DENVER — These are short-handed goals coming off Joe Sakic’s hockey stick.
With the Avalanche unable to reach any deeper into their wallet due to the coronavirus pandemic, the general manager still managed to strengthen the roster of the betting favorite to win the 2021 Stanley Cup.
When the deepest Avalanche roster in 20 years hits the ice sometime around New Year’s Day, it will be worth remembering: NHL teams are being hamstrung by a salary cap that won’t budge from 2019-20 to the 2020-21 season. Usually the cap goes up. The pandemic held it steady.
“It’s a tough marketplace,” Sakic said Monday.
Ever play golf with a guy who says, “Wow, that was a tough hole,” right after he makes birdie?
That was Sakic when the pandemic turned free agency into one strange time — and the Avalanche still emerged as winners. The Avs traded for Brandon Saad, a 27-year-old forward from the Blackhawks. They traded for Devon Toews, a 26-year-old defenseman who played in every game for the Islanders. They re-signed key contributors Andre Burakovsky and Ryan Graves. They got better across the board.
Goal No. 1 for a tricky offseason was pretty simple: avoid regressing from a season that saw the Avs emerge as the No. 2 seed in the West. Mission accomplished. Goal No. 2: leave plenty of room under the flat salary cap to re-sign Cale Makar, Gabe Landeskog and Philipp Grubauer.
All are free agents next season. All should be affordable given Sakic’s handiwork this week.
“You see the marketplace. The flat cap is hurting a lot of teams. It’s not even (just) this year. It’s knowing it’s going to be flat for the next couple years,” Sakic said. “So it does make it a lot more difficult. You’ve just got to be really careful looking into the future. We know the contracts we have coming up next year. Whatever we were going to do this year, we wanted to make sure we keep our flexibility to sign the guys that we need to sign from our own group.”
Sakic said contract negotiations with Landeskog began in the NHL’s bubble in Edmonton.
“We’d like to have something done by the turn of the year. But if it has to go through the year we’re confident we have a pretty good relationship with Gabe that we’ll be able to figure something out,” he said.
The Avalanche, of all teams, know that a loaded roster guarantees nothing. Injuries and a worthy Dallas Stars club knocked them out of the postseason in the Western Conference semifinals. But plenty of folks, including yours truly, wondered how the front office could improve the roster even while the salary cap stayed put — and with the bill on several hefty contracts coming due in 2021.
“I think everybody’s trying to figure out what the landscape is going to be,” Sakic said.
When the NHL season opens Jan. 1, 2021, the pressure will be on the Avalanche to outdo semifinal runs in each of the past two seasons.
“We’re trying to put together as deep a team as possible to make a run this year,” he said.
This was a start that didn’t seem possible.