Blizzard of brilliance: How Colorado Avalanche were built
It’s settled: the Tampa Bay Lightning will face the Colorado Avalanche in the 2022 Stanley Cup Final. So, how did each team get here? Let’s look at how each Stanley Cup finalist was built, starting with the West’s top team, the Avalanche.
If the NHL is a “copycat league,” then rival general managers probably want to know how the Avalanche built such a juggernaut of a team. Is there a blueprint that could be snatched?
Maybe you can swipe some overarching principles. Unfortunately, with the Avalanche (and Lightning), there isn’t really a “gimmick.” Generally speaking, the Avalanche are exploiting a blizzard of brilliant moves -- and, sure, at least a flurry of luck.
Let’s break down how the Avalanche built a juggernaut team that kicked down the door to a Stanley Cup Final after knocking on it for years.
Like other powerhouse teams, Avalanche were bad enough to stock up on high draft picks
Yes, the NHL features a select few contenders built in unusual ways. The Blues and Wild have been competitive without landing many top-five first-rounders. The Golden Knights struck gold in ways that approach the zany.
Generally speaking, though, contenders stock up on “blue chip” prospects in the draft. The Penguins did so with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews powered the Blackhawks. Alex Ovechkin himself announced the Capitals’ pick of Nicklas Backstrom.
All of those teams made smart moves to supplement that good fortune, but to an extent, it’s about being at the right place, at the right time.
[Stunning Numbers from the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs]
With the Avalanche, that meant losing ... a lot.
From 2010-11 to 2016-17, the Avalanche missed the playoffs in six of seven seasons. Their lone postseason appearance rode the back of a fluke Patrick Roy run that ended in the First Round.
Now, not every first-rounder from that era worked out.
Concussions derailed the career of Joey Hishon (17th overall in 2010). Connor Bleackley (23rd, 2014) hasn’t played an NHL game. The Avalanche traded Tyson Jost (10th in 2016) for depth forward Nico Sturm around deadline time.
[Looking at Avalanche stars beyond Makar and MacKinnon]
Yet, the Avalanche were bad enough long enough to knock a few way out of the park.
- Gabriel Landeskog (second overall in 2011) wasted little time in making an NHL impact. He became, at the time, the youngest team captain in NHL history. Time will tell if it was the right call from a long-term salary cap perspective, but the Avalanche gave Landeskog a lengthy extension last offseason.
- Few would give the Avalanche much credit for drafting Nathan MacKinnon first overall in 2013. However, they deserve credit for shaking off MacKinnon’s relative early struggles, and signing him to a forward-thinking contract that ended up being one of the biggest bargains in recent history.
- While the Avalanche drafted Mikko Rantanen with a premium pick, it’s easy to forget that he was around at 10th overall in 2015. Teams like the Coyotes (Dylan Strome, third) and the Devils (Pavel Zacha, sixth) can agonize over passing on Rantanen. It’s actually more telling that there’s room to debate Rantanen vs. fourth pick Mitch Marner, though.
- More recently, the Avalanche boosted their defense with fourth overall picks. Obviously, Cale Makar (fourth in 2017) is the headliner, and arguably the best player on a powerhouse team. That said, Bowen Byram’s showing real promise (fourth in 2019) after a series of miserable health scares.
- Alex Newhook (16th in that 2019 draft) may end up being crucial for the Avalanche with a salary cap crunch coming.
Again, there’s some luck involved here. Things have to fall nicely for you to get the first pick in a draft with a superstar like Nathan MacKinnon available.
But, here’s a thought for fans, and maybe also the Philadelphia Flyers trying to throw Ron Hextall under the bus. There’s no guarantee that a different team would give Cale Makar the freedom he needs to be, basically, the defenseman of the future. More than a few NHL head coaches would fixate on the natural risks that come with “roving,” missing the big picture of the good massively outweighing the bad.
