The Avalanche Culture is Poisoning the Players


The Avalanche are supposed to have already emerged from their rebuilding years. The 2013-14 season was supposed to be the team’s first year back as contenders. But they regressed last season and are struggling to start this year. The team is loaded with valuable picks all maturing at the same time, and the thus I see two futures open depending on the way Avalanche culture develops.

A Losing Culture

Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Tell me if this sounds familiar: a team loaded with high draft picks from within the last five years. The picks consist of some great offensive players, but the first couple picks all played their first years on bad teams. In addition, both teams have oft been accused of lacking strong defensive play and being lazy. (Think of former goalie J.S. Giguere telling the media the Avalanche were more interested in their trips to Vegas at the end of the year in ’13).

To me the comparisons are eerily similar when it comes to team building and performance between the Edmonton Oilers and the Colorado Avalanche. Yes the Avalanche had one good year, and have had a much better goaltender. But the Avs have always been woefully outshot during the recent era. And both visually and by the possession numbers the Colorado Avalanche have never dominated teams, even when they were winning.

But this isn’t really about wins or losses, this is about the culture that permeates a club. Consider what Oilers forward Taylor Hall said to Sporting News after winning IIHF Worlds this year:

"“You kind of forget how fun it is to be a part of a group of guys who win and have results.”"

And compare that to this short quote from forward Alex Tanguay during a post-game presser, “We keep finding ways to lose. It’s unacceptable.”

The Avalanche are coming frighteningly near to bringing up Landeskog, Barrie, and MacKinnon in an Avalanche culture where winning isn’t expected. And once that attitude permeates an organization it can be incredibly difficult to shake it — just look at the Oilers. Or what new Toronto Coach Mike Babcock said upon entering Toronto, “We need to create a safe environment for the players — right now, it’s a hard place. (…) Winning creates a safe place for players.”

Mike Babcock is widely regarded as the best coach in the NHL, and his immediate concern in Toronto wasn’t getting the right players in, or getting guys in shape. Babcock’s concern was changing the culture of the organization. This should hammer home how important culture is to the success of a team.

A Winning Culture

Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

So there’s another comparison to be made here. We all know about the Chicago Blackhawks’ winning records and their recent Stanley Cups, but like I said earlier culture isn’t about wins or losses. The Blackhawks are the complete antithesis of the Oilers in that winning surrounds and affects everything this teams does.

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Their winning culture is most evident by the way they have recovered from numerous significant player losses after their Stanley Cup wins. For example, following their first cup win in years during ’09-’10 season they lost Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, Colin Fraser, Kris Versteeg, Andrew Ladd, and Antii Niemi all in the off season.

Let’s ignore the skill of the players, because even without skill included that’s a massive turnover for a professional team. It’s hard for any team to lose six significant players and recover to have a decent year, but in the 2010-2011 season the Blackhawks put up 97 points.

And it’s the same after every year they win the Stanley Cup with their backs up against the salary cap,. They always manage to dump players and survive to succeed the next year. There’s a reason the Blackhawks can out-perform every other team in the league while constantly having to dump great players, and it’s because they make players great. The Blackhawks demand excellence all the time, and it shows.

If winning is to become the Avalanche culture, the Blackhawks should be their guide. They win every puck battle, they communicate and pass as well as any team in the league, and every player goes hard on both sides of the ice. Patrick Kane’s certainly not a defensive player but I’ve never heard him be accused of laziness in the D zone like I have Oilers or Avs players. And that’s because the Blackhawks don’t accept anything less then the best.

The Avalanche Need to Choose Quick

Apr 11, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Members of the Colorado Avalanche celebrate the win over the Chicago Blackhawks at the Pepsi Center. The Avalanche defeated the Blackhawks 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The core of the Avalanche are still relatively young, but they’re maturing quickly. The Avalanche need to decide if they want MacKinnon to be more excited for the World Cup at the end of the year because they don’t win in the season, or if the Avalanche culture will be defined by competing day in and day out.

A lot of the complaints this year about the Avalanche have mirrored what Oilers fans have been complaining about for years: lack of defensive commitment, lack of effort, and, of course, losing. The Avalanche need to change something quickly if they don’t want to bring MacKinnon, Landeskog, and the other young guns up to be looking forward to playing away from the team.

I’ll admit I don’t have an easy answer, but organizational changes doesn’t come easy. If the Avalanche can’t put the puzzle together with the group they have now, they need to start looking to acquire different pieces.

Next: Ranking the Central Division Arenas

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