How Sakic Duped Other General Managers: poaching restricted free agents

After watching the team he built progress to the Stanley Cup Finals, Joe Sakic should at least be in the running for General Manager of the Year, if not the favorite. From hiring and retaining head coach Jared Bednar to successfully trading Matt Duchene to drafting the league’s top defenseman at Cale Makar, a lot has gone right for the Avalanche to get to this point.

What stands out most when it comes to attracting the players needed to fill out the roster, not only for depth but also in key roles, was the use of savvy trades. One such move was turning the final year of Tyson Barrie’s contract away from Nazem Kadri to a three-year deal. This created even more impact by targeting restricted free agents and poaching them from other clubs.

This is an emerging phenomenon and market inefficiency that Sakic and the rest of the Avalanche front office staff have been ahead of the curve and have benefited from. As teams have to give their young and aging stars plenty of room for salary caps, the middle class is being squeezed out. Fear of high-quality bids plus arbitration has made better talent available than just selling for futures. Andre Burakovsky, Devon Toews and Artturi Lehkonen are each examples of this, and have been consistent regular-season performers alongside big goals en route to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Avalanche first pounced with Andre Burakovsky in June 2019 when the Washington Capitals failed to make a qualifying $3.25 million bid on an expiring two-year $6 million deal. All it took was a second round and a third round in 2020 and then they subsequently signed Burakovsky to a one-year deal that was well worth that qualifying offer. It was seen as rather risky at the time because, despite being part of the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup championship team, Burakovsky ended a 25-straight point season with a career-high 38 points. The Avalanche was clearly looking up, but it would have been an expensive move for just a fourth liner.

The real coup came in fall 2020 when the Avalanche picked a top pair defender in Devon Toews for second-round selection in 2021 and 2022. While he wasn’t really breaking through at this point after only 116 NHL career games, Toews is considered an analytics darling rather than a consumable by the hockey community, easily finishing in the top four. Still, a bigger contract was looming than the New York Islanders were willing to stomach, and it was traded a day after it was filed for arbitration, which was eventually settled with a four-year, $16.4 million contract in Colorado.

Toews got caught in the middle class when the islanders had to pay their stars like Mathew Barzal and Ryan Pulock. They also wanted to sign youngster Noah Dobson. It’s a shocking trade to look back on almost two years later given how important Toews has become to the Avalanche, but he was very much a part of this RFA deprecation phenomenon.

They had another trick up their sleeve when the Avalanche added another soon-to-be RFA to their arsenal in Artturi Lehkonen. The surprising part of this trade is that Sakic was able to snap Lehkonen at the 2022 close before the Montreal Canadiens had offers all summer. Abandoning potential defense attorney Justin Barron in addition to a 2024 second-round pick was likely what sealed the deal, making it the most expensive of the three deals. Still, adding Lehkonen as a playoff depth but also as a play going forward was a big win and worth the price.

The next question is what kind of contract Lehkonen will be awarded this summer as he has the opportunity to file for arbitration again, but unlike Montreal, the organization is without question that he has proven himself worthy of a multi-year deal. Maybe along the same lines as the Toews extension. The one-year, $2.3 million deal Lehkonen signed last summer was actually $100,000 cheaper annually than his previous two-year contract, but with his performance in Colorado, particularly 11 points from 14 playoff games so far, a raise is certainly in View.

It wasn’t just Sakic who figured out this talent acquisition route, as other general managers have quietly exploited the talent availability and expanded their arsenals. The St. Louis Blues brought in Pavel Buchnevich from the New York Rangers for a 2022 second-round pick and deep forward Sammy Blais. Another smart move was Sam Reinhart, moving from the Buffalo Sabers to the Florida Panthers for the 28th overall pick in the upcoming draft and potential goaltender Devin Levi. That cost was higher than a second-round pick, given Reinhart’s 65-point season under his belt. Each of the Avalanche, Panthers, and Blues organizations took a step forward this year by adding talent priced out of their current situation to basically just get futures in return. Who’s next this summer?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.