Hitting the Pipes: Colorado’s Goalie Habit

When Joe Sakic took the helm of the Avalanche in spring of 2013, he inherited a goalie stable that was reasonably strong at the NHL level but had little depth. Semyon Varlamov was just hitting his prime as a starter and JS Giguere was the solid veteran mentor. Behind them were 4 guys that had all turned pro before the lockout and had 1 NHL game between them.

Fast forward through 8 seasons and plenty of assets expended, the team has improved massively but the goalie situation is only marginally better. Darcy Kuemper is 6 years older than Varly was at that point and with similar talent. Both are/were in contract years. Pavel Francouz and Giguere are similar as well with Francouz being younger while JSG had the experience. Jonas Johansson has an edge over Calvin Pickard in the 3rd spot as does Justus Annunen over Sami Aittokallio. Same can be said for Trent Miner/Hunter Miska over Kent Patterson/Kieran Millan. As I said, marginal gains but there is more potential at this point.

So how did we get here and what happened along the way? None of the netminders from that era are still around, with Varly being the last to leave in 2019. Philipp Grubauer took over at that point and those two have been the only true starters in the Sakic Era so far, although Pickard was forced into it for large chunks of the 2016-17 fiasco. 27 goalies have been in or through the org in the last 8 years, I’m taking a look at how they were acquired (and for how much), what they contributed and how they departed.

Acquisitions

6 were in the system when Sakic became GM
5 signed as free agents
7 entered the org via the draft
9 came to Colorado via trades

Although they are but a memory now, the initial cadre has contributed the most by far and that’s with half of them having no impact at all. Varly, JSG and Picks played a combined 418 games for the Avs since 2013.

The Avs don’t see free agency as a great way to acquire talent and that’s reflected in the light use for goalies. Jon Bernier is the only NHL free agent goalie they’ve signed in the last 8 years, playing a solid backup role for a season before falling apart in the playoffs vs Nashville. Pavel Francouz was signed from the KHL, he and Bernie have combined for 83 of the 99 total games played by UFA signings. Jeremy Smith, Roman Will and Hunter Miska round out the crew.

The goalie drafting strategy, if there is one, is at best perplexing and at worst a frustrating pile of failure. Under Sakic they have selected Spencer Martin (2013 R3, #63), Max Pajpach (2014 R6, #174), Adam Werner (2016 R5, #131), Petr Kvaca (2017 R4, #114), Justus Annunen (2018 R3, #64), Shamil Shmakov (2018 R7, #202) and Trent Miner (2019 R7, #202). No one selected in 2015 or the last two drafts. There’s hope that Annunen and perhaps even Miner can contribute at some point but to date they’ve signed 4 draft picks and gotten 5 NHL games (split between Martin and Werner) from their amateur scouting and player development departments. We can see that the gap left by giving up on Marty and Werner too soon, the poor Pajpach/Kvaca picks and no pick in 2015 means that there was no viable 3rd goalie starting around 2017 and continuing to the present. We are in another of those gaps right now so this will repeat in around 2024-25. That leads to…

Trades! Yes, when you don’t have young goalies of your own you have to go buy one. Or nine. Part of this is the organization’s paralyzing fear of playing youngsters but regardless, they’ve consistently felt the need to acquire journeymen from outside the system rather than trust their own guys. It started with the Reto Berra trade in the miracle year of 2014, then a gap during the dark ages, and once again from 2018 to the present. Every year they’ve made the playoffs under Sakic they’ve traded for a journeyman. It’s so fun they even did it twice last year. Hammond (2017-18, part of the Duchene trade), Grubauer (18-19, 2018 R2), Bibeau (19-20, Nick Meloche), Hutchinson (19-20, Calle Rosen [or sort of part of the Barrie trade]), Johansson (20-21, 2021 R6), Dubnyk (20-21, Greg Pateryn [or Ian Cole if you like], 2021 R5).

