There is no question Joe Sakic was a spectacular professional ice hockey player. His leadership on and off the ice drove the team to success. Although there have been some questions regarding choices made during his time in the Colorado Avalanche management roles, he’s proven worthy in all positions.
What is so amazing about the man who has played the most games for the Avalanche? First and foremost, he is somewhat of an enigma in the NHL. As a franchise player, he spent his entire professional career with the Quebec Nordiques/Avalanche organization. Along with winning two Stanley Cup championships, he was honored with numerous accolades including the Hart Memorial Trophy, the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy and the Lester B. Pearson Award (now known as the Ted Lindsay Award). In his 20 NHL seasons, Sakic earned nearly all of the franchise scoring records, including most all-time goals (625), assists (1,016) and points (1,641).
Following a two-year retirement in 2009, the Hall of Fame center returned to the Avalanche as an executive advisor and alternate governor. Holding those positions for a couple of years, he was then promoted to executive vice president of hockey operations in May 2013. Parallel to the time of Sakic’s promotion, then-general manager Greg Sherman, hired Patrick Roy as head coach and vice president of hockey operations. Although Sherman had the title, Roy and Sakic split the duties of the general manager position.
From Captain to General (Manager)
With Roy behind the bench and Sakic upstairs, the Avalanche earned 112 points in the 2013-14 season and a trip to the playoffs. After losing in the first round against the lesser ranked Minnesota Wild, Roy was determined to get the team back to the postseason. However, they regressed notching 90 points and landing seventh in the division for the 2014-15 season. The downward spiral continued with an 82-point season and sixth place in the division with no playoff appearance.
Roy announced his resignation after the 2015-16 season, citing lack of input with the team’s decisions as he was told he would have final say. Subsequently, Sakic hired Jared Bednar to replace Roy as head coach.
Hoping for improvement with a new coach and Roy out of the system, the 2016-17 season was the worst in the history of the franchise since moving to Denver. They earned a meager 48 points and finished dead last in the NHL. The reason for their demise was speculated as a lack of organization and chemistry. Notably, Matt Duchene was unhappy and rumors were flying about the team shopping him in the offseason. The three-team deal which sent Duchene packing in early November 2017, earned the Avalanche some solid prospects and admirable draft picks. The team coincidentally improved after Duchene’s departure.
With some negativity lifted from the locker room, Bednar and Sakic managed to pull in the reins and solidify the roster. The Avalanche struggled throughout the 2017-18 season but managed to dramatically clinch the eighth seed in the last game of the season to make the playoffs by beating the St. Louis Blues. Although they put up a fight against the Predators in the first round, they lost in six games.
The 2018-19 season had some significant highlights for the team, but most prominent was the emergence of goaltender Philip Grubauer. Coach Bednar played Grubauer and Varlamov in a tandem fashion until Grubauer won the starting position by the end of the regular season and guided the team into the playoffs. Colorado surprisingly won the first round against the Calgary Flames, which ranked first in the Western Conference, in five games, but lost in seven games in round two to the San Jose Sharks.
Over the past eight years of Sakic’s employment in the front office, the Avalanche’s statistics look like a roller coaster ride. What is undeniable, though, is his perseverance and patience to put this team together. From trades to draft picks, Sakic has proven his worth and staying power with the organization.
Building the Future
The most notable successful draft picks Sakic has been involved with since being a part of management are: Gabriel Landeskog (first round, second pick in 2011), Nathan McKinnon (first round, first pick in 2013), Mikko Rantanen (first round, 10th pick in 2015), and Tyson Jost (first round, 10th pick in 2016). The current dominant first line was chosen under Sakic’s rule. Jost, along with Cale Makar (drafted first round, fourth pick in 2017) are still proving themselves as NHL level players. But the puck doesn’t stop there. Forward Martin Kaut and defenseman Bowen Byram are highly touted prospects who were drafted in the first round the last two years, respectively.
Without a doubt, the Avalanche have been on the up and up the last two seasons. Even with the offseason moves and contracts signed to keep existing talent (minus Rantanen), no one is predicting they will win the Stanley Cup, but they have certainly become playoff contenders.
Sakic proved to be an unmistakable leader on the ice as a player and is continuing to demonstrate his talent off the ice as a general manager and executive vice president. His versatility in his position makes him an ideal captain to drive this team full speed ahead through the season and into the playoffs.