So, give the Avalanche credit with developing stars, not just drafting them. Sure, there’s a heavy element of luck. To get to another level, you have to “make your own luck,” too.
Acing trades essentially since turning lemons into lemonade with Matt Duchene
Truly, the Matt Duchene trade (and Patrick Roy’s bizarre exodus) marked a true turning point for the Colorado Avalanche.
This was a situation people were mocking enough to score Matt Duchene’s glum faces to the memorable lyrics “Hello darkness, my old friend ...”
With their backs against the wall, the Avalanche pulled off a brilliant Matt Duchene trade. Honestly, from that point, other GMs probably should have just ignored all incoming calls from Joe Sakic.
[For a deep dive on a remarkable run of trades, check out this breakdown from PHT’s Adam Gretz.]
- The Duchene trade netted the Avalanche a package highlighted by Samuel Girard, and the pick they used to land Bowen Byram.
- Exploiting a cap-strapped Islanders team, the Avs traded for Devon Toews for pennies on the dollar. Toews doesn’t generate the highlight-reel hype of Cale Makar, but he’s absolutely a big-time blueliner.
- Sensing that the Maple Leafs kinda had to trade Nazem Kadri after consecutive playoff suspensions, the Avalanche pounced. They sold high on Tyson Barrie, and Kadri’s been a revelation.
- Sprinkle in plenty of other smart and solid trades, including value-driven finds in Artturi Lehkonen.
Impressive patience sometimes means not buying high or selling low
Sometimes, it’s also about the trade or signing you don’t make.
- The Avalanche could’ve overreacted to another Nazem Kadri playoff suspension. Instead, cooler heads prevailed, and he’s delivered a career-best masterpiece of a season.
- Maybe the Avalanche would’ve paid a first-rounder to trade for Claude Giroux if he wasn’t so Florida-focused. They didn’t, though, and my end up glad they haven’t chased too many splashy rentals.
- Sure, it cost quite a bit to trade for Darcy Kuemper. Yet, credit the Avalanche for not boxing themselves into a corner, goaltending-wise. There are only a few goalies anywhere near Andrei Vasilevskiy, and you can tie yourself in knots trying to chase false hope. If nothing else, the Avs have remained flexible regarding goalies. (Hot take: Kraken probably wish Philipp Grubauer was still with Colorado.)
Speaking of flexibility, the Avalanche aren’t particularly heavy on no-trade or no-movement clauses. It all speaks to a franchise that is cool, calm, and collected while others are prone to overreactions.
Fancy stats, free agents, and an underrated coach
Early in Joe Sakic’s run, the Avalanche were banking on Patrick Roy’s system, one that almost seemed to spit in the face of “analytics.” Contrary to Pierre McGuire’s belief, the Avalanche eventually made a heavy emphasis on analytics, “fancy stats,” or whatever you’d like to call a focus on information beyond one’s gut.
How much did that staff figure into analytics-leaning moves, such as trading for Devon Toews? That’s a matter of speculation. Credit whomever you want, but this overall approach has paid off handsomely for the Avs.
[Back in 2018, Sean Leahy interviewed Avalanche coach Jared Bednar]
Again, the sheer volume of competent choices really separates the Avalanche.
After a bumpy start, Jared Bednar now ranks among the NHL’s most underrated coaches. While he’s been blessed with incredible talent, Bednar’s shown skill in navigating annual injury headaches.
Generally, the Avalanche have relied as much on free agents as they have built on drafting and trades. That said, they’ve found gems here and there.
One free-agent highlight was the low-risk, high-reward signing of Valeri Nichushkin. Chances are, even a savvy front office like Colorado’s probably didn’t expect the supposed Stars bust to be this much of a find. Again, though, sometimes you “make your own luck.”
In building this team, the Avalanche consistently made smart moves -- selling high, and buying low. Whatever role analytics, “the eye test,” and other factors played, the bottom line is that other franchises face a tall task in keeping up with the Avalanche.
Both on the ice and off the ice.