Of course Grubi became the starter after a spell, that was ostensibly the plan from the beginning, and the Kuemper trade this summer (Conor Timmins, 2022 R1) are a different sort. You can make a case that the Avs haven’t drafted and developed a long-term starting goalie since moving to Colorado. They realize their limitations there and that’s fine. The draft capital isn’t available and there’s no inclination to start a goalie in his early 20’s. If we separate these two from the rest, it’s a 1st round pick, a 2nd round pick and Conor Timmins for 142 games of Grubauer and whatever happens with Kuemper. Re-signing Kuemper to a decent contract would help this but the value really isn’t bad either way. Would they get 3+ seasons of starting goaltending if those picks were used on goalies? I seriously doubt it.

The recent journeymen have cost a 5th, a 6th, Nick Meloche, Calle Rosen and Greg Pateryn and they’ve gotten 24 NHL games (regular season and playoffs) plus Johansson still in the org as a solid #3. Basically 2 picks they are fine with spending, a stalled out prospect and two minor leaguers they didn’t want. I’m not wild about the mentality or the need to use this strategy because drafting and development were MIA but the value isn’t bad.

Disposal

With 7 of these fellows safely in the organization for now, let’s look at how the rest departed:

14 left via free agency, 5 of those were RFAs that didn’t receive qualifying offers
2 retired (JSG, Millan), we might add Dubnyk to this number
2 were draftees that didn’t receive contract offers (Pajpach, Kvaca)
1 was selected in the expansion draft, Pickard to Vegas
1 was traded, Reto Berra to Florida for Rocco Grimaldi

On paper there’s not a lot here, 20 guys leave and Rocco is the lone return. There’s more to it of course, 19 contract spots and a fair amount of cap space were gained. Hockey media is just catching on to how important freeing up cap is but it’s definitely been a strategy for the Avs under Sakic. A couple draft picks would be nice but not having to buy out contracts is even better.

Big Picture

We don’t like individual wins as a goalie evaluation tool but as a GM it matters. The Avs are 314-241-63 in the regular season and 3-5 in playoff series under Sakic, however much goaltending had to do with it. For me, over the last 4 years in two cases goalie injuries were a huge factor in playoff losses. That’s tough luck but I don’t know if any of that was avoidable. In the other two losses I was left wondering whether they had the right guy in net. Apparently management tacitly agreed, choosing not to pay up for Grubauer on a long term contract and throwing down a chunk of assets in the Kuemper trade. Again, this is their lot in life since they don’t have the ability to draft and develop their own starter but the price they pay isn’t out of line. Evaluating this area depends heavily on where the Avs go from here. If Kuemper can win a 2nd round series and signs a reasonable deal then Joe ends up looking like a genius.

The journeyman acquisitions are really mixed. As a whole you have some highlights from Hammond, Hutchinson and Johansson at little cost and some stinkers with Bibeau and Dubnyk. I guess the key is don’t trade for San Jose goalies, right? Perhaps, but even better is not feeling the need to trade for San Jose goalies. Overall the outlay isn’t burdensome but a 4th rounder here and a minor leaguer there and pretty soon the opportunity costs will start to add up.

It appears that drafting any kind of goalie is off the table for at least 2 years so we’re in for a big gap between Trent Miner and whoever the next draftee is and no easy way to fill it. Over Sakic’s tenure the org hasn’t gotten any value out of drafting but combatting that by selecting no goalies whatsoever is an odd way to solve the issue.

Overall the Avs are at a fork in the road with their goaltender management habits. I’m not going to be alarmist and claim dark days are ahead because plenty of teams handle it the same way. It’s an aspect of NHL hockey where some do the work of all which supports others being consistent net buyers. They have to buy starters so they do. They haven’t found value in the draft so they stopped. A 3rd goalie is much cheaper and easier to acquire than a 3rd pair defenseman, which they have in spades, so until the way they handle the position directly damages the club in measurable ways… there are bigger concerns at hand.

earl06

Scoring LW, punchy climber for the Ardennes classics, spirit guide

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