What the 2022 Canadiens can learn from the 2017 Avalanche rebuild

Eric Engels spoke to new Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes on his expectations of the current team, working alongside Jeff Gorton, what the biggest challenge of his new job will be, and more.

Today the Colorado Avalanche are one of the top Stanley Cup contenders in the NHL, with an electric collection of forwards, a deep defence and good goaltending (though they may still decide to upgrade for a run there).

But go back just five years to the 2016-17 season and the Avs were an utter disaster, with an historically awful finish that made them the worst 82-game season team of the salary cap era.

It wasn't supposed to go that way, though. That Colorado team wasn't made to tank, it was supposed to be making an attempt to return to the playoffs for the first time in three years. They had a good base of youth, surrounded by some capable veterans and some in decline, and stable goaltending. Absolutely none of it came together.

This year's Montreal Canadiens aren't directly comparable to those Avalanche. After all, the Habs made the Stanley Cup Final just last season and probably don't have a top-threeish player in the world like Nathan MacKinnon. They've just turned over their front office and may even change their coach by the time next season begins, whereas the Avs kept both Joe Sakic in the GM chair and head coach Jared Bednar through the tumult.

But as the last place Canadiens meet the Avs (who are tied for first in the league by points percentage) Saturday night, maybe there are some lessons they can take from their opponents when pondering rebuild vs. retool, or how to proceed with a disappointing yet depleted lineup that new GM Kent Hughes acknowledged needed some turnover.

"I need to take the time to get familiar with (the players), get familiar with the organization, staff, everything else," Hughes said this week. "We have challenges there's no question. The team's not where we had hoped it would be at this point in time. My opinion is some of that is circumstance, but there's no question there need to be changes."

Recognize the positives and keep them
The Avs, like the Canadiens, knew there needed to be some change coming out of the disastrous season, but burning the roster down for a full scale rebuild was not the approach they took. While Matt Duchene and even Gabriel Landeskog were a couple of names that hit the rumour mill in 2016-17, both were still on the roster when the 2017-18 season opened.

The one move that needed to be made in-season was done -- veteran and pending UFA Jarome Iginla was traded at the deadline for a conditional fourth-rounder. Those are the easy and obvious bits of business to get done and the Habs will likely take that approach with Ben Chiarot this year. Don't rule out Cedric Paquette also being traded by the deadline for similar reasons.

Sakic smartly slow-played his hand in trades. The Avs, even with a good starting base of young talent, were the eighth-oldest team in the NHL in the 2016-17 season and this year's Habs are roughly 16th. The Canadiens aren't a wasteland of a roster like the Arizona Coyotes, or nearly absent of established NHLers like the Buffalo Sabres. A complete teardown is an option for sure, but it isn't the required route here.

"I think there are some really interesting pieces here in Montreal that can be built around," Hughes said. "We have young exciting players whether it be a (Nick) Suzuki or (Cole) Caufield and we have some older and more established players."

The calibre of all those players isn't directly comparable to the 2016-17 Avs, but the mix of present and futures are in the same ball park. So, do the Habs have to trade Brendan Gallagher, Jeff Petry or Tyler Toffoli? Not necessarily all of them. If you want to be back in the playoffs soon, you might need some of those players around.

However, another major difference between these Habs and those Avs is that Colorado had many expiring deals on the horizon that allowed for some chance at cap flexibility. The current Habs were aggressively rebuilt by former GM Marc Bergevin on the fly to compete now and so there are a few expensive, multi-year deals on the books. Some of those will be hard or impossible to move (Josh Anderson for example). The fact there will be a relatively flat cap for a bit yet also exacerbates this difference.

One of the major challenges for the new front office in Montreal is to figure out how to maximize the value of its current vets either in a timely trade, or by just sticking it out with them so they can be producers when the team turns the corner.

Colorado kept Erik Johnson, who remains on the team to this day, and Nikita Zadorov until eventually letting him leave as a free agent. They kept Tyson Barrie for a while until finding the right trade to part with him. The Avs got back into the playoffs the very next season after bottoming out because they recognized they had some good pieces they didn't need to rush on from. Montreal, similarly, can't be written out of next season yet -- especially if someone like Carey Price can return and be effective.

Patience in approaching trades

Remember that after the miserable 2016-17 season, Matt Duchene (who was 24 at the time with two years remaining on his contract) wanted out of Dodge. There was plenty of speculation he could get traded by the deadline that season, and then when he wasn't it felt inevitable he'd be moved in the summer. That didn't happen either. There was some question whether or not Duchene would report to training camp in 2017 -- and when he did, he gave us one of the most famously miserable mugs.

At that point some people were questioning what was taking Sakic so long to pull the trigger, or if he really was the right person to lead the Avs through this transition. On Nov. 5, 2017, the deal finally got done -- a three-way trade with Nashville and Ottawa that, looking back, the Avs clearly came away with a win on.

