Those are two words that, at one time, no self-respecting fan of the Colorado Avalanche could even imagine themselves saying. Even now, it’s impossible to say them lightly. To do so would be to discredit everything that general manager Joe Sakic did for this franchise as a player. To put this in the correct perspective, the man stands side by side with John Elway as the most important figures ever in Denver sports culture.
It should, however, be that same legacy that informs the decisions of Avalanche ownership on how to handle Sakic’s performance in the front office. At what point does Joe Sakic go from being the man who led the Avalanche on the ice to two Stanley Cups, to the man who damned the club to years upon years of rebuilding hell? Is it enough to know that Sakic has his jersey number and two Stanley Cup banners in the rafters at the Pepsi Center, or can even that kind of legacy be tarnished with enough managerial ineptitude?
The question must be asked, how long will Sakic get, exactly, to clean up the mess he played a large role in making (letting Paul Stastny walk, trading Ryan O’Reilly, paying Tyson Barrie, alienating Patrick Roy, and drafting a slew of “best-available” forwards when the glaring organizational needs were elsewhere)? Especially with one of the greatest grifters of all-time reportedly back in good health and all too willing to step in.
Indeed, after all Sakic has done for the Avalanche, as terrifying as it might be, it’s only proper to give him the chance to see the situation he created through to the end. At least then, there will be no doubts about Sakic’s management chops, or lack thereof, and fans can all either belt out their cries of “Fire Sakic” with certainty, or put the matter to rest once and for all. To that point I strongly believe that two players will, and should, define Joe Sakic’s success or failure as general manager of the Colorado Avalanche.
The first is obvious: Matt Duchene. The disgruntled center once pencilled in as the face of the franchise after Sakic’s playing days came to an end, is now a damn good liquid asset, made all the more expendable by some smart signings that genuinely should count to Sakic’s credit. There are some that believe Sakic is at fault for keeping the asking price high on Duchene. I respectfully disagree. A trade demand is hardly binding, and if Sakic doesn’t take this opportunity to right the ship, he could set this historically abysmal franchise back even further. If Sakic received such suitable offers at the trade deadline, as well as the draft, as has been reported by various outlets over the last several months, then he should be held to account for that by ownership until he makes it good. That means stopping the bleeding on D.
I would even offer that, with two years left on Duchene’s contract, it would be better for Sakic to take a hard line and let him stew for a while (even from a safe distance, if need be, to avoid locker room drama), if the only alternative is accepting a trade that does nothing for the Avs’ defensive woes. Ideally, Duchene would grow up, lace up the skates with no further grumbling, and work his own way out of Denver, even if that means playing in a third line role until he either gets a trade or gets over his issues with the team. After all, there might not be a top-six position for him on a team that includes Gabe Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, newcomers Rocco Grimaldi and JT Compher, newly-appointed chosen one Tyson Jost, a reportedly recommitted Nail Yakupov, and hungry college standouts Alex Kerfoot and Dominic Toninato. Sakic may well have replaced Duchene even before his name can be stitched onto another uniform.
The asking price for Duchene (alongside Tyson Barrie, if need be, to get the deal done) should include three options:
- A future elite defenseman, straight up.
- A defenseman who may never be truly elite, but is still demonstrably capable of being the #1 guy for Colorado, and who will be a restricted free agent when his current contract expires, plus a first-round pick.
- Two top-four defensemen.
If Sakic cannot get one of these options for Duchene, he should walk away from the table and find out what value Duchene places on his own career. Conversely, if Sakic gets an offer that meets this criteria, and proceeds to decline it, his days in the Avalanche front office should be at an end. If he accepts an offer that falls short, he should be run out of Denver on a rail.
That takes me to the player who should hold the second key to Sakic’s fate, restricted free agent defenseman Nikita Zadorov. As of this writing, it has been reported that Zadorov is seeking a two-year bridge contract at $2.5M per, and Sakic is offering $2M per, apparently a hill he is for whatever reason willing to die on.
Given the defensive market at the moment, and the sad state of the Avs’ back end, Sakic is truly fortunate that Zadorov isn’t trying to shake him down for $4-4.5M AAV with some real term. That is to say nothing of the salary Zadorov would command in the KHL, where he reportedly has a contract on the table and ready to go if things don’t work out in Denver. At worst, Zadorov figures to be that not quite elite defenseman described in item #2 above in a couple years’ time, and at best? The sky’s the limit. Sakic should not even be entertaining the possibility of letting a defenseman of Zadorov’s quality and potential leave with the team already as desperately inadequate on the blue line as it is right now.
Also of note is the fact that Zadorov figured prominently in the Ryan O’Reilly trade, from which one of the Avs’ acquisitions have already bolted for the KHL (Mikhail Grigorenko). Letting arguably the centerpiece of the package sent to Colorado follow suit would not be a good look for Sakic. More to the point, it speaks to Sakic’s biggest weakness as a general manager: a hard inability to pick his battles. We’ve seen it too many times during Sakic’s front office tenure already, and we’re quite possibly seeing it again with Nikita Zadorov over a half-million dollars that could well be the difference between the Avalanche having a legitimate shot at fixing their defense this season and setting the rebuild back another two or three years.
If it were any other general manager, they would and should have been shown the door by now. Even with Sakic, it feels like he perhaps should have been shown the door when former head coach Patrick Roy excused himself over the team’s innate inability to compete with the roster that was being assembled. Still, this is Joe Sakic, and this is a situation that could lead to a surprisingly good season if only he gets the right return for Duchene and makes sure Zadorov stays put.
If that doesn’t happen, it will indeed be time to, well, fire Sakic.