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What can the Canucks learn from the Avalanche retool?

The Avalanche went from the worst team in the NHL five years ago to this year's Stanley Cup Final.
matt duchene nhl
For the Colorado Avalanche, trading Matt Duchene was an essential part of their retool that took them from last place in the NHL five years ago to this year's Stanley Cup Final.

After a dominant regular season, the Colorado Avalanche have cruised through the playoffs, sweeping both the Nashville Predators and the Edmonton Oilers en route to a Stanley Cup Finals matchup against the defending champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Five years ago, the Avalanche were the worst team in the NHL.

More than just the worst team in the NHL — the 2016-17 Avalanche were one of the worst teams of all time. With a 22-56-4 record, their 48 points were the fewest by any team in a full 82-game season since the year 2000, when the point for an overtime loss was introduced.

"The Avs spent six years not realizing they were in a rebuild."

If one play was emblematic of the Avalanche’s 2016-17 season, it was when Blake Comeau had a clearcut breakaway while shorthanded and inexplicably turned around and tried to pass to his teammate behind him, turning the puck over to Patrick Laine.

There were a lot of reasons why the Avalanche were so bad in 2016-17, such as head coach Patrick Roy shockingly resigning a month before training camp and injuries to Erik Johnson and Semyon Varlamov, but they shouldn’t have been that bad. They had good young players like Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene, Tyson Barrie, and Mikko Rantanen. 

But that wasn’t enough to make up for an ugly defence corps that struggled to transition the puck up ice and a myriad of other issues.

It was the sixth time in seven seasons that the Avalanche had missed the playoffs and it looked like their talented young core was going to go to waste. As one Avalanche blogger put it, “The Avs spent six years not realizing they were in a rebuild and this is when it all came back to haunt them.”

If that sounds familiar, it’s a very similar situation to the current Vancouver Canucks, who have also missed the playoffs in six of their last seven seasons. Certainly, the Canucks were not worst-in-the-NHL bad last season — they were pretty good after Bruce Boudreau was hired — but they still have a long way to go to be a true Stanley Cup contender.

President of hockey operations Jim Rutherford has made it clear that changes need to be made but doesn’t think the team needs a full rebuild. Instead, he foresees a two-year retool.  

“We're certainly not starting from scratch. There's a lot of good players there,” said Rutherford. “I would like to think, with the players we have, that this team can be retooled.”

The Avalanche are a perfect example of how that can work. Their retool came right to the edge of a rebuild but turned the team around much more quickly than a rebuild typically would.

Tear the team down to the studs

After the dreadful 2016-17 season, Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic tore the team down to the studs. He identified the team’s core players, then moved out pretty much everyone that wasn’t part of that core.

Of the 18 players that appeared in at least 50 games for the Avalanche in the 2016-17 season, 11 of them were gone after 2017, along with several other players that played fewer than 50 games.

The big move was trading Matt Duchene — more on that in a moment — but Sakic also moved on from all sorts of other players. 

Andreas Martinsen, Cody McLeod, and Jarome Iginla were all traded during the 2016-17 season. Iginla was moved to the Los Angeles Kings for a conditional pick whose condition was never met, so Iginla ended his legendary career by being traded for literally nothing.

Francois Beauchemin was bought out. Fedor Tyutin retired. Calvin Pickard was exposed in the expansion draft and picked by the Vegas Golden Knights.

Rene Bourque, John Mitchell, Cody Goloubef, and Jeremy Smith didn’t get re-signed and left in free agency. Mikhail Grigorenko, Patrick Wiercioch, and Eric Gelinas were all restricted free agents but didn’t get a qualifying offer, so they became unrestricted free agents and also left.

The core that remained was MacKinnon, Rantanen, Barrie, Landeskog, Johnson, and Nikita Zadorov, along with rookie J.T. Compher and a few fringe players like Blake Comeau, Sven Andrighetto, and Carl Soderberg. 

A few years later, Comeau, Barrie, Zadorov, Andrighetto, and Soderberg were gone as well — traded, gone in free agency, or left unqualified as RFA. 

Back in the playoffs in 2017-18

It was a massive change but it wasn’t quite a rebuild. The Avalanche hung onto their core players and quickly retooled around them. Instead of suffering through years of a rebuild, the Avalanche nearly doubled their point totals in 2017-18 and went straight to the playoffs.

What’s remarkable is what the Avalanche didn’t do: sign a bunch of players in free agency. The longest contract they signed in the off-season, apart from a couple of entry-level contracts, was two years. 

The only notable free agent additions were Jonathan Bernier on a one-year, $2.75 million deal to back up Varlamov, Nail Yakupov on a last-chance one-year $875,000 deal, and Alexander Kerfoot, signed to an entry-level contract out of the NCAA after he spurned the team that drafted him, the New Jersey Devils.

Apart from that, the Avalanche replaced outgoing players with younger players already in the system, such as Tyson Jost and Anton Lindholm. Instead of spending in free agency to fix the defence, they made a savvy pick up off the waiver wire of Patrik Nemeth, who ended up playing in the team’s top-four.

In the process, the Avalanche got a lot younger and a lot faster.

The average age of the Avalanche in the 2016-17 season was 28.2 — the fourth-oldest team in the league. In the 2017-18 season, their average age was 25.0 — the youngest team in the NHL.  

Of course, the biggest reason the Avalanche bounced back and made the playoffs in 2017-18 is that the core Sakic identified took a massive leap forward. That’s particularly true for Nathan MacKinnon, who finally lived up to being the star that he was expected to be when he was drafted first overall.

What arguably freed up MacKinnon was the trade of Duchene, officially handing the keys over to the younger centre. 

