The San Jose Sharks and the Colorado Avalanche currently sit at practically opposite ends of the NHL spectrum. While the Avalanche hold a playoff spot as they defend their 2022 Stanley Cup championship, the Sharks are tumbling down the standings with the third-worst points percentage in the league and appear to be entering a full-scale rebuild for the first time in franchise history.
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Despite the vast difference in the current states of these two organizations, their places were basically reversed less than a decade ago. In the time since, Colorado has executed a near-perfect rebuild to become a perennial playoff team and appears to be in an excellent position to contend in the future. In doing so, they have provided an ideal framework for rebuilding hockey teams to follow — one that particularly applies to San Jose in the present moment.
Building From Within
The Avalanche built a contender largely with homegrown players. Rather than making big splashes through a bunch of trades or free-agent signings, Colorado built up the key members of its core through its own system. Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar were all Avalanche draft picks. The roster was rounded out largely by smaller trades and under-the-radar free agency acquisitions — as many rosters are in the salary cap era — but the Avs have also managed to keep a number of key young players and prospects as well.
The Sharks must do the same. They need to stay on the rebuild track, letting their young core develop rather than forcing any win-now moves. Players such as William Eklund and Thomas Bordeleau are the future of this team and will likely be expected to lead the franchise to playoff appearances. But to do so, they will need space to grow into team leaders, which can only be done if the Sharks structure their roster in a manner similar to Colorado’s.
Matt Duchene and Timo Meier Trades Serve as Parallels
Shortly before the 2023 Trade Deadline, the Sharks showed the most obvious sign yet that they are truly committed to a rebuild by trading star forward Timo Meier to the New Jersey Devils as part of a package, for which they received several players and picks. This trade has sent the Sharks into something of an uncertain future. Thankfully, the Avalanche set an example for San Jose when they traded Matt Duchene to the Ottawa Senators.
This trade accomplished two major tasks for Colorado. First, it rid the team of an unhealthy relationship, sending Duchene to a place where he could attempt a fresh start and allowing the Avalanche to take on several players who better fit the direction of the team. Some of those players have already proven to be key contributors to the Avalanche, while others who are still very young provide hope for the future of the team.
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Second, the trade allowed the Avalanche to manage their financial situation. By getting rid of Duchene, who was gradually approaching a big payday, Colorado did not have to worry about his contract and instead focused on securing other top players. When some of these deals proved to be very team-friendly as the players developed, they then built up a collection of solid role players who proved key on eventual playoff runs.
By trading Meier, San Jose hopes these same effects will take place. While there were advocates in favor of both trading and keeping Meier, it’s clear that the reasons the team ultimately decided to pull the trigger on the move are very similar to the ones that led the Avalanche to flip Duchene to Ottawa. The Sharks received a number of young players and prospects, who they can now develop while not necessarily focusing on wins and losses. Meier’s absence will also give more opportunities to the organization’s young forwards already in their pipeline to play at the NHL level and begin preparing for future seasons where they will receive consistent playing time.
In addition, the Sharks no longer need to worry about paying Meier, who will likely command a massive deal this offseason. The team is already facing financial difficulties thanks to the large contracts of several veterans, and Meier provides one less complication, allowing the Sharks to potentially sign a stronger class of role players and retain their young guys as well. They may look to unload additional large contracts this offseason, but the trade of Meier — like the one of Duchene — is a step in the right direction financially.
Tuesday’s Game Provides a Glimpse
On Tuesday (March 7), the Sharks and Avalanche faced off in Denver, and the result was pure domination for Colorado. The Avs recorded a 6-0 win, outshooting the Sharks 43-13 and never giving San Jose much of a chance. It was a perfect example of their current standings. The Avalanche brought depth, capable veterans, exciting young players in or entering their primes, and plenty of prospects ready to contribute. The Sharks showed up with a less complete roster, decent veterans on bloated contracts without the prime players to accompany them, and prospects with a lot of potential who aren’t quite at the level needed for the big club yet.
However, it served as a reminder of what San Jose might be able to produce in the future. By beginning the rebuilding process, they have suggested that they are set on going through the same process that Colorado went through. They’ll just have to be willing to take some time with it.
Patience Is Key
The final and most important way that the two rebuilds are similar is that the results will not be immediate.
The Avalanche’s rebuild included a seven-season stretch with just one playoff appearance. Their 2016-17 campaign was the second-worst by any NHL team in the 21st century. But it gave them exactly what they wanted: high draft picks, a focus on developing young players rather than winning games, five consecutive playoff berths with a sixth potentially coming this season, and the third Stanley Cup in franchise history.
The Sharks will likely suffer much of the same fate initially. Now that they have traded Meier, their points percentage will likely get worse before it gets better. It will be a struggle, possibly for several seasons. Head coach David Quinn and general manager Mike Grier will need time to transform the team. But if they remain committed to it, they can execute a turnaround. They’ll need to hit on their draft picks and avoid bad luck with injuries, but if those factors go their way, it’s not outside the realm of possibility to look into the future and see the Sharks as the next Avalanche.