I don’t have it in for the Northwest. Honestly I don’t. But it’s hard to ignore the dismal situation some of the Divisions’ former powerhouses find themselves in.
Last week I took aim at Calgary, a franchise I feel is in denial about its place in the hockey landscape right now. A club in need of a rebuild. Colorado, on the other hand, is a club that must have started rebuilding two or three times already since the ‘cap era’ began – and yet now find themselves bottom of the Western Conference.
Since the 2004/05 season was washed out, the two-time Cup champions have missed the playoffs more often than they have made the cut, and look set to miss out again this season.
For a team garnering two top 3 picks, a 1st overall pick acquired via trade, one of the premier defensive forwards in the league, and a potentially top level goaltender it is not unfair to say their current situation is unacceptable in a market rapidly cooling on the franchise after almost a decade of success in Denver.
Many had hoped the recent strong showings against Chicago (ending their 24 game point streak in the process) and San Jose meant the team had turned a corner. That the injury plagued first half of the season was behind them and Ryan O’Reilly’s painful contract saga was just a bad memory.
The club is now on a 4-game losing skid, only saved from the misery of 30th overall by the equally sad Sabres and the truly awful Panthers.
Veteran defenceman Jan Hejda admitted confidence is low after Tuesday night’s loss to Chicago, pointing to the recent 4-0 loss to Edmonton as a turning point for the club. Erik Johnson said “If we knew what the problem was we would have fixed it by now”.
Maybe that is a problem in itself right now – the club has a number of problems, and identifying which one needs solving first may be the biggest of them.
This is a team who have made a number of missteps over the past few years, both on the ice and off it. They were one of the hardest hit when the salary cap was introduced, no longer able to flex their ample financial muscles and a painful period of departures and learning to build via the draft saw the club slide from the summit of the NHL.
Whilst things have largely improved at the draft table, the difficult departures still seem to occur with disappointing frequency. Take Craig Anderson for example; a player the Avs gave his first truly big break too and were in turn rewarded with perhaps the first legitimate #1 goaltender since Patrick Roy retired. After a stellar 2009/10 season, in which Anderson helped turn an average Avs team in to a play-off one, the wheels came off when contract talks broke down eventually leading to Anderson’s departure.
The acrimony between O’Reilly and the club gave fans shocking flashbacks to the Anderson situation; and the fear of losing another star gripped the fan base. Only an offer sheet from Calgary forced a resolution, resulting in the Avs paying more than O’Reilly himself had even sought during the original negotiations.
What’s worse is that O’Reilly and Anderson are far from the only players to clash with the clubs management. You could construct a competitive team out of the players who have left Denver under a cloud.
The secretive manner in which the top brass often deals does little to sooth a fan base already two years removed from play-off hockey, and nearly 10 years removed from being truly competitive. Having the likes of Landeskog, Duchene and Varlamov brings with it certain expectations of progress as a club. Progress we are not seeing.
The demotion of Tyson Barrie last week, one of the clubs breakout stars in an otherwise forgettable campaign, sent further ripples of discontent throughout the Avs nation. Joe Sacco cited a couple of bad games as reason enough to scratch and then demote Barrie but fans quickly responded by pointing at the mediocrity a number of players seem to have wallowed in this season.
If Barrie is culpable for a couple of bad games, the likes of Zanon, O’Brien and Jones must also surely be skating on very thin ice? That’s the same Dave Jones who signed a 4 year deal at $4m per season and skated on the 4th line this week.
The painful truth is that the ‘Pierre Lacroix era’, which once brought so much success to the club, has stuttered terribly during the ‘cap era’. Lacroix’s shadow is still cast across everything at the club but as time passes it seems more and more important the Avs find someone who can make some tough decisions and break the team out of this funk.
Whether that means adding the bluster of Brian Burke, the wisdom of Lindy Ruff or the ‘long awaited’ ascension of Patrick Roy to the role of GM or Head Coach – the club needs some new, strong leadership to restore the faith in the fan base and get the club back on track.