Once in the thick of the West's playoff race, the Avalanche currently sit 24 points out of eighth. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Remember when the Colorado Avalanche were good? It wasn’t that long ago. Seriously. Remember what you did for New Year’s? Then you can remember the Avs being good.
And, under the guiding hand of GM Greg Sherman, you won't have to wait for them to be good again.
When the calendar turned on 2010, the Avs were tied for fourth in West and the highest scoring team in the conference, just six points in arrears of Northwest Division-leading Vancouver. Now they're 29th overall, 43 points back of the Canucks.
Injuries for sure have played a role. With 385 man-games lost heading into the weekend, Colorado was second in that category. The blueline, especially, has been ravaged, forcing the Avs to use 14 defensemen; calling upon players few had ever heard of and trading prospects for average NHL D-men to fill holes. Five out of the seven who make up Colorado’s current healthy defensemen have been with other teams this season - not a recipe for success.
The forwards have also been afflicted. Just four have missed fewer than five games and Peter Mueller hasn’t been seen all season thanks to a concussion. Heck, even Peter Forsberg was on this team for two games.
During the throes of the free fall down (one win in 21 games), Sherman took action with a couple of trades that left fans aghast and many pundits pondering what he was thinking.
First was Feb. 18, when No. 1 netminder Craig Anderson was moved to Ottawa for fellow goalie Brian Elliott. Fifth in last year’s Vezina voting, Anderson, in his contract year, faltered mightily backstopping an inexperienced team (a November injury didn’t help). He left Denver with a sub-.900 save percentage and a 3.27 goals-against average this season.
But trading him for Elliot? Look what Anderson's done since, winning games and posting sparkling numbers, earning a four-year contract extension worth more than $12 million in the process. Meanwhile, it took Elliott more than a month to win his first game with Colorado.
Trading Anderson for Elliott had fans scratching their heads, but the next day Sherman sent their heads spinning by dealing power forward Chris Stewart and already-in-the-NHL blueline prospect Kevin Shattenkirk to St. Louis. The former looks like a perennial 30-goal man. The latter has averaged a half-point per game as a rookie. In return the Avs received 2006 first overall pick Erik Johnson, who has largely underwhelmed in the NHL and a first round draft pick.
In the next issue of The Hockey News magazine, Colorado coach Joe Sacco summed up the organization’s thoughts on Johnson: “He’s given our blueline a dimension we really didn’t have before. You can see something every night where you go, ‘OK, that’s why he went No. 1.’ He does things you can’t teach.”
Regardless of the team’s message, the move created an avalanche of controversy, most infamously by Peter Stastny, NHL legend and father of Colorado center Paul. Johnson was largely seen as a No. 1 pick who wasn’t panning out. Shattenkirk was outscoring him and Stewart is a burgeoning beast.
Maybe the fact Sherman is the most anonymous GM in the league is why his transactions haven’t inspired confidence. For a team formerly stacked with superstars, it’s a decidedly no-name bunch in Denver these days. And that begins at the top (although Joe Sakic joining the front office adds some star power). Coach Sacco isn’t much flashier than Sherman and captain Adam Foote is a 39-year-old, stay-at-home D-man, not exactly exciting.
Not that you need a Brian Burke, John Tortorella or Alex Ovechkin-type in those roles, but with all their bluster and personality, it just seems so much easier to believe in what they’re doing.
But I’m on side with Sherman’s moves.
Anderson is on a nice run now, but $3 million-plus a year? C’mon. The Avs obviously had no intention of re-signing him this summer, so why lose him for nothing? Elliott is younger, showed last year he can put a team on his back and, as a restricted free agent, the Avs control his destiny. Besides, goalies are a dime a dozen these days. Waiver pickups lead teams to Stanley Cup finals and Cup winners are left twisting in the summer wind.
As for Johnson, a 23-year-old, 6-foot-4, 232-pound defenseman who can skate like the wind, he has offensive chops and a mean streak that doesn't come along every day. And to get one along with what will likely be a top 10 draft pick (in 2012) for a winger, even one who looks to be pretty good, and an undersized blueliner is a no-brainer.
It will take some time, but not too long. Colorado is loaded with young talent and has more coming to it this June via the draft. Sherman et al are doing things the right way, patiently. They have the good ship Avalanche turning in the right direction. Fans will again soon have reason to cheer and pack the Pepsi Center to watch a winner.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.