With the Stanley Cup finals upon us, 30 NHL fan bases watch with envy as the two remaining gladiators fight for the coveted holy grail. Because most avid hockey fans are selfish, and a tad myopic (present company included), the question becomes, “Why not us?”
The Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning are clearly the class of the league, but how did these teams reach the zenith? What, if any, lessons can be derived from these 2 franchises?
The Tampa Bay Lightning are as close to a Dynasty as the NHL has seen since the mid-80’s Oilers and early-80’s Islanders. Their sustained success is remarkable in this era of professional hockey. The 2022 iteration is less talented than years prior, but championship culture and pedigree cannot be underestimated.
The Colorado Avalanche are a more curious case. We all remember the Joe Sakic lead Avalanche teams culminating in the iconic Ray Bourque “Cup of Destiny”. With their recent success, it is difficult to remember the nadir experienced by the Avalanche from 2009-2016. During this time, the team was not just bad, but historically so. To the Winnipeg Jets’ credit, its lows were never this low, but conversely, its highs have yet to reach that of the Avalanche.
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Colorado can attribute its recent success thusly:
1. They were bad for a long time. That sounds like an oxymoron, but being bad means high lottery picks. The Avalanche core (McKinnon, Makar, and Landeskog) were all selected with top 4 overall picks from 2011-2017. Mikko Rantanen was also a savvy pick in 2015 at 10th overall. While few would give the Avalanche much credit for drafting Nathan MacKinnon first overall in 2013, they deserve credit for shaking off MacKinnon’s relative early struggles, and signing him to a forward-thinking contract that ended up being one of the biggest bargains in recent history.
Lesson: the Winnipeg Jets should be more disappointing? The NHL Draft is no guarantee, but Sam Presti’s “process” can work if it lands you the right talent. With Barry Trotz almost a guarantee to sign with the Jets (according to Rod Pederson), the Jets are too far along their current trajectory to blow things up and tank for an extended period. However, it is food for thought if this version of Jets 2.0 continues to flounder.
2. The Avalanche have added to their core, and around the fringes wisely. They crushed the Matt Duchene trade and have added the likes of Kadri, Burakovsky, and Compher to fill out depth. Some credit the Avalanche’s public focus on analytics, and others point to luck. One free-agent highlight was the low-risk, high-reward signing of Valeri Nichushkin. Chances are, even a savvy front office like Colorado’s probably didn’t expect the Dallas Stars ‘supposed’ bust to be this much of a find. Devon Toews was similarly a boon.
Lesson: the biggest takeaway here is that the Avalanche have been much better at building around its’ core than the Winnipeg Jets. Having Cole Makar is going to drastically improve any defensive unit, but by the same token, having Tucker Poolman is not. This writer is not entirely certain of the depth and utility of the Jets analytics department. Paul Maurice’s comments would suggest that they do not figure heavily into decision making. Regardless, in building this team, the Avalanche have consistently made smart moves — selling high, and buying low. Whatever role analytics, “the eye test,” and other factors played, the bottom line is that other franchises face a tall task (Logan Stanley tall) in keeping up with the Avalanche.
Each NHL team has its own trajectory and internal hurdles to overcome, so most comparisons are not apples-to-apples. I don’t believe there is a smoking gun strategy employed by the Avalanche that could be astutely “borrowed” by the Jets, other than picking really high in the Draft. That said, the Avalanche are a well-run organization, and right now, I can’t say the same for the Jets. Simple as that.
Call it jealousy, or call it a lack of freudenfreude – watching hockey being played at the highest levels (regardless of Colorado’s drubbing of the Lightning) causes critical self-refection. Hopefully the Winnipeg Jets are doing the same.