Once the captain and perennial leader for the Colorado Avalanche, Joe Sakic now makes all final personnel decisions for the team as the general manager. After three seasons at the helm of the organization, he has demonstrated both strengths and weaknesses as a GM.
When it comes to in-house extensions, Sakic has both hit and missed. Extending enforcers Patrick Bordeleau and Cody McLeod to three year extensions were questionable moves, giving replaceable players too long of term.
Core players Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Semyon Varlamov, Erik Johnson and Nathan Mackinnon have each received contract extensions of at least six years. None of their cap hits landed above $6.4 million, providing quality value and demonstrating an ability to keep homegrown talent in town. Although each of these players has their inconsistencies, Sakic and co. should be given credit for developing and committing to a group of talent pros.
Sakic’s flaw has been misjudging the team’s true place in the rebuilding stage and consequently mismanaging assets. With three top-three picks in the last seven drafts, it’s no secret Colorado has been rebuilding since 2009. But when the team overachieved in 2013 and won their division, Sakic failed to recognize the season as an outlier.
During that run, center Paul Stastny was playing on the last year of his contract and departed in free agency after the Avs were eliminated. While it can be debated whether Stansty should have been traded, that was a large asset which they lost for nothing in return.
Instead, Colorado traded a second round draft pick for 27-year-old goalie Reto Berra at the trade deadline. Already at his peak and never having posted even average stats, Berra’s disappointing time in Denver came to end this most recent offseason when he was unloaded for a lowly forward prospect.
Believing the team was a veteran defenseman away from getting over the hump, Sakic then acquired Brad Stuart for a second round pick in 2014 and promptly signed the 34-year-old defenseman to a two year extension. Playing in 71 games over a two year period with the Avs, Stuart posted 13 points before getting bought out. Not only did Sakic give up a significant asset, he also failed to analyze Stuart’s talent.
In 2015, center Ryan O’Reilly was traded to the Buffalo Sabres for prospects after several ugly contract negotiations in his six years in Denver. While these prospects have yet to develop fully, at least three of Mikhail Grigorenko, Nikita Zadorov, J.T. Compher, A.J. Greer and Cam Morrison should become bonafide NHL players. It was an impressive haul for Sakic, who was dealing from a difficult hand.
In the 2015-16 season, Colorado was on the playoff bubble, though clearly not a Stanley Cup contender. Sakic traded for two rental players in Mikhail Boedker and Shawn Matthias at the trade deadline who, while effective, only played a handful of games before leaving in free agency. The Avs missed the playoffs despite sacrificing second and fourth round picks, plus a promising prospect defenseman.
While the NHL draft is extremely difficult to judge because of how hard the talent is to predict, teams aim to squeeze at least one NHL player out of each draft. Sakic’s first draft in 2013 was an effective one, as he selected a minimum of two NHL-bound players out of seven picks.
The 2014 draft looks to be a complete and utter failure. Only one pick remains with the organization out of seven (Anton Lindholm), and his NHL odds are slim at best. Early indications from the 2015 draft are promising, as the Avalanche selected aptly with promising first round pick Mikko Rantanen and several other players in later rounds.
With limited money to spend in the most recent free agency period, Sakic signed defensemen Fedor Tyutin and Patrick Weircioch to low salary, one year deals. Gambling on proven NHLers at low-risk contracts shows a clear learning curve in both talent evaluation and asset management from Sakic.
While hindsight is 20/20, Sakic made some clear mistakes in recent seasons as Colorado’s general manager. Trading second round picks for Stuart and Berra are the glaring ones, while sacrificing long-term assets at the trade deadline to help a team with little chance at the Stanley Cup was another misstep. He’s done well with star player extensions and has a mixed track record in the NHL draft.
Although some moves had fans nervous in Sakic’s first years, the GM is showing improvement and an increased awareness about smartly and slowly improving this team. If the Avs don’t get into the playoffs sooner than later, however, he may not be around to see the fruits of his successes.