What Can We Learn From the Colorado Avalanche?

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Colorado Avalanche are Stanley Cup Champions. The victory was a long time coming after a president’s trophy win and multiple years as the cup favorites. The team seemed to be experiencing a long string of bad luck, fluky injuries and running into Vezina trophy candidates. Finally, the Colorado Avalanche prevailed over the back-to-back champion Tampa Bay Lightning taking home the cup for the first time since 2001. It was a victory for a team that not too long ago was languishing at the bottom of the standings and trading away players like Ryan O’Reilly and Matt Duchene. General Manager Joe Sakic built one of the most complete teams in recent history from those pieces. There is a well-parroted adage that the NHL is a copy-cat league, which is true to some degree. So what can teams learn from the Avalanche? What are some of the essential takeaways from the Avalanche’s success?

  1. Draft well

Okay, so the obvious had to be said, the Avalanche drafted exceptionally well. In a post-cup win interview, Captain Gabriel Landeskog revealed that the secret to the Avs cup win was to “Get a Cale Makar somewhere .” All jokes aside, Makar is a generational talent, and the Avalanche would not be the team they are today without the distinguished young defenseman. However, while nabbing a generational talent at  4th overall is not going to happen for every team, it does place a high value on the scouting system used by the Avalanche during Makar’s draft. They also have no shortage of talented prospects in the AHL and NCAA because of their scouting department. The Avalanche’s scouting system and how they constructed this team were heavily influenced by advanced statistics, which goes into our next takeaway.

  1. Analytics focus

Many people like to mock teams who use analytics as a driving force, mainly because the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are largely unsuccessful and a favorite punching bag of everyone in the hockey world, are an analytics-focused team. Analytics and advanced statistics are the future of hockey and building championship teams. The Avalanche are one such team to recognize that and utilize those resources to maximize their team construction and prospect pool. The victory of the Avalanche and their success in finding great players is an indicator that the game will continue to shift in the direction of prioritizing advanced stats, or at the very least, the game should start to shift in that direction. 

  1. Do not be afraid to make a risky trade. 

Joe Sakic made waves early in his tenure for being willing to do what many GMs are too scared to do; he traded away popular and very talented players. While the Matt Duchene trade is the most talked about from the Sakic era, the Avalanche also traded away Ryan O’Reilly, who would go on to win a cup with the Saint Louis Blues four years later. Both Duchene and O’Reilly were high draft picks and are talented players. Duchene grew up an Avalanche fan, and O’Reilly was a fan favorite. Now, why would any GM in their right mind look to trade away players like that? It was the question everyone was asking in the wake of those trades. But they were for the better, they brought the Avalanche assets and cap space as well as a fresh start. In the end, Duchene may be kicking himself in Nashville without a cup, but the Avalanche are certainly not mourning his loss. Sometimes a good GM and a good analytics department can be trusted even when the answer they present is to trade away a star player. It is always a risk to trade away skilled players, but it can sometimes be for the better. 

  1. Look for hidden potential

Valeri Nichushkin seemed to be a breakout star on this Avalanche roster and especially in these playoffs. He stepped up big and scored when the Avs needed a goal. However, for many years, his performance didn’t look like it translated into the player he would become. Nichushkin’s underlying numbers had been promising for years, again showing the power of having a solid analytics department, but he hadn’t grown into his abilities. He was a hidden gem that helped contribute to the Avalanche’s success. The same could be said for the Avs acquiring and sticking with Nazem Kadri. Kadri was a player with a lot of potential who made mistakes in the playoffs. After being suspended twice in the first round, Kadri was traded from the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Avalanche. At that point, the Avalanche were taking a gamble on Kadri, especially when they held onto him after he was suspended in the 2021 playoffs for a similar hit. He had an all-star caliber 2021-2022 season and scored a hat trick in round 2 that helped propel the Avs to the conference finals. Avalanche management trusted Kadri, allowing him to succeed and be the player he always could be. Another great move by Sakic was trading for Devon Toews. While Toews was not exactly a hidden gem, he was criminally underrated and traded to the Avalanche from the Islanders for nothing. His defensive responsibility and ability to move the puck made him the perfect partner for Makar and enabled the young defenseman to play to his full potential. Finding hidden gems and underrated players allowed the Avalanche to build a well-rounded and deep roster. 

  1. Skill Focus 

The Avalanche are a highly skilled team. They are filled with high-end talent from their forward group to their d-core. Even though they acquired scrappy players like Nicholas Abe-Kubel, their roster depended highly on having multiple players with speed, high hockey IQ, and the ability to match the other stars on the team. The Avalanche offense was fast, offensively creative, and able to play in all three zones incredibly well. Their transition game is also exceptional, all of which can be attributed to the high skill on this team. Focusing on acquiring skilled players and not large grit players allowed the Avalanche to not only have high amounts of valuable trade capital but also to outplay almost every opponent. 

  1. Goaltenders make a big difference

This is another self-explanatory point, but it is also imperative regarding the story of the Colorado Avalanche. Despite how well-built and favored the team was in the past playoffs, they often ran into hot goalies in the second round that outplayed their goaltender. Philip Grubauer, the team’s former starter, was a free agent in the last off-season. Instead of signing him to an expensive contract, Sakic let him walk and acquired underrated goaltender Darcy Kuemper from the Arizona Coyotes. Grubauer, despite being a fan favorite and Vezina candidate that year, could not outplay opposing goalies in the playoffs. After transitioning to playing for the significantly less skilled Seattle Kraken, it seems clear that Grubauer’s good seasons in Colorado were because of the team in front of him. Changing the goalie out for the slight improvement of Kuemper was just what this team needed to win. Francouz also being able to step up as a competent back up was vital to their success in the playoffs after Kuemper was injured. The Avalanche were not out goalied by a hot goaltender by the best goalie in the league, Andrei Vasilevskiy. It shows that even the slightest improvement in net can take a team from second-round exits to Stanley Cup Champions. 

  1. Team Chemistry 

The Avalanche were famously a team who seemed incredibly bonded. Whether this could be attributed to the leadership of Captain Gabe Landeskog or just an excellent team culture is unclear, but the team was extremely close. Constructing a positive team and locker room helped the Avalanche play for each other and win for themselves and their teammates. While not much is known about the more private aspects of team dynamics behind the scenes, GM Joe Sakic never took on a player that disrupted the team chemistry and the team became a very desirable place to play. 

  1. Sign skill players to team-friendly deals 

Now another evident and hard-to-control factor, but in the hard cap era, all your high-end talent must be on team-friendly deals. The Avalanche lucked out with contracts like the MacKinnon contract, which underpays Mackinnon significantly. Mackinnon had a lackluster first few seasons, but after signing a contract equivalent to his value at the time, he developed into the star he is today. Makar also signed a contract that, while expensive, is cheaper than the contracts of many other defensemen of his caliber or even lower skill. The fans, city of Denver, and team culture encouraged players to want to stay and even take a pay cut to remain on the team. 

The Avalanche deserved this victory more than most teams in the league; from their brilliant construction to their journey as a team to get there, they earned this victory. Since the NHL is a league full of uncreative GMs, every team in the league will likely start to mimic the Avalanche, which is a good thing. Teams that recognize what went right with the Avalanche will invest more in their scouting and analytics departments, move toward more high-skill players, and make big moves without cowardice. Big trades and more skill are what the NHL needs to become more entertaining and marketable. So for the sake of hockey as a sport, let’s hope the entire NHL shifts in the direction of the Avalanche. 

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: