Friday, July 17, 2009

Is there any hope for the Avalanche?

What a mess.

Ten years ago, anyone's list of the top general managers in the NHL would have included Colorado's Pierre Lacroix. At that time the Avs were one of the league's premier franchises, possessed perhaps the largest stockpile of raw talent ever assembled, and challenged Detroit for dominance of the Western Conference. The architect of their mini-dynasty was Lacroix, who was especially noted for his crafty trades and free-agency gambles.

My, how quickly time passes in the NHL.

Today the Avs are a humbled franchise -- their record streak of division titles is a distant memory, and their home sellout streak has followed suit. While attendance has dropped to Predator-like levels, franchise keystones such as Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy have shown no interest in being associated with the basement-dwelling years to come. Last month the Avalanche fired coach Tony Granato, but only after letting him twist in the wind for weeks while offering his job to former teammate Roy -- who politely turned them down.

How could this happen?

To get our heads around the scale of the Avs' regression, we have to look back at the roster moves made during their salad years. Take a peek, if you dare, at their first-round draft picks of the past 15 years:

95 - Marc Denis
96 - Peter Ratchuk
97 - Kevin Grimes
98 - Alex Tanguay, Martin Skoula, Robyn Regehr, Scott Parker
99 - Mikhail Kuleshov
00 - Vaclav Nedorost
01 - none
02 - Jonas Johansson
03 - none
04 - Wojtek Wolski
05 - none
06 - Chris Stewart
07 - Kevin Shattenkirk
08 - none
09 - Matt Duchene

What's worse -- having only two serviceable players to show for 15 first-round picks, or having missed the first round altogether 4 out of 9 times leading into a rebuild?

Digging a little deeper, it's clear to see that Lacroix (and his brief successor, Francois Giguere) handcuffed the organization with a pattern of win-now-pay-later trades during his time as GM. The Avs have two Cups to show for his efforts, and that is not to be marginalized, but look at the long-term effects that these trades had in the long run:

To Colorado:
Theo Fleury, Chris Dingman - Fleury had 33 good games in Colorado, then ditched them for New York. Dingman played a few seasons as a role player.
To Calgary: Robyn Regehr, Rene Corbet, Wade Belak - Regehr wears an "A" in Calgary and has a good shot at making Canada's Olympic roster. Belak is still a marginal player in the league.

To Colorado: Ray Bourque, Dave Andreychuk - Short-term additions to a Cup run, but neither stayed in the organization for more than 18 months.
To Boston: Brian Rolston, Sammy Pahlsson, Martin Grenier, 1st round pick (Martin Samuelsson) - Both Rolston and Pahlsson are among the league's most versatile players, and both will likely be playing in the Olympics this February.

To Colorado: Derek Morris, Dean McAmmond, Jeff Shantz - Morris was a standout for the Avs but was traded after only two seasons (see below); neither McAmmond nor Shantz played for Colorado the following season.
To Calgary: Chris Drury, Stephane Yelle - In Drury's prime he nearly hit 40 goals with Buffalo; Yelle still a fine defensive center at age 35.

To Colorado: Chris Gratton, Ossi Vaananen, 2nd round pick (Paul Stastny) - Only the Stastny pick makes this trade palatable. Gratton and Vaananen scored a grand total of 4 goals for the Avalanche.
To Phoenix: Derek Morris, Keith Ballard - Morris played 4 solid seasons in Phoenix before being dealt to the Rangers for three roster players; Ballard helped the Coyotes acquire Olli Jokinen.

3/9/2004 (the same day!)
To Colorado: Tommy Salo and a 6th-round pick - Salo won all of 1 game for Colorado.
To Edmonton: Tom Gilbert - Broke Paul Coffey's team record for scoring by a rookie defenseman, and is considered one of the top young defensemen in the game.

To Colorado: Jose Theodore - The former Hart winner flamed out in Roy's shadow, achieving career-worst numbers and eventually skipping town.
To Montreal: David Aebischer - A disappointment for the Habs, but that's only part of the story. Aebischer was only the first of a series of netminders to stagnate in Colorado, a trend which continued with their recent signing of Craig Anderson.

In sum, the Avalanche organization traded away the better part of a perennially competitive roster -- one which could have been built around Drury, Rolston, Regehr and Gilbert -- in order to establish a degree of insurance on their playoff runs of the early 2000s.

Lacroix was praised as a genius at the time, but his roster was based almost entirely on talent gifted to him from Quebec (Sakic, Forsberg, Foote) and Montreal (Roy, Keane). He was able to draft a mere 6 players who would go on to win the Stanley Cup with his organization, including duds such as Aebischer and Scott Parker, and they all came out of the three drafts between 1996 and 1998. Every other roster addition came at a price to the organization's future.

And it would appear those lessons are hard-learned in the Avs front office -- as recently as February 2008 they were trading top draft picks for over-the-hill veterans (Adam Foote) and paying top dollar for complementary players (Ryan Smyth).

Where do they go from here?

Sakic's decision to step away from the organization after 20 years, and Roy's refusal to be seduced into the coaching position, marks a turning point for the Avalanche. The last vestiges of their dynasty years are falling by the wayside, and new leaders are entering the fold.

Denver's best hope is that #3-overall pick Matt Duchene will develop in the same mold as 2006's third-overall, Jonathan Toews. The Avalanche desperately need a dynamic player who can deliver leadership as well as production. They already have a young forward core in Stastny, Wolski and Stewart, but none of those players will be a blue-chip player in the NHL.

But the real damage to Colorado's future is in the defensive end of the ice. The loss of four good defensemen via trade has left the Avs with a patchwork identity on the blue line. Half of them are veterans are far beyond their prime; half are former prospects who failed to pan out as hoped; almost all are lucky to collect an NHL paycheck. And the tandem of Budaj and Anderson in net is merely a placekeeper until the Avs can find a true #1.

This summer we have seen the first steps toward a true rebuild in Colorado. A new GM (Greg Sherman) and a new head coach (Joe Sacco), neither of whom brings NHL experience in their position, will enjoy the lack of pressure to win immediately. More importantly, Sherman's first major trade is a clear break with their history: overpaid veteran Ryan Smyth was shipped to LA for a pair of NHL-ready defensive prospects. For once, long-term investments are coming into Denver instead of being sent away.

But unless their prospects make a shockingly quick adjustment to life in the NHL, Colorado will remain in the wilderness for some time to come. Though Avalanche fans will enjoy the emotional retirement of Joe Sakic's number at their home opener, it might be the last meaningful event at the Pepsi Center until the 2010 entry draft.

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