It’s a tough time to be a sports fan in the Mile High City. For the most part, the local teams are mired in a championship drought, one that is moving into its third decade.
Since the turn of the century, the biggest programs and franchises in the Denver area have won just two championships. The Avalanche hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2001, while the Broncos lifted a Lombardi Trophy in 2015.
In that same time, fans in the Boston area have attended 12 championship parades. Those in Los Angeles have been to nine, the Bay Area has seen six, and Pittsburgh and Chicago have had five each.
During these lean years, most of the teams haven’t even been close to winning a title. The Avs haven’t returned to the Stanley Cup Finals in 20 years. The Nuggets have never been to the NBA Finals. The Rockies played in one World Series. The Broncos have reached a pair of Super Bowls. And the Buffs haven’t been in the national championship conversation since barely missing out on the title game after the 2001 season.
It wasn’t always like this. When Y2K was the biggest worry in America, the Avalanche were a perennial contender, the Broncos were a year removed from winning back-to-back Super Bowls, CU was a national power and the Rockies were spending big on free agents. Only the Nuggets were lagging behind.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. There simply needs to be a shift in mindset. A championship mentality has to return.
How does that happen? Well, one of the keys is having the right person in charge of building the teams. People who can make the most out of their circumstances, rather than complain about them (Dan O’Dowd), need to be in place.
In the coming weeks, we’ll take a look at what that kind of general manager would look like in a five-part series. Today’s installment…
If I was the GM of the Avalanche
Know the Situation
The Avalanche were once a storied franchise. They were a contender every year. They filled the building to capacity every night. They boasted a roster full of Hall of Fame players. And they hoisted a pair of Stanley Cups.
The last championship came 20 years ago, however. Since then, it’s been a seemingly endless streak of youth movements and rebuilds.
This time around, however, it appears as though Colorado has finally gotten it right. Joe Sakic has built a roster stocked with young talent, a team that appears poised to be a contender for years to come.
With stars like Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, Samuel Girard and Cale Makar all under 30 years old, the Avs should be in good shape for the next five years. They have a chance to matching their performance from 1995-2001, when the won two Cups and reached the conference finals on six occasions.
In order to do that, however, the Avalanche have to be all in. Currently, they have the 16th highest payroll in the NHL. Being middle of the pack is an improvement, as it wasn’t long ago that Colorado was at or near the bottom of the league in spending.
An open checkbook doesn’t always translate to winning. But when a young core is in place, that’s the time to push chips into the middle of the table and make the most of the opportunity. The window is open for the Avalanche; they have to make sure they keep it that way.
Girard is inked through 2027. Rantanen is signed through ’25. MacKinnon is under contract through ’23. And a handful of other key role players will be in Colorado for years to come.
There is one glaring omission from that list, however. Gabriel Landeskog is only signed through this season, as the Avs captain is set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
The second overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, Landy has been a big part of Colorado’s recent rebuild. He’s endured the down years, putting himself in a position to be with the Avalanche when things finally turned the corner.
As a result, he deserves to be a part of what the team hopes will be the glory years. But this isn’t about a lifetime achievement award. It’s about keeping the heart and soul of the team in place.
MacKinnon may be the best player on the roster. Makar may have the most upside in the future. But the captain is the team leader. He’s the glue that makes it all work.
If Colorado lets Landeskog walk out the door at the end of the season, it will leave a hole larger than the one left in the lineup. Put some of that cap space to use by keeping him in Colorado.
Make a Move at the Deadline
The NHL trade deadline is April 21. That’s a long way off, so it gives the team plenty of time to figure out where their weak spots are heading toward the postseason.
Whatever that determination is, Colorado has to be willing to make a move to fill that void. They need to stop clutching to prospects, enamored with the future.
It’s time to worry about the present. It’s time to mortgage some of the franchise’s down-the-road potential for some win-now talent.
Who will that be? That all remains to be seen. The next three months will determine what the Avalanche need, as well as who is available.
But Colorado has to be willing to wheel and deal. The mindset needs to be about winning it all in 2021.
Figure Out the Long-Term Plan Between the Pipes
There’s an axiom in football that when a team has two quarterbacks, they really have none. The most important position in sports can’t be unsettled; there has to be one guy who everyone knows plays that part.
The same can be said for the goaltender in hockey. Arguably, no other position can carry a team to a championship the way a hot goalie can in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Avs have created a situation, however, where they may not have the guy who can do that for them. And if they do, they might not be able to spot it.
That’s because they have two competent goaltenders. While Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz may not be top-10 goalies in the NHL, they are both very capable. They can both help a team win games.
This gives Jared Bednar options. He can try to pick the hot hand.
But that’s sometimes easier said that done. It creates a situation where the Avalanche’s head coach is trying to guess on a nightly basis who the better option is between the pipes.
The same can’t be said for the Avalanche’s competition. Other top Cup contenders know who they’ll ride on a nightly basis.
The Lightning are going with Andrei Vasilevskiy. Boston has Tuukka Rask. Vegas will lean on Robin Lehner. The list goes on and on.
At perhaps the most-important position in the sport, the Avs aren’t weak. But they aren’t as strong as their competition. That’s a situation that needs to be addressed.
When they were a perennial contender 20-25 years ago, Colorado knew they’d have Patrick Roy between the pipes every night. They need to create a similar situation.
The Avalanche are already a Stanley Cup contender. In fact, they’re one of the favorites to win it all this season.
Thus, drastic moves aren’t necessary. Colorado could stand pat and win a title this season.
But that’s no guarantee. And there’s also no promises that things will remain that way for years to come.
The job of the GM is to increase the likelihood of both things. Find the missing piece or two to put the Avs over the top this year. And spend the money to keep the team together for a five-year run.
In other words, push the chips into the middle of the table.
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