It’s no secret that the Colorado Avalanche made a drastic turnaround this past season. Going from a second-to-last place finish in the entire league during the 2012-13 season (39 points in a shortened 48-game season) to a first place finish in the Central Division (112 points in a full season) in 2013-14 is quite remarkable.
During the Joe Sacco years (2009-2013), a time I like to refer to as the dark ages, the Avalanche had an average finish of 11th in the Western Conference and only one visit to the playoffs. Not exactly world-beater numbers. So, what made for the dramatic change last year? It appears there were many key factors playing a role in the Avalanche’s return to dominance.
Colorado Avalanche: Stanley Cup Attitude
The obvious answer is a change in leadership. The Avs promoted former superstars Joe Sakic (Assistant General Manager at the time, currently just promoted to General Manager), and Patrick Roy (head coach) to positions of power. They brought in two guys that just know how to win, and have a passion for hockey.
You could tell from day one, when Patrick Roy uttered the phrase at his introductory press conference, we might not win the Stanley Cup this year, but we’re going to have a Stanley Cup attitude; that things were going to be different under his watch. Then on opening night last year against Anaheim, Roy had a fiery outburst directed toward Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau, which led to the partition between the benches getting shoved down. The players rallied behind this because they knew the coach had their back. But there is much more than a change in leadership that led to the resurgence.
Sakic and Roy have also made plenty of bold personnel moves to forge a new roster that can compete with some of the best out there.
The biggest move to date would be the drafting of Nathan MacKinnon with the number one overall pick in 2013 draft. Some would argue that this was a no-brainer, but it wasn’t so easy. The Avalanche were coming off a season where they had put up decent offensive numbers, but were near the bottom of the league in most defensive categories. Plus they had a stockpile of quality centers in Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly and Paul Stastny.
The Avalanche could have made the safe call and go with the talented defenseman Seth Jones. Instead they opted for MacKinnon. They stuck to their draft board despite not needing another center and so far it’s paid off with MacKinnon winning the Calder Trophy and looking primed for a big season this year.
Another big time move was trading David Jones and Shane O’Brien to the Calgary Flames for Alex Tanguay and Cory Sarich. David Jones was often injured for the Avs and carried a hefty $4 million per season contract for minor production (9pts in 33 games his final season with the Avs). Shane O’Brien never really fit in with the team and was defensive nightmare most nights.
Trading these players got rid of some dead weight, opened up cap space and as a bonus Alex Tanguay is a top 6 winger that can still produce as long as he stays healthy.
Some of the more minor, but still important moves included:
1. The signings of journeymen defensemen Nick Holden and Nate Guenin. Neither player had done much in their NHL careers at the time they were signed, and most figured they were brought in as depth guys for the Lake Erie Monsters (Colorado’s AHL team). By the end of training camp both had earned a spot on the NHL roster. Guenin provided some solid stay at home play with solid penalty killing ability. Holden had to wait a little time before he got game action but once he did he took off and never looked back, posting 10 goals and 25 points in 54 games, plus another three goals in seven playoff games. Holden has a firm grasp on a top four position going into this year, and Guenin is fighting for the 6th defenseman position at the moment with Ryan Wilson and newcomer Nick Redmond.
2. A deal that was much criticized when it first occurred was dealing Steve Downie for Max Talbot. At the time Downie was filling a top six winger role, whereas Talbot was viewed as a 3rd/4th line player. Talbot came in and not only did he out score Downie the rest of the season (25 points to 17 points), he also provided 1st unit penalty killing minutes and a veteran leadership, something Downie was unable to provide for the team.
3. Sakic, Roy and their scouting staff, went out a searched internationally for some organizational depth. This was something the previous regime either didn’t take the time to do, or just didn’t think it to be a valuable resource. The Avs awarded contracts to young forwards Dennis Everberg and Borna Rendulic, and defenseman Maxim Noreau. Everberg surprised everyone in training camp this year and will start the year on the 4th line. Rendulic was one of the last cuts in camp and will most likely be one of the first call ups if an injury occurs. Noreau is stuck behind a bunch of depth, but should get big minutes in the AHL this season.
4. Lastly it’d be unfair to not evaluate the drafting Sakic and Roy have done outside of MacKinnon. They acquired defenseman Chris Bigras of the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack. Bigras was a member of Team Canada for last season’s World Junior Championships. He is described as a very smart defenseman with great skating ability. The Avalanche are very high on him and he should make another run at Canada’s World Junior team this year.
Mason Geertson of the WHL’s Vancouver Giants is another defenseman, making strides towards an NHL career. He is tough customer, who isn’t going to give you tons of points but will give you tough minutes.
Will Butcher, another defenseman, plays in the NCAA for the Denver Pioneers. Butcher played a big role for team USA at last years World Junior Championships and should have a more expanded role this year for the Pioneers. The only thing that is worrisome for Butcher is his size (5’10”, 200lbs); scouts are sure if it can translate to the NHL game.
On the offensive side, Connor Bleackley, of the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels is the big standout. He is the captain of the team, and plays in all situations. He is looking to build off his strong 68 pts, 29 goal, campaign last season. He is a very hard worker, but it could be a few years before he cracks the Avs lineup as he plays center where the Avs are very deep.
The combo of Sakic and Roy has had a somewhat Midas touch the last season and look to continue their success of turning around the franchise. Time will tell if the moves made this offseason (losing Paul Stastny to the Blues in free agency, signing Jarome Iginla, Mark Redmond and Jesse Winchester as UFAs, trading P.A. Parenteau to Montreal for Daniel Briere, trading for veteran defenseman Brad Stuart, and trading for backup goalie Reto Berra to fill the void left by Giguere retiring) will have the same impact as the moves made last year.
What I can guarantee is that the Avs are in good hands moving forward with the combo of Sakic and Roy leading the way, much like the glory days. The Avs are probably not going to win the Stanley Cup this year, but they will have that Stanley Cup attitude we all saw on a nightly basis last year.
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