Avalanche in unfamiliar rebuilding mode

Ross McKeon
Yahoo! SportsSeptember 8, 2009

The Colorado Avalanche slipped down the mountainside last season, and it was quite a fall.

The dwindling loyal support, enthusiastic fans who once upon a time filled the Pepsi Center night after night, are not accustomed to witnessing the kind of colossal collapse the Avs experienced – last in the division, last in the conference and third-to-last in the overall standings.


Colorado's new braintrust includes GM Greg Sherman (left), and coach Joe Sacco.

(David Zalubowski/Associated Press)

To put it in perspective, the Avalanche won division titles in each of their first eight seasons in Denver after having relocated from Quebec City in the summer of 1995. The Avs finished second three other times, and as low as fourth just once – their only other non-playoff campaign (2006-07) in Denver, and they went to the final game of that season before their hopes were snuffed out.

No such luck last year when the Avalanche were making April tee times shortly after the Winter Classic.

The uncharacteristic demise triggered a number of inevitable moves in the offseason as the process of rebuilding had to begin. Francois Giguere was relieved of the general manager duties the day after the season ended. The responsibilities were handed to Greg Sherman by team president and one-time GM Pierre Lacroix, who blamed himself for letting things slide.

Lacroix has always had his own way of doing things with the franchise, regardless of what outsiders say. He invited Patrick Roy in for a chat, and rumors ran rampant that the Hall of Fame goalie would fill any role from coach to GM. Roy is GM of the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League where his two sons played last season.



Roy said he wasn't offered a position with the Avs, but it's hard to imagine the door isn't open. All the while Tony Granato was still the team's coach, but not long after, he was fired with two years remaining on a contract, and ex-NHLer Joe Sacco named in his stead.

The house-cleaning included three assistant coaches – Dave Barr, Jacques Cloutier and Jeff Hackett(notes) – executive Michel Goulet and the video coach. Phew!

But the biggest news, even if it was a foregone conclusion considering his struggles with injures the last two years, was Avalanche icon Joe Sakic(notes) announcing his retirement. Sakic spent 20 seasons in the league, all with the same franchise that started in Quebec City as the Nordiques. Sakic was Colorado's rock. When there was controversy surrounding the other stars on the team, Sakic always remained the consistent clutch performer. It's hard to imagine a front-office job isn't his when and if he decides to return to the game.

Other fan favorites were on the move, too. Pesky Ian Laperriere(notes) took the free-agent path out of town and Ryan Smyth(notes) and his big contract were dealt to Los Angeles for two defensemen in their prime – Kyle Quincey(notes) and Tom Preissing(notes). The Avs will have a decidedly younger look, but their climb back to respectability will not be an easy once since they play in one of the most balanced and challenging divisions in the league.

Last season: 32-45-5 (69 points). Fifth place in the Northwest Division, 15th place in the Western Conference and 28th overall in the league. Out of the playoffs for the second time in three years, but also second time in 14 seasons.

Imports: GM Greg Sherman, coach Joe Sacco, D Tom Preissing and Kyle Quincey (both Los Angeles), G Craig Anderson(notes) (Florida), D David Koci(notes) (Tampa Bay), RW Darren Haydar(notes) (Atlanta).



Exports: GM Francois Giguere (fired), coach Tony Granato (fired), C Joe Sakic (retirement), RW Ryan Smyth (Los Angeles), C Cody McCormick(notes) (Buffalo), G Andrew Raycroft(notes) (Vancouver), C Ian Laperriere (Philadelphia).

Re-signings: G Peter Budaj(notes), LW Cody McLeod(notes).

Salary cap: The silver lining when a team goes younger is the fact there's plenty of room under the cap ceiling. Colorado is committed to slightly less than $50 million (approximately $49.7M) and have roughly $9.5 million to play with, assuming the budget allows for the kind of spending since revues aren't what they could be due to slow sales at the gate.

Three keys: Colorado has to encourage an environment where the younger, untested players get an opportunity to play but not be put into a position to fail. Sacco, coach of the team's top minor-league affiliate, knows a number of these young players so he can recognize when they are benefiting from their expose to the game at its highest level, and when he needs to back off.

Third overall pick Matt Duchene(notes) will be given every opportunity to make the team out of junior hockey. Other young names that will be given a chance to emerge include forwards T.J. Hensick(notes), David Jones(notes), T.J. Galiardi(notes) along with defensemen Wes O'Neill(notes), Ray Macias(notes) and Kyle Cumiskey(notes).

Second, veteran wingers Milan Hejduk(notes) and Paul Stastny(notes) have to lead the way offensively. Hejduk is a natural, but he doesn't have near the support he's used to seeing in terms of linemates. The one-time 50-goal scorer slipped to only 27 while appearing in all 82 games last season at the age of 33. His goals, along with 32 assists, were enough to lead the team in scoring with the modest total of 59 points.

Stastny's third season was limited to only 45 games due to injury. He managed 11 goals and 36 points after breaking into the NHL with 78- and 71-point seasons, respectively. The problem with comparing numbers from seasons past is the roster is dramatically different. Players such as Hejduk and Stastny are going to have to figure out how to be successful with less around them.


Craig Anderson goes from a backup in Florida to a starting goalie with Colorado.

(Phillip MacCallum/Getty)

Goaltending is under the microscope again as when all else fails Craig Anderson or Peter Budaj will be expected to bail out the Avs. It's been a tough go in Colorado since Roy's departure. The Avs just haven't found the goalie they've been looking for, and the tandems they've tried haven't clicked either. Again, though, it's dependent on what's happening in front and the goalies haven't been getting enough help.

On the hot seat: Lacroix still has a lot of work to do, and much of it is fixing his own mistakes. The Avs are carrying a number of veterans that don't really belong on a rebuilding roster – Adam Foote(notes), Scott Hannan(notes), Ruslan Salei(notes), Brett Clark(notes) and Darcy Tucker(notes), especially. All but Hannan are set to be unrestricted free agents so they become rental possibilities for contenders. The problem for the Avs is teams won't be looking to make those kinds of trades until March, so Colorado is going to have to carry these guys longer than they'd like.

Poised to blossom: Craig Anderson was signed to a two-year deal to hopefully win the No. 1 goaltending spot. Anderson, 28, was mostly a backup in Florida, but he's the right man for this job because it seems the more rubber he faces the better he is. Anderson figures to see plenty of shots per night between the pipes in Colorado just like he did in Florida. His .924 save percentage was third best in the league last season.

Time has passed: Foote, Hannan, Salei – take your pick. The Avs' defense is too long in tooth and is too immobile. If the team can't find a way to move a few of these bodies it's going to either force the organization to look into buyouts or put some expensive players in the press box as healthy scratches.

Prediction: It's hard to imagine this being anything more than a rebuilding season where the Avs try to work in younger players and find a way to get rid of the older ones. Sacco and Sherman will be learning, too, both rookies at their jobs for the first time at this level. Colorado won't be in the playoff race and figures to be right in the thick for a top-five draft pick.