In the Mile High City, most of the media's attention, and that of the fans, has been directed towards the Denver Broncos. But as it turns out, the Broncos aren't the only team fighting an uphill battle in Denver.
The Colorado Avalanche are coming off a season that can only be described as the worst in their history as a Colorado franchise. Add to this a new coaching staff, and I have one heck of an offseason story to start telling.
The Avalanche organization has fared well in Colorado over the last 14 seasons, claiming ownership to nine consecutive division titles (1995-2003,) and two Stanley Cup Titles (1996 and 2001). They have done nothing but impress their loyal fans.
The 2009-2010 season is the first in which the Avs find themselves asking very serious questions of their future. Answers for some may come easy, but others remain elusive. Will the change in coaching staff be enough to alter the dismal course the team is heading down?
Will the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, and Colorado's third overall pick, turn out to be a success? Will Joe Sakic wear an Avs jersey for his 21st season in the NHL? I'll do my best to answer these for you, and for myself.
On June 3, 2009, Tony Granato was released as head coach of the Avalanche, followed shortly by the release of assistant coaches Jacques Cloutier and Dave Barr, goal-tending coach Jeff Hackett, Assistant to the General Manager Michel Goulet and video coordinator PJ Deluca.
Essentially, the front offices were emptied; a story all too familiar for myself and other Denver locals.
Stepping in place of Granato the next day was Joe Sacco. The name fits.
Sacco brings an attitude of excitement and professionalism to the franchise. Although the job came as a surprise to Joe, and to myself, it's obvious in his words that he plans to take full advantage of his position in Denver.
"I wasn't expecting this job," Sacco admitted. "But, like playing, you have to be flexible when you choose coaching, and timing's got a lot to do with it. Make the most of your chances, right? And I know this is one great opportunity."
Sacco is in good company with Avalanche veterans like Adam Deadmarsh, Sylvain Lefebre, and Steve Konowalchuk joining him in the reconstructed Colorado bench. He'll need all the support he gets.
One thought that keeps spinning around my brain: With Colorado's two Stanley Cup winning coaches, Marc Crawford (1996) and Bob Hartley (2001), both available, did Pierre Lacroix really spend much time in making this decision?
It seems that if it only takes one day to find the person that will lead your professional franchise, you may have worked through your options a little too quickly. I don't believe that it's the only good choice to hire a former coach, but I'm not sure the thought even crossed Lacroix's mind.
The only argument I can present in favor of the quick decision is timing. The earlier a coach is hired, the more time he has to spend with the staff.
He also has to develop a draft plan. By evaluating his moves so far during the entry draft and free agency, it's clear that Sacco is well educated and stubbornly adjusted to the NHL's farm system. With a profusion of talented players on the market, Sacco has yet to make any real moves.
It's great that he agrees with the Avalanche's tendency to promote within, and to dig into the AHL for talent, but it's about time Greg Sherman, GM, and himself made some larger steps away from mediocrity. After all, it wasn't just the coaching staff that provided Colorado with a 69 point season in 2008-2009.
The only big change on the ice that has really impacted the team so far is the loss of alternate captain Ian LaPerriere. It seemed inevitable, LaPerriere turned downed an offer from Colorado to test the waters of unrestricted free agency. It seems he was ready to leave, and I wish him the best of luck.
Whether Sacco will flourish or fail behind the bench in Colorado remains to be seen. He'll have plenty of time to get acquainted with his new crew with training camp, rookie camp, and a normally under-the-radar preseason to go.
During this time, the main storyline to keep an eye on is the development of young Matt Duchene, Colorado's first pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.
It's great to hear a story like that of Matt Duchene. Not only does this kid look destined to be an asset in the NHL, but he's in a great position to play for the team of his dreams.
Duchene grew up watching and cheering for the Colorado Avalanche. In an interview on Tuesday, he recalls watching the entire celebration of the 2001 Stanley Cup victory dressed head to toe in Avs apparel.
"So this is unbelievable." Duchene expressed. "I have so many memories of growing up and this is part of who I am, cheering for the Avs and wearing their colors and their logo. It's hard to believe that it's going to be like this for a while."
Duchene's story should be an inspiration to many. As long as he can carry his success into an NHL career, it should have a happy ending.
"This is a player of high character, high skill and a high level of skating ability and speed and has shown a high level to compete," said Rick Pracey, Avalanche director of amateur scouting, of Duchene.
Duchene showed natural talent and passion for the game in his time with the Brampton Battalion of the Ontario Hockey League.
He has the aptitude and opportunity to play with the Avalanche in his first year in the NHL this season. The coaching staff believes he has NHL ability, and Duchene modestly agrees.
"I think my skill and my development are there right now and I will be able to handle this level," Duchene said Tuesday. "Hopefully, I will be able to grab a spot."
The most important thing for the staff is to be sure Duchene is ready to play, and that it is the right time for the organization. It's not certain whether or not he will be suiting up for the Avs in 2009-2010. Training camp and rookie camp exist for a reason, and it's best to make sure the young star is as ready as he can be before making his debut on the center ice.
One critical factor will come into play in deciding whether Duchene skates with the Avs this season: Joe Sakic's status as a member of the Avalanche.
It is with great remorse that I say it's time for Joe Sakic to hang up the skates. He's coming off of two seasons plagued with injury, and he's reached the ripe age of 39. If we could all watch Sakic play for another 20 years, I'm sure nobody would object. However, Avs fans may have seen the last of "Super Joe" and his "Twisted Wrister."
Greg Sherman, rookie GM for Colorado, states "Joe and I have talked. He has made an indication of his intentions. We will be addressing it in the upcoming weeks." Sherman quickly turned his attention, and excitement, to adding Duchene to the roster.
Seems to me that Sakic is on the way out after a guaranteed Hall Of Fame career with the Avalanche. But who knows? Maybe he's just resting up on his family vacation so he can take on another 82 games?
Sakic's removal from the locker room will have a significant effect on and off the ice for his fellow Avs members. He was a dominant force on skates, and a true leader for the team. On the other hand, his departure may provide the arrival for the next star to shine for the Avalanche dynasty.
With any luck, the fresh Joe Sacco and Matt Duchene, along with Avalanche veterans Paul Stastny, Milan Hejduk, and Adam Foote, might grasp hold of the reigns and lead the Avalanche into another decade of domination in the Western Conference.
Here's looking forward to two more drinks from Lord Stanley's Cup. Cheers.