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License to try again key to the Avalanche's coronation

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Twenty-two wins. Sixty losses. Forty-eight points.

It was the worst season in the history of the franchise and remains the lousiest, most barren full 82-game campaign since the NHL instituted a salary cap nearly two decades ago. But a season which was once a historical embarrassment, and one for which fans would have preferred to never to speak of, now simply serves as an indispensable reference point.

It wouldn't be one of the fastest rises for a championship team in modern NHL history without it.

Literally worst to first in five short seasons, the Colorado Avalanche matched the best-ever postseason record on the path to winning a Stanley Cup on Sunday night, defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games in the NHL's championship series.

Proving this was far from a fluke. Colorado earned its coronation over the greatest team of a generation, and in the process presented hope to each and every other franchise languishing through low moments.

Because it can, in fact, be done.

Even on a second try.

Literally worst to first in five short seasons, the Colorado Avalanche matched the best-ever postseason record on the path to winning a Stanley Cup on Sunday night. (Getty Images)
Literally worst to first in five short seasons, the Colorado Avalanche matched the best-ever postseason record on the path to winning a Stanley Cup on Sunday night. (Getty Images)

The Avalanche's story is an exceedingly important one. There was no mass reset or the blood-letting of an entire organization. They didn't need to unearth a whole new management team or assemble an entirely different collection of talent to turn things around. In fact, on- and off-ice remnants of the first failed attempt at a ground-up, organic build, which led to the colossal failure of 2016-17, formed the basis of the team's championship core.

Turning the page on his own immensely successful era of Avalanche hockey in the late 2010's, franchise legend Joe Sakic oversaw the selections of two of the very best players from their respective drafts in 2011 and 2013. Top-two selections Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon were supposed to pair with Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly to create a talent and leadership nucleus that would rival what the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins, among others, had.

Instead, and aside from an outlier season which proved hollow, progress didn't stall — it was hardly initiated.

Sakic made so many mistakes early on. It seemed he haphazardly brought in veterans on the downside of their careers, of which most failed to catch on. Unrest grew among the players and coaching staff, leading to O'Reilly's unceremonious exit, before an abrupt, but ultimately fortuitous, decision from former head coach Patrick Roy, who opted to leave his post just weeks before the Avalanche embarked on that miserable 2016-17 season.

While one franchise legend exited on his own volition, it was worth wondering if Sakic's standing with the organization was the only thing saving him.

But Roy's decision was the turning point in many ways; not because his replacement, Jared Bednar, has navigated this five-season turnaround masterfully (which he has), but because something changed inside the walls of hockey operations around this time.

It was clear for Sakic and his team in advance of the coach's departure that the first attempt at building a competitive roster failed, that they needed to start over, and, most importantly, that they had to look at things differently.

The seasons that immediately preceded and followed the 48-point disaster were about building a prospect base, once again, and moving on from the players that wouldn't fit into those timelines. That meant Duchene followed O'Reilly out in a trade. It also resulted in another several seasons choosing at the top of the draft, and the opportunity to bring in more foundational talent.

What seemed karmic at the time ultimately fell fortuitously for the Avalanche as they dropped in the draft lottery and chose fourth following the 2016-17 season. Because when three teams famously passed on Cale Makar, the Avalanche secured that final homegrown piece — and a Norris and Conn Smythe Trophy winner — to complete that title-ready nucleus.

Sakic made the right decisions, this time, while operating in the same space he did several seasons before. The Avalanche masterfully leveraged the rare commodities of cap space and patience to this time bring in the right complimentary talent.

With players like Nazem Kadri, Sam Girard, Valeri Nichushkin and Devon Toews, among others, brought in across a series of trades and moves which lopsidedly favoured Sakic and Co., it seemed the Avalanche were improving dramatically with each and every decision made with MacKinnon, Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen and, eventually, Makar, in mind.

Colorado nearly doubled its win total coming back from their 48-point season. The season after that the Avalanche showed their true potential in the first round of the playoffs, overwhelming the Western Conference-leading Calgary Flames in the first round. After that they finished with the league's third-best record before winning the President's Trophy the following season — just four years after setting a new standard for futility in the salary cap era.

Still the Avalanche couldn't, despite establishing themselves as a powerhouse in the league, push through the hard second-round ceiling that tormented MacKinnon and his teammates.

Making matters worse, suddenly there was a lot more pressure. Despite the meticulous build, the cyclical nature of the NHL was now threatening to tear apart what the Avalanche had become. The 2021-22 season represented the last best chance for the Avalanche to realize their immense potential.

Sakic had to be at his best, and was.

Tapping into a different sort of leverage — and the type earned on merit — the Avalanche paid a low price to complete their defensive core when Josh Manson decided that Colorado was the only team he would accept a trade to. Then as teams furiously parted with first-round picks and loaded packages for rental assets in a desperate attempt to plug holes at the deadline, Sakic chipped away enough at the Montreal Canadiens to pry versatile and controllable forward Artturi Lehkonen away to serve as the final piece to the puzzle.

It was Lehkonen who scored the goal to lift the Avalanche to the Stanley Cup Final. And it was Lehkonen who scored the eventual Stanley Cup-clinching goal.

One of the fastest, talented, and most complete rosters tore through the competition. The Avalanche have navigated one of the cleanest paths ever through four rounds and toward a Stanley Cup.

Parts of the foundation were in place, but this was a near-faultless five-year process and expert build.

And while Sakic's name and standing likely extended the leash, and it wasn't without at least an internal course correction, it wouldn't have been possible without the patience and grace shown throughout the process.

"You have to learn, and you have to grow," were the first words to come out of Sakic's mouth in his press conference prior to the Stanley Cup Final, seeming to speak from experience.

Frustration has been a major part of the Avalanche's story.

MacKinnon's sharp assessment after last summer's demoralizing second-round loss remains one of the honest we have ever seen from an athlete.

Now after 10 seasons, MacKinnon and the Avalanche have finally won "shit."

Because the franchise was given license to try again.

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