Colorado Avalanche: The Fallacy of Blaming the Coach

Nov 25, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Colorado Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy during the second period against the Ottawa Senators at Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 25, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Colorado Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy during the second period against the Ottawa Senators at Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports /

As the Colorado Avalanche show, the common practice of blaming the coach when a team under-performs doesn’t always work.

With the Colorado Avalanche’s season well and truly over and in a most disappointing fashion — with a season-high six-game losing streak — it’s time to start spreading the blame around. No matter how you look at it, the Colorado Avalanche under-performed.

The team certainly has talent. The core is comprised of four high draft picks — Matt Duchene (3rd-overall), Garbriel Landeskog (2nd-overall), Erik Johnson (1st-overall for St. Louis), Nathan MacKinnon (1st overall). Add to that the often wondrous play of Tyson Barrie and Semyon Varlamov as well as future Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla.

The Colorado Avalanche have done an adequate job of surrounding that core with capable role players and character guys. Jack Skille, Nick Holden, Cody McLeod, John Mitchell, Shawn Matthias — these are grinders in the purest, best sense of the word because they grind away at the games no matter what. You add to that another capable leader in Francois Beauchemin and some young prospects in Chris Bigras, Mikhail Grigorenko and Andreas Martinsen, and you’ve got what looks like a team ready to at least make the playoffs.

That’s why their late-season collapse and wholesale implosion is all the more baffling. Time to spread the blame.

As often happens in these circumstances, the coach takes the brunt of the blame. We all know the refrain — it’s the coach’s job to get the best out of his players with well-designed systems and inspirational speeches. Besides, the cold, hard truth is that it’s much easier to fire a coach than blow up a roster, so it’s become the habit to blame the coach.

That last isn’t true in the case of the Colorado Avalanche. The head coach is a player hero of the team, four-time Stanley Cup champion (twice with the Avs), Hall of Fame goalie Patrick Roy. It’s not as easy to fire an honest-to-God local hero — especially when his immediate boss is another local hero, GM Joe Sakic. The two won two Stanley Cups together for the Colorado Avalanche in their playing days.

If you’re team owner and governor Josh Kroenke, you don’t have a lot of choices of who’s better going to handle the job than the two heroes. Sakic came out with unwavering support for Patrick Roy, so you’d have to get rid of both, especially since the team’s problems can fall on Joe’s shoulders as well.

You can’t just do like a lot of other teams and bring up the AHL leader as a replacement — that man, Craig Billington, was once Roy’s backup goalie. The symbolism is too evident. You’d have to hire award-winning staff, and those men already have teams.

Don’t despair, Avs Nation. The insularity of Sakic’s and Roy’s jobs is actually a good thing for the Colorado Avalanche. It allows us to examine the fallacy of automatically blaming the coach when a team under-performs.

Origin of the Blame

The adage that the coach is to blame comes from journalists and from fans, not the people actually involved in the teams.

Why fans choose to look to the coach first makes sense. Usually fans love the players best. They’re our modern-day warriors. They’re young, athletic and nice to look at in form and function. They engage us in interviews and even in social media. We don’t want to think our handsome, young warriors are anything but heroes fighting the good fight.

That rationale may apply a little to journalists as well. However, I think journalists also like to solve problems and answer questions. They look at the games, watch them fall apart and surmise it must be the system that’s faulty. If only the system were better, the players could show off their talents.

Now, interestingly, journalists who have covered teams for a long time don’t always take this stance. For example, longtime Avalanche beat writer Rick Sadowski openly admitted he’s not qualified to evaluate coach Roy’s systems. Sometimes young or otherwise less-seasoned journalists think otherwise. This also true of experienced general journalists.

For example, longtime Puck Daddy writer Greg Wyshynski wrote recently about the Colorado Avalanche — he usually covers general hockey topics and is actually from New Jersey. According to a recent article, the Avalanche “fascinate” Wyshynski because of their dedication to nostalgia, among other non-hockey reasons. Wyshnski went on to state that Patrick Roy should step down as head coach of the team that “fascinates” him in a non-hockey way.

The problem with such opining is that none of these people are in the relevant locker room. Many of the fans attend practices, as I do, but we’re certainly not privy to anything but the on-ice portion, which is open to the public. That makes it difficult to diagnose issues with the inner workings of a team.

That’s when it becomes interesting to note that the people who have been inside Colorado Avalanche locker rooms for a long time, such as Sadowski, are not the ones purporting the fallacy that the coach is always wrong.

Let’s look at some more of the people who are always in and around locker rooms.

Player Opinion

Players and former players agree — the onus is on the players to get it done.

In fact, Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson put it exactly that way — twice. He said it first when he got traded to the Colorado Avalanche and then-coach Joe Sacco was under fire. He said it again recently in an interview with the Denver Post about current coach Patrick Roy. “The onus is on the players.”

Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog also took on responsibility in recent pressers when discussing the collapse that led to the team free-falling out of playoff contention.

This type of culpability transcends hockey. Former Denver Bronco and current radio host for The Fan Mark Schlereth said during the final Behind the Bench with Patrick Roy for the season:

"“There are a million things we can point to when it comes to leadership, but the bottom line is you need your core players, your best players, your most talented players, when it’s crunch time, they need to be the guys scoring the goals… A lot of this is dumped on the players, for me.”"

Schelereth added that it had been that way in his playing days as well.

Related Story: Understanding Roy's Criticism of Duchene

Real Life Comparisons

As I remarked above, we have a unique situation for the Colorado Avalanche because for once removing the coach isn’t the easiest option. We’ll see what happens when a coach and GM have almost absolute power to run a team even when said team falls into a skid.

We also have the opposite situation to use as a comparison. The Minnesota Wild suffered a similar collapse. The organization responded by firing then-coach Mike Yeo and hiring John Trochetti in the interim.

In the short term, the solution worked. The Wild won four straight. However, the problems that had been plaguing them all season — eerily similar to the Colorado Avalanche’s — crept back. They lost three straight.

In the end, Minnesota went 15-12-1 after firing the coach. In case you’re wondering, Colorado went 10-13-0 in that same stretch. Granted the Wild’s record was better, but not enough to justify firing the Avalanche’s player hero coach.

What makes this example even more interesting is a frustrated comment by Torchetti, who was an assistant coach with the Chicago Blackhawks. After the Wild finished the season with a five-game losing streak that even got them booed off the ice the same night Minnesota clinched a playoff berth, he said:

"“I was with Chicago. You ask Jonathan Toews to stand in front of the net, he stands in front of the net. Bottom line.”"

The implication is clear — the Wild weren’t listening to their coach, and that’s why they were losing.

They took that losing into the playoffs, dropping the first game with an embarrassing 4-0 score and lost Game 2 as well. Yes, they were without star Zach Parise, but the opposing team, the Dallas Stars, was also missing their best player, Tyler Seguin, for Game 1. The reasons the Minnesota Wild are losing are the same as why they were losing under Mike Yeo and why they finished the season losing five in a row — changing the coach changed nothing.

Just a note, the coach of the Dallas Stars is Lindy Ruff, himself a player-hero for the Buffalo Sabres. He also served as their coach from 1997 to 2013. He was fired when it was perceived the Sabres were under-performing.

Just three years later he’s leading a team to playoff victory.

Related Story: What is a Stanley Cup Attitude?

Implications for the Colorado Avalanche

More from Mile High Sticking

Joe Sakic — also a former player, obviously — was another who put the onus on the players during his press conference. In fact, he stated outright, “You don’t always look at the coach.”

As stated above, Sakic came out with unwavering support for Patrick Roy’s return as coach next season. However, the two are taking it upon themselves to look in the mirror and change whatever needs changing.

Sakic, as GM and VP of hockey operations, naturally maneuvers player personnel. Roy is actually VP of player personnel, so he has a lot of say in who comprises his team. That is one aspect of their personal responsibilities that both men are going to change as necessary — how they evaluate players.

Sakic made it clear what he was looking for:

"“We have to see, take a couple of weeks off to reflect, discuss and figure out if these guys want to learn what it takes to win and show it on the ice by playing the right way. For us right now we have to look and see if the players are going to buy into doing what it takes to win, not just trying to do it the easy way.”"

The implications are there — buy in, or you’re out, no matter who you are. Someone asked Sakic about trading core players directly, and he trotted out the old metaphor that Wayne Gretzky got traded twice. In other words, no player is untouchable.

I’m not proposing Patrick Roy is free of all blame in the collapse of the Colorado Avalanche. Contrary to popular belief, Roy has taken blame:

"“There are things that I could improve [as a coach]. One thing I’ve been trying to do is adapt to the team. If I thought we were struggling on our tracking, then I would try to facilitate this. Maybe I should try and persevere and be tougher on the message that’s how we want to play because I believe this instead of putting Band-Aids over Band-Aids. That’s the thing maybe I’m going to have to change in my structure.”"

I opined at the end of last season that we’d be seeing less of patient Patrick this season and more fire-and-brimstone Roy. Sure enough, coach Roy wasn’t preaching patience like he had been all last season. It just took a little longer for his fire to manifest in the public.

Again, I’m not privy to the locker room, but I’m gathering some things could have gone more smoothly. Maybe Roy’s transition from player’s coach to hardass was abrupt for some of the core players to handle. It’s likely those are the players who will find themselves on a new team next season, and no telling what kind of coach will await them.

Next: The Sound of Silence for the Avs

The Colorado Avalanche under-performed during the 2015-16 season. The coach has taken on some of the blame. Ultimately, though, the greatest responsibility lies with the men actually skating and playing the game — the players.