What lessons Sharks can learn from Avalanche after Stanley Cup win

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What Sharks can learn from Avalanche after Stanley Cup win originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

Compared to the Colorado Avalanche, the Sharks might as well be playing in another league.
 
While the dynasty-minded Stanley Cup champions could only just be tapping on their ceiling, the Sharks are three years and running out of the NHL playoffs. Underscoring that, the Sharks have a 2-10-1 record against the Avalanche in the last three seasons.
 
But of course, not that long ago, it was the Sharks that were up and the Avalanche that were down. In 2016-17, the Sharks were coming off their franchise-first Stanley Cup Final appearance, while the Avalanche endured the second-worst campaign in the salary cap era. Colorado’s .293 points percentage that year was only better than the Detroit Red Wings’ .275 in 2019-20.
 
But what’s past is past. There’s so much that can’t be undone, be it the Erik Karlsson or Evander Kane extensions, not trading their stars at optimal times and more.
 
Instead, let’s look toward the future: How can the Sharks replicate the Avalanche’s path to the Stanley Cup? What are some of the pivotal decisions that the Sharks might have to face soon, and how can they look to the 2022 champs for guidance?

Belief & Patience

Obviously, having one of the league’s truly dominant centermen in his prime goes a long way toward Cup contention.
 
But what’s instructive about Nathan MacKinnon is both the Avalanche’s belief in and patience with him.
 
MacKinnon’s entry-level contract expired after the 2015-16 season, but statistically, he appeared to have plateaued. After taking home the Calder Trophy as an 18-year-old in 2013-14, MacKinnon’s points per game average actually fell from his rookie year (0.77) to his sophomore and third seasons (0.66).
 
He was still an up-and-comer, but his star had dimmed a little.
 
But the Avalanche doubled down, inking MacKinnon to a seven-year, $44.1 million contract. And he rewarded them … with a lower points per game average (0.65) in 2016-17.
 
Still, the Avalanche held onto their 2013 first-overall pick, and over the last five seasons, MacKinnon has become one of the biggest bargains in the game. His 1.31 points per game was third in the NHL in that period of time and doubled his 2014-17 output.
 
A perennial Hart candidate with just a $6.3 million dollar AAV opens the door wide to spend your cap space elsewhere on other areas of need.
 
For the Sharks, the MacKinnon example could be instructive when it comes to William Eklund or any of the other prospects coming down the pike. It’s not to say that Eklund will be MacKinnon, but if you believe in a young talent like the Avalanche believed in MacKinnon’s, bet early and big on it. The payoff could be staggering.

Trade Timo Meier?

The Avalanche weren’t going anywhere with Matt Duchene.
 
The 2009 first-round pick had emerged as Colorado’s best player by 2016-17, but he couldn’t stave off the Avalanche’s franchise-worst campaign.
 
Duchene demanded a trade that season, but general manager Joe Sakic held out, waiting until the next year to ship off his first-line center.
 
The three-team trade netted the Avalanche, chiefly, Nashville Predators prospect Samuel Girard and the Ottawa Senators’ 2019 first-round pick, which they would use fourth overall on Bowen Byram. Both blueliners are a big part of both the Avs’ present and future.
 
The Sharks haven’t been going anywhere with Timo Meier.
 
The 2015 first-round pick has emerged as San Jose’s best player, but the All-Star winger couldn’t prevent the Sharks from missing the playoffs once again.
 
Trading Duchene super charged the Avalanche’s rebuild, and while the Sharks have been steadfast that they’re not rebuilding, they may come to a crossroads with pending RFA Meier.
 
Let’s say the Sharks are well out of the playoff picture by the 2023 trade deadline. Let’s say Meier, like Duchene, tells you that he wants to join a winner.
 
Could the Sharks swing a franchise-altering deal by dangling Meier then?

“Find a Cale Makar Somewhere”

Much has been made about how the Avalanche’s dismal 2016-17 led them to Cale Makar -- drafted fourth-overall in the 2017 Draft.
 
Actually, the Avs, then the worst team in the NHL, lost the lottery, so instead of potentially choosing between consensus first-overall options Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick, they “settled” on Makar.
 
It’s also worth noting that the 2016-17 Avalanche didn’t go into the season chasing a top pick -- they were coming off an 82-point campaign and thought they could challenge for a playoff spot.
 
