Avalanche Thoughts – Blow It Up

My thoughts on the Colorado Avalanche season thus far and why it’s time things change.

It’s only been 11 games, which doesn’t seem like a lot in a full season, but this year, 11 games is just shy of the quarter mark of the regular season. Through 11 games, the Colorado Avalanche are 4-6-1 and playing some of the most embarrassing hockey I’ve ever witness as a fan. Before the season started, on paper, I really liked this team. And on paper, I still really like this team. Too bad hockey games are played on ice and not on paper.

Let me start with head coach Joe Sacco, because I firmly believe that he’s the cause of a lot of problems. The players clearly aren’t responding to him and why should they? He’s a terrible head coach who has no clue what he’s doing. If he’s not switching lines every period, he’s putting guys in the wrong position or benching players who shouldn’t be benched. He overachieved in his first year but since then, just look at his record. The team would usually get off to a hot start and then completely fall apart after the all-star break. Last year, everything looked good after the trade deadline, but the wheels came off, just as I suspected. I actually thankful that the team missed the playoffs because I thought it would lead to the dismissal of Sacco. I was wrong. For some reason management thought it would be a good idea to give him an extension so he could continue to ruin my favorite sports team.

I was hoping that a bad start would lead to Sacco’s firing, but thanks to the lockout, things became murky. Now there is the built in excuse of him “not having enough time” this year coupled with the fact that the team is without Steve Downie, Gabriel Landeskog, and Ryan O’Reilly, all three of whom made up the Avs top line when the season ended last year. Every team was underprepared and dealing with injuries though. That shouldn’t be an excuse to keep Sacco, who never should’ve been brought back in the first place.

Firing Sacco wouldn’t fix everything though. Players still have to perform and right now, the top players simply aren’t performing.

Paul Stastny was supposed to be a franchise player who would lead the team after Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic retired. So far he’s been a major disappointment. He’s underperformed in each of the last two seasons and has essentially been replaced by Matt Duchene as the teams top center, and would be replaced by O’Reilly if management could get him signed. Stastny is a nice player, but when you’re making 6.6 million a year, which is an equal cap hit to the likes of Brad Richards, Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk, Jonathan Toews, and others; being a “nice player” just doesn’t cut it. Stastny has been involved in trade rumors for years now, and I think it’s finally time to cut him loose. The team likely won’t get equal value due to his slump, but I’m willing to bet that they can fetch a nice return that could fill a couple of holes.

My biggest offensive gripe is with David Jones though, who just signed a 4 million dollar deal in the off-season to so far produce 1 goal in the nine games he’s played in. He put up 20 goals last year and 27 the year before, but it’s like management didn’t do their history on this guy when they offered him 4 years for 4 million. I know 20 goal scorers don’t grow on trees, but Jones is as inconsistent as they come with how he plays. He could actually be a 30 goal scorer if he played to his strengths. But instead of using his size, he doesn’t work hard enough to get to the dirty areas or stay in front of the net. I don’t know a team who would be willing to take on his contract given that he just signed it and most general managers realize that he’s not going to be the player he should be, but if the Avs can find a taker, they should be very willing to let him go.

The rest of the offense isn’t producing either, but there’s less expectations on most of them. Duchene and P.A. Parenteau have found instant chemistry. Jamie McGinn has been getting his chances, but isn’t quite finishing them like he was last season. Still, the fact that he’s getting those chances is a good sign that he’s at least working hard. John Mitchell has been a great pick up, although he was signed for his defensive play, so the fact that he’s doing so well offensively tells you just how bad things are going when it comes to putting the puck in the net. Milan Hejduk isn’t what he once was, but he does seem to have an extra jump to his step this year, and his leadership up front can’t go unrecognized. Everyone else works pretty hard and they’re not really expected to carry the load like Jones and Stastny, so I can’t be too hard on the likes of Michael Sgarbossa and Mark Olver. It sucks that Downie was lost in the second game of the season and Landeskog’s return is always going to be questionable because he has a head injury and O’Reilly isn’t signed, but when injuries happen, your best players have to step up. Stastny and Jones have yet to do so.

Worse than the offense though is the contributions from the defense. Or lack thereof. As of right now, the Avs are the only team in the league without a goal by a defenseman. Erik Johnson, who we’ve all been waiting for to step up and be that two way defenseman has yet to show up offensively. He’s sound defensively, but he should be so much better than he is. Matt Hunwick, who is only in the line up for his ability to create offense, is completely useless. He’s not creating offense and he’s terrible defensively, making him a liability on the ice. Ryan Wilson, who has offensive talent as well, has also failed to contribute anything significant to the team.

Not only is the defense failing to put up numbers on the offensive end, but they’re failing defensively as well. Ryan O’Byrne blocks shots and sometimes hits, but takes too many bad penalties and has way too many turnovers and Jan Hejda has not lived up to the money the team paid him two years ago. The most disappointing player though is Shane O’Brien, not because of his play, but because of his lack of play. This guy was a regular last season and played his ass off on every shift, but so far he’s been a healthy scratch of the majority of this year in favor of a guy like Hunwick.

If the Avs could somehow dump Hunwick and Hejda, I’d be all for it. They don’t even need to get back NHL talent. Just let Duncan Siemens, Stefan Elliot, and Tyson Barrie get in the line-up. Sure they’ll make mistakes, but at least there’s hope that they’ll learn from those mistakes and improve. Hunwick is a lost cause and Hejda just has too many bad habits.

Speaking of bad habits, it’s getting pretty annoying watching the other team always take a 1-0 lead. It’s pretty tough to win games when you’re always playing from behind, which is where the Avs always find themselves due to their inability to score first.

The worst part about this team though is the power play. I don’t know if you can decline penalties in the NHL like you can in the NFL, but if it’s possible, the Avs should definitely look to start doing that. It’s embarrassing watching this team on the power play. They have a hard time getting set up, and if they ever do get set up, everyone just stands around and does nothing. After not playing a game in 4 days, the Avs turned in their worst PP performance of the year last night against the Phoenix Coyotes, failing to score at the end of regulation and the start of overtime, where a goal would’ve given them the victory. It’s inexcusable for a power play to be this terrible.

Varlamov doesn’t have the best numbers in the world, but I can’t really fault him. Just look at the teams effort in front of him. If they could give him a lead once in awhile or score on the power play or stop sitting back when they do have the lead or stop taking bad penalties, maybe Varlamov wouldn’t have to make an amazing save every time the other team gets past the blue line.

I’ve already written an entire column on the Ryan O’Reilly situation, but I’ll just reiterate the following: either sign him or trade him. The team has more than enough money to give him whatever money he wants and there are plenty of teams around the league willing to trade for him. So get this thing resolved and do it quickly, because no one is benefitting from this stalemate, but the two parties suffering the most damage are the two most important parties in the organization: the team and the fans.

There is a losing culture around this team that desperately needs to change. I don’t care how it changes, but it must change. Fire the general manager, fire the coach, trade the highest paid player, I don’t care, but a shake up needs to happen and it needs to happen soon. I think I speak for every fan when I say that I’m sick of management and coaching on this team acting like nothing is wrong and “things will get fixed” when it’s obvious that there is a lot wrong and nothing is getting fixed.


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