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Earlier this week, Jesse ran an article on the state of the Avs’ prospects and how they’ve started the season. Between Makar, Bowers, Kovalenko and others, it’s certainly fun to think about how these players might grow and impact the future of the Avalanche.
But just how important are they? As the Avs transition from a rebuilding team to a contending one, will the role of development within the franchise change? How have the Avs done to this point, and what can we expect from them moving forward?
The organization has never had a particularly strong AHL affiliate. The American Hockey League is hockey’s top minor league circuit, and during the Avs’s heyday, stashing away young players for the sake of one day graduating them to the main club simply wasn’t a priority. Money was never a problem, so those roster spots were filled with expensive in-their-prime free agents instead. If a draft pick made their way to the NHL, that was great, but if they didn’t, the collection of future Hall of Famers already in Denver wasn’t heavily impacted.
That all changed when the hard salary cap was instituted during the 2005 lockout. The Avs’ Dream Team was dismantled, and core players like Forsberg and Foote had to be moved to balance the books. Even so, the Avs continued relying on veteran players and trades to sustain the aging roster for years to come. The bottom predictably fell out in 2008-09, and the team has been trying to claw their way back up in the standings ever since.
Building a team in today’s league relies heavily on money management. Star players are still well compensated, but it means GMs need to get creative to fill out the rest of the roster as cost-efficiently as possible.
One of the main ways they do that is by bringing in players on entry-level contracts (ELCs). These are the first deals young players sign when entering the league, and their values are set by the NHL. As a result, they’re highly cost-controlled, and even with the bonuses built in, they often cost teams under $1 mil of cap space.
Unfortunately, young players are rarely ready for the NHL right away. Most need a bit of time to either adjust to pro hockey or the smaller North American rink.
That’s where the AHL comes in. Nearly all the players in the league are signed to ELCs with their parent organization and working their way towards an NHL roster spot. As injuries or cap-related trades open up opportunities, they answer the call.
As more and more teams rely on ELCs to fill out their roster depth, the league has shifted younger and younger. The Avs are no different; they currently boast the fourth-youngest roster in the NHL. But with their secondary scoring concerns and impending expensive raises for stars like Mikko Rantanen, it’s never been more important for the Avs to have a stock of good, young players in the AHL from which to draw.
The front office clearly agrees. This summer, they brought their development closer to home by naming the Colorado Eagles their top affiliate. In addition to better call-up travel times, it also made it easier for them to keep an eye on how their prospects are progressing. Besides, strengthening the hockey market Front Range could directly impact Avalanche ticket sales, so the team has a double interest in keeping the Eagles competitive.
But with the Avs’ poor AHL track record, there’s a reason for concern. How can a team that’s always struggled in this area turn it around? What are they doing now, and what can they learn from other teams across the league to improve their development pipeline?
Player Acquisition Type
First, let’s look at how GM Joe Sakic has built his NHL rosters. He’s been either the Executive VP or GM since the summer of 2013, so the time period we’re focused on ranges from the 2013-’14 season (noted as 2014 in most of these charts) to the current 2018-’19 year.
For this analysis, there are eight ways teams can acquire players, each with their own pros and cons.
The primary sources are:
- Drafted – players acquired directly through draft picks
- Undrafted – players who weren’t drafted but signed out of Juniors, College, or a European league (not the AHL)
- Unsigned – drafted players who signed with a different team after their draft rights expired
For primary acquired players, this is their first NHL organization. The team is responsible for helping them adapt to their first pro contract or, in the case of Europeans, the smaller North American-sized ice rink. No other club has assisted on this process beyond perhaps the occasional short camp, and these players are almost always young prospects. As such, most have untapped potential but require more time and resources to unlock it.
The secondary sources are:
- Free Agent – A player with previous NHL experience who signed with the organization
- Trade – players acquired in deals with other organizations
- Waivers – players claimed off waivers
- Signed – AHL journeymen who played their first NHL game with the team in question
- Expansion Draft – Selected in an expansion draft
Secondary acquired players are on their second organization or beyond. They can be young, but more often than not, they’re more veteran and require far less development time. There might be some untapped upside, but you typically know what you’re getting when you acquire a secondary source player.
So how has Sakic composed his teams?
Note: all the graphs in this article are interactive. Hover over the bars for more information, and sort the data using the controls to the right. If the chart is broken, the links are posted below.
Measuring the Avs
As far as primary acquisitions are concerned, the Avs ranked 23rd in 2013-14 with 11, then 24th in 2014-15 with 16. From there, the numbers drop to 12 (29th), 13 (29th), 13 (29th), and currently 7 (30th). Clearly, it’s not been an area of strength overall.
But when you remove drafting from the equation, the Avs are tied for 11th in undrafted or unsigned acquisitions at nine. Their four European adds rank fourth in the league, and only four teams boast more unsigned players than the Kerfoot and Toninato tallies.
