Colorado Avalanche Season: Pain of the Final Implosion


The Colorado Avalanche suffered a total implosion at the end of the season that was painful to watch.

I know I’m being overly dramatic when I say this, but the painful implosion of the Colorado Avalanche taints the overall spectacle of the 20th Anniversary season. It was just so bad, and it brought with it such controversy.

In fact, at the conclusion of my last Colorado Avalanche season post, I remarked that it was the most painful time for me as an Avalanche fan — and I’ve been in since it was rumored Colorado was getting an NHL team. I’ve seen plenty of lows, including seeing my favorite player get traded, watching my heroes retire, and witnessing the destruction and perpetual re-build of the once-mighty team.

However, watching a group of well-paid athletes whom I admire completely give up, and thus bringing shame down on the player heroes at the helm, was the definite lowlight of my entire Colorado Avalanche fandom.

Dramatics aside, the end of the season is seen as a disaster by players, coaches, front offices, fans and outsiders. Going into the March 24 game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Colorado was in real contention for the final playoff spot after coming off a hot road trip that saw the team win three straight.

The Flyers game saw the players come out strong, face some adversity, and then completely lose their minds — in other words, a typical Colorado Avalanche game. Their total collapse in the third period — yes, of course they gave up a late lead — heralded the start of the implosion that took them through the rest of the season.

Implosion Statistics

The Colorado Avalanche capped the 2015-16 season, the 20th Anniversary season, by losing six in a row. Overall, in the last nine games, the team went 1-8. That record was bad enough to serve as a veritable concession of the final wild card spot to the Minnesota Wild — Minnesota clinched its berth with a loss because Colorado also lost.

In that time, Colorado got 18 goals while allowing literally twice that many, 36. Shooting was one-sided as well — 240 shots for vs. 314 shots against.

That helps explain the goal tending, but not completely. Semyon Varlamov got the lone win, but his goals-against average was a dismal 3.81, and his save percentage was just .896.

The skaters weren’t any better. Gabriel Landeskog and Mikkel Boedker were the points leaders with five each in nine games. The points leaders had only five points in nine games, and one of those was newbie Mikkel Boedker.

Granted, Matt Duchene only played in five games because of his knee injury, and Nathan MacKinnon missed that time period altogether. However, the stats are only the numerical manifestation of the implosion.

Turning Point

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Something happened between the Edmonton Oilers game on March 21 and the Philadelphia Flyers game on March 24. Because the Colorado Avalanche went from winning three straight on the road without some of their best players — and still gunning for a playoff spot — to complete collapse.

Starting with the Flyers game, the team barely looked like it belonged in the NHL anymore. I remember watching the April 1st game against the Washington Capitals and thinking, “Why can’t the Avalanche players even complete a pass?”

I talked to fellow Mile High Sticking writer Will Radke, who’s a hockey player and a defensive coach, about that turning point. He stated that when he’s played on teams that suffered a downturn in momentum, it’s because of “the belief that you can’t win.” He added that that leads to players “doing their own thing” instead of following the systems.

Will also stated that he thought the Colorado Avalanche players didn’t trust each other very much. He explained:

"“This leads to a lot of systematic collapses and would tie in with the theme that I’ve heard from numerous players saying ‘we didn’t execute the coaches’ systems well enough.’ Either that or they don’t trust Roy’s systems, but we haven’t heard even the slightest grumbles of that, while there was some bickering earlier in the year about the effort not being there from everyone. “"

I would acknowledge that the players might not completely trust in head coach Patrick Roy’s systems except why did it just hit them in the final stretch of the year? Whenever they implemented the systems — such as true rush offense or 1-3-1 defense — they were a very difficult team to beat. They even acquired their one win against the Minnesota Wild by implementing those systems.

I agree that the players seemed to stop trusting each other, and I think it stems from the locker room.

Related Story: What is a Stanley Cup Attitude?

Young Leadership Deficit

Around the end of the season, I wrote an article about Gabriel Landeskog’s falling stock as captain. I now regret how harsh I was on him particularly — especially since I wished for his trade — but leadership definitely fell apart with the team in the final stretch of the season.

The young players are known for not always taking the game seriously, for perhaps caring more about the lifestyle than the work. This was a theme in Joe Sacco’s final year, when then-goalie J.S. Giguere had to berate the young players for planning their Las Vegas vacations instead of preparing for games:

"“Some guys are more worried about their Vegas trip at the end of the season than playing the games, than playing every minute of the games. Quite frankly, I don’t care about your Vegas trip right now.”"

That’s damning enough, but what Giguere told former Denver Post writer Adrian Dater afterwards is even worse. He remarked that the team had to “find a way to get out of this losing mentality.”

A theme I’ve been exploring already during this long off-season is a lack of a “Stanley Cup attitude,” or winning mentality, evident with the players. As far back as April 2013, when Dater was interviewing Giguere, those inside the locker room were talking about a lack of focus and preparation for games.

