Winning a Stanley Cup is never an individual achievement. Even with the Conn Smythe Trophy awarded to the most valuable player in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, there are usually multiple candidates for the award over the four playoff series it takes to reach the summit of the hockey world.
For the Colorado Avalanche, who claimed the Stanley Cup in the 2021-22 season by dethroning the reigning back-to-back champion Tampa Bay Lightning, it’s an achievement that comes from top to bottom.
It’s an achievement that is a long time coming, a process that played out with a franchise icon leading the way at the top and started with another behind the bench, only to be placed in the hands of a hockey journeyman who rose through the coaching ranks. It’s also an achievement for the players who were around for the entire process, which included as many low points as it did the highest moments that were reached in this championship season.
When you think of the Colorado Avalanche, you likely think of their current GM who also served as captain for two Stanley Cup winning teams in the earliest years of the franchise. You think of Joe Sakic. Sakic retired from playing in the summer following the 2008-09 season, a 20-year Hall-of-Fame career that was spent entirely with one franchise relocated from Quebec to Colorado in 1995.
Two years after retirement, Sakic returned to Colorado as an executive advisor and alternate governor. Two years later, he was promoted to Executive Vice President of Hockey Operation and later formally named the general manager.
That was prior to the 2014-15 season. By that point, the team had already drafted Gabriel Landeskog with the second overall pick in 2011 and Nathan MacKinnon with the first overall pick in 2013. Erik Johnson was also acquired in a trade in 2011. J.T. Compher was acquired as a prospect from Buffalo in 2015.
In Sakic’s first draft as GM, he selected Mikko Rantanen 10th overall in the 2015 NHL Draft.
Two years later, the Avalanche were coming off an embarrassing season in 2016-17 that resulted in a 22-56-4 record and 48 points in the standings. It gave them the highest odds at the first overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft. In the lottery, three teams leapfrogged the Avalanche, suddenly sending them to fourth overall. With that pick, the Avalanche drafted the 2022 Norris Trophy winner and Conn Smythe Trophy winner, Cale Makar.
That 2016-17 season was also the first for head coach Jared Bednar behind the bench. Bednar’s playing career never made it past the AHL, only playing in 74 games at that level. He played 434 games in the ECHL from 1993 to 2002. After that, he had success behind the bench at the minor-league level.
In 2008-09, Bednar helped guide the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays to the Kelly Cup. Starting in the 2012-13 season, Bednar joined the Columbus Blue Jackets organization as an assistant coach with the AHL’s Springfield Falcons. Two seasons later, he was head coach of the Falcons, and remained in the role when the team moved affiliation to the Lake Erie Monsters. In the 2015-16 season, the Monsters captured the Calder Cup.
In the summer of 2016, Patrick Roy, legendary goaltender for the Avalanche’s glory years and then head coach, stepped down less than one month before training camp. The Avalanche hired Bednar to replace him, but with the short timeframe to prepare, it led to the disappointing season the Avalanche had in 2016-17.
Bednar’s teams continued to improve over the years. They finished with 95 points in his second season, losing in the first round to Nashville. They reached the second round of the playoffs in three straight seasons after, in each continuing to pick up more points, going from 90 in the 2018-19 season to 92 in the 70-game shortened season in 2019-20 to 82 points in the 56-game season in 2020-21.
In the meantime, Sakic continued to assemble the team that ultimately delivered the ultimate victory in 2022.
Samuel Girard was acquired in a trade in 2017. Pavel Francouz was signed in 2018. Logan O’Connor signed an entry-level contract with Colorado as an undrafted college free-agent in 2018.
Bowen Byram and Alex Newhook were first-round picks in 2019. Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky were acquired in separate trades in 2019. Valeri Nichushkin was signed in 2019 after being bought out in Dallas. Devon Toews was acquired in a trade in 2020.
That set the stage for the finishing touches in 2021 and 2022. Prior to the start of the season, Colorado acquired Darcy Kuemper in a trade and signed Ryan Murray, Jack Johnson, and Darren Helm. Early in the season, they picked up Nicolas Aube-Kubel off waivers.
In an active trade deadline, Sakic made multiple moves. He acquired Josh Manson from Anaheim. He acquired Artturi Lehkonen from Montreal. He acquired Andrew Cogliano from San Jose. He acquired Nico Sturm from Minnesota.
Those were the final pieces of the puzzle, right down to Cogliano playing through a broken finger, Manson delivering eight points in the playoffs, Sturm being a huge defensive presence, and Lehkonen scoring the game-winning goal in overtime in the Western Conference Final and in the second period of the clinching Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Those players may have been the finishing touches, but it was the five players from prior to 2017, when many more significant core pieces came into the picture. It’s standing by a leadership core that wasn’t reaching the conference finals let alone the Stanley Cup Final and seeing it through.
It was standing by a coach who had a dismal first season, but continued to gradually improve to become one of the NHL’s top coaches. It was trusting in the process of an NHL legend, one who lifted his franchise to the Stanley Cup twice before as a player, and having him do it all again as an executive.
In a salary cap era, Sakic masterfully worked to construct a team of winners. He remained loyal to the core group. He added more pieces to it through the draft, ones that can only help the team in years to come. But he also knew how to quickly build a champion through savvy trades and quality depth signings. For all the times you hear about Makar or MacKinnon or Landeskog, know that it’s the achievements of a Nichushkin, a Toews, a Lehkonen that ultimately lift a team to greatness.
Collectively, that’s what the Colorado Avalanche did. Much like Tampa Bay did two years earlier, it simply felt like their time, the year when everything finally fell into place to complete the puzzle. It’s only fitting that they defeated the Lightning to reach the peak of the NHL world.