Point is, I get why some Sharks fans want to tank to increase the team’s odds of receiving a higher draft pick. But in the end, it’s not about where you pick, it’s about hitting on your pick, wherever it is.
 
In that regard, the Avalanche have been magnificent, especially in the top 10 of the Draft, over the last decade.
 
Since 2011, they’ve drafted Gabriel Landeskog (No. 2), MacKinnon (No. 1), Connor Bleackly (No. 23), Mikko Rantanen (No. 10), Tyson Jost (No. 10), Makar (No. 4), Martin Kaut (No. 16), Byram (No. 4), Alex Newhook (No. 16), Justin Barron (No. 25), and Oskar Olausson (No. 28) in the first round.
 
It’s worth noting that 2020 selection Barron fetched eventual playoff hero Arturi Lehkonen at the trade deadline, so that pick has paid dividends to the Avs already.
 
The Avalanche actually haven’t drafted well outside of the first round. Over the last decade, they’ve selected just one player outside of the first round who has played more than 150 NHL games, fifth-rounder Will Butcher in the 2013 Draft. The Sharks have picked five such skaters in the same period of time.
 
But when you make the right call on MacKinnon, Makar, and Rantanen, you’re going to come out ahead.
 
“What do you think other teams will take away from your team’s journey?” ESPN’s Emily Kaplan asked Landeskog after the Avs won the Cup.
 
The Colorado captain smiled: “Find a Cale Makar somewhere.”
 
That’s easier said than done, but can the Sharks replicate the Avs’ drafting success, starting with recent first-rounders Eklund (No. 7) and Ozzy Wiesblatt (No. 31) and whoever they snag at No. 11 next month?

Uncover Gems

Valeri Nichushkin scored zero goals in 57 games in 2018-19 and was bought out by the Dallas Stars that summer.
 
Andre Burakovsky averaged just 11 minutes a night in his last year with the Washington Capitals in 2018-19.
 
Because of back-to-back playoff suspensions, Nazem Kadri, despite consistent production, was sent packing by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the summer of 2019.
 
Devon Toews was the sacrificial lamb because the New York Islanders were up against the cap in the summer of 2020.
 
Nichushkin signed with Avalanche for just $850,000 in August of 2019. They acquired Burakovsky for a second-round pick, a third-round pick and a low-level prospect. Kadri and a third-round pick were brought in for essentially Tyson Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot. Toews cost two second-round picks. 
 
Think Dallas, Washington, Toronto or New York might want do-overs?
 
The Avalanche basically added three top-six forwards and a top-pairing defenseman for a middle-six forward (Kerfoot), a top-four defenseman (Barrie) and a bevy of non-first round picks.
 
It’s funny to note that Kadri, Burakovsky, and Nichushkin all found a new home in the summer of 2019, when the capped-out Sharks, just off a trip to the Western Conference Finals but reeling from the loss of Joe Pavelski, Gustav Nyquist, and Joonas Donskoi, needed as much cheap help up front as possible. They probably could not afford Kadri and his $4.5 million AAV, but did they look hard at Burakovsky ($3 million AAV) or Nichushkin (near-minimum)?
 
Going forward, the Sharks will need to beat other teams to more Alexander Barabanovs – 39 points in 70 games this past season for just $1 million AAV – if they want to win. A strong but reasonably cheap supporting cast is as essential to winning a championship as your club’s galacticos.

Stand By Your Man

Jared Bednar’s 2016-17 was arguably the worst NHL coaching debut in the modern era. 
 
Since 1967, only one other non-expansion head coach debuted with a worse points percentage over a full season than Bednar’s .293, Dave Chambers’s .288 for the 1990-91 Quebec Nordiques. Keep in mind that points were tougher to attain back then -- games ended in one-point ties -- so Chambers’ .288 was harder earned than Bednar’s .293. 
 
In fact, Bednar only got the Avalanche head coaching job after Patrick Roy abruptly resigned from the position a month away from training camp in August of 2016. 
 
Far from the chosen one, many a pundit thought that Bednar was on the hot seat after this dismal debut.
 
There was also an outcry to fire Bednar after the Avalanche were knocked out in the second round of the playoffs by the Vegas Golden Knights last year.
 
 So credit to Sakic and the Avs for standing by Bednar.
 
For the Sharks, this could apply to the beleaguered Bob Boughner, or whoever they bring in to replace Boughner.
 
But as with MacKinnon, it can be so, so valuable to be patient.