Thursday, October 1, 2009

R.I.P: The Glory Days of The Avalanche (1995-2009)

I never imagined I would be writing anything resembling an obituary for the Colorado Avalanche. Obviously, no one expected the glory days to last forever – I just never figured years ago that I would have a hockey blog now, and that I would declare those glory days… dead for the foreseeable future.

It hurts, really… realizing a team you’ve followed about 15 years is virtually guaranteed to be absolutely horrible for at least a few years. But it’s time to face the facts… the Avs are about to become the new Islanders.

However, it’s not like fans never saw it coming. We knew it was going to happen sometime. The Avs’ decline began – and yes, I’ve said it before – with the Aebischer-for-Theodore trade in 2006. Sadly, Aebischer already had the worse end of the deal, and it was then made worse by the fact that Montreal couldn’t play well in front of him and worked him out of their system. Then he wound up in Phoenix, a franchise for whom the downward spiral had already begun. Sad.

Every Colorado fan knows what a mess Theodore’s tenure was, so I won’t go into it. He’s Washington’s problem (and future backup) now. However, the goaltending has been the biggest issue in Colorado in recent years. It’s a no-brainer, really. No one was going to be able to replace the NHL’s All-Time Greatest Goaltender overnight (yeah, I know… Marty Brodeur passed Roy. Sue me, I’m baised). However, David Aebischer was doing a hell of a good job. At least for that first year, considering the kind of workload he had. When he became inconsistent, Peter Budaj stepped up. When Budaj became inconsistent, all hell broke loose when then-GM Pierre Lacroix made the trade that was as stupid, as his trade to get Patrick Roy was genius.

Aebby for Theo -- a guy who had yet to impress since winning the 2002 Hart Trophy (which I could understand, after he got the woeful Canadiens back in the Playoffs) and winning the Vezina over Roy the same year. Up to the point of that trade, Theodore’s record was four games under .500 (stats don't lie) since the NHL disgraced the Vezina Trophy by putting his name on it.

Obviously, goaltending hasn’t been the only place where the Avs’ front office has screwed up since then. The Avs were one of the reasons why the Salary Cap after the infamous lockout was a good thing. It just wasn’t a good thing for them. They committed a combined $15 million-plus to Joe Sakic and Rob Blake combined, for instance, and low-balled Adam Foote. Of course, that brought Foote to Columbus, which was a good thing (until Footer bailed), so I can’t be too judgmental on that note. Now, since the “up against the Cap” days are mostly behind them, the Avs will have to deal with being one of those “rebuilding” teams for a few years.

Among the front office’s other questionable decisions? Let’s see… how about demoting Tony Granato for Joel Quenneville as the lockout began, bringing Granato back last year, having Granato as a sitting duck as they openly pursued Patrick Roy for the head coaching position this year, then firing Granato for Joe Sacco. How about signing Brad May, just a matter of months after his joke about a bounty on Steve Moore’s head, before Todd Bertuzzi smashed it into the ice? I understand hockey is a business as well, but I think Pierre Lacroix has lost anything resembling people skills over the last few years.

The free-agent decision-making hasn’t been the greatest for the Avs on defense. The defensive corps is… well… meh. Ruslan Salei has been alright since the Avs signed him, or at least when he has been healthy. Still, he was second in defensive scoring behind John-Michael Liles. Adam Foote isn’t nearly the hockey player he used to be. He wasn’t great at staying healthy, either, having only appeared in 42 games. The defense is going to need its young guys to step up quickly. The blueliners simply have to play better for the Avs to even look respectable this year. If you look at last year’s stats (stats), only three D-men even had a positive plus-minus rating -- a +1 each for Daniel Tjarnqvist (2 goals, 2 assists in 37 games played), Lawrence Nycholat (0 G, 1 A, 19 games) and Aaron MacKenzie (0 points in 5 games). None of those guys, by the way, are listed on the Avs roster (here) currently.

The Avs’ fate will have to be determined early by its rising crop of young forwards. I have to say, I was shocked they extended Milan Hejduk. I had assumed he would be trade bait at the deadline. He will have to learn to be a leader. If, at age 33, he can get back some of his old form, and the young group of potential star forwards (e.g., Paul Stastny, Marek Svatos, David Jones and Wojtek Wolski) can stay healthy, find some consistency and get their stats on the upswing, the Avs might have a chance.

Of course, the offense may have to score a lot of goals to make up for an aging defense, and the two guys in the net. Budaj is coming off his only sub-.500 year as a goaltender, and has declined (stats) since swiping the starting job from Theo in ’06-’07. And Craig Anderson… I need help, who is this guy? But seriously, this will be a tough year for him.

The toughest loss the Avs took this year is the man who was very much the heart of the team: Joe Sakic. As much as I hate to see him go – and to see his number lifted to the rafters tonight in the Pepsi Center – it was time. I would hate it worse for him to be a part of this current mess in Denver, or even worse, playing elsewhere. If the man doesn’t feel like he can continue to compete at 40, that’s his decision. And for all of his great accomplishments, he did it all for one franchise. You don’t see that very often. Joe Sakic was and is a class act. And he was one of the great team leaders of this era of hockey.

Can Adam Foote lead this team? He’s no Joe Sakic, but sure.

Out of the Western Conference cellar? Maybe. After all, Phoenix probably has the biggest mess in NHL history to clean up right now.

Into the Playoffs? Ummm… no chance in hell.

This isn’t knocking Adam Foote. He was a decent leader for the Blue Jackets, before he unceremoniously bolted to a private plane after demanding a trade back to Colorado. I can’t be bitter about that, though, because one of the picks Columbus got out of that deal brought R. J. Umberger here, and helped make the Jackets into what we hope will be a contender for years to come.

Adam Foote has the ability to lead the Avalanche. Again, he did a good job in Columbus. The major difference: the Columbus front office made changes at the top, and Scott Howson is entering his third year with almost all the pieces he needs for a perennial contender. Howson was building a great team around Footer before he left. Now Footer has no such support from Colorado’s front office. For all the scapegoating of Tony Granato, Joel Quenneville and former GM Francois Giguere that seemed to take place the last few years, it’s clear that the Avs’ problem is at the top, with Lacroix. That is the change the Avs need to make if they are to ever climb out of the hole they’re in right now.

So as we open the 2009-10 season in Denver, Columbus and around the NHL, let us raise a pint at about 10PM Eastern Time to SuperJoe. He has earned it.

And let us all raise the pint again to Adam Foote. Good luck, buddy. You’re gonna need it. If you thought the Blue Jackets captaincy was tough… you’re in for a hell of a ride.

And by the way, I know people in Columbus aren’t too crazy about the nature of your departure, but we’d appreciate it if you’d show your face in Nationwide this year, and take the beatings like a man.