When Joe Sakic took on the responsibilities of Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations, a lot of Avs fans held their breath. In the past few years the Avs brass had let the fans down repeatedly, making moves like the one that sent Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk to St. Louis for Erik Johnson. It seemed to many as if they simply didn’t care about the success of the team, doing only what would make them more money regardless of how many fans they lost and how much damage they did to the organization’s pride and tradition. With Sakic’s return, many hoped that he would lead Denver to the promised land yet again. Few allowed their hopes to get too high, however, until one of the Mile High City’s other great legends returned to take on the position of head coach: Patrick Roy. Roy brings with him a successful record of coaching that includes a Memorial Cup, and more importantly, a no-nonsense attitude and the intent to create a winning atmosphere. Gone (hopefully) are the days of the Sacco dump-and-chase, wasting the potential of our young and aggressive core of forwards and placing too much pressure on a weak defense. It would seem that once again the Avs faithful have something to look forward to. But forgive us if we haven’t quite started celebrating; after all, Roy hasn’t coached a game yet, and we’ve certainly been let down before. They are definitely making the right moves, however, drawing hesitant appreciation and slowly proving that this new management isn’t here to mess around.
For starters, they hired an ancillary coaching staff that brings competitiveness. New goal coach Francois Allaire has an excellent record of success which includes both Roy himself and Avalanche net minder Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Roy certainly knows how to treat a goal coach, so look for improvement all around at that end of the ice. Adam Foote, another former Avalanche great, has also been brought on as a “defensive consultant” (effectively a defense coach who won’t travel with the team) which should hopefully provide some hustle and grit to a defense that could use both.
They also traded Shane O’Brien and David Jones to Calgary for Cory Sarich and Alex Tanguay. O’Brien was a blight on the locker room, alienating players and planning on trips to Vegas before the season even ended, and Jones’ contract was an albatross, weighing down the team with too much money for a player who was simply awful last year. Sarich has a similar skill set to O’Brien but much more experience, hopefully providing some leadership and good-ol’-fashioned wisdom to the very young defense. As for Tanguay, well, Avs fans already know what he can do. Tanguay is one of the best playmakers in organization history, with great hands that helped serve up a Stanley Cup in 2001 before he was traded a few years later. He was always a fan favorite, and while he’s not young anymore, he hasn’t lost much luster and will be a great fit on a line with the young goal scorers the Avs find themselves loaded with. Look for this move to be referenced often in favor of Sakic and Roy in the future.
At the draft they did exactly what they needed to: they took the best player available with the number one pick, and continued drafting for skill throughout the draft while still addressing the team’s needs. In all they drafted one forward (Nathan MacKinnon, who has drawn numerous comparisons with Vinny Lecavalier, a player who certainly earned his number one overall pick), one goalie, and five defensemen. The goalie, Spencer Martin, is highly athletic, physical, and large; he’ll be someone worth having in the pipeline. Chris Bigras had the highest rated skating ability in a draft class that was deeper than it has been in a decade, and is both big and smart. In fact, many projected him as a first round talent, so he could potentially make the team this season, but even if he doesn’t he should be a solid NHL defenseman soon. The rest of the defenseman Joe and Co. drafted are some combination of big, nasty, quick, or smart (mostly big and nasty), which is exactly what we need.
In the Free Agency world, the Avs have yet to make the splash some expected them to, but this is probably a good thing. In a year where the head of the defensive class was Andrew Ference, it’s safe to say that there wasn’t anyone who deserved the kind of money being thrown around by other teams (7 and 8 year, sometimes $50 million deals). Yes, the Avs would certainly have benefited from a player like Ference or Michael Rosival, but it is important to never overspend for a player, no matter who they are. They need the leadership and experience of an older and successful defenseman, but they’ll also need to re-sign Matt Duchene, Gabe Landeskog, Ryan O’Reilly, Paul Stastny, Semyon Varlamov, Tyson Barrie, AND Stefan Elliott next summer, so going overboard would have been disastrous. Instead they signed guys like Nate Guenin and Andre Benoit, who aren’t the same level as some of the “bigger” names available, but nonetheless bring competitiveness, experience, determination and leadership.
Finally, Joe has proved that his plan to bring Lord Stanley’s beautiful Cup back to Denver isn’t simply to reunite the old gang; the great Milan Hejduk will no longer be with the Avalanche. While sad news for any Avs fan, as he was always a class act and has the few franchise scoring records Sakic doesn’t have, he simply hasn’t performed recently and doesn’t fit anymore. The top nine consist of speed and playmaking, mostly young guys with Tanguay and Stastny thrown in, which in another time would’ve been the perfect fit for Hejduk. Unfortunately the beloved Av great simply isn’t fast enough anymore for those lines, and the fourth will be about size and physical impact (finally). As much as it is painful to see him go, it’s good to see Joe and Roy doing what is best for the Avs, not just what is sentimentally most appealing.
All in all, it’s important to remember that as it sits the Avs are still the second-furthest team from the Stanley Cup and it has still been several years since they’ve seen playoff ice. That being said, the new brass isn’t messing around; they’re making smart, responsible decisions designed for both short-term and long-term success, attempting to create a team that doesn’t just compete but that plays for the Cup, and that rewards the fans for their dedication. There is a long way to go, but with Joe and Patrick at the helm, Avalanche fans should finally feel confident that we’re headed that way again.