Before the trade a month into the 2017-18 season, MacKinnon was playing very well, scoring at just short of a point-per-game pace with 3 goals and 12 points in 13 games. After the trade, MacKinnon exploded, putting up 36 goals and 85 points in 61 games. 

The Duchene trade that changed everything

Let’s take a closer look at that trade, which set up the Avalanche for long-term success.

The first key to the trade is that Sakic didn’t rush to make a deal. A Duchene trade had been expected for months but Sakic waited until he got the value he was looking for in the deal. It was also a more complicated than average trade, involving three teams. 

Essentially, the Ottawa Senators traded Kyle Turris, Andrew Hammond, Shane Bowers, a conditional first-round pick, and a 2019 third-round pick for Duchene. The Avalanche then flipped Turris to the Nashville Predators for Samuel Girard, Vladislav Kamenev, and a 2018 second-round pick.

The end result was a haul for the Avalanche, gaining multiple players and three picks. The main pieces, however, were Sam Girard and the first-round pick — though Hammond gave them some decent goaltending in the playoffs that year too.

Girard became a top-four defenceman for the Avalanche and that first-round pick became fourth overall in 2019, where the Avalanche selected Bowen Byram.

Ultimately, it was two high-end top-four defenceman in return for Matt Duchene. That’s exactly the type of return the Avalanche needed to set themselves up for the future, particularly when their defence was so dire in that dismal 2016-17 season.

Avoid spending in free agency

So, what does this all mean for the Canucks?

First, a caveat: unlike the Canucks, the Avalanche were not saddled with onerous long-term contracts back in 2017. Erik Johnson was the closest thing they had to a contract like Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s or Tyler Myers’ but Johnson is still playing decent minutes, albeit in more of a depth role, in this last year of his contract.

That gave the Avalanche some cap flexibility but let’s keep in mind that they didn’t really spend much in free agency. The bulk of their cap space was devoted to re-signing their talented young core and occasionally adding via trade.

So, that’s lesson one: go short-term and cheap in free agency if you sign free agents at all. Filling a gap, as the Avalanche did with Jonathan Bernier, makes sense. Taking a gamble on a reclamation project like Yakupov makes sense. Signing NCAA and European free agents in the hopes of finding a useful player makes sense.

Long-term and/or more expensive deals that could further complicate the Canucks’ cap situation do not make sense.

Identify the core — lose the rest

The next lesson is get younger — a lot younger. The Canucks have made a goal of getting faster and, for the most part, players slow down as they get older. The Canucks have a lot of young players at forward, but their defence is quite old — Ekman-Larsson, Myers, Luke Schenn, and Brad Hunt are all 30+ and Tucker Poolman is right behind them at 29.

Finding a way to move Ekman-Larsson and/or Myers would help the team get younger while also giving them more cap flexibility. Replacing their minutes would be tough but not impossible. The Canucks showed with Luke Schenn and Kyle Burroughs that quality minutes can be had at a bargain and then there’s the Avalanche’s example with Patrik Nemeth — you can unearth a top-four defenceman on the waiver wire.

The third lesson, and arguably the most important, is to identify the core of the team and then be willing to lose everyone else.

Five years later, the only players that remain from that last place 2016-17 team are MacKinnon, Rantanen, Landeskog, Johnson, and J.T. Compher, who was a rookie that year. Everyone else was considered expendable, though they certainly added to that young core as they progressed.

For the Canucks, the core starts with Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, and Thatcher Demko. The Canucks need to be willing to move on from everyone outside of that core.

That doesn’t mean you have to move everyone. Vasily Podkolzin and Nils Höglander could be added to that group pretty easily because of their youth and potential for the future. But that does mean everyone from Conor Garland to Tanner Pearson could be on their way out.

That includes Canucks captain Bo Horvat and their leading scorer from last season, J.T. Miller, which leads to the last point: if you’re going to trade a star player, it has to be for the right return.

If you trade a star, wait for the right deal

Whether it’s Horvat, Miller, or both, the Duchene trade shows how moving a star player can reap long-term benefits. The key, however, is patience and the willingness to get complicated to make the right deal. 

Sakic didn’t just move Duchene one-for-one for an immediate need, like former Edmonton Oilers’ general manager Peter Chiarelli did in trading Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson. Instead, he negotiated with two teams in such a way that he ended up with two top-four defencemen.

In addition, Sakic gambled on the Ottawa Senators getting worse in the near future, turning the first-round pick in the trade into a top-five pick. Even if the other assets in the deal didn’t turn into much, they were also worthwhile gambles that could have made this trade even better for the Avalanche. As it is, it was a remarkable trade.

And who knows? Maybe Shane Bowers becomes an NHL player for the Avalanche next season.

That’s what the Canucks should be aiming for if they move Horvat or, more likely, Miller — assets that make the team better long-term. Short-term, trading either one of them will likely make the team worse but the focus has to be on long-term, sustainable success.

Girard was 19 when the Avalanche acquired him. Byram was two years from even being drafted. But the addition of those two players made the Duchene trade a massive win for the Avalanche.

But the Avalanche show that trading a star doesn't always mean getting worse short-term.

With Duchene gone, MacKinnon took a massive step forward. The Canucks have a young player of their own with star potential that needs to take a significant step forward in Elias Pettersson.

Moving Miller would free up the first-line centre role exclusively for Pettersson, who would likely also go back to being the focal point for the power play. He’d likely also end up playing more on the penalty kill, where he thrived last season.  

Would trading Miller be the key to unlocking Pettersson’s full potential the way trading Duchene helped MacKinnon take ownership of the Avalanche?