Joe Sakic’s summer to save the Colorado Avalanche

Feb 17, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Colorado Avalanche center Matt Duchene (9) and left wing Gabriel Landeskog (92) and goalie Semyon Varlamov (1) celebrate the win over the Montreal Canadiens at Pepsi Center. The Avalanche defeated the Canadiens 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Colorado Avalanche Vice President and General Manager Joe Sakic came out of this summer a winner. It’s a weird conclusion to draw, but I can’t see any way around it.

This is the general manager who oversaw the Avs abysmal 22-win season last year. With only 48 points in the standings, and nothing good on the ice, they were the worst team in the last decade. Sakic likely would have been fired if not for the abrupt departure of Patrick Roy before the start of last season.

Piling onto Sakic’s problems, the Avs started feuding with one of their stars last year. The main storyline heading into the summer was that Matt Duchene must be traded. Sakic has not traded him yet. Through the draft, free agency and training camp, Duchene remains.

Sakic received plenty of criticism for both events, but emerged more confident and in control than ever before. His secret was to return to being the stoic figure of his playing days, at least in the public eye.

Nothing to See Here, Local Media

No fanfare accompanied the Colorado Avalanche return to town this season. No airtime focused on who makes the Avs roster. There appears to be no optimism for this team other than, “it can’t be worse than last year.”

While Denver’s media is going Broncos crazy and touching on the Rockies’ precarious playoff chances, the Avs are absent from the discourse. Yes, the Avalanche are back, but why should Denver notice? 

Since the 2003-04 lockout, the Avs have fallen behind the other big three sports in town. When they have a good team or entertaining personalities, they’ve found moments of relevance, but the Avs don’t demand attention in their own right.

Former coach Patrick Roy played this game well. Roy used his personality as entertainment to turn the cameras on his team. He made the Denver media, by and large, pay attention to him with his antics, quotes and demeanor. He knew how to bring entertainment to hockey.

Sakic knows where that road leads. Sometimes it leads to great quotes, but oftentimes it forces you into controversy. Last year, when Roy walked out on the team a month before training camp, people were interested in the drama. Sakic unsuccessfully tried to run damage control. While he calmed media nerves, the team fell apart anyway.

This summer, Sakic was happy to stay out of the spotlight. Instead of trying to sell Denver a bad product, he gave them nothing to talk about. Without any smoke, no one could light Sakic on fire.

Five Minutes For Infighting

Nationally, the Duchene situation gripped the NHL conversation this summer. The NHL doesn’t get much national attention anymore without an ESPN contract. As a result, the national hockey communities are insular. These communities were ready to heighten the intrigue around Duchene.

Hockey fandom and hockey media are full of layers. You have the diehard fans on Twitter. You have the traditionalists who lean on Canadian sensibilities. You have groups that freak out over smart moves and trade rumors. You have people who hated the Nashville Predators’ Stanley Cup run last year because the city had too much fun.

Duchene has the fifth-most goals of any player born in the 1990s. These are all players 27 or younger with prime years ahead in their careers. Trading him became a hotly debated topic. Every fan base wanted Duchene for a discount, despite the value the Avalanche saw in him, so different segments of the hockey community tried to shame Joe Sakic into making a trade in the beginning. Sakic met them with radio silence.

Soon, people had to resort to wildly tweeting amongst themselves. While all sides were blasting Sakic for not making the trade, they couldn’t seem to pin down a reason.

The theories were fast and fluid. Sometimes Sakic refused good trades. Some thought Sakic was overvaluing Duchene. Some believed that NHL GMs had a bad perception of Duchene. Some felt like he was a locker room problem.

During his playing career, Sakic was known as “Quoteless Joe.” With the return of that strategy this summer, he let other people put words in his mouth, but he never spoke out of turn. There was always doubt about what was really going on. In the end, Sakic appeared as an elder statesman above the squabble of 24/7 hockey news.

Attitude Sports Features Matt Duchene

The one piece of the story that seemed up for debate was whether the Avs quit on Duchene or Duchene quit on the Avs last season.

No one thought Matt Duchene would make it to Avalanche training camp. However, Sakic didn’t have a lot of options. He could trade Duchene for nothing and risk further damage to the franchise or keep Duchene and risk rifts in the locker room.

Both options seemed risky, but Sakic chose the second option.

Duchene walked into training camp in a bad mood. He acted like a prisoner held against his will. Sakic let Duchene stand in front of the cameras and take the spotlight off the Avs inability to trade him.

How quickly this backfired on Duchene, fair or not, was all the proof many fans needed to see that Duchene was the problem.

Since then, Duchene’s attitude has softened. He’s having fun on the ice again. There seems to be a weight off his shoulders with the Avs. He’s less difficult to trade if he’s a team player. Point for Sakic.

Only then did Sakic emerge. In one of Sakic’s few interviews since last season ended, he spoke with longtime Avs reporter Adrian Dater. Sakic addressed where things stood with the Avalanche heading into this year. From Dater’s perspective, Sakic seems more confident in his GM role. The Duchene situation is still up in the air.

A Win For the Wartime General

It is rare in sports to find someone who can take criticism and come out with the better hand.

In Sakic’s silence, he emerged better equipped for this year.

Sakic never talked himself into a bad trade. He never spoke out of turn to ignite further controversy in the Avs locker room. He kept the pressure off himself locally and let the national hockey crowd fight amongst itself. He changed public perception about the Duchene situation to win people to his side.

Sakic stayed silent long enough to survive this summer with at least one more shot as the Avalanche GM. That’s one more win than the Avs had at the end of last year.

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