In the fourth instalment of an offseason series, Mile High Sticking takes a deep dive into the 25-year history of the Avalanche, and celebrates the most obscure, brief, and forgotten players. In this edition, we remember the time the Avs won free agency with Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne. Or did they?
NHL free agency has pretty much ended. The dust has settled, players took high-priced deals, and despite every rumour, Taylor Hall is not on the Colorado Avalanche.
Blowing a lot of money on a big name free agent can work very well. The Dallas Stars added Brett Hull in a three-year, $17 million deal in 1998, and went on to win the Stanley Cup that year, depending on who you ask. The Detroit Red Wings added pretty much everybody and won the Cup in 2002.
And then there’s the times it doesn’t work. The Avalanche know this well. Ryan Smyth, Jarome Iginla, and Patrice Brisebois all come to mind as players signed to fix things. For each, there were bright spots, but overall, did they fulfill their purpose? No, not really.
The granddaddy, for the Avalanche and the NHL in general, however, is two other Hall of Famers. That would be Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya. Let’s reminisce about that season. Or rather, The Season.
How They Got Here
2003 was pretty status quo for the Colorado Avalanche.
Aside from a second round elimination by That Which Will Not Be Named, their team was pretty much the same as the one that won the Cup two years before. Oh, except for one major difference.
You see, Patrick Roy had decided to call it a day.
Losing Roy, no matter how old he was at that point, was a big loss for the Avs. The 25-year-old David Aebischer was deemed ready to fill his mentor’s boots, but the Avalanche decided to make a 2004 Cup run a sure thing.
Paul Kariya had just had one of the most important seasons a player could have. After a decade with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, he had finally led them to a Stanley Cup Final. Then, this happened. And this happened.
Unfortunately, as iconic as that goal would be, it would not only be his last in the final, but his last as a Mighty Duck. Going into Game 7, the Mighty Ducks would be shutout 3-0 as the New Jersey Devils took the 2003 Stanley Cup.
Kariya was also an upcoming free agent, and with the Ducks needing a $10 million qualifying offer to keep him, the chance to see the longtime Duck continue his career was looking grim. The Colorado Avalanche, however, had a lot of room. Specifically, with the room they had from the recently-departed Roy.
And also, a guy named Teemu Selanne.
Teemu Selanne was at a crossroads. He had spent a massive chunk of his career as Kariya’s go-to guy, after arriving from Winnipeg and setting a rookie points record there. Kariya had helped him lead the NHL in goals twice, but in 2001, with the Mighty Ducks struggling in the Western Conference, Selanne was shipped off to the San Jose Sharks, in a blockbuster deal that included forward Jeff Friesen and goaltender Steve Shields.
Getting Selanne was understandably a huge deal. Adding the future Hall of Famer to a core that included Owen Nolan, Vincent Damphousse, and a young Patrick Marleau would help a team that still hadn’t got over the hump. Selanne would lead the Sharks in goals for 2001-02 and both goals and points in 2002-03, but the Sharks would struggle, leading to multiple players, including Nolan, being shipped out. The Sharks would, ironically, try to ship Selanne to the New Jersey Devils, the team Kariya would face in the final, but his no trade clause would stand in the way.
After turning down a $6.5 million option from the Sharks, Selanne, looking to finally win a Stanley Cup, looked at the best option.
The best option also happened to want Paul Kariya.
Kariya and Selanne took major pay cuts, as opposed to the high contracts they could have gotten from other teams. This understandably pissed off many Ducks fans, while their GM went on to piss off many Wings fans.
“When we both became free agents, we made a hockey decision,” Kariya was quoted as saying at a news conference. “We both said, `Forget about the money, where’s the place we want to play?’ And Colorado jumped out at both of us immediately.”
With the move, Colorado instantly became Cup favourites. Their top six included four future Hall of Famers in Kariya, Selanne, Joe Sakic, and Peter Forsberg, as well as Milan Hejduk and Alex Tanguay in their primes. Not bad.
Everyone thought the Colorado Avalanche were going to win the 2004 Stanley Cup.
I mean, come on. They had to.
Aside from that six, defenders Rob Blake and Adam Foote, as well as a rookie John-Michael Liles, solidified an Avs team that could make a run.
Unfortunately, Selanne and Kariya had what would be their worst statistical seasons at that point. Kariya would only play 51 games, suffering a sprained wrist early in the season, while getting 11 goals and 25 points. Selanne managed to fare worse, playing a full 78 games, but only getting 36 points, a very minimal product. The season would end with Selanne not only being moved to the fourth line, but scratched. The experiment hadn’t worked.
While the season wasn’t a complete disaster — Aebischer, despite not being Patrick Roy, put up a .924 save percentage in 62 games — the team did not top their division for the first time in Denver. The Avs would get knocked out of the second round, putting an end to their golden era, and their Cup dreams.
Did It Work?
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Some things look better on paper.
The 2004-05 lockout ended any chance of either player returning, and with the salary cap in place, experiments like the Avs did the summer of 2003 were impossible. Aside from Selanne and Kariya, the Avs also said goodbye to Forsberg and Foote in order to get under the cap.
Selanne’s struggles had to do with knee injuries, forcing him to undergo surgery, ultimately sitting out the lockout season. Signing again in Anaheim, Selanne would return to form with 40 goals and 90 points, going on to become a key piece of the Ducks’ Stanley Cup win the following season. He would stay with the team until his final season in 2013-14 at 43. Selanne continues to hold pretty much every forward record with the Ducks.
Kariya, unfortunately, didn’t get the same happy ending. He would sign with the Nashville Predators, managing 85 points his first season, eventually being re-united with Forsberg for his second season. After ownership put the team up for sale, Kariya opted to move on, signing with the St. Louis Blues, a stint that saw him still perform, but struggle with injuries. A final concussion in December 2009 would bring his career to an end after the 2009-10 season.
While Selanne retired as a bonafide Hall of Famer, Kariya — who spent the next few years away from the game — would finally be inducted in 2017, fortunately the same day as his longtime linemate. The two, like the signing, are forever intertwined, as it should be.
Unlike the day both entered the Hall of Fame, it just wasn’t in the cards for the Avs.
The Avs never took on another massive free agent signing since. While they’ve made their share of free agency trades and signings (Smyth, Semyon Varlamov, Iginla), a salary cap ended the days where the Avs could sign two future Hall of Famers and think, hey, Cup run.
It was truly an Obscure Avs moment.