We’re getting down to the nitty-gritty now. The top 10. The best of the best. And for a few years during the mid-late nineties, Sandis Ozolinsh was among the best of the best.
The Latvian born defenseman was originally apart of the San Jose Sharks; the 30th selection in the 1991 NHL Draft. He would spend a few seasons with the Sharks, quickly establishing himself as one of the better offensive defensemen in the league despite his short tenure in the NHL, making his first All-Star game in 1994/95.
Just seven games into the 1995/96 season, the Avalanche, in their first year in Denver, acquired the puck-moving defenseman in exchange for power forward and former first overall pick Owen Nolan.
The Avalanche hadn’t had an offensive defenseman like Ozolinsh before. Hell, Uwe Krupp was probably the closest thing to it before Ozo showed up. And his impact was tremendous. Racking up 50 points in just 66 games with the Avalanche, he elevated the power play and gave the team an added dimension they didn’t have before. Suddenly a powerhouse, the Avalanche made their run all the way to the top, capturing the Stanley Cup. Ozolinsh was just as dynamite in the playoffs, picking up 19 points in 22 games.
Following up that kind of debut would be hard for anyone to top but Ozolinsh nearly did it. Hitting career-highs in goals (23), assists (45), and points (68), Ozo combined his dazzling offensive ability with underrated defensive play to finish as a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman while helping lead the Avs to the President’s Trophy for the league’s best record. Not only that, but he set a pair Avalanche records that year: most goals and points by a defenseman in a single season. The Avalanche, buoyed by Ozolinsh’s 17 points in 17 games, would return to the Western Conference Finals only to be subdued by eventual Cup Champion Detroit.
Beginning to battle injury, Ozolinsh again surpassed 50 points the following year, though he missed 16 games due to injury. He began the 1998/99 season on fire, putting up 32 points in his first 39 games before going down for the year to injury. He returned to form in 1999/00, his final year in Denver, with 16 goals and 52 points but by this point, he may have been more valuable to the Avalanche as a trade chip. Between his injuries, price tag, and the addition of Ray Bourque, Ozolinsh was becoming an expendable piece.
At the 2000 NHL Draft, the Avalanche took the plunge and traded the 27-year-old defenseman to the Carolina Hurricanes. Along with a second round pick, Ozolinsh went to Raleigh for Nolan Pratt, a first round pick (Vaclav Nedorost), and a pair of second round picks (that became Jared Aulin and Agris Saviels). In retrospect, the Avalanche got a whole pile of nothing for one of the best offensive defensemen in the game in the prime of his career.
But as his career unfolded, it looked like less and less of a blunder dealing Ozolinsh. His first year in Carolina aside, Ozolinsh battled injury and alcohol abuse problems, bouncing between five teams in seven years before finally calling it quits in the NHL after a last effort with the Sharks in 2007/08.
Though his career tailed off towards the end, Sandis Ozolinsh had about as large an impact as a defenseman could have. He was supremely underrated defensively while making his name by putting up the points. His superb skating, deft passing, and nose for the net put him on the short list of the most impactful Avalanche players.
And for that, Sandis Ozolinsh is one of the greatest Colorado Avalanche of all-time.
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