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Once the core was established, former Avalanche legend and current general manager Joe Sakic did not shy away from adding players via trade and free agency and, though there wasn’t a huge splash, it seemed he struck gold with every move. This is another place from which the Rockies can draw hope. Generally, the Rockies are not going to find themselves landing a big splash in the free agent or trade market, though the Kris Bryant signing stands out as a clear anomaly. They are more likely to find a lesser known player that they believe can make a surprise impact, guys like C.J. Cron, Connor Joe, and Daniel Bard. It was these kinds of under-the-radar moves that helped the Avalanche find the right depth pieces to support their core.
After unsuccessful attempts to land big names like Taylor Hall and Artemi Panarin to center Colorado’s second line, Sakic’s biggest “splash” wound up being a trade for Nazem Kadri in 2019. Not only was Kadri cheaper than Hall or Panarin but, since the trade, he’s performed far better than Hall and arguably had a better season this year than Panarin and would have been a strong candidate to win the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP had it not been for Cale Makar.
Sometimes, the best move isn’t the one that gets the most attention at the time. Joe Sakic and the Avalanche have mastered this over the last five years, whether it was the addition of Kadri, or the signing of winger Valeri Nichuskin who had been bought out by the Dallas Stars and was considering leaving the NHL only to become one of the most valuable players in the Stanley Cup Final three years later, or the laughably lopsided trade to steal defenseman Devon Toews away from the New York Islanders before he became a Norris Trophy candidate in his own right and joined Makar to form the best defensive pair in the NHL.
Part of the reason they’ve had so much success finding impact players where no one else is looking is because the Avalanche have long been on the cutting edge of analytics in the NHL. The Rockies, notably, have lagged far behind in the analytics department for years. Some investment in analytics could be monumentally transformative for this club.
The Avalanche showed that a rebuild doesn’t have to take forever. One year after their record-setting disaster 2016-17 season, they made the playoffs with one of the greatest single-season turnarounds in NHL history and haven’t missed the postseason since. They also showed that you don’t have to tear down the entire team to conduct a successful rebuild. Landeskog and MacKinnon were on that 2016-17 team, as was forward JT Compher. Rantanen was a rookie that year. Defenseman Erik Johnson is the longest-tenured active athlete in Colorado sports. They made trades. They took the team apart and rebuilt it. But they identified their core and left it in tact.
This is the toughest decision. Which players do you trade? Which ones do you try to build a championship team around? For the Rockies, who are the future stars of the team? Can they build around Ryan McMahon, Brendan Rodgers, and Bryant? Is Cron a core piece for the future or a trade piece who can bring in prospects to help the team down the road when their contention window begins to open once more? Is Charlie Blackmon the Rockies’ Erik Johnson, a veteran clubhouse leader who’s been through it all and continues to provide value game in and game out? Maybe the core isn’t here yet. Maybe they are knocking on the door. And if the future of this team lies in its top-performing prospects, will they let them play?
There’s no formula for guaranteed success. But the Colorado Rockies just watched the Avalanche teach the sports world a masterclass in conducting a rebuild. Perhaps, if they take a few lessons, they can win a championship of their own one day.