Since the post-lockout era has finally levelled itself out in the NHL, you know, to that point where we can actually identify the teams that are winning and should continue to win, the mediocre teams that are fighting for survival and the awful teams that are now realizing that rebuilding is the way to go. I never thought I would enjoy the salary cap days of the NHL, but in fact, I think there is some real good to it that makes watching the game more enjoyable. Although, if I was a fan of one of those mediocre teams, I think I would have a real problem.
As we’ve all seen by a couple of examples, mediocrity is very easy to settle into. In the playoffs for a year, out for year, in for a couple, out for a few more. Every time that these teams miss the playoffs, it isn’t by too much and when they make the playoffs, the scrape in during the last few days of the season. Sure, those days of biting your nails and watching the game with as much intensity as an elimination game in the playoffs can be fun, you still dream of the days when your favourite team doesn’t have to worry about these things, except for the actual elimination games in the playoffs… every year.
The Colorado Avalanche, to me, are falling into the category of mediocrity and it really doesn’t look very good on them. Sure, the Avalanche do not have the richest history in hockey lore, but what they do have should be celebrated. The days of Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Adam Foote and Patrick Roy, lifting the Stanley Cup in 1996 and 2001, are forever etched in time as some awesome days for a club that had to move out of Canada to survive.
In recent years, it has been quite the roller coaster ride, which has seen a combination of some very good draft picks, some incredible stretches of wins and everything in between. In 2009, with a last place finish in the Western Conference, the Avalanche were able to select Matt Duchene from the Brampton Battalion, who was arguably the best player in the draft this year, which the Avalanche managed to get third overall. This was a good time for the Avalanche, the signal of better times to come after a rough and tumble year, which held few positives.
The 2010 season with the emergence of Duchene as a young player destined to lead the franchise and a hot goalie in Craig Anderson, then just acquired from the Florida Panthers, the Avalanche shot up the Western Conference standings, only to scrape their way into the playoffs and have an early round exit to the San Jose Sharks in six games. Still, such potential had the optimism riding at an all-time high and why not?
Unfortunately, the optimism was somewhat short-lived, as the sophomore jinx hit Duchene and a couple of his other young teammates, Anderson felt some unrest early on in the 2011 season and was having trouble winning games. The team found some bad luck with Tomas Fleischmann, who was acquired from Washington to turn up the scoring, only to fall to a blood clot issue in his leg and his season was finished prematurely. Other star players like Paul Stastny, Milan Hejduk and John-Michael Liles all had troubles staying healthy in the year.
The most unfortunate thing about the 2011 season was not missing out on the playoffs. It was that the panic button was seemingly hit by team management and unrest quickly followed. Anderson was not happy with the club, he was later dealt to the Ottawa Senators for Brian Elliot, who didn’t fare too well with his new club. Meanwhile, Anderson was posting some tremendous numbers again in Ottawa. At the trade deadline, Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk, two of the team’s brightest young players, were dealt to St. Louis for Erik Johnson and Jay McClement. This was a deal that saw a lot of potential offense get dealt for a lot more of a defensive demeanour, which appears to be a change in team philosophy, an attempt to join the rest of the Northwest Division as a defense-first team and not carve their own path of speed and offense with the youth they already had on hand.
The off-season saw the team pare away players like Liles, Elliot and Peter Budaj to free agency, trying to take the team in this brand new direction. The rebuild looks to be officially on.
Definitely one of the more fortunate circumstances of the off-season in 2011 was the two first round picks held by the Avalanche, where they managed to pick up both Gabriel Landeskog, touted as one of the most NHL-ready prospects in the draft and Duncan Siemens, a smooth, puck-handling defenseman. Both are great prospects, but in a day where a team is up against opponents with solid, veteran players at every turn, prospects are only going to get you so far in the early stages of their development. Sure, there is another couple rays of hope coming in the near future, Landeskog might be sooner, rather than later, but even when the Avalanche scraped into the playoffs with their youth in 2010, their youth was already burned out and they had nothing left for that playoff run.
On July 1st, the Avalanche lost all of their scheduled players to free agency, which didn’t come as a surprise, but they did end up surprising just about everyone when they sent their 2012 first round pick and a conditional second round pick to the Capitals to help solve their goaltending woes, acquiring Semyon Varlamov. The Avalanche paid an arm and a leg to get an underachieving goalie (who came with plenty of hype to the NHL), that couldn’t stick with a club that hardly relied on their goaltending to win a lot of games in his tenure there. In a cap world where high draft picks are almost considered gold, the Avalanche have decided that Varlamov is the way to go. Varlamov signed a 3-year deal, shortly after the move, which gives him plenty of security in his new home and says that he should be considered the new number one guy.
The Avalanche also signed free agent goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere to a 2-year deal, hoping that he could provide the much needed mentorship that his new Russian teammate so desperately needs. Now, as solid as that idea may be, there is a part of me that says that Giguere will get more than his fair share of starts, because the 34-year old back-up keeper is their only other option at the moment.
So, goaltending is going to be a pretty big question mark going into this season, but to the Avalanche’s credit, they still have some potential here, which doesn’t make the two keepers into their Achilles heel for the season. No, I think we can leave that title to the reformed blueline.
As a number of teams have showed us over the past couple of seasons, having a strong defense in front of your goalie (no matter how much you’ve spent on them) will take you quite far. The Blackhawks and Flyers went to the Cup Finals on awesome bluelines in 2010, the Canucks and Bruins did the same in 2011, it is such a huge part of the game that can make offenses break out and goaltenders shine, defense has really become a pillar of an excellent franchise these days.
Sadly, this is where the Avalanche still need some work. Erik Johnson, a former first overall selection (2006) by the St. Louis Blues, came over in the trade with the Blues late last season and he’ll get the lead role on the team’s blueline. A kid that has fallen to off-season injury and couldn’t quite bring a young Blues blueline to prominence in his time there, another cast-off, if you will. Jan Hejda, an alright defensive defenseman, with okay offensive abilities, but he’s certainly not a game-changer, nor a bonafide top two defenseman. Ryan Wilson, an undrafted 24-year old, going into his third NHL season, has some definite upside, but his ups and downs seem to go with the team. Matt Hunwick, acquired from Boston last season, a player with a fair amount of untapped potential, but whether or not he finds the potential in him, especially defensively, is really up to him. Ryan O’Byrne, another cast-off from previous teams, has yet to find a niche with any team he has played for, but should provide some reasonable depth for this club, after signing a new 2-year deal at the end of June. Shane O’Brien, a hot-headed tough guy, who likes to play agitator, as much as he plays pugilist, not too bad in his own end, not a lot of offense, still somewhat of a liability for penalties though. Kyle Quincey, probably the closest thing to Johnson’s top two partner, a mobile defenseman who suffered a major shoulder injury in the 2011 season, which is considered to be a pretty good setback, but should look good on paper.
There are a good number of blueliners in that top seven that “should be” good players in the group sense, but between being cast-offs or liabilities, there isn’t a whole lot of glue holding this group together. Sure, looking at some of their prospects in Tyson Barrie, Stefan Elliot or Duncan Siemens, they have some good players coming up the ranks, but not many teams are going to throw this kind of talent to the wolves and say ‘defend our net.’ That would be counter-productive and silly.
With a motley group of defensemen, a pair of goalies that doesn’t exactly breathe confidence on paper, no first round pick next Summer and a general manager who likes to hit the panic button (dealing away prospects and picks), the Avalanche could be in for a long few years. On the bright side, 31 players signed on for the 2012 season are on 1-year deals at the moment, so a good portion of this team could be gone for the 2013 season, if nothing goes according to plan.