Free agency is a different matter. Colorado was near the top of the league all through the Patrick Roy coaching years (2014-17), including ranking first during the lost ’16-17 season. But starting in ’17-18, the team plummeted to 20th in the league and currently resides at 26th. It’s likely not a coincidence that the drop happened the same summer Sakic committed to building a younger, faster team.
Waiver claims also jumped in ’17-18, almost directly taking the place of half the free agents. It should also be mentioned that each of the claimed players was younger than 27, which is the youngest age players are eligible for free agency.
Trade composition has held steady at about 30% but is up to 40% this season. Chances are good that this percentage will drop as the season wears on and more players are called up, but the Avs are currently the fourth most trade-heavy team in the league.
The average age of the Avalanche roster has fluctuated over the years as well. Under Roy, it sat near the middle of the league, moving slowly from 27.0 to 26.0 during his tenure. Once he left, it jumped to third youngest at 24.8 and currently sits fourth at 25.6.
The Avs also have the fifth youngest group of primary players this season at 23.3 years, as well as the third youngest trade contingent at 26.2.
A Traded Team
Even though the team has struggled to graduate draft picks, they’ve done a very good job of bringing in young players via trade. There’s nothing wrong with being a trade-based team; they’ve won many Stanley Cups over the years. And the Avs have done a good job identifying and bringing in talent, including critical players like Erik Johnson, Sam Girard, Semyon Varlamov and Philipp Grubauer.
The only problem with being trade-based is you need assets to deal. By looking at how the Avs acquired each of their traded players, a trend starts to emerge.
- Erik Johnson → Chris Stewart (1st round pick), Kevin Shattenkirk (1st round pick), 2nd round pick
- Semyon Varlamov → 1st & 2nd round pick
- Nikita Zadorov & JT Compher → Ryan O’Reilly (2nd round pick)
- Carl Soderberg → 6th round pick for free agent rights
- Sven Andrighetto → Andreas Martinsen (Undrafted, Europe)
- Colin Wilson → 4th round pick
- Sam Girard & Vlad Kamenev → Matt Duchene (1st round pick)
- Philipp Grubauer → 2nd round pick
Each and every traded Av was acquired using a primary asset. Most were gained through moving an established high round player or an un-chosen draft pick. The only true traded depth player was Martinsen, who was scouted and inked directly out of Germany as an undrafted free agent in 2015.
This underscores another reason why primary acquisitions and player development is so important. On top of being cheap and competitive depth, they also grow into prime trade pieces. The old adage of “Draft for Skill, Trade for Need” is one the Avs have taken to heart.
They’ve nailed the second half of the saying, but let’s take a closer look at how they’ve fared with the first.
Draft Pick Efficiency
Acquiring the Picks
Every season, NHL teams are given seven picks in the draft, one per round. The pick’s order is set by the standings at the end of the year and how teams fair in the playoffs. Teams are free to trade these assets as they see fit, either to help their current roster or load up for the future.
Sakic’s first draft was in 2013. Over the course of six drafts under his tenure, the Avs were given 42 picks by the NHL. In that time, they traded seven but received seven back from other trades to break even at 42 selections. This places them middle of the league (14th) in picks used.
Sakic has been the stingiest GM when it comes to trading selections over this time. The Avs rank 30th in dealing picks away, and only Vegas (who has existed for two drafts) has moved fewer selections. However, they also rank 31st in pick acquisitions, surpassed by even the two-draft Vegas. Despite their overall status as a trade-based team, not many of those deals brought back additional selections.
Interestingly, two of the picks in question – 2016 round 2 and 2017 round 6 – are found in both categories. Sakic dealt them away for Brad Stuart in ’14 and got them back as an extension of the O’Reilly trade in ’15.
Looking into the future, the Avs expect to be +1 in the 2019 draft through the addition of Ottawa’s 1st and 3rd rounders and the subtraction of their 4th (dealt for Colin Wilson). Unsurprisingly, no other future draft pick has been touched.
Making the Selection
Now that we’ve established how they’ve gotten their picks, what have they done with them?
Of the Avs 42 picks under Sakic, eight have seen NHL time with the Avs: Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Tyson Jost, Chris Bigras, AJ Greer, Andrei Mironov, and Spencer Martin. Will Butcher has also cracked the league, albeit with New Jersey. As a whole, the Avs have graduated 21% of their selections to the NHL, placing them a modest 14th in the league.
The middling numbers continue when looking at players with 100+ games played. The Avs have two: MacKinnon and Rantanen. They represent 4.8% of the Avs picks (rank: 17th) and the count of two ties the Avs for 15th with a handful of teams.