While Duchene and Turris both fell off after the deal, the Avs came away with two key pieces that are still in place for their blue line today. Sam Girard stepped right into the lineup and has grown every year since. He's still only 23 years old and now on a long-term contract with a $5 million AAV. The Ottawa pick was pushed a year to 2019 and still ended up as the fourth overall selection, which the Avs used to take Bo Byram, one of the more exciting young puck moving blue liners in the game today. He's out with a concussion at the moment, but the Avs effectively got two top-four calibre young defenders in one trade for a disgruntled player they didn't rush to appease.

Everyone knew Sakic was going to trade Duchene, and although executive vice-president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton noted that no Habs players have asked for a trade to this point, everyone knows the new regime in Montreal will be seeking how to change parts of the roster. Sakic wasn't pressured into a deal too soon and was able to get exactly what he needed to move forward with. So, as we wonder about Gallagher or Petry or any other established player in Montreal who might get moved, it is wise to remember that rushing into things usually isn't the best way to do business.

Which brings us to...

Finding value

It's way easier to say this than to do it, but as Hughes talked about building out a "modern" NHL organization at his introductory press conference you start to get visions of a well-rounded group that considers different -- even new -- insights to make informed choices. It's all about finding inefficiencies in the transaction market and uncovering gold, something the Avs have thrived at doing.

The Duchene deal talked about above was the first trade of note. The second was taking advantage of the goalie market and giving up only a second-round pick for Philipp Grubauer in 2018. He solidified their goaltending for three years before pricing himself out of town (Colorado acquired one year of current starter Darcy Kuemper for their 2022 first and Conor Timmins). A year after the Grubauer trade, Colorado sent a second- and third-rounder to Washington for Andre Burakovsky, who has been a valued support scorer for three years now.

A couple of days after that, Sakic made another huge deal, getting Nazem Kadri from a motivated seller in Toronto for pending UFA Barrie and depth centre Alex Kerfoot. Kadri still needs to watch his discipline in the playoffs, but his presence as a cheap ($4.5 million AAV) and productive 2C option has been a massive upgrade from Kerfoot. No one could have foreseen the league-leading type of offensive season Kadri is putting together now, but his contract was always a value play for his position. The Leafs would probably want that one back.

In October of 2020, the now-contending Avs found more great value in sending two second-round picks to the Islanders for Devon Toews, who has been a top-pair defenceman and excellent complement to Cale Makar.

Even though the Avs were the worst team in 2016-17 by a mile it really wasn't long before they were trading away draft picks to help upgrade their team. They kept all of their first-rounders until 2022, but only added one other first-round pick along the way (Byram). Instead of building only through the draft, the Avs leveraged picks on the market to find undervalued assets who are now integral pieces to their team.

Draft picks are great to have if you're re-tooling to use as lottery tickets, but also to use in a trade when you can identify the right value and opportunity. The Canadiens have 11 selections in the 2022 draft (which they are scheduled to host) and the standard seven in 2023. Perhaps they can use some of their 2022 collection to accumulate future picks, or as values to acquire players or help unload salary and gain flexibility to do so.

Hit on the key picks

While the Avs didn't only build through the draft and the Habs don't have to either, it is imperative to hit on the highest picks you do end up with. After their bottoming-out season, the Avs lost the lottery and scooped Makar fourth overall. He might be the best player in the entire draft now.

The only other top-10 pick Colorado has made since then was the selection of Byram fourth overall using the first-rounder acquired from Ottawa and he looks like a great and important acquisition, too. Missing on either of those early firsts would have changed the entire outlook for the current Avalanche defence, one of the best in the league.

It's still too early to fully judge many of the other draft selections Colorado has made in recent seasons, but the Avs' mid-to-late round picks aren't coming along as quickly, nor should they be expected to. It's the early picks that have been important to Colorado's quick rise and with the Canadiens staring at an early first of their own in 2022 -- and perhaps even first overall -- it's vital to not miss.

The purpose of this was not to draw a direct comparison between the 2016-17 Avs and the 2021-22 Canadiens because some key areas, namely their contract commitments and front office set-up, are different. Montreal's path forward may not be as clean as Colorado's ended up being.

However, both the Avs from five years ago and Canadiens of today had playoff aspirations and were designed to win with a mixture of young and old, then failed miserably. Both dealt with injury issues that factored into their struggles, and the Habs are hurting there even more than those Avs. Both recognized change needed to happen to the roster. Both had a decent start on young NHLers in place. Both have some veterans that will be worth keeping into next season and beyond.

What the Habs and their fans can be reminded of here, though, is that they don't have to take just one road back to redemption. They don't have to trade everyone of consequence and scorch the Earth to build back through draft picks. That would be the longest road and the most uncertain.

Rather, by taking a page out of Sakic's book, the Habs can be patient in their approach and let the right trades come as other teams seek their own change, rather than just trying to take advantage of Montreal's situation. The best approach is to slowly turn over assets.

Patience may be hard to swallow when a team is at the bottom of the league and seemingly broken, but no rival will be keen to help out here. The very next season after Colorado bottomed out, the Avs returned to the playoffs and lost in Round 1. They've been one of the league's better teams ever since and are now trying to figure out a way over the hump.

As bad as it looks for the Canadiens right now, it doesn't have to be painful for long. The way to fulfilling a vision will likely take more than one draft pick, one trade, or one off-season to accomplish.

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