Heading into perhaps the greatest franchise defining six months in Colorado Avalanche history, now is a good time to pause and look at where the organization stands in the midterm in both the 2018-19 season and the umpteenth rebuild. Following is an examination of the six major parts of the hockey operations cycle. They each go hand in hand but in an effort to isolate their impact each are evaluated as independent as possible.
Drafting – C+
There are some positive trends emerging with respect to how the organization has drafted since Alan Hepple replaced Rick Pracey following the disastrous 2014 draft. One area of improvement is the broadened focus to different leagues around the world, particularly in the first round. It’s no more evident than breaking the string of seven number of first round and draft leading second round picks from the CHL to now a four year run of first round selections from Finland, Czech Republic and Canadian Junior A. The strategy of building a Russian pipeline with late round picks has also began to at least bring players to the AHL level.
That all said, the organization still tends to draft conservative in the second to fourth rounds, either from the CHL or USHL although most recently Sampo Ranta and Tyler Weiss were more risky upside picks within that cohort. The large and usually overage European goalie strategy is a punt on internal goaltender development and will take a long time to bear fruit. Also, purposely focusing away from the CHL in the late rounds does tend to leave value on the table.
The 2016 draft is looking lackluster at best so results are still very much mixed. There is noticeable uptick on skill but size, intangibles and old school priorities on limited defensemen still have influence. The Avalanche still need to do a better job in talent evaluation and diversified selections even if the approach and process has improved.
Development – F
The ugly world underneath the hope and promise (at times) of the NHL squad. The development system has still been an unmitigated disaster for the Avalanche. The incremental increase in talent hasn’t led to any better results in getting anything out of drafted and developed prospects who have gone through the system. Anton Lindholm’s 62 games and four points represent the most contribution the Avalanche have received from picks made outside of the top 10 in a decade.
When the Avalanche are forced to take a more proactive approach with Europeans, older free agents from the NCAA or those that the organization received in a trade then those players tend to get moved through the system much faster. Otherwise the Avalanche still have not figured out how to place a player on a path to successfully navigating the system into an NHL job. Of the nine call ups from the Colorado Eagles this season only two are drafted players in Lindholm and AJ Greer, who each had their NHL debuts in 2016-17 and the other seven players (Vladislav Kamenev, Mark Alt, Pavel Francouz, Ryan Graves, Sheldon Dries, Logan O’Connor and Dominic Toninato) all received significant development elsewhere and arrived into the organization within the last year and a half.
A history and culture of losing has perpetuated as well with an Avalanche AHL affiliate having only qualified once for the playoffs (in 2010-11) with most recently a string of three last place finishes in their division. Stacking an ECHL team for a couple championships and moving the AHL affiliate closer to home doesn’t distract from the fact they still aren’t creating internal depth. Ultimately adding more talent to a failing system isn’t going to be enough. The culture of a lack of accountability in the organization really shows in this area.
Contracts – B
Arguably the best performing part of the organization over the last decade. Joe Sakic has kept the cap sheet relatively clean and unencumbered for the future. The Avalanche have consistently made frugal signings but flip side to this is still overpaying for replacement level talent. Still, there’s no contract on the books they can’t either wait out or get value from.
While having zero dollars tied up far into the future is a nice flexibility and freedom there’s also almost no cost certainty beyond only having Nathan MacKinnon and Erik Johnson signed further than the next two seasons. They have locked up core players on fair value or even team friendly deals but that trend will need to continue with the next crop of young players needing long term extensions plus Mikko Rantanen is going to demand a payday in an echelon the Avalanche haven’t had to reach since the glory years. The Avalanche have had their share of contract battles as well with Ryan O’Reilly, Tyson Barrie and Nikita Zadorov in the past and they can’t afford to start getting in trouble with the next generation of young talent.
Free Agency – C-
Sakic hasn’t landed any big ticket free agent in his tenure but that also has helped the above category in keeping their cap future healthy as well. Jarome Iginla was Sakic’s greatest get and that was even a modest prize at the time. Closing the deal to get top college free agent Alexander Kerfoot was a sneaky feather in the cap to his credit. Since the organization has been in a constant early stage retool it’s tough to determine if Sakic can get the big fish when the Avalanche are ready for it but the increasing need to add an impact player will likely come to a head this summer.
The rest of free agency has been a mixed bag and no doubt susceptible to influence from other voices in the front office. There’s been a steady stream of sub-replacement level plugs, reclamation projects and veterans beyond their last legs that have been brought in to fill depth roles that have set the organization back. The waiver claims should go in this category as well as the Avalanche have hit that just as much as free agency. Since Patrick Roy’s departure the philosophy may not have changed much but the choices have at least been better. Still, there’s too much reliance on outside replacement level help to move the retool and the organization forward.
Trades – B-
The greatest dichotomy in the organization is between the big core player trades and the smaller moves. The big trades have generally reshaped the team for the better. Despite it largely being a futures trade and the impact heavily dependent on the result of those futures, the Matt Duchene trade will go down as one of the greatest heists in league history.
The other side of the coin are small and medium level moves which rarely work out beyond the short-term which usually cost assets, money and roster space. Roy may have been more willing to pull the trigger on move for quick fixes gain but the backwards Colin Wilson trade, which was an obvious cap dump from the moment it happened, showed that the propensity for such move did not vacate along with Roy.
Asset Management – D
This is a game the Avalanche just refuse to play and they have little interest in doing things such as moving expiring contracts, acquiring more draft picks or finding value and leverage in a given situation. On a rare occasion one such move is completed but it’s after much asset value has been lost in other areas.
While it’s understood the organization cares more about needs than the asset balance sheet, the problem is as a result a core player trade is necessary every couple of years just to replenish the lost asset value in all their other deals. It’s pretty tough to get ahead or to reap the benefits of truly having excess assets to then make bigger moves with (buying) in the future when they constantly have to account for the hole at the bottom of the bucket. Thus, the cycle continues.
The fast approaching trade deadline and the upcoming very busy summer with (hopefully) a large top 100 draft class, 24 expiring contracts including ten arbitration eligible RFAs, the massive Mikko Rantanen deal plus the very important free agency period will greatly impact all six of the aforementioned areas. How the Avalanche make important gains in these areas remains to be seen.
Credit to Vlad for the photo