Once first round picks are removed from the equation, Colorado surprisingly jumps to 7th in NHL graduations at 17% (6 of 36). Take out 2nd round picks, and they sit at eighth (4 of 31). None of these players have played 100+ GP, so there’s still work to do, but the Avs have done well in the later rounds of the recent drafts all things considered.
On the flip side, they’ve struggled with graduating their first and second round selections. Of the 11 picks they’ve made in those rounds (which ranks 18th in the league), they’ve only seen NHL games from five of their players (45%). This places them at a worrying 19th overall. Two of the eleven players (Chris Bigras and Conner Bleackley) aren’t even with the organization anymore, and Cam Morrison’s rights expire in 2020.
As established above, these first and second round selections are critical for either filling out a roster or acquiring players who can. Of the remaining players, only Tyson Jost is an NHL regular, although Cale Makar is presumed to make his NHL debut later this year. That leaves AJ Greer, Nic Meloche, Martin Kaut, and Conor Timmins (who is currently concussed) in the AHL.
They join the ranks of 10 other Avs prospects who graduated to the AHL, including Travis Barron, Sergei Boikov, Mason Geertsen, Julien Nantel, JC Beaudin, Igor Shvyryov, Ben Storm, and goalie Adam Werner (he was on an ATO). Bleackley and Kyle Wood were traded as prospects in the Alex Tanguay deal, but have since played AHL games.
Added together, the Avs have seen exactly 50% of their 42 draft picks graduate to high level North American hockey, placing them at 17th in the league. 19 of them have played for the Avs organization (45%), dropping them one spot into 18th.
This isn’t great. For a team that has drafted near the top of each round more often than not, it’s concerning to see them so low in graduations. Yes, there are age and eligibility restrictions on many of the Avs prospects taken in recent drafts, especially those drafted out of Major Junior or the NCAA. But this is true for every team, and half the league is still producing pros more efficiently than the Avs.
So who is on the Avs AHL team if it’s not draft picks?
The answer is surprisingly other young players. Only San Jose has iced more undrafted or secondary acquisition players under the age of 25 than Colorado’s 91 within the past 6 seasons. The Avs’ affiliates also average out to be the youngest in the league over the six-year span and rank among the 10 youngest teams in each individual season.
That’s not a guarantee they’ve been good, however. The Avs affiliate has finished 23rd, 19th, 25th, 28th, and 23rd during the seasons under Sakic and haven’t made the playoffs since 2011. They also rank a low 24th overall in the percent of drafted players who have suited up for games in the six-year timeframe.
However, when you bump the games played requirement up to 40 games, the Avs’ affiliate jumps to 14th in the percent of drafted players in lineups at 40%. If the draft picks make it to the AHL, they’re given time and opportunity. This trend extends to non-drafted young players as well.
So how has that affected NHL graduation rates? Let’s look at all the NHL primary players from ’13-’19. How many graduated from the AHL?
As discussed above, the Avs are not a very primary-player heavy team. In the six-year span, they’ve only iced 30 players who fit the bill. Of those 30, half went straight to the NHL from either the draft or from Europe. This is this sixth highest count across the NHL, even if seven of these players later added AHL games to their tally.
Of the 22 total graduates, only nine have averaged more than 20 GP per season in the NHL: Calvin Pickard, Brad Malone, Tyson Barrie, Anton Lindholm, Mikko Rantanen, Chris Bigras, Tyson Jost, Dennis Everberg, and Andreas Martinsen. Of those, only four are still with the organization. AJ Greer and Spencer Martin are still here as well, although they’ve only seen short call-up stints thus far.
The Avs’ affiliate has ranked very high in drafted and undrafted prospects during this time frame, but many of those players spend multiple seasons with the org. 27 players either moved on or didn’t make the NHL by the time they turned 25 in the past six years, ranking the Avs 16th in total failed graduations.
This isn’t terrible, but it’s not a ringing endorsement either, particularly considering how poorly both the Avs’ NHL and AHL teams have fared during this time. 11 players are still with the organization, so there is hope they can turn it around.
Another interesting quirk is how little time Avalanche prospects spend at the AHL level. Only the Rangers (and Vegas, who’s still establishing their system) have fewer games played per graduate than the Avs’ 64.4 games. Compare this to Detroit at 117.9 games per player, and it’s a stark difference. Detroit has also graduated 50 players to the Avs 37.
There’s no doubt that the quick graduations of high draft picks and Europeans has played a role, but no player has suited up for 100 NHL and AHL games for the Avs. The closest is Barrie at 93 AHL games played.
Wrapping It Up
In the end, the Avs just aren’t getting consistent NHLers out of anyone who takes a little longer to get up to NHL speed. They’re trying – bringing in youth, exploring lesser used acquisition techniques, giving the young players ice time – but both the players and the AHL teams have struggled to take that next step.
