meloche is 6’3” 215. Yeah there is no jumbo guys outside EJ and Z and yeah Kerfoot and Girard are definitely light but I’d take the current make up over what has been thrown out there the last few years of plodding Big guys.

      • cerveau

        Cool! Thanks Jim C. I feel much better now.