Since being hired as general manager of the Colorado Avalanche prior to the 2013-14 season Joe Sakic has steadily put together one of the NHL’s best and most talented teams. On Monday, they completed a four-game sweep of the Edmonton Oilers to punch their ticket to the organization’s first Stanley Cup Final since the 2000-01 season. It has them just four wins away from the championship that will validate all of the hype that has been built over the past five years around this core group of players.
The foundation of that core has mostly been built through the drafts, with superstars like Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Cale Makar being selected with top-10 picks, and emerging stars like Bowen Byram and Alex Newhook coming in recent years.
That has been the foundation of the team.
But no contender and no Stanley Cup team is built on just three or four players. You have to complement those stars through development, free agency, and trades. It is the latter category where Sakic and the Avalanche have really dominated the NHL in recent years. They not only find good players in their deals, they make deals where they turn out to be clear winners.
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The first three or four years of Sakic’s tenure as general manager brought a lot of mixed results on the ice and in their roster transactions. There were a lot of inconsequential trades, and one major trade (Ryan O'Reilly to Buffalo) that did not really bring much or make much of a difference. J.T. Compher is still a good player from that O’Reilly deal, but the overall return was mostly underwhelming.
Things started to rapidly change on Nov. 5, 2017. At that point the Avalanche had a promising young core led by MacKinnon, but had missed the playoffs three years in a row, in six of the past seven seasons, and were dealing with a disgruntled Matt Duchene, who wanted out. They not only accommodated his request, they made a trade that completely changed the direction of the Avalanche franchise.
In that three-team deal, which also involved Ottawa, Nashville, and Kyle Turris, the Avalanche only gave up Duchene and in return received a package of players that included Samuel Girard, Shane Bowers, Vladislav Kamenev, Andrew Hammond, and three draft picks that included the No. 4 overall pick in the 2019 draft. The Avalanche eventually used that pick on Byram. Along with Girard, he and Byram are going to be a foundation of the Avalanche defense for the foreseeable future. Girard is already a top-pairing player, and Byram looks to be well on his way to being a potential star.
Ever since then nearly every major trade that the Avalanche have completed has been a decisive win in their favor.
• Just a few months after the Duchene deal, they sent Chris Bigras to New York for Ryan Graves. At the time, it was a deal that flew under the radar, but Graves went on to play three very solid years as a regular on the Avalanche defense before being dealt for a second-round draft pick this past offseason. Bigras has not played a game in the NHL since.
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• In June of 2018 they sent a second-round pick to Washington for goalie Philipp Grubauer and Brooks Orpik (who was bought out). Grubauer went on to be the Avalanche’s starting goalie for three years and earned a top-three finish in the Vezina Trophy voting before leaving as an unrestricted free agent this past offseasaon.
• A year later, they made another deal with the Capitals to acquire restricted free agent Andre Burakovsky in exchange for second-and-third round picks. Burakovsky has blossomed in Colorado, scoring at a 26-goal, 65-point pace per 82 games with the Avalanche in his first three seasons with the team. Prior to joining the team, he averaged only a 15-goal, 36-point pace in five seasons with the Capitals.
• Just a couple of days later Sakic made one of his most significant trades, sending Tyson Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot to Toronto for Nazem Kadri. Barrie played one unspectacular year in Toronto before signing in Edmonton, while Kerfoot has been a solid secondary player for the Maple Leafs. But Kadri has been outstanding in Colorado, consistently outperforming Kerfoot and then put together a career-year during the 2021-22 season with 87 points and strong two-way play. He was having an outstanding postseason until he was injured by Evander Kane in the Western Conference Final. Barrie was more than expendable to Colorado, while Kadri added another impact forward to an already deep group.
• The 2020 offseason also proved to be a huge win. It was there that Colorado traded Nikita Zadorov (another very expendable defenseman) to the Chicago Blackhawks for Brandon Saad, a trade that seemed laughably lopsided in the Avalanche’s favor the second it was completed. It played out that way on the ice as well, even if Saad only played one year with the team before leaving in free agency.
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• Just two days after the Saad deal, Sakic completed his biggest steal to date when he acquired Devon Toews from the New York Islanders for the low price of two second-round draft picks and then signed him to a four-year contract. Toews, who seemed like an ideal fit for Colorado’s style of play, has been one of the best defensemen in the league since the trade and along with Makar, Girard, Byram, and Erik Johnson has helped form one of the best defense groups in the NHL.
• This year’s deals have also been hits. They again tapped into their defense depth by trading Connor Timmins and a first-round pick to Arizona for Darcy Kuemper to help replace Grubauer. While Kuemper has been hit and miss in the playoffs, he had a very strong season and more than replaced Grubauer.
Prior to the trade deadline, Colorado also acquired Josh Manson and Arturri Lehkonen for the combined cost of Drew Helleson, Justin Barron, and a couple of mid-round picks. Given the impact Manson and Lehkonen have made so far in the playoffs, it was well worth the cost.
Those are significant deals that resulted in the Avalanche acquiring some game-changing talents and impact players, while only mostly giving up players they either did not need or that did not want to be there, or draft picks that are not likely to result in players as good or useful as they acquired.
Combined with the core that is already in place from the draft, and you have one of the best teams in the league, a Stanley Cup Finalist, and a potential champion.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.