The only way for the lowly Avalanche to improve is to try to lose, go all in on analytics, treat the league as an inefficient marketplace, and stock pile draft picks in hopes of developing superstars.
How in the world do you fix the Colorado Avalanche? The team is on pace for 48 points this season, and would be the first team since the 1999-00 Atlanta Thrashers to finish with under 50 points. They’re a mess, and have been ever since Erik Johnson’s injury on December 3rd. They’re 4-20-1 since then.
Finding a fix for this team won’t be easy, quick or painless and anyone who tells you they have a guaranteed path to success is deluded. There’s no guarantees in this sport, especially not for a team in an abyss as dark as this one.
With that being said, here’s a path they should consider. It’s not foolproof, but it’s probably the best way to perennial success. I’ll warn you now, it’s not for the faint of heart.
The Avs should go all in on analytics, treat the league as the inefficient marketplace it is, and take a page from the playbook of the Philadelphia 76ers. It’s time to start The Process.
Yes, the Sixers, the team that won all of 47 games over the past three seasons is the team the Avalanche should model themselves after. They’re already on the right path this year by accident anyway, so why not commit to it?
I say by accident because at the start of the season it seemed pretty clear the Avs had intentions of competing for a playoff spot, misguided as it may have been. This was not a rebuilding year for them, they switched coaches, they added pieces – they tried to win, things just didn’t work out that way.
The Sixers on the other hand tried to lose. A beautifully tragic and laughably pathetic shade of an NBA team took the court night after night in just the way GM Sam Hinkie wanted it to. He gutted the team for everything it had to acquire as many future assets as he could to sink the team to the bottom in order to acquire the NBA’s most precious commodity: superstar talent.
Hinkie is a very polarizing figure. Depending on who you ask, he’s either a genius or an idiot. He’s the perfect embodiment of everything the analytics movement needs to be and he’s everything that’s wrong with it all wrapped into one. He has a cult following attached to his work and I can’t help but wonder what he or someone like him would do for an NHL team. The Avs are the perfect team for a plan similar to The Process.
The two teams have had a very similar recent history, too. In the early 2000’s, both teams were at their peak, powered by superstars. The Sixers had Allen Iverson, while the Avs had Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg carrying them to glory. Once those players left (or retired), both teams slipped into an era of mediocrity, a perpetual cycle of not good enough to compete and not bad enough to rebuild. It’s where no team wants to be in either league. The Avs had some lower lows (three top-three picks), but for the most part they were either Round 1 fodder or on the outside looking in.
That’s what the Sixers were too before Hinkie arrived with no signs of immediate improvement coming. The pipeline was bare (the Avs, to their credit, at least have an “okay” prospect pool, according to our resident expert Ryan Kennedy) and they had very few impact players. The team had to face a harsh reality of their talent level and what it takes to win in the NBA. It’s a league built on star power, more than any other, and the Sixers were low on it.
How do you get superstars? The draft. That was the easiest way at least. To be good, you needed a superstar to build around and in order to obtain one of those you’d have to earn them the hard way. Losing. A lot. To be good, you have to be bad. And the Sixers were bad.
Being just “good” wasn’t enough though. Hinkie wanted to be great. Good gets you to the playoffs. Great gets you championships. It would take a complete overhaul of the team to get to there for the Sixers, a lot of moving pieces (he made 26 trades in three years), a lot of patience, and a lot of pain.
The Sixers stockpiled futures like no other basketball team ever has. NBA teams are allotted two picks per draft. In Hinkie’s three seasons, they picked 16 times and they have 18 more picks over the next four seasons. They won’t necessarily use them all, but that’s not the point. Draft picks are currency and the Sixers were, and are, rich with them.
The best way to build a champion in the NHL isn’t so different.
The league isn’t nearly as star-dependent as basketball, but it’s hard not to look at the most competitive teams year-in and year-out and see that the best guys usually come from the top of the draft while the support players are usually home grown players on cheap ELCs. To get the former a team needs to be bad. To get the latter a team needs to sell assets and pick as many times as possible.
It’s exactly what Hinkie did with the Sixers and pretty much what most rebuilds in the NHL are. Sell assets for future, stockpile picks, and build a pipeline. But no one does it as aggressively as Hinkie did. That’s what Colorado needs to do. His 16 picks over three years would be an NHL equivalent of around 18 picks per season. That’s how aggressive he was and we’ve yet to see that in hockey.
In the NHL, teams basically need elite players to get anywhere. They’re the engine that propels them. A strong supporting cast is vital too, but a team isn’t going anywhere without a strong nucleus. You need both and the draft is where teams find that.
The Avalanche are at a crossroads with their nucleus right now and face a tough question at whether their key guys are good enough. That’s the wrong question to ask and why I think they need to trust The Process instead.
For the Avs, it’s not “is the core good enough” it’s “will they still be this good when we’re ready to compete” and I’m not sure the answer is ‘Yes’, because the team around them is so brutal. If Colorado thinks they can contend within the next two seasons, giving away the only difference makers on the team would be foolish. But, if they see this as a longer project, they should start thinking about that window instead.
