Avalanche Bet on Their Core at the Trade Deadline

Many rumors swirled around the Colorado Avalanche making a big trade prior to the deadline on Monday, Feb. 24. Those whispers crashed and burned as the cutoff time came and went. While some may wish the team made more of a splash, the front office sent a strong message, and it was a good one – the Avalanche organization is all in on the roster they have.

The Actual Trades – Vladislav Namestnikov and Michael Hutchinson

Many hockey analysts expected the Avalanche to go big game hunting at the trade deadline. Some thought they would go after a top-tier goaltender in light of Philipp Grubauer’s injury while others predicted a speedy forward. They were both right AND wrong.

General manager Joe Sakic started the final day of trading with a couple of depth pickups. He acquired Toronto Maple Leafs/Marlies goaltender Michael Hutchinson in exchange for sending American Hockey League defenseman Calle Rosen back to his former club. Rosen was a piece in July’s Tyson Barrie-Nazem Kadri deal with Toronto.

Michael Hutchinson Toronto Maple Leafs
Michael Hutchinson brings a veteran third-string presence to the net. (Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports)

In the early part of the season, Rosen made a solid push for a spot on the Avalanche’s starting roster. However, while he showed well in the preseason, he never found his role on the blue line and ended up playing only eight games for the Avalanche. Cale Makar’s stellar pace and the unexpected rise of Ryan Graves put the Avalanche in an unusual position – having too much depth on defense. Rosen ended up spending most of his time with the club’s AHL affiliate, the Colorado Eagles.

Meanwhile, Hutchinson will serve as the backup for current starting goaltender Pavel Francouz. Once Grubauer returns, Hutchinson will likely head to the Eagles, who have also battled goaltender injuries. It’s essentially an AHL trade that provides the NHL club with an experienced third-string option who has more than 100 NHL games under his belt. It’s hard to assess Hutchinson’s value as he struggled to backstop the Maple Leafs and their questionable defense, eventually ending up on their AHL club, the Marlies.

The Avalanche also added a forward – Vladislav Namestnikov – although he’s also not an elite player. He comes from the Ottawa Senators in exchange for a fourth-round pick. The 27-year-old plays more of a defensive role and should be able to help the team’s penalty kill. With four banged up forwards, the club could use the veteran depth. Namestnikov will likely fill a spot on the third or fourth line. He’s a stable addition but certainly not a top tier pickup.

Avoiding the Trade Frenzy

Monday’s 32 trades surpassed the 2010 record of 31. It was a busy and expensive day for some clubs. Teams were trading combinations of first and second round drafts picks and prospects for average forwards. Handfuls of role players were exchanged for a single need as teams competed to fill holes in their roster.

Amongst the noise, though, the Avalanche resisted the temptation to overpay for perceived problems. They are no longer a team desperate to add pieces to compete for the playoffs. Instead, they are a club that needs just a little help to press through their injury issues until their stars return. Hopefully, the wounded return in time to gear up for the playoffs.

The Avalanche made a number of moves in the offseason to shore up holes in their lineup, making the trade deadline less important. The front office brokered a couple of big trades in July and added some free agents over the summer, all of whom helped contribute to the team’s success. The prices were reasonable, and the timing afforded the players a chance to adapt.

Sakic’s offseason efforts paid off. Currently sitting second in the Central Division and the Western Conference, the Avalanche own a 10-point lead (with games in hand) over the closest wild card contender. They trail the Western Conference and Central-leading St. Louis Blues by only three points, with two games in hand. The Avalanche sit in a pretty comfortable spot for making the playoffs.

The team built their successful record while battling a slew of injuries to their top players. Colorado lost 115-man games just with the forwards, including losing substantial time for Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, Nazem Kadri, and Andre Burakovsky. That’s four of their top-six forwards, two-thirds of their top two lines. The team faced down the 26-man games lost on the blue line, as well. Meanwhile, the goaltending injuries piled up to the point where the team iced four different goaltenders in one week.

What the Modest Trades Reveal

The team’s current challenge rests with another rash of injuries.  The Avalanche are missing All-Star wing Rantanen (again), gritty center Kadri (again), feisty forward Matt Calvert (again), and starting goaltender Grubauer (again). Burakovsky was either sick or banged up (the reports differ) and missed the last game. Last but not least, veteran forward Colin Wilson has almost become an afterthought as he hasn’t played since the end of October. Yet, the team continues to find ways to stay in the hunt.

Colorado Avalanche Philipp Grubauer
Colorado Avalanche hope goaltender Philipp Grubauer returns for the playoffs. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The Avalanche, notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to injuries, have kept the status of their walking wounded a secret. The information is locked down like Fort Knox. They haven’t released timelines for estimated returns or even disclosed the nature of the injuries.

However, if the team thought Grubauer would miss the playoffs, they should have gone after an elite goaltender like Robin Lehner instead of Hutchinson. If the Avalanche believed they would be down four or five forwards heading into the postseason, they should have made a few more trades, added a couple more assets on offense and maybe acquire a highly skilled guy to help the top two forward lines.

Sakic made different moves.

He didn’t go all-in on replacing one or two key pieces. Instead, he spent modestly, acquiring helpful depth. This is good news. It means the Avalanche are expecting most, if not all, of their injured players to return before the end of the season.

Colorado Avalanche Executive Vice President Joe Sakic
Joe Sakic is betting the Avalanche’s current roster can be Cup contenders. (Photo by RJ Sangosti / The Denver Post via Getty Images)

The restrained approach also signals Colorado understands their position. They are poised to go deep in the playoffs, not just this year, but for years to come, as long as they choose wisely. The front office aims to build a legacy of success.

As Joe Sakic said in Tuesday’s press conference, “Sometimes the best moves are the ones you don’t make.”

Mortgaging the future by trading away first-round picks and promising prospects may be enticing for the moment, but in the cap era, it limits a team’s ability to sustain a successful franchise. In order to pay stars and still fit under the cap limit, clubs must add cost-controlled talented youth and inexpensive role players. If a team trades away their picks and prospects, they risk not having enough talent to ice a competitive group.

The Avalanche still possess prospects Bowen Byram, Alex Newhook, Conor Timmins, Martin Kaut, Shane Bowers, and this year’s first-round pick in their development pipeline. Those players are all either first-round or early second-round draftees.

Related: Avalanche Battle to Remain in Top Three of Western Conference

As the club goes further into the postseason, their draft picks will come from deeper in the draft, and it will get harder to get top quality prospects. It’s why guarding top round picks and promising prospects is so important for now. They aren’t likely to get the same quality of players in future drafts.

The Challenge for the Players

Not too long ago, the Avalanche suffered while buried under long, expensive contracts to aging veterans with little in the prospect pool. They have learned their lesson.

The front office’s restraint at the trade deadline frustrated some. However, their moves actually reveal how far the team has come. They possess quality depth so they don’t need to make a panic move. The injured players are on the mend. And the Avalanche retain a number of promising prospects in the pipeline.

Sakic showed the team he believes this roster can succeed. Bednar agreed, stating he thinks they are Stanley Cup contenders during a Tuesday morning interview on Altitude radio. They shored up a couple of areas but didn’t need to make big changes at key positions. The Avalanche’s moves reveal confidence they can be Cup contenders. The organization eliminated past mistakes while protecting the future.

The front office is gambling on its roster. Now it’s up to the players to deliver. Sakic and company are all in.