Despite the fact that they’ve only been around 18 years, the top five greatest Colorado Avalanche of all-time are good enough to line up with most all-time great teams.
Closing in on the final five wasn’t easy; much internal debate, flip-flopping, and justifying took place before finally coming to a decision. With all due respect to those that have come so far, Milan Hejduk has had more of an impact over a longer period of time than just about anyone in franchise history.
The 87th overall pick in the 1994 Draft to the then-Nordiques (the same year they took #8 on this list, Chris Drury 72nd), Hejduk would gain experience in his native Czech Republic, playing for HC Pardubice and becoming more of a scorer as time went on. He would also be apart of the surprise gold-medal winning Czech team at the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
Feb 14, 2013; St. Paul, MN, USA; Colorado Avalanche forward Milan Hejduk (23) is congratulated by teammates after scoring during the shootout against the Minnesota Wild at the Xcel Energy Center. The Avalanche defeated the Wild 4-3 in a shootout. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Hejduk would make his NHL debut in 1998/99, playing every game for the Avalanche, amassing 14 goals and 48 points, earning him a Calder Trophy nomination, though he would be bested by teammate Drury for the award. He also garnered an All-Rookie Team nod.
He would improve exponentially in his sophomore year, more than doubling his goal total (36) and hitting a new career-high in points (72) as the Avalanche rolled to yet another division title.
It wouldn’t be until year three, however, that Hejduk would have his greatest year both from an individual and team standpoint. The 2000/01 season was basically “the year the Avalanche tried to win a Stanley Cup for Ray Bourque.” Hejduk continued to improve, hitting career-highs across the board – 41 goals, 38 assists, 79 points. But it was the post-season where he really brought his A-game. With 7 goals and 23 points in 23 games, helping fill the huge void left by the injury of Peter Forsberg, Hejduk helped the Avs complete “Mission 16W” and hoisted the Cup for the very first time.
Injuries and inconsistency plagued Hejduk and the Avalanche during the 2001/02 season. Not only did Hejduk miss 20 games due to injury but frequent linemate and playmaker extraordinaire Peter Forsberg sat out the entire regular season recovering from various injuries. Hejduk would struggle in the playoffs as well, though the Forsberg Show nearly carried the Avalanche to the Stanley Cup Finals before succumbing to the Red Wings in the Conference Final.
Hejduk would prove that the previous year was an unlucky anomaly with his performance during the 2002/03 season. With a healthy Forsberg centering he and Alex Tanguay, the AMP line (Alex, Milan, Peter) was a dominant force in the league. Forsberg would go on to win the Art Ross trophy as regular season scoring champion as well as the Hart Trophy for league MVP. Hejduk would have a pretty good year himself, winning the Rocket Richard Trophy as league’s top goal-scorer with 50 and finished the year with 98 points – 4thbest in the NHL. Unfortunately, the regular season success wouldn’t be carried over into the playoffs as they would be stunned by the Minnesota Wild in the first round.
Apr 27, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Colorado Avalanche right wing Ryan Hejduk (23) during the second period against the Minnesota Wild at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
The 2003/04 season would see early dominance again from the AMP line before injuries limited Forsberg to just 39 games. Hejduk regressed slightly, back down to 35 goals and 75 points which is pretty damn good for a “let down”. This would be a significant year in Avalanche history as it would be the last for Forsberg, defenseman Adam Foote, and goalie Patrick Roy inDenver.
With the landscape in Colorado significantly changed coming out of the lockout that destroyed the 2004/05 season, Hejduk and Joe Sakic were now the veterans. Hejduk’s performance over the next several years would slide, aside from 2006/07 when he hit 35 goals and 70 points once again. His days as a consistent 30-goal scorer were done, though he hovered in the mid-20s and above 50 points.
By the time 2011/12 was in the books, however, it was clear Hejduk was over the hill. He had career-lows in every category, topping out at 37 points for the season as the Avalanche continued to slide towards the bottom of the league.
This off-season, Hejduk’s contract was not renewed by the team and though he is 37 years old and obviously on the tail end of his career, Hejduk has not expressed an interest in retiring, leading to an awkward situation where he could possibly play for another team.
Regardless of where he ends up, Milan Hejduk has had a significant impact on the franchise and city during his 14 seasons in Denver. He’s in the top five in just about every meaningful category in franchise history – second in games played with 1020, fourth in goals with 375 (he needs just six to pass Peter Stastny for third), fifth in assists, fourth in points, so on and so forth.
He may have never been recognized as a superstar but Milan Hejduk will be recognized as one of the greatest Colorado Avalanche of all-time.
Follow me on Twitter: @RWTFC