It has been two years since the Avalanche traded former All-Star and 2009 third overall pick Matt Duchene.
Duchene, 28, had just begun his ninth season with Colorado, something he wasn’t expecting, as his agent and Avs GM Joe Sakic spent much of the 2017 offseason trying to trade him. Sakic held firm on his demands and refused to offload the center without receiving a great package in return.
The back-and-forth went into the season and into November before it became apparent that the Avalanche were working on a three-way deal with the Nashville Predators and Ottawa Senators. In fact, days before the trade was consummated, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported that a three-way deal had fallen through in the final moments, causing the assistant GM’s to get involved from the Senators and the Avalanche in order to help bring the teams back together.
The deal finally happened on the evening on Nov. 5, 2017. The Avalanche were in the middle of the first period against the New York Islanders at the Barclay’s Center. After a whistle had blown, and an injured Avalanche forward was skating off the ice, many caught Duchene sneak off behind him and word had gotten out that he had been traded.
The surreal on-ice moment was captured by the Avalanche’s Altitude TV stream and Friedman, among other NHL insiders, started to break news of the trade. Eventually, Altitude TV had received first dibs on reporting the full package Colorado received in return.
Colorado traded Duchene to the Senators for forwards Kyle Turris, Shane Bowers, goalie Andrew Hammond, a first-round pick and a third-round pick. The Avs then flipped Turris to the Predators for defenseman Sam Girard, forward Vladislav Kamenev, and a second-round pick.
And as we look back at the blockbuster deal from two years ago today, we ask, what exactly has changed for the Avalanche since that franchise-altering move?
The short answer? A lot has changed. The long answer? Well, let’s dive into it.
Nathan MacKinnon’s team
Starting with what may be the biggest indirect result of the trade, the Avalanche’s offloading of Duchene was a sign that Sakic was officially handing the keys to MacKinnon. The former first overall pick was a great talent but hadn’t put it all together to take that next step into becoming one of the NHL’s best.
Two weeks after the trade, Avs coach Jared Bednar brought Gabe Landeskog onto that line with MacKinnon and his winger Mikko Rantanen, forming what has now become a staple of dominance among the league for the past two years. MacKinnon ran with the opportunity in Duchene’s absence, evolving into a top-level NHL threat, and coming just a few votes short of winning the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player to his team in the regular season. MacKinnon finished the season with 39 goals, 58 assists and 97 points in 74 games despite starting the season with just five points in his first 10 games.
MacKinnon’s evolution continued last season, and after scoring a point in his first 13 games of the 2019-20 campaign, it’s apparent that MacKinnon has no plans of turning back.
“We want players that want to be here”
Defenseman Erik Johnson and Landeskog, the two leaders on the team, were vocal about their thoughts regarding the trade. Both were happy Duchene’s wishes were finally granted, but both were also vocal about their thoughts regarding the disgruntled player. With no genuine ill-will toward Duchene, Johnson said he was happy the trade had finally happened because he wanted players that wanted to be in Denver. The Duchene trade was the turning point in the team’s overall culture, as every player that has stepped into the Avalanche’s locker room since then has bought into what the Avalanche are selling.
The Avalanche have since turned over more than half of their roster with players that are excited to be part of the team, something that was lost from Duchene during his last 12 months in Colorado.
Girard joins the team in Sweden
In what was a surreal moment for the young blueliner, Girard, who was just 19-years-old at the time, was tasked with joining a team coming off a bad season in Sweden for a two-game series against Duchene and the Senators. Girard had the offensive pedigree the Avalanche hadn’t seen in a teenage defenseman since Tyson Barrie was drafted. But more importantly, he had the smarts to play on the top pair in the NHL and evolve into a top-pair defenseman.
Girard has done exactly that.
He was instantly paired with Avs top defenseman Erik Johnson, and two years later, Girard has evolved into Colorado’s go-to blueliner. This season, Girard leads the Avalanche in ice-time, playing 22:36 a game through 14 games. He has six assists and plays regularly on the power play.
The promise of what’s to come
With the first-round pick acquired from the Senators, the Avalanche drafted defenseman Bowen Byram from the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League. Byram was sent back to juniors during training camp, but the young blueliner is not expected to be there for long. Byram could join the Avalanche at the conclusion of this season, or early next season.
The puck-moving defenseman has top-pair potential and joins Girard, Cale Makar, and Conor Timmins as the new generation of defensemen for the Avs.
The Avalanche also used the second-round pick acquired from Nashville to trade down five spots and select goalie Justus Annunen. The Finnish netminder recently broke a record in the Finnish league for the longest shutout streak when he pushed past the 259 minutes and 28 seconds mark. Annunen, 19, also had a solid showing for Finland at the World Junior Summer Showcase in Plymouth, Michigan, last July.
He could very well be the first homegrown Avalanche goalie to make a real impact in the NHL.
Another indirect acquisition
Indirectly related to the deal, the Avalanche were able to make another move involving a goalie due to the bevy of draft picks in their hands. During the 2018 offseason, Sakic moved Colorado’s second-round pick to the Washington Capitals for a deal that involved Stanley Cup champion Philipp Grubauer. The Avs were able to move their own second-round pick because they owned an extra pick, the same one that was traded down to select Annunen.
In two moves that branch from the Duchene trade, the Avalanche acquired their now starting goalie in Grubauer, and Annunen, who could one day join him in Denver.
The Duchene trade was the turning point for the Avalanche. The same Avalanche that put together an embarrassing 48 points in 2017 have made the playoffs for two consecutive seasons since Duchene was dealt.
And after a successful playoff run in 2019 and an ample amount of acquisitions over the summer, Colorado has not turned back since the blockbuster deal.
The Avalanche have an opportunity to make some noise this season, perhaps even make a run for the Stanley Cup. And with more reinforcements coming from the Duchene trade and a lot of cap space still available, it’s clear that Colorado is only going to get better. And it’s all thanks to Sakic for being patient and eventually pulling off one of the biggest trades in NHL history.
What a great two years it has been.