How the Avalanche Became Contenders Under Sakic

Remember when Colorado Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic signed Nathan MacKinnon to what was then considered a rich seven-year, $44.1 million deal? Yeah, so does MacKinnon.

MacKinnon was recently asked about the deal in the media, although he clearly doesn’t need a reminder. Every time he receives a paycheck, every time he pads his absurdly comfortable team lead in scoring with another point, he must reflect on what he gave up by going long-term instead of taking a bridge deal after his entry-level contract expired.

How was anyone to know, though? That he’d become one of the most prolific players in the game… on arguably the best deal around? Just by following Sakic’s lead, that’s how.

Nathan MacKinnon, Keith Yandle, Roberto Luongo
Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon – (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Okay, maybe that’s admittedly an exaggeration, because Sakic isn’t psychic. However, he did make a slight gamble that MacKinnon would pan out, after the forward had scored an underwhelming 38 points in his sophomore season.

Sure, MacKinnon rebounded in the season leading in to negotiations with 52 points. However, at the time, the $6.3 million cap hit was just under the likes of Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price’s, fresh off his Hart Memorial Trophy win.

What a difference a few years makes, eh? And, in that span, under MacKinnon’s scoring leadership and Sakic’s guidance, the Avalanche have transformed from one of the worst teams in the league to a legitimate powerhouse contender for the Stanley Cup.

For the record, MacKinnon says he has no regrets, because with his deal the Avalanche “have guys that we wouldn’t [otherwise] be able to bring in.” And at least one of those statements is even true. MacKinnon’s deal has enabled Sakic to comfortably re-sign the likes of Mikko Rantanen with a healthy cushion of cap space left over, for when MacKinnon becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2023.

At that point, it’s fair to say MacKinnon will cash in and get a well-deserved raise, because he is undeniably what makes this team tick on the ice. Off it, though? Sakic has got the Avs covered. Sakic’s arguably just as important as MacKinnon, as proven by the latter’s deal, which ranks as No. 5 on this list of the top moves he’s made to transform the Avs into contenders:

4. Acquired Andre Burakovsky (June 28, 2019)

It was an offseason move that slipped under the radar for most, the acquisition of the underachieving Andre Burakovsky for Scott Kosmachuk and two draft picks.

Colorado Avalanche forward Andre Burakovsky – (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

At worst? Sakic had just traded away a few stockpiled futures (and a minor-league forward who’s no longer playing in North America) for a former first-round pick of the Washington Capitals who had failed to live up to expectations and was regressing statistically.

At best? Granted, it’s still early in the season, but no one could have seen Burakovsky develop into a fringe point-per-game player to give the Avalanche another secondary weapon up front. In the middle of a rash of injuries to key players, Burakovsky has come through with 21 points in 25 games. The most he’s ever scored up to this point in his career? 38. At just 24, he’s got room to grow further, too, making Burakovsky potentially a huge steal for Sakic and his Avalanche.

3. Acquired Philipp Grubauer (June 22, 2018)

Burakovsky isn’t the only player Sakic has theoretically stolen from the Capitals. Then-backup-goalie Philipp Grubauer was acquired alongside salary-dump Brooks Orpik for a second-round pick.

For a backup, even one who had been challenging Braden Holtby for ice time, it was admittedly a pretty hefty price, especially seeing as the Avalanche immediately signed the largely unproven goalie to a three-year, $10 million deal. After all, the Avalanche still had Semyon Varlamov under contract for the following season.

That’s in part the beauty of Sakic’s foresight here. As great as Varlamov had been for the Avalanche overall, he lacked consistency from season to season. By the time the 2018-19 season had ended, Grubauer had wrested the starting job away from him.

Philipp Grubauer Colorado Avalanche
Colorado Avalanche goalie Philipp Grubauer – (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Instead of paying through their teeth to keep the latter, they now had a new No. 1 for a fraction of the cost, not to mention a new No. 2 in Pavel Francouz. He had also been signed by Sakic and has been lights out arguably to a greater degree than Grubauer. That gives the Avalanche one of the top goaltending tandems in the league on Sakic’s watch.

2. Acquired Nazem Kadri (July 1, 2019)

Sakic’s foresight was plainly evident when he acquired center Nazem Kadri from the Toronto Maple Leafs, but not necessarily for the reason you think.

Obviously Kadri, a top-six-caliber forward who had been relegated to more of a defensive role with the Leafs, was the centerpiece of the deal for depth purposes. He has delivered in that regard with 20 points through 27 games so far.

Nazem Kadri Colorado Avalanche
Colorado Avalanche forward Nazem Kadri – (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

However, Sakic gave up a 28-year-old Tyson Barrie, the franchise leader in points by a defenseman to get him. Why? A few reasons, really. Kadri is obviously a big one, but Barrie’s reported demands when he’s scheduled to hit free agency next summer were bigger: $8 million.

Sakic may have retained half of Barrie’s salary in the deal, but he has the cap space to now. Had he kept Barrie, he likely wouldn’t when it comes time to re-sign his successor, maybe eventual usurper as far as the aforementioned record is concerned, in Cale Makar. If the trade was as calculated on Sakic’s part as it seems, he must have aced math in high school… and not just regular math, but like AP calculus or something.

1. Drafted Cale Makar (June 23, 2017)

Logically speaking had the chips fallen as they were expected to, Makar would not be a member of the Avalanche right now. You can’t give Sakic too much credit there.

After all, Sakic’s team did rank worst in the league in 2016-17 with an embarrassing 48 points to earn the best odds at winning the draft lottery. Only the Avalanche didn’t and fell to fourth, at which point the two consensus-best players available in Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick were long gone. So, Sakic made a killer batch of lemonade instead. Looking at how well the move turned out, he might as well have spiked it like a football, too.

You can make a definite case that, with exception to the next player taken at No. 5 in Elias Pettersson, no one from that 2017 draft has had a greater impact on their team this season. And, with MacKinnon locked up and Matt Duchene still with the team, the Avalanche didn’t need another center.

Granted, it’s a fair assumption Sakic would have taken either Hischier or Patrick, two centers in their own rights, had the lottery turned out as expected. However, with them off the board, Sakic made arguably the best pick possible, with Makar garnering early Calder Memorial Trophy buzz. It’s been justified, as the 21-year-old has scored at a point-per-game clip and is on pace for over 20 goals this season.

Cale Makar #8 of the Colorado Avalanche
Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar – (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

All factors taken into consideration, Makar may be the most impressive pick of that 2017 draft. Hell, he may be the most impressive pick of any Avalanche draft under Sakic… and he’s drafted both Rantanen (2015) and MacKinnon (2013)!

It’s arguably a testament to Makar’s perceived value to the Avalanche moving forward that Rantanen could just as easily slot in here too. However, Makar drives the defense, whereas MacKinnon is the most valuable player up front, not Rantanen. And, try as Sakic might, even if MacKinnon was technically his first draft pick as GM, he wasn’t going to screw that one up.

Like with Hischier/ Patrick, anyone who had that No. 1 pick was going to take MacKinnon. So, Sakic can’t take credit there either. He can for just about everything else though, including MacKinnon’s current contract and all the benefits that come with it… including the contender he’s built.