At this past Thursday’s retirement announcement, Joe Sakic made a very profound statement with grace and hope for the Colorado Avalanche’s future. Sakic simply stated that where the Avs are right now is in a precariously similar position to where the old Quebec Nordiques were prior to moving to Denver. With the infusion of youth into the system and the retirement of Sakic and others the Avalanche franchise is adopting a new face.
Over the weekend Woody Paige of the Denver Post had an article in Sunday’s paper entitled: Secretive Lacroix Drops His Guard, it was a good overview of Pierre Lacroix’s latest moves with the Colorado Avalanche. Pierre has done this in the face of some serious health concerns and challenges. The Avalanche offseason has followed suit, much like that of the Denver Broncos, it has officially become a sports soap opera.
In Paige’s article, Lacroix had this to say:
“If the fans of the Avalanche will be as passionate as they were and have just a little patience, as president of this company, I promise them what they deserve. Knock on wood (as Pierre emulated the sound), very soon we will be back on the top of hockey. We have only one goal: Stanley Cup.”
A very bold proposition indeed noted as much by Paige in his article.
However it seems echoes of the past seem to agree with this approach, for this hockey franchise, at precisely this moment in time.
Sakic confirmed as much last week. He believes that the franchise admitting that retooling really has gotten them nowhere and that rebuilding is the best route into the future. He reflected on how the old Nordiques became so good over time. Sakic mentioned it was that they had something to prove, after years of being beat down.
Looking back, the infusion of youth, new scenery, and the arrival of Patrick Roy allowed them to morph as a franchise virtually overnight, going from worst to best in the NHL, their first season in Denver as the Colorado Avalanche. There was a drive to be the best that sometimes can only be infused through a youth movement. The 1995-96 Avalanche team maybe didn’t know any better, but they found a way to become the best in their division, in their conference and in the NHL. The Avalanche wound up sweeping the Florida Panthers in the Stanley Cup Finals.
So for the future of the Avalanche, the template of how to rebuild and become an annual contender is now clearly in place.
The Avalanche won 32 games last season, eight more than the worst team, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Colorado was third worst in the NHL and was nine wins away from reaching the last playoff position.
It’s not that the Avs scoring was poor last season; it’s that it was the worst in the NHL, which really has required the team to re-evaluate. The Avalanche scored 190 goals for an average of 2.32 goals per game. It is a good ERA number for a baseball pitcher, but a poor average for a team in today’s’ high scoring NHL. Contrast those numbers with the highest scoring team, the rival Detroit Red Wings, who scored 99 more goals than the Avalanche and had an average of 3.52 goals per game.
Defensively the team continued to struggle in goal as they tried to find stability at the goalie position. The Avs allowed 253 goals for an average of 3.08 goals allowed per game, landing 26th out of 30 teams.
Just strictly by the numbers, it is obvious major changes were needed at the Pepsi Center for this hockey franchise.
The Avs 2009 Draft Overview
Taking the ground up approach, starting with this years draft results, the franchise appears to be heading down the proven ground to success. The draft was a success for the Avs having picked up two top scoring threats, three defensemen, and two goalies. The level of talent appears to be a cut above and makes way for optimism for the burgundy, black, white, and ice blue.
The Avalanche addressed its future needs with the third overall pick in Matt Duchene in this year’s draft. While it may have been a forgone conclusion heading into the draft that Duchene would be coming to the Avalanche, the way the Avs attacked the draft is worthy of note.
In Duchene, the Avalanche have secured a highly regarding scoring threat that may help to fill some of the void in fire power the Avs experienced this last season. While the Avs are committed to developing their talent at their own pace now instead of rushing them into action too early, don’t be surprised if Duchene plays a majority of this season with the Avalanche.