Again, this isn’t about how good they are. They’re fine. This is about age, and the Avs best players aren’t exactly young in NHL terms. For years, many people thought the prime age for NHLers was 27 to 30, but multiple studies have shown it actually skews much younger to around 23 to 26. Here’s how old the Avs current core will be next season:
Mikko Rantanen: 21
Nathan MacKinnon: 22
Gabriel Landeskog: 25
Tyson Barrie: 26
Matt Duchene: 26
Erik Johnson: 29
That’s two guys who’ve yet to hit their prime, three that are in their prime right now, and one who’s probably on the decline already. They’re all great players right now, but how good will they be when the team is ready?
In three seasons, MacKinnon will be in the middle of his prime, while Landeskog, Duchene and Barrie will be close to 30. They’ll likely all still be productive, but they’ll be declining by the year and the Avs will likely find themselves back in the same situation they’re in now. Their value is no greater than it is at their current ages. To the Avs, all they’re doing is propping up a replacement level supporting cast (seriously, the other 14 players are worth a combined -0.11 wins by my model, the only negative leaguewide) to no man’s land finishes the past two seasons.
That’s why this season is sort of a blessing in disguise. It’s forcing the Avalanche to be realistic about what kind of team they have. They’ve been one of the league’s worst teams for years by most advanced metrics, but were high on PDO, the NHL’s most addictive drug. They’re crashing now and it forces the team to be honest with themselves about where they are and how competitive they can be going forward.
Joel Embiid and Sam Hinkie. Image by: Jesse D. Garrabrant
Hinkie and the Sixers saw what they had and became proactive toward reaching their ultimate goal. They’re not there yet, and Hinkie was forced to resign before seeing the fruits of his labour, but The Process is starting to take shape this season. The Sixers are finally on the upswing and actually have a winning record in 2017 at 10-7. The embodiment of The Process, 2014 third overall pick, Joel Embiid, who missed his first two seasons with various injuries, looks even better than advertised. People were calling the pick a failure before he even got a chance to play, but now that he’s on the court it’s clear with every play he makes that he was worth the hype and the losses. Embiid is what happens when you Trust The Process. Eventually, Sixers fans were rewarded for their patience.
Next season they’ll be even better as they’ll add 2016 first overall pick Ben Simmons (currently injured) and potentially two more top 10 picks from this year’s draft to the lineup. The future is very sunny in Philadelphia right now, and much of the credit should go to Hinkie for that.
But the dark times were especially dark for a team built to lose. It was tough on most fans and that’s the downside of sucking by design. The Process brought out many skeptics who derided Hinkie’s plan and whether there actually was one. And because the team was a league laughing stock, it made some players from the draft cautious of even going there, which hinders exactly what The Process was built for.
He was very secretive of what he was doing and that led to a lack of understanding from the outside. Because it didn’t produce results, it was deemed a bad plan, even if the decisions were theoretically good. It’s a cognitive bias that humans have that makes it hard to separate the two things from each other, but it’s also a fault of Hinkie’s. There needs to be some semblance of communication of what the team is doing (without giving up your hand) to explain the results, because sports are a results-oriented business.
It was never about results though, they really didn’t matter, it was about The Process. If the decisions were logically sound, results would eventually come when the entire process came together. They’re coming now for the Sixers after years of good decision-making, but that wasn’t so apparent at the time.
Hinkie was a revolutionary thinker in the sports world. He’s a visionary who thinks outside-the-box, ready to disrupt the status quo and take advantage of any and every market inefficiency. That’s likely not how you’d describe the current Colorado braintrust.
Which is why when it comes the NHL’s version of The Process, it might be best to find someone else to spearhead it than the group that created this mess in the first place. The team desperately needs a new way of thinking and some fresh ideas, someone who can commit to and execute a complete long term re-haul. The current regime doesn’t strike me as a good fit for building a brighter future.
Blowing it up is a bold strategy and it’s no guarantee, but unless you think the Avs can be competitive very soon, it might be their best option. Trading Duchene and/or Landeskog for the rumoured deals right now in order to salvage this wreckage is just half-assing what really needs to be done. Trade for a young defenseman and suddenly there’s a new hole up front that needs to be filled. It’s shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.
This team will still be bad unless they find support for their best players or they commit to a full rebuild. It won’t happen from shaking things up for the sake of it which is what the current plan seems to be. Either believe in the group and add to it, or don’t and get rid of any and every valuable asset that’ll help the team be more competitive at a more realistic timeline. Be aggressive and creative about it too, but don’t sell any asset for less than it’s worth (the Ryan O’Reilly trade from this very regime comes to mind). These are trades they can’t afford to lose and they might be better made at the draft than before the deadline.
The Avs got here by accident. They wanted to be competitive this year, but now they’re facing a harsh reality of what they truly are. This isn’t a process they can trust yet, but it can be with the right people in charge. The Sixers changed the game, for better or worse, and given the current state of the Avalanche, their ideology might be worth trying in the NHL.
If the team is going to blow it up, they might as well do it right – with a meticulous plan in place. The way it stands now, it doesn’t seem like they really have one.