22. That was the number of wins the 2016-17 Colorado Avalanche had in one of the worst regular seasons in recent NHL history. Despite having guys like Nathan Mackinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen on the roster, the Avs were dead last in the NHL with 48 points.
Fast forward five years later and the Colorado Avalanche are 2022 Stanley Cup Champions.
Only five members from that brutal season’s roster went on to win the Cup with the Avs that being the trio we mentioned earlier plus JT Compher and Erik Johnson. How did the Avalanche manage such a turnaround?
I bring this up because I want to compare and contrast how both the Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights are approaching success in the NHL. For the Avs, it is clearly working. For the Golden Knights, they missed the playoffs for the first time in 2022 and are still without a Stanley Cup.
Joe Sakic’s Plan
A lot of luck is required to win the Stanley Cup, yes, but Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic put a plan in motion during the late 2010s to re-tool the franchise and it worked. He started by selling off players and building through the draft. In November of 2017, Sakic traded Matt Duchene to the Ottawa Senators, and in 2019 traded Tyson Barrie to the Maple Leafs in a deal that got them Nazem Kadri.
Sakic then built through the draft using acquired picks along with his own to select guys like Tyson Jost, Connor Timmins, Alex Newhook, Bowen Byram, and a kid named Cale Makar. Under-the-radar players like Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Valeri Nichushkin, and Artturi Lehkonen were picked up as the team got better, and all of the sudden the Avs were a Stanley Cup contender again.
Obviously, a lot more went into the Avs winning the Cup and I have greatly oversimplified a recap of five to six years. But three core themes stuck with Sakic’s plan for the Avalanche and that is 1) building through the draft and 2) not being afraid to trade away star players for future assets, and 3) investing in under-the-radar players. Staying patient was key to their success.
The Golden Knight’s Approach
In case you haven’t already put it together, the Golden Knight’s approach to trying to win a Stanley Cup is much different from this. They are perhaps the least patient team in the entire NHL and always in on whatever big fish is available in the NHL. Alex DeBrincat and John Gibson are currently rumored to be on the NHL trade market this offseason and it is only a matter of time before the VGK show some interest.
What Kelly McCrimmon and George McPhee saw in 2018 was a team that was just three wins away from a Stanley Cup. Ever since they have been trying to build a championship roster by bringing in superstar after superstar and completely emptying out the prospect cupboard as a result. Even though the current team on paper is arguably better than the 2017-18 squad, fittingly, they came nowhere close to matching that team’s success in their inaugural season.
How much better would the Golden Knights be with guys like Peyton Krebs and Nick Suzuki on their current roster? What if they never had to trade Marc-Andre Fleury for salary cap reasons? What if they kept guys like Ryan Reaves, Nate Schmidt, and David Perron? We’ll never know the answer to those questions but right now, we know what happened in our timeline.
The Golden Knights do not invest in under-the-radar players and opt to remove guys like William Karlsson and Chandler Stephenson from the top-six in favor of Jack Eichel and Mark Stone. They are afraid of trading away big-name players unless they absolutely have to for cap-space reasons which results in only a minor-league prospect coming back from the Chicago Blackhawks.
Things aren’t working out for the VGK. They are a cap-strapped team with aging and injury-prone veterans and failed to even make the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. I’m by no means calling for a rebuild, instead just sharing an example of how a true championship team is built by bringing up the Avs and their opposite approach to patience and growth in the NHL.