The same can be said for the NHL roster. The two teams share a number of similarities, like overall youth, unconventional acquisitions, and largely lackluster team-wide performance. Even setting the need for a good development system aside, many of the issues plaguing the Avs’ affiliate are the same ones affecting the parent club. These aren’t separate problems – the same steps the Avs need to take to set themselves up for sustained success are the same ones that will fix their AHL program.
Many of the Avs struggles trace back to 1st and 2nd round picks. Rick Pracey helmed the scouting department from 2009-’14, but MacKinnon and Landeskog are his only top round selections still with the organization. While Ryan O’Reilly and Matt Duchene were moved for giant returns, most left with nary a whisper. No organization will bat 1.000 with developing prospects, but the Avs are still trying to recovery from receiving so little from the top of six consecutive drafts.
His successor, Alan Hepple‘s, top round picks are all still with the organization, but only two have established themselves on the NHL roster. The biggest difference from the Pracey years is three of the remaining seven (soon to be four once [if?] Timmins is cleared to play) are logging big minutes with the AHL club, and Makar looks poised to make the jump to pro hockey by the end of the year.
And unlike last year, players like Meloche and 3rd rounder JC Beaudin aren’t finding themselves buried in a third-tier league. Greer is second on the team in scoring and Kaut ranks fifth. Despite some recent struggles, the Eagles are still on pace for the best finish for an Avs affiliate in years, largely buoyed by these high drafted acquisitions.
Overall, they represent an influx of talent into a system in need. Draft picks are the cheapest and most reliable way to get good players on ELCs onto both NHL and AHL rosters, and those chosen within the top 60 each year are particularly key.
As the Avs transition into a contending team, they need to maintain a steady stream of at least role players (if not core-level replacements) in order to weather future cap-related storms. Depth picks are great bonuses, but if the Avs can get to average or above average in the number of high round picks that pan out, it’ll solve a number of problems.
Stockpile & Wait
On that note, you’d like to see Sakic be a bit more aggressive in stockpiling picks. Even late rounders have proven valuable in the hands of Hepple, yet the Avs haven’t given him much beyond the standard NHL allotment to work with. Last draft, Sakic did trade down six spots and pick up an extra 5th round selection, so it’s possible the Avs have realized this and may start gaming the draft a bit more.
(If you’re looking for a team that’s done well at this, take a peek at Chicago. Their graduation rates are fairly standard, but their Cups were mostly built on a shotgun drafting approach they’ve maintained to this day.)
Last season also had another departure from the norm for Sakic, who brought back a handful of bonus picks in the Duchene trade. Barring a trade, 2019 will be only the third time since the team moved to Denver that the Avs have had multiple selections in the first round. The Ottawa pick projects to be very high, and as such, they may or may not see AHL time. But as the Avs get better and their natural picks get lower, the hope is that more of these players find themselves on the AHL roster, bolstering both the quality of play at that level and the Avs’ graduation rate.
The overall roster depth should start to increase the time prospects spend in the AHL as well. So many of the Avs’ picks have jumped right to the NHL whether or not they were fully ready, partially because they were the best option available at the time. While it’s unlikely the Avs go full Detroit, both LA and Tampa are good examples of contending teams with longer development timeframes due partially to crowded NHL rosters. Ideally, you’d like to see the Avs headed that way.
Overall, the Avs are moving in the right direction when it comes to draft pick development, but it takes time to build a functional pipeline. They’re not there yet. In the meantime, they’ve been fairly exceptional at finding alternate sources of players, from European signings out of leagues most people have never heard of to wooing college players away from their original draft teams to a handful of surprisingly successful waiver claims. They’ve also made some blockbuster trades for young players, using older assets to shore up drafting failures.
While the draft is the easiest and most sustainable way to build a team, it’s not the only one. Pittsburgh has won two Cups in the past few years with a majority of secondary acquisitions, including ranking very high in trades. Their composition hasn’t looked that far off from the Avs, so winning isn’t directly tied to being a primary-heavy team.
Overall, Sakic has built a fairly impressive team using every strategy available to him, including the rare or more tricky ones. Even though there have been missteps, the front office hasn’t been shy about venturing outside of the box and has found repeated success while doing it.
There’s no doubt the drafting needs to get better. There’s no doubt the development strategies and rate of graduation out of the AHL need to improve, and there’s no doubt there are still NHL roster holes that need plugged today, tomorrow, next year, and five seasons from now.
But for the first time, perhaps ever, there are encouraging signs of progress throughout the entire organization. We’re already seeing signs of a more cohesive approach between the AHL and NHL affiliates under Sakic, particularly this year. They’re trying, and they’re finally headed in a direction that has brought other teams success in the cap era. It’s not perfect and they have a ton of poor history to overcome, but it’s progress.
Now we just have to wait and see if it’s enough.