Frei: Joe Sakic Coming Full Circle with Avalanche
We listened to, among others, Joe Sakic, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon speak at pre-Western Conference finals availabilities Monday at Ball Arena.
That was a day after Erik Johnson faced the questions.
As that played out, it hit me that they indeed are Avalanche survivors, but not the way so many seem to be advancing it as the narrative.
I’m not referring to the teams that didn’t make it out of the second round the past three seasons.
I’m not just referring to the dreadful 2016-17 season, when the Avalanche managed the bizarre feat of posting an historically awful 48 points while scraping the salary cap ceiling.
I’m thinking of farther back, to the stunning 112-point showing in the Avalanche’s first season with Sakic in charge of the hockey operation and Patrick Roy behind the bench.
The band — or at least the bandleaders — were back together.
The results were spectacular … at least until their collapse in the first round of the playoffs, when they blew a 3-2 series lead against the Wild and lost Game 7 in overtime at home.
That was 2013-14, and it seemed that the Avalanche was on their way to rejoining the NHL’s elite, as they were in the glory days of the franchise’s stay in Denver.
MacKinnon won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.
Roy was the no-brainer pick for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year.
It seemed so easy.
Among those also on that roster were Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly and Tyson Barrie, the three former Avs who have taken turns opposing them in the first three rounds of the 2022 playoffs.
Barrie, now with the Edmonton Oilers, is next up in the Western Conference finals, beginning with Game 1 Tuesday night.
The Avalanche didn’t make the playoffs again in the two remaining seasons under Roy, and then came that dreadful 2016 season as Jared Bednar tried to make the best of the rubble.
My point is, those three current Avs — Landeskog, MacKinnon and Johnson — had a false start and had to try to be patient with the subsequent rebuild.
To me, that’s the more compelling story than simply having been around for the bottoming-out season after Roy abruptly pulled the plugs on the reunited band.
And Sakic pulled it off.
Since we never talked or asked about it, I bet you didn’t know that the Avs had lost in the second round three times in a row before the six-game win over the Blues. Oh? You knew that? So did Sakic.
“There’s been a lot of talk about the second round the last couple of years,” Sakic said Monday. “We really don’t look at it as getting out of the second round. All four teams that are going to be in the [conference] finals have the same goal. We all want to win the Stanley Cup. It’s nice getting past the second round. But each year it was a different circumstance, a different team we’ve played against.
“We weren’t primarily playing against the second round. This year we did a great job against the St. Louis Blues. That’s a heck of a hockey team we beat, we played well that round. Now we’re playing a real tough Edmonton Oilers team. We’re facing them. We’re not facing the third round now.”
Sakic has been the head of the hockey operation — his official title now is executive vice president and general manager — for nearly 10 years. I’m about to bring this up just as food for thought, not as clickbait. If that was my intention, it wouldn’t be relatively buried here.
But we just saw Tim Connelly, Sakic’s equivalent in the Nuggets’ front office despite their different titles, leave after the Minnesota Timberwolves more than doubled his salary and included a share of ownership as part of the deal. The Nuggets made a counteroffer but didn’t match.
Of course, the Nuggets and Avalanche both are owned by Ann Kroenke as part of the family sports empire, with Stan Kroenke’s Kroenke Sports and Entertainment in effective control.
Sakic is more accomplished as an executive than Connelly. Far more.
The issue doesn’t even have to be money. It’s whether KSE will continue its weird willingness to spend huge amounts of money on players and even on a gem of a Los Angeles stadium while displaying reluctance to do things like accepting whatever it could get from Comcast to get the Avs and Nuggets back on the cable system. Or getting up to the standards for NBA assistants. Or even responding to the obvious needs for a new Nuggets practice gym and a new Avalanche practice rink.
After displaying all this patience — that’s Sakic’s most important attribute, in fact — a Sakic departure is unlikely. I’ll concede that. He’s got an emotional stake in what he built. He made millions as a player, so he doesn’t “need” to be ruthless financially. (Remember the Rangers signing him to a three-year, $21 million offer sheet with $15 million upfront? That was the Rangers’ failed attempt to keep the underfinanced Avalanche ownership of the time from matching it. Sakic, realizing it was win-win and it was a business, accepted structuring the deal that way.)
KSE shouldn’t take him for granted, either.
Here’s my omnibus 2020 interview with Sakic.
As I’ve noted, it was so conversational, we should have been smoking cigars and sipping Scotch.
It touches on growing up speaking Croatian in his family home in Burnaby, near Vancouver, his hockey development in major junior, his Hall of Fame NHL playing career (including his touch pass of the Stanley Cup to Ray Bourque), and his transition to the front office. And more.
Terry Frei (email@example.com, @tfrei) is a Denver-based author and journalist. He has been named a state’s sportswriter of the year seven times in peer voting — four times in Colorado and three times in Oregon. His seven books include the novels “Olympic Affair” and “The Witch’s Season.” Among his five non-fiction works are “Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming,” “Third Down and a War to Go,” “March 1939: Before the Madness,” and “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age.” He also collaborated with Adrian Dater on “Save By Roy,” was a long-time vice president of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and has covered the hockey Rockies, Avalanche and the NHL at-large. His website is www.terryfrei.com and his bio is available at www.terryfrei.com/bio.html
His Colorado Hockey Now column archive can be accessed here