Monday, August 15, 2022

How the Avalanche went from rock bottom to Stanley Cup champions in five years

Five years ago, it was hard to imagine the Colorado Avalanche winning much of anything. They were the league’s basement-dwellers. But then the franchise underwent an impressive rebuild, which was capped off on Sunday night by winning a Stanley Cup.

Let’s examine how they went from the bottom to the top of the NHL.

Exit Patrick Roy, enter Jared Bednar

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Just before the start of training camp in 2016, head coach Patrick Roy stepped down due to his frustration with the direction of the franchise. General manager Joe Sakic hired Jared Bednar to replace him, and his first season on the job was a rough one.

In the 2016-17 season, the Avalanche went 22-56-4. It was not pretty.

  • Their 48 points put them dead last in the NHL by a wide margin. The next closest team in the standings was the Vancouver Canucks at 69 points.
  • The team was getting rolled on a nightly basis. Their goal differential was -112 that season.

But all that misery would be worth it if the Avalanche could score the No. 1 overall pick…

However, that’s not what happened in the 2017 NHL Draft Lottery. The ping pong balls didn’t bounce Colorado’s way, and the team slid as far as it could, down to the No. 4 overall pick. The Avalanche missed out on the chance to draft players like Nico HIschier, Nolan Patrick and Miro Heiskanen. But it wasn’t all bad news.

Cale Makar era begins with Avs exceeding expectations

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After watching the first three picks in that draft, Sakic selected defenseman Cale Makar. Little did Sakic know that Makar would become the 2022 Norris Trophy winner, Conn Smythe Trophy winner and a Stanley Cup champion.

Coming into the 2017-18 season, Sakic didn’t panic and kept Bednar at the helm for another season. There was still some drama in Denver, though. Star forward Matt Duchene made it clear that he wanted out, but Sakic remained patient and waited for the best possible offer.

On Nov. 5, 2017, Sakic sent Duchene to the Ottawa Senators in a three-way trade. Among other things, the Avalanche received defenseman Sam Girard from the Nashville Predators and a first-round pick from the Senators.

Girard was hurt throughout the 2022 postseason, but he has become a staple of the team’s skilled defensive corps. The first-round pick became defenseman Bowen Byram, who just tallied nine points in the Avs’ Stanley Cup run.

Even after trading Duchene, the Avalanche outperformed expectations in 2017-18 and made the playoffs. Colorado pushed the Nashville Predators, the President’s Trophy winners, to six games before getting eliminated in the first round. It was clear the Avs had the bones of a solid team, and Sakic began building around it to create a contender.

Joe Sakic’s patience starts to pay off

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In the few years after that season, Sakic made some very savvy moves to form the juggernaut that would become the 2022 Stanley Cup champions.

  • 2019 | Acquired F Andre Burakovsky for Scott Kosmachuk, a second-round pick, and a third round pick
  • 2019 | Signed F Valeri Nichuskin for $900,000
  • 2019 | Acquired F Nazem Kadri for Alex Kerfoot, Tyson Barrie, and a sixth-round pick
  • 2020 | Acquired D Devon Toews for two second-round picks
  • 2021 | Acquired G Darcy Kuemper for Connor Timmins, a first-round pick, and and a third-round pick
  • 2022 | Acquired D Josh Manson for Drew Helleson and a second-round pick
  • 2022 | Acquired F Artturi Lehkonen for Justin Barron and a second-round pick

While the Avalanche were clearly getting better on paper, the postseason results plateaued. From 2019 to 2021, Colorado was eliminated in the second round of the postseason three straight times. When that happens, a general manager might be tempted to make sweeping changes, but not Sakic.

He stayed the course and addressed any shortcomings the team had without breaking up the core.

Sakic played two decades in the NHL, and he won two Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe Trophy and a Hart Trophy. In 2012, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. For all he accomplished as a player, what Sakic has done with the Avalanche as a general manager has been awfully impressive too.

The evolution of Nathan MacKinnon

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There is one other massive element of this rebuild that took a few years to pay off. That element, Nathan MacKinnon, has grown into one of the sport’s biggest stars. 

Sakic was given the keys to the Avs right before the 2013 NHL Draft. With the No. 1 overall pick, Colorado selected MacKinnon. He was a very good player in his first four seasons with the Avalanche, but he wasn’t the superstar that everyone expected him to be. In fact, his best year in that span came when he was a rookie. He tallied 24 goals and 63 points in 2013-14. He failed to match that level for the next three seasons.

But in 2017-18, his second season under Bednar, MacKinnon finally broke out and established himself as one of the NHL’s best players. He set career highs with 39 goals and 97 points in 74 games. The following season, MacKinnon set career highs yet again with 41 goals and 99 points. MacKinnon’s development into a special player has made a bigger impact on Colorado than anything else.

The Avalanche were as far away from a Stanley Cup as a team could possibly be in 2017, and they can serve as a model for teams currently in the doldrums. Of course, few can execute a vision for the future as well and as efficiently as Colorado did over the last five seasons, but you know teams are going to try.

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