The Colorado Avalanche are learning. Last off-season was a disaster for general manager Joe Sakic and company. Paul Stastny left town for nothing, and almost nothing was done to fix the mess of a blue line that was only saved by Seymon Varlamov’s spectacular campaign. After a predictably poor season it’s the off-season again, and at last it seems like the front office finally understands. It was time to make some changes.
Minor changes were the first order of business, assistant coaches were removed. Then bigger changes, like the trading of a 24-year-old center. More than just the actual personnel moves, though, Colorado seem intent on doing business differently now. Shortly after signing two key free agents, Joe Sakic actually used the words puck possession in a conference call Q&A. Coming from a front office that seemed to shun any kind of analytics a year ago, it was music to some fans ears.
Asset and Cap Management
A year ago, Colorado was throwing around draft picks to acquire players that didn’t do much to help them. Second round draft picks were used to trade for Reto Berra and Brad Stuart. Both players have been disappointing additions in Denver. A year on from those moves, Colorado did well to get those draft picks back. They received a second round pick from Buffalo at this year’s draft(more on that later), used it to get 2016 second round pick back from San Jose, in addition to another 2015 second round pick. It was an impressive job of asset management by Sakic.
Managing the salary cap space has actually been something the Colorado Avalanche have done well. However, it probably has more to do with not having top quality players for quite a few years. But last season Colorado actually had a semi-cap crunch. Tyson Barrie and Ryan O’Reilly signed bigger deals, and new contracts for Matt Duchene and Varlamov finally kicked in. Sakic traded forward P.A. Parenteau to the Montreal Canadiens for Danny Briere. Initially the trade received criticism from a lot of people. Briere was viewed as a significant downgrade, but after poor seasons from both players, Colorado were able to let Briere’s contract expire and the Candiens were forced to buyout Parenteau, who still had another year on his deal. After everything the Avalanche were able to go into free agency with 17 million dollars to spend. And the O’Reilly trade had a lot to do with that.
A Front Office Defining Trade
When Carl Soderberg was signed it sealed O’Reilly’s fate. Sure enough not two days later, O’Reilly was traded to the Buffalo Sabers. He was sent east along with Jamie McGinn. Coming back to Colorado was a great haul. The key piece is Nikita Zadorov, a big left-handed shot that Colorado so desperately needs. The trade signified an aggressiveness on Sakic’s part to fix what was clearly wrong with the team. For fans, it seemed like Colorado was finally aware of what needed to be fixed. Last off-season Sakic and head coach Patrick Roy were more than happy to keep the core of their defense the same. Now there was a definite shift in attitude. Erik Johnson needed a partner, so did Barrie. The immediate aftermath of the O’Reilly trade was that Colorado finally had someone to add to the top-four.
Love this trade for Colorado, not for Buffalo. They better be confident about re-signing O’Reilly. Zadorov in particular hurts to lose.
— Matt Larkin (@THNMattLarkin) June 26, 2015
There were other pieces coming back for Colorado as well. One was former Quebec Rampart, Mikhail Grigorenko. Roy coached Grigorenko in the QMJHL and the hope is that Roy can get more out of him in Colorado than he gave to the Sabers. The final player involved was J.T. Compher, a college player from Michigan. These players are both good pieces to get back, but along with the draft pick, the final part of this trade was obviously the cap space. It was no secret that O’Reilly wanted to be paid handsomely. By trading him Colorado saved even more cap space they could use to further improve the team.
The O’Reilly trade was always going to be a defining moment for Sakic and the rest of the front office. There is still a lot of time to go to see what becomes of some of these players, but the early impression is that Sakic passed the first major test of his general manager tenure.
Winning the Off-Season is Good, Winning in the Regular Season is Better
None of these moves that Sakic has made will do much good if the team continues to struggle. But were there once was a front office that was continually derided for poor asset management, poor trades and questionable personnel decisions; there is now a much more confident and aggressive group. Aquiring Zadorov and free-agent Francois Beauchemin gives Colorado a legitimate top-four on the blue line. Signing Blake Comeau effectively replaces McGinn’s production with a lower cap hit.
It’s been a successful off-season for Colorado. Management addressed numerous needs without putting unnecessary stress on the cap. Colorado will not suddenly become contenders next year, but with a core that is still very young, the pipeline for talent in Colorado is getting stronger. Sakic has shown that management is capable of evolving, nor are they afraid to make risky moves to improve the team. This aggressive approach is a welcome change to the passive team building that fans have been critical of in the past.
Joe Sakic was a hero to Avalanche fans on the ice. In the board room he’s not quite there yet, but he’s learning.
Born and raised in Denver, I’m a writer covering the Colorado Avalanche. I have a degree in Journalism from Northern Illinois University.