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Sakic's Mid-Season Tooling a Big Reason Why Avalanche Are Thriving

Avalanche GM Sakic has worked his magic again, and proven he knows what a championship-caliber squad looks and feels like. There's still a lot of work to be done this season, but his work throughout is paying off.
Joe Sakic

Colorado Avalanche GM Joe Sakic was a Hockey Hall-of-Fame player, spending his entire 21-year NHL career with one team. Now, Sakic is making another gigantic impact on that same organization, making successful move after successful move. And, in no small part because of Sakic’s savvy efforts this season, the Avs are just six wins away from their third Stanley Cup championship in franchise history.

Let’s look at how Sakic has augmented his lineup this year: after last season’s disappointing second-round playoff loss to St. Louis, Sakic could’ve made changes to his group’s core; instead, he worked on adding high-quality depth, and the acquisitions he made to that end have fit in flawlessly.

On the free agent market, Sakic signed longtime Detroit Red Wings forward Darren Helm to a one-year, $1-million contract; all Helm has done is provide the Avalanche with an experienced, crafty presence as their fourth-line center, and the series-winning goal against the Blues in the second round.

Sakic also tapped the waiver wire with excellent results, plucking winger Nicolas Aube-Kubel from the Philadelphia Flyers in November; all Aube-Kubel has done is give the Avs his robust physical game on the bottom two forwards lines. He scored 11 goals and 22 points in 67 regular-season games, and though he’s still looking for his first point in the playoffs this year, Aube-Kubel has been a terrific bargain ($725,000 salary) acquisition.

Sakic has been equally brilliant on the trade front: in mid-March, Sakic landed rugged blueliner Josh Manson from Anaheim for prospect defenseman Drew Hellison and a second-round draft pick in 2023. All Manson has done is solidify Colorado’s top-four defensemen, and chip in with some offense (two goals and six points in 12 playoff games).

Then, at the trade deadline, Sakic finished his roster alterations with a pair of deals: first, he moved a fifth-round pick in 2024 to San Jose for veteran forward Andrew Cogliano; and Sakic shipped prospect defenseman Justin Barron and a 2024 second-rounder to Montreal for winger Arturri Lehkonen. Cogliano has a pair of post-season goals in limited minutes on the fourth line, and all Lehkonen has done is play on the top line in the playoffs, generating five goals and eight points in 12 games.

None of Sakic’s acquisitions required moving a top player off his roster: yes, he did ship out veteran center Tyson Jost in mid-March to Minnesota for forward Nico Sturm, but that was a deal that swapped bottom-six guys more than anything, and Sturm has been a depth player for Colorado, appearing in only six playoff games, with one assist to show for it. But it wasn’t like Jost went and tore it up with the Wild. This was a low-risk, low-reward deal that cleared out $1.25 million in salary cap space, and it’s one Sakic would likely do again.

You don’t get as good as the Avalanche currently is by thriving in only one element of roster building. You need to have a legitimate No. 1 center (which Colorado has in Nathan MacKinnon). You need to have a legitimate No. 1 defenseman (which Colorado has in Cale Makar). You need to have a couple other stars to take the heat off your top star (which Colorado has in Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen). You need to have upper-tier secondary scoring (which Colorado has in center Nazem Kadri).

Those are all core components of the Avalanche machine, but were it not for Sakic’s attention to detail and determination to make an already-great lineup even better, Colorado might not be so dominant. They might not have finally gotten over the second-round hump that has derailed their Cup hopes for years. But they did, and in the Western Conference Final against Edmonton, they look next-to-unstoppable.

It won’t be easy to keep this particular roster intact next season – as per CapFriendly.com, the Avs have $26.485 million in cap space, but they have a whopping 10 unrestricted free agents, including Helm, Cogliano, Sturm, Manson, top-six wingers Andrei Burakovsky and Valeri Nichushkin, veteran D-men Jack Johnson and Ryan Murray, starting goaltender Darcy Kuemper, and, most notably, Kadri, who without doubt will earn a pay raise Colorado can’t match or improve on.

Meanwhile, Lehkonen is a restricted free agent who’ll definitely get a deal averaging more than the $2.3 million he earned this season. He and Aube-Kubel are Colorado’s only RFAs, but the Avalanche’s cap space is going to dry up quickly, and Sakic probably will give much of it to younger players Nichushkin, Lehkonen and Burakovsky, as well as a starting goalie..

The Avs have benefitted from virtually every player Sakic acquired this season, and you have to give him credit for masterfully working the hockey system to build what sure looks like a leviathan. His on-ice rivals, including Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman (who helped build the Tampa Bay Lightning dynasty), and Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan (who has guided the Leafs to become a regular-season menace), have achieved quite a bit in their years building teams, but none have built a team like Colorado’s current team.

Sakic has worked his magic again, and proven he knows what a championship-caliber squad looks and feels like. Should the Avs break through and win it all, you could easily see Sakic being inducted again into the HHOF, in the builder’s category down the line.

The best seems yet to come for Sakic and the Avalanche, and thanks to his assortment of maneuvers this year, the real blossom for the group is at hand.

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