When the 2016-17 season ended, the Colorado Avalanche looked likely to be one of the league's most active teams this summer.
The Avalanche had just 48 points last season -- the worst total in the league by 21. Colorado couldn't keep the puck out of its own net, allowing an NHL-worst 3.37 goals per game. Its offense wasn't much better, scoring a league-low 2.01 goals per game.
Those all seemed like reasons to assume that Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic would make major changes, perhaps trading a top player, signing a key free agent and trying to rebuild his downtrodden club around an altered nucleus.
Sakic did make a few moves, trading a fourth-round draft pick to the Nashville Predators for forward Colin Wilson, signing backup goaltender Jonathan Bernier and taking a chance on underachieving 23-year-old forward Nail Yakupov. But through the first month of free agency, Colorado hasn't pulled the trigger on the major, franchise-altering deal that many expected.
By waiting out the trade market, making mostly minor tweaks and keeping its core intact, an Avs team that won 22 games last season now looks like it could start the 2017-18 campaign with mostly the same core.
"You don't get 48 points and say, 'You know what, it was an off year. Let's just come back and regroup and do it again. We'll be much better,'" NHL Network analyst Mike Johnson said. "No group of players, even as bad as they underperformed, can turn it around to that degree."
In 2013-14, the Avalanche looked like a team on the rise as it won the Central Division before losing a first-round playoff series to the Minnesota Wild in seven games. Then-coach Patrick Roy figured out how to unlock the talents of goaltender Semyon Varlamov -- who was the runner-up for the Vezina Trophy that season -- and the team's young core, led by forwards Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Ryan O'Reilly, seemed talented enough to compete for years.
Since then, however, Colorado has been in a tailspin, as poor personnel moves -- such as getting little return for O'Reilly in a trade and neglecting its defense -- have compounded a stagnation in the development of its talent. And Varlamov, who was the team's safety blanket in 2013-14, has seen his play drop off considerably. Last season he had a 3.38 goals-against average and .898 save percentage in 24 games.
On top of it all, Roy abruptly left the Avalanche late in the summer of 2016, which gave Sakic little time to find a new coach. Colorado hasn't returned to the playoffs since 2014 and its point total has dropped each season since, from 112 to 90 to 82 and then to a meager 48 last season.
"I don't think Colorado is at this point [yet], but there is a bit of a danger of some the things that [the Edmonton Oilers] went through," Johnson said. "[If] your core group of players, the young guys you're planning to build with, [are] around too much losing too often for too long, I think it does affect how they prepare and how they play."
The key to Colorado's offseason plans seemed to hinge on whether Sakic could deal Duchene, a former 30-goal scorer, in exchange for a bevy of building blocks.
After the Avalanche opted to hold onto Duchene at the 2016-17 trade deadline, it appeared that they would take another swing at dealing him around draft time or during free agency, when teams generally like to retool their rosters.
Sakic apparently still hasn't found a deal to his liking and it looks increasingly likely that his team will head into next season with Duchene as a core piece yet again.
"Did they wait too long on Duchene?" a Western Conference scout wondered. "I think that the market will tank on Duchene if they don't trade him before the beginning of the year. I think there's a negativity that surrounds their team and surrounds him."
That negativity isn't so much a knock on the character or talent of Duchene -- who won a gold medal at the 2014 Olympics and the World Cup championship in 2016 with Team Canada -- as it is a reflection of Colorado's inability to become a contender with him as one of its main cogs.
"They should be better, which is troubling," an Eastern Conference scout said. "And they're not like all old veterans who are tired and don't want to play a certain way anymore. They have some young talent. But why are they talking about [moving] Duchene? He's one of the top offensive players."
The reason for dealing Duchene, 26, whom the Avalanche drafted third overall in 2009, instead of other players has a lot to do with his contract, which has just two years left, at $6 million per year. If Colorado doesn't anticipate being competitive during the duration of Duchene's deal -- which is a likely scenario at this juncture -- then turning him into longer term and cheaper assets makes sense. Colorado's other top players are mostly younger, locked up for more years than Duchene and could have greater value for the Avs as they continue to rebuild.
"The question is, 'What do you think of Colorado's odds to be really good in the next two years?'" a former Eastern Conference executive said. "If the answer to that is, 'The hill's too high to climb,' [then] they should trade an expiring asset like Matt Duchene for picks and prospects that could be more valuable to them down the line when they have a shot."
Though trading Duchene before the 2017-18 season had looked like the likeliest scenario -- and could still happen -- some now think that holding onto him could ultimately be the best play for Sakic. Duchene had the worst full season of his career, with 18 goals and 41 points in 77 games, in 2016-17. If he gets off to a better start and his value goes up, Colorado can command more for Duchene than it could last season or during the summer. Or if the Avs rebound, Duchene can reassert himself as a valuable contributor to their future.
"I think either he's going to have a great season and fit right back into the rebuild plans or I think there's going to be just the same [trade] market in February," a player agent said.
If Colorado can't trade Duchene, he will return to a roster that does have some decent young positional talent in Landeskog, MacKinnon, Tyson Jost and Mikko Rantanen, along with defensemen Tyson Barrie and Erik Johnson. And second-year coach Jared Bednar, who had a rough inaugural season behind an NHL bench, should have a stronger grasp on how to harness that young talent.
Bednar has won championships in the ECHL and AHL, and generally coaches who have similar past success tend to know how to get the most out of their teams in the NHL. If some of his players bounce back, Bednar finds his footing and helps the 29-year-old Varlamov return to form, his team can't help but improve. There's nowhere to go but up. But there are still too many holes to believe that the gains will be anything but modest.
Wilson and Yakupov have offensive talent, but have never put it all together on a consistent basis. Plus, they aren't seen as strong two-way players -- which is what the Avalanche, who didn't demonstrably improve their defense, arguably their weakest position, need most.
The clock is still ticking on Sakic to show tangible progress. With each passing day, the possibility of Colorado opening camp with Duchene and team that looks a whole lot like last year's seems more and more likely -- which could spell another down year with little-to-no reason for optimism.
"I don't know that we can evaluate the job Joe does until we know the deals he has been offered and if he gets anything in return, or if he actually makes a trade. But as bad as they were, they still have lots of holes in their roster," Johnson said. "Returning with the same group saying, 'I expect them to be better' ... I don't know if that's a feasible scenario."