This past season with his team, the Brampton Battalion Duchene, he scored 31 goals and had a whopping 48 assist. Additionally, he is said to be a great penalty killer in addition to his being viewed as a pure scoring threat. These statistics and intangibles speak volumes about his character as a fairly humble leader on the ice. Duchene is a team player who will fill the void. His addition to the team will no doubt be an exciting addition. Moreover, it has been mentioned that Sakic will have some personal time to work with Duchene. That should suit Duchene just fine since he grew up a fan of the Avalanche.
Ryan O’Reilly is a solid two way player, as well, who plays center. He apparently has a great deal of upside, which makes him the type of moldable talent the Avalanche need to execute on the ice. He plays very good defensively and can make the hard checks. Moreover, he is also viewed as a student of the game and works hard on his preparation.
From there the Avs nabbed two solid defensemen in Stefan Elliott and Tyson Barrie who could make an impression sooner than later.
In order to reinforce the future of the net, the Avs took two well regarding goalies, the first of which was Kieran Millan who lead Boston University to the National Championship this last season. The Avs also picked up Brandon Maxwell, a kid with upside, but still needs refinement to tighten up his game.
Finally the Avs picked up Gus Young who is a younger talent on defense. He also has a scholarship to play for Yale. So he could be a few years out as it looks right now.
The Current Roster As It Stands
While the Avs are rebuilding, the youth movement is still somewhat in flux. The current roster has ten players on the roster under the age of 25. Offensively the Avs have some good experience up front over the age of 30 in Milan Hejduk (33), Brian Willse (31), and Darcy Tucker (34). However, only Hejduk has shown that he can still be elite among NHL scorers. With the absence of top tier scorers like Sakic and Stastny much of the season, the ‘Lanche could not generate enough offense to land them in the playoffs.
Missing from the Avs next season besides the captain Sakic will be Left Winger Ryan Smyth and his big contract. Smyth contributed 59 points to the Avs this past season. While Smyth had a postive impact with the team, it just makes sense to let him and his big contract go at this juncture.
Within the current youth movement on the roster, no other scorer has shown more promise than Denver University graduate Paul Stastny, who has had 63 goals and 122 assist in his three seasons with the club.
So, it is obvious how dire the need is for Stastny to bounce back this season. It’s also possible for the Avs to see Duchene in the lineup to help bring more depth to the scoring position. Colorado is taking the right approach however, promising not to push their youth movement before the time is right.
Defensively, Adam Foote (Assistant Captain) and Ruslan Salei are in the twilight of their careers on the ice. Players like Brett Clark, John-Michael Liles, Scott Hannan, and Tom Pressing must be prepared to lead defensively. The need of the hour is to help the young franchise take the next step back to having greater expectations and be competitive at the highest level. Foote and Salei have a great experience they can pass along; additionally, the Avs are intent on developing younger defensemen as well.
In goal, Peter Budaj resigned with the club to become the backup goaltender this season. His career save percentage is respectable at .902, he has not taken the next step with all of the promise he showed early in his career however.
This opened the door for the Avalanche to sign Craig Anderson away from the Florida Panthers. Anderson posted the third best save percentage last season at .924 as he went 15-7 as the backup in Florida. Should Anderson continue his great play and take full advantage of this opportunity, the Avs could be back on track sooner than later.
The Avs season really boils down to three players and how well their seasons develop. So, here are the questions around these three questions the team needs answered from these players.
1) Can Anderson become the answer in the net that the Avs have missed since Roy retired?
2) Can Paul Stastny stay healthy and contribute again at an All-Star level?
3) Can this year’s draft class, most notably Duchene, rise up to join and contribute with the big club this season?
As of this release, Duchene has apparently solidified his contract terms with the Avalanche.
Realistically, the Avs have lost their long time captain and a number of points and goals that they have proven can’t be easily replaced.
Colorado is poised to flirt with the playoffs and become a force beyond this season, should the in-house talent rise up to their full potential.
Don’t expect the Avalanche to make the playoffs this season, as Lacroix stated this is a process that demands patience.
However, believe Lacroix when he says this franchise has only one goal: Stanley Cup.
That is what will make this franchise dangerous for seasons to come.