Colorado Avalanche: Icy, Streaky Start Leaves Glass Half Full

Chaz MattsonAnalyst INovember 14, 2008

The 2008-09 Colorado Avalanche team is a rebuilding project of sorts. 

It’s not your usual project, mind you, as it has a few lingering superstars from one of the greatest modern-day hockey teams. 

The 2000-01 Avalanche won the Stanley Cup for the second time in five seasons.  On that team were the likes of Milan Hejduk, Joe Sakic, and Adam Foote—who are still around and bent on making an impact. 

This year, there is also the addition of an old face leading the team again.  Former assistant and head coach Tony Granato has replaced his former boss Joe Quinneville as the new headmaster of the Colorado Avalanche.   

Currently Joe Sakic is injured and healing in what will most likely be his final season in the NHL.  Sakic seeks a return to the lineup possibly as early as Thursday, November 20, when the Avs host the Calgary Flames in Denver.  

Adam Foote is currently at a minus-three while on the ice defensively and has not score a goal yet this season.  Milan Hejduk currently leads the team with eight goals scored.   Just as these three leaders are current stats are a bit of a mixed bag, the makeup of this Avalanche team has also started out as a mixed bag as well.

There’s still plenty of hockey to be played in this young season, but it is important to identify some mile markers for where the Avalanche are at this juncture.  The Avs have had one streaky season, which has been hot-blooded or cold as ice—depending on the streak they were on. 

Colorado dropped their first three games, reeled off five wins in a row, only to drop another five in a row, which led to their current two-game win streak.  This roller coaster now puts the Avalanche at 7-8, currently 13th out of 15 teams in the Western Conference, and dead last in the Northwest Division.

However, the Avalanche are in a decent position to make a move within the division sooner than later.  While Colorado currently has 14 points, current eighth-seed Edmonton has 17 and third-place Minnesota has 19.  So it’s entirely possible for the Avalanche to stay in striking range for much of the season.   Moreover, if the last two games are any indication of the improvement of their defense, it could be an interesting run the rest of the regular season.


The Current Breakdown

For the most part, hockey is a simple game where teams simply try to outscore their opponent.  In order for this to take place teams need to score goals and stop the other team from scoring.  So when looking at the Avalanche at their streaky best and worst they are fortunate to be 7-8, with their goals-for to goals-against set at a minus-five on the season. 

Offensively, Milan Hejduk has assumed the role of the old trusty veteran.  The Avalanche forward has scored a team-leading eight goals, three on the power-play, has five assists, and is a plus-13 with a mere two penalty minutes.  

The rest of the roster is currently sitting with a “where’s the beef” mentality.  They are seeking to take the next step in becoming more-revered scoring leaders, but there are promising signs.         

Defensively, there is one telling statistic that says it all.  Two-thirds of Colorado’s roster is currently in the minus category.  That group is averaging just over a minus-three.  As a team the Avalanche are sitting on a minus-1.667 average. 

It’s easy to derive the fact that as a team, there is not an emphasis on defense. This has put the goalies in some bad situations on the young season.  The recent five-game skid was very indicative of this fact.

The lack of defense has been a catalyst to the Avs having subpar goaltending from both Peter Budaj and Andrew Raycroft.  Budaj has a good GAA for a back-up at 2.91—the problem is that he’s graduated into being a starter with the departure of Jose Theodore.  Realistically, Peter needs to knuckle down and step it up a bit as a netminder and a team leader. 

Raycroft has been in the NHL since 2000-01, but has only had one praiseworthy season, coming in 2003-04 when he played in 57 games for the Boston Bruins.  During that season, Raycroft had a 2.05 GAA and a save percentage of .926 while going 29-18-9.  Currently this season Raycroft is 2-1 with a save percentage of .839 and a GAA of 3.75.

The coaching thus far, while not entirely brilliant, has been generally solid and positive in treating the negatives with kid gloves.  This shows some of what may become one of the Avs' greatest strengths in the long-run.  Tony Granato has noticeably treated this team with tact and patience, like a wine expert working on his craft, he’s cultivating this Avalanche team like a good year in the vineyard, even with some downturns in the season.


What the Needs Are

It’s not crucial for Super Joe (Sakic) to get healthy before a playoff run, but it will certainly help.  One of the greatest things coach Granato has alluded to on his weekly radio show on 104.3 FM The Fan in Denver, is the need for this team to learn to play without Sakic in the lineup. 

Sakic is not his usual self, fighting off a back problem and only scoring two goals this season.  Additionally, his shot percentage is way down from years past.  So it makes sense for the Avs to give Joe some much needed time off to heal, and learn to win without him.

Offensively, one strength the Avs have shown early in the season is that they have great puck distribution, and an onslaught of goal-scoring potential.  The need is simple to address here—this version of the Avalanche needs to take the next step offensively. 

Currently just over two-thirds of the roster has scored at least one goal.  The power play needs to become a bit stronger, but again the puck distribution is impressive, the scorers just need to take the next step up. 

The lineup of Hejduk, Smyth, Stastny, Tucker, Svatos, McLeod, and Leopold are all dangerous.  When Joe is back in the lineup he just needs to capture some of that old Super Joe magic.

To a man, the Avalanche would easily acknowledge there has not been an emphasis on defense.  Wednesday night’s win in overtime at Vancouver and the previous win at the Pepsi Center against the Predators might show the glimpse of things to come.  The Avs beat Nashville 1-0 and the Canucks 2-1 in a shootout.  Moreover, the Canucks were defeated by a shot from Marek Svatos that beat one of the best goalies in hockey—Roberto Luongo. 

In these last two wins, the noted emphasis on playing better defense was a result of the previous five losses not being that competitive.  Suddenly there is a focus on the Avalanche’s weakness on the defensive side of the puck, and it is starting to pay off.

Obviously, the goaltending needs to continue to follow suit, and solidify the net as the defense becomes more of a force.  Probably the most notable critique of Budaj is his apparent lack of anticipation regarding obvious center-passing and other shooting situations. 

There was a game in Budaj’s rookie season against the Chicago Blackhawks when Peter stood on his head and looked like the ghost of Patrick Roy for three periods, only to lose in the shootout.  The Blackhawks had clearly out-chanced the Avalanche all night long and Budaj showed his promise in that game.  He was nearly invincible that night, and his gift of anticipation was as obvious then. 

At this point, all he probably needs to do is get back to being aggressive and anticipate the passing and shooting situations far better than he has recently.  Peter should be the long-term answer in goal.  There is no question he has the potential, he’s been waiting since 2005-06 for the chance to become the starter.  Now is the time for Peter to reach his potential, and step up on a game-in and game-out basis.    

From the coaching perspective, Tony is very upbeat, you can hear it in his voice.  Even though the Avs are a little bit down in the standings, they have such an upside it’s doesn’t make sense to get down. 

The completion is tough still and the Avs are hanging in, which is something to cling to in a very competitive Western Conference.  For coach Granato, that’s called looking at the icy glass half-full.


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