Indeed, in that same interview, Giguere talked about seeming apathy on the team:

"“I’ve been around for 15 years in this league and I don’t know what it is. I don’t know why we seem like we don’t care at points. And it’s just embarrassing, the way we, you know, the energy we have in the room and the way we approach practices and the way we approach this game. “"

Again, I’d like to point out, that this was going on the year before Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy took over the team. Of course, as Roy himself points out, that’s why he and Sakic were brought on that summer.

However, it’s also what I think came to a head between the Edmonton and Philadelphia games. It’s no secret that for all of Roy’s talk of staying even keel, the players often follow success by letting up on the gas. That’s how you blow not one, not five, but nine third-period leads in a season.

I’m now going to speculate based on Giguere’s quote that, since half of the young core present at that time were also in the locker room during the turning point, there was some kind of schism again. I’m not going to point fingers because I absolutely don’t know, but it shouldn’t be too hard to imagine some of the young leaders still caring more about the lifestyle than the work that gets them the lifestyle.

I am, however, going to point two fingers — at Jarome Iginla and at Patrick Roy.

Related Story: The Fallacy of Blaming the Coach

Veteran Leadership Deficit

Right wing Jarome Iginla has been in leadership positions for a long time. He was the captain of the Calgary Flames for nine seasons. He took on Colorado’s alternate captaincy at the beginning of the 2014-15 season.

Despite that fact, current Denver Post writer Terry Frei remarked that Iginla seems “reluctant or sheepish about claiming too much leadership responsibility because he’s not the player he once was.”

Reading that angered me. No, Iginla most certainly isn’t scoring at the pace he once did — prior to his joining the Colorado Avalanche, Iginla had had one non-lockout season when he failed to score 30+ goals. In his two seasons with Colorado, he’s scored 29 and 22 goals respectively. Yet at 38 years old he’s still collecting a cherry $5.5 million salary.

Colorado acquired Iginla for that price and awarded him the alternate captaincy not based on his being the player “he once was” but mostly based on his veteran leadership potential. The majority of his role with the Avalanche is for him to lead the young players.

He failed. I noted in a previous post that at the beginning of the implosion Jarome Iginla went into radio silence. Between the Calgary Flames game on March 18 and a post-practice presser from Iginla on March 31st, there’s nothing from the alternate captain. That time period encompasses the Avalanche losing three of five games.

It encompasses that crucial turning point between the Edmonton and Philadelphia games.

I realize that not speaking to the media is hardly indicative of his leadership. However, Iginla is a soothing speaker — he makes everything seem ok. I’ve got to question, based on how the Avalanche played like they didn’t trust each other, if he was radio silent in the locker room as well. Especially based on Frei’s comment, since he has inner access to that sanctum.

And here’s where I finally find Roy’s culpability. Because as soothing as Iginla is, he doesn’t hold a candle to Patrick Roy as a speaker. I’ve remarked that I wanted to play hockey for the man after hearing him speak — and The Fan’s Mark Schlereth has said the same.

Why wasn’t he more of an inspirational presence at that time?

He’s remarked more than once that he lets captain Gabriel Landeskog take the temperature in the locker room. The two speak daily, but he lets Landeskog decide if the team needs the Word of Roy.

That may have been Patrick Roy’s mistake in the midst of the implosion. He may have been trusting his captain and alternate too much. He may have trusted in the leadership he fomented through almost three seasons to get the job done. Because I have to think that Roy’s firebrand speaking, combined with his hero status to this team specifically, would have gotten the players past any schism between vets and young guns.

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Colorado Avalanche Future

The horror of the final implosion still resounds. Because of it, some writers and fans alike called for the firing of Patrick Roy. Others, including the players and GM Joe Sakic, backed Roy. The brouhaha eventually died down, but it still rears its ugly head sometimes — such as when other coaches, Bruce Boudreau and Bob Hartley, get fired.

That’s a lasting divide in Avs Nation that may take a long time to heal, and it’s sure to leave a scar.

Metaphors aside, the implosion helped bring clarity to the situation of the Colorado Avalanche. It helped me see past the shine that the young, talented players present. I see them with a lot more objectivity now.

More importantly, I think it helped Roy and Sakic clarify exactly what type of player they want on the team. In the past, they’ve favored big, gritty, fast players who play all 200 feet of the ice rink.

I’m pretty sure now they’ve added character and leadership to their requirements. I think they’re already considering all the current players and Avalanche free agents to gauge how well they meet those requirements. The answer to that judgement is likely to dictate who’s skating under the Avalanche logo next season.

Those requirements are also sure to drive their decisions at the draft and in free agency. I honestly believe Sakic and Roy may eschew some talent in favor of strong character players.

Next: Why Boudreau Wouldn't Fit the Avs

And I believe that will be a huge boon to the team. Colorado hasn’t lacked in the talent department in a long time. However, there are definitely some character issues in the locker room that need to be addressed. Hopefully Sakic and Roy don’t blow up the core to address those issues — hopefully they believe an infusion of character will suffice.