Discover more from Infernal Access
What can the New Jersey Devils learn from the Colorado Avalanche?
CJ Turtoro examines some of the things the Devils can takeaway from how the powerhouse Avalanche assembled their team.
Be sure to join the Discord channel to talk hockey, and everything else, with our writers and subscribers.
By CJ Turtoro (@CJTDevil)
The Colorado Avalanche finished with the best record in the Western Conference. They are 12-2 this post-season and the favorites to hoist the Stanley Cup, regardless of the winner between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the New York Rangers.
According to Evolving-Hockey, over the past three years their regular season goal differential is +187. That is 45 goals ahead of the #2 team (Carolina +142).
In the post-season they are actually neck-and-neck with Tampa Bay in goal differential (+59 vs +55) despite Tampa being a two-time reigning cup champion and Colorado not having escaped the 2nd round until this season.
Between their dominance and their youth, the Colorado Avalanche are the class of the league to anyone paying attention.
So today, I want to briefly look at 1) the timeline of the Avalanche’s rebuild, 2) the key figures it’s built around, and, most importantly, 3) how they did it.
What did the Avalanche look like to start their rebuild?
The Avalanche haven’t made a conference final since 2002, when their leading scorer was now-GM, Joe Sakic. But their deep struggles really only began in 2014 when, after a 114-point season in 2013, Colorado went on a three-year playoff drought, culminating in this historically bad 48-point season in 2017 – Jared Bednar’s first as head coach.
The team was led in scoring and playing time by its twin pillars down the middle in 4th year former 1st overall pick, Nathan MacKinnon (53 points in 82 games), and the 26-year-old former 3rd overall pick, Matt Duchene (41 points in 77 games).
Their blueline was a hodgepodge consisting of Francois Beauchemin, Tyson Barrie, Erik Johnson, and Nikita Zadorov, among others.
Their goalie was the $6M Semyon Varlamov, who cost the 4th most on the team. These are the top 12 scoring forwards and the top 12 used defenders in 2014-2017
They were the worst team in the NHL offensively and defensively, had an average age that was NHL-median, and less than $1M of cap space to play with. Things were…bad.
Who are the key figures?
Interestingly, the most important forwards were actually already on the team at that point. MacKinnon was signed long-term at moderate price because of underwhelming early numbers. In addition to Mackinnon, they had former 2nd overall Gabriel Landeskog, who already had his “C” and was signed through 2021, as well as a bright-eyed bushy-tailed Mikko Rantanen. What they needed was literally an entire blueline, plus the money to afford it.
That off-season they drafted the future best defender in the world, Cale Makar, and traded the oldest member of their core (Duchene) for a package of prospects (including Sam Girard) and picks (what would become Bowen Byram).
Along with evential trade acquisition, Devon Toews, these guys would become the key pieces of one of the best bluelines in the NHL for the foreseeable future.
In terms of their offense, the departure of Duchene, Varlamov, and their aging blueline opened up the funds to take shots on cost effective forwards like Brandon Saad, Valeri Nichushkin, Andre Burakovsky, and Nazem Kadri – all of whom have been essential to Colorado’s identity of relentless scoring chance barrage.
How did they do it?
This is the important part now, isn’t it? The history is interesting, but the trick is trying to figure out how it happened so we could replicate it.
In my opinion, they did it by essentially understanding just two things: a) what is replaceable and what isn’t, and b) how to win the value battle in transactions.
They believed that talent like Mackinnon, Rantanen, Landeskog and Maker were irreplaceable and so every one of them received a deal as long-term as negotiations would allow.
In contrast, thought they could find another goalie so they let the expensive one walk. They thought they could find cheaper scoring winger so they let Saad walk, and thought their prospect pool could replace Graves so they traded him to shed cap space.
They know who they need, and they have a good way of finding what they want. Let’s take a look at some trades they made to get an idea of the types of things they value more than other teams.
Here are the most valuable trades they made post-Duchene (P=prospect, 1st=1st rounder, etc.):
Sakic & Co. are simply following a few basic rules of value transactions in the NHL. For instance, notice that they give up a lot of mid-round draft picks for NHL-ready assets.
That’s because they know that only about 1 in 4 of 2nd to 4th round picks become NHLers, but the players they’re acquiring are already NHLers.
They also know that big-minute defenders and physical defenders with poor impacts are overrated as assets.
Here are the RAPMs of the two big defensive departures at the time they were traded. Notice how much red (below average) there is and how little blue.
Barrie was significantly below-average defensively, Zadorov was a black hole offensively, but Barrie had a 21:47 ATOI and Zadorov had over 200 hits so someone was going to want both of them.
Similarly, the Avalanche knew that high-impact, low-production forwards are among the most undervalued assets in the NHL and that banking on regression tends to work out. Here’s a look at the four forwards they acquired at the time they acquired them.
Notice anything? What you should notice is that on the offensive side of things (the first three bars) the 2nd two are higher than the first one for all of them except Burakovsky, who was buried in 11 minutes a game in Washington.
For all of them, their impact was higher than what you’d guess from their counting stats for one reason or another. Not shown here are any free agency additions like, say, Valeri Nichushkin:
Colorado gambled on these guys and won every damn time. They never give big contracts to free agents because that’s now how you use free agency.
They never do bridge deals for important assets because they know they need to have them cost-controlled. And they don’t spend the cap on the goalie, because bolstering the skater group to make life easier on the goalie is more important.
There are and will be exceptions to these rules, but more or less the Avalanche are where they are because they understand some relatively simple tenets of asset valuation.
It turned them from the worst team in the league, at an average age, with no cap space; to the Stanley Cup favorites for the next 3-5 years. And as long as the rest of the league doesn’t learn from these ideas, they will continue to be left behind.
But what about USSSS?!?!!?!
What can the Devils do to replicate this? Well, they’re off to a good start by locking up Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, so they should add Jesper Bratt to that list for as long as possible as soon as possible.
They already traded their Duchene (Taylor Hall) for a package or futures. While they absolutely need to address the goaltending position, doing so without a massive cap hit would be preferable.
They already threw a big contract at Dougie Hamilton to kickstart the blueline, so they probably shouldn’t invest big money on another free agent, however sexy it may feel to do so.
The Avs got lucky with the timing of their superstars' breakouts, but there’s every reason to think that the Devils got lucky too. Jack Hughes costs more today than he did when he signed his 8-year contract. Same seems likely for Nico. And there’s still prospects in the system that can fill in the depth ELC spots that Colorado gave to guys like Byram and Newhook – though, the ceiling of Alex Holtz, Luke Hughes, & Co. is substantially higher.
The Avs should be a case study in how quickly these things can turn around. With a natural maturation, a few minor tweaks, and a little bit of luck, it’s very easy to imagine going from the cellar to the ceiling.
So next time you’re down in the dumps, just take a look at the 2017 Avalanche to remind yourself that the golden years can sneak up on you.
You don’t know what’s around the corner until you make the turn. And, after a decade of suffering, you can be damn sure my blinker’s on.