Sakic-less Avalanche start to rebuild

Thursday, 09.17.2009 / 3:00 AM
Rick Sadowski  - Correspondent
The Colorado Avalanche are starting over.

For the first time since the franchise moved from Quebec to Denver in 1995, the Avs are in a state of transition. The team that won two Stanley Cups (1996 and 2001) and was a playoff regular for more that a decade while featuring stars like Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy, Peter Forsberg and Ray Bourque is no more.

Instead, the Avs went 32-45-5 and finished last in the Western Conference in 2008-09 -- and the likelihood is that they'll miss the playoffs again.

After winning two Stanley Cups, eight division championships, two conference titles and two Presidents’ Trophies from 2995-2003 and making the playoff every year since moving from Quebec, the Avs are undergoing a makeover. Sakic, their longtime captain and star, hung up his skates this summer. That leaves defenseman (and new captain) Adam Foote and right wing Milan Hejduk as the lone remaining links to the team’s last Stanley Cup championship run in 2001.

Team president Pierre Lacroix, who had been rather silent since stepping down as general manager in May 2006, believed new leadership was needed in management and behind the bench following the team's plunge into the conference basement.

He replaced GM Francois Giguere with Greg Sherman; fired all of the assistant coaches; approved replacing coach Tony Granato with Joe Sacco, who coached the Lake Erie Monsters in the American Hockey League for two seasons; and gave his OK to sacrifice a number of veterans to make room for younger players. The most notable departures were forwards Ian Laperriere (to Philadelphia as a free agent) and Ryan Smyth (traded to Los Angeles for defensemen Kyle Quincey and Tom Preissing), and goalie Andrew Raycroft (to Vancouver as a free agent).

Sherman, 39, spent the previous three seasons as Giguere's assistant. He also worked under Lacroix and was associated with the franchise for 13 years in various positions, including finance and retail.

"I am a business guy and I’m proud of that," he said. "I've seen this franchise from many different aspects over the last seven years as the assistant GM, as well as being with the company for the last 13 years. I’m very confident with the people that I’m surrounded by. The wealth of hockey knowledge that is around me is second to none and I’m very comfortable in the setting and the meetings that we're all in."

Sherman oversaw the '09 Entry Draft in June when the Avalanche tabbed center Matt Duchene, 18, with the No. 3 selection, the franchise’s highest pick since the Quebec Nordiques took Eric Lindros with the No. 1 pick in 1991.

The loss of Sakic and Paul Stastny for much of 2008-09 blew some massive holes in the Avs' attack. Sakic may be gone for good, but a healthy Stastny would go a long way towards helping to revive an offense that finished last in the NHL.

Stastny is optimistic about staying healthy for the first time since his rookie campaign, when he had 28 goals and 50 assists for 78 points while playing in all 82 games.

"I'm feeling good and ready to go," said Stastny, who missed a combined 53 games the past two seasons because of a broken forearm and appendectomy. "I think I’ve grown every year as a player and as a person."

Stastny's presence should help Duchene, a speedy center who was thrilled to be picked by Colorado. He'll be given every opportunity in training camp to determine if he is capable of centering the second line behind Stastny, 23, who is entering his fourth season with the Avalanche.

"Matt is a big piece of our franchise moving forward," Sherman said. "We're really excited about him."

Duchene, an Avalanche fan while he was growing up in Haliburton, Ont., isn't taking anything for granted but believes he's ready to move up to the NHL level.

"I feel like I fit in pretty well," he said. "I don’t feel it’s above my head at all.”

The Avs seem confident he'll be in the NHL this season.

"There are 18-year-olds who play in the National Hockey League, and some of them have had success in their first year," Sacco said. "Matt has good vision and he does everything hard for an 18-year-old kid."

Milan Hejduk, 33, returns for his 10th NHL season after leading the Avalanche a year ago with 27 goals and 59 points. Injury-prone Marek Svatos, 27, played in a career-high 69 games last season and is as dangerous as any of the team’s forwards when he’s healthy.

The Avalanche will be icing their youngest stable of forwards since the franchise has been in Denver with Stastny; Wojtek Wolski, 23; David Jones, 25; Chris Stewart, 21; T.J. Galiardi, 21; T.J. Hensick, 23; Cody McLeod, 25, and the possible inclusion of Duchene, 18, and 2005 second-round pick Ryan Stoa, 22.

Wolski was the NHL's best shootout performer last season, but had just 14 goals in 78 games, his worst in three full NHL seasons, and the plan is to move him from center back to left wing, in part because of Smyth's departure.

The Avalanche needs more production from Svatos, who had 32 goals in 61 games in 2005-06 and 26 goals in 62 games in 2007-08 before slumping to 14 in 69 games last season.

McLeod, considered little more than a tough fourth liner as a rookie two years ago, scored 15 goals in 79 games while continuing to play as physical as ever.

Stewart, the team’s first-round pick (No. 18) in 2006, might have spent the entire season with Lake Erie in the AHL except for the rash of injuries that plagued Colorado. A power forward at 6-foot-2 and 228 pounds, he showed flashes of brilliance at times while netting 11 goals in 53 games but needs to bring it on a more consistent basis.

Galiardi had three goals in 11 games with the Avalanche following a late-season call-up. He did a lot of weight training this summer, added nearly 20 pounds to his 6-2 frame, and now weighs in at a much stronger 190.

Darcy Tucker hopes to bounce back from a disappointing season in which he had just 8 goals in 63 games, his worst total since 1997-98 when he scored 7 while splitting time with Montreal and Tampa Bay.

While Stastny succeeds Sakic as the Avalanche’s No. 1 center, Foote will wear the “C.”

"We feel Adam's leadership skills and veteran presence will make him a great captain," Sacco said. "He has been with this organization for a long time and he truly deserves our trust to lead this team at the present time."

Foote, now 38, has spent 14-plus seasons with the Avs, returning in March 2008 after nearly three seasons in Columbus.

"I've been with this franchise for the majority of my career and I know what the standards are here. I look forward to the challenge of leading this team, starting with training camp and heading into the regular season."

But the Avs are getting long in the tooth on defense. In addition to Foot, Ruslan Salei is 34; Brett Clark is 32; and Scott Hannan and Pressing are both 30. John-Michael Liles, 28, rebounded from a first half slump last season to finish with 12 goals and 39 points, and the addition of Quincey, 24, from the Kings gives the Avalanche another offensive threat from the blue line.

Quincey, who has one year left on a deal that will pay him $550,000, had 4 goals and 34 assists in 72 games last season. He had surgery in April for a herniated disc but is healthy now.

The Avalanche accepted Preissing in order for the Smyth trade to be consummated. A former star at Colorado College, he played in only 22 NHL games last season, spent time in the minors and has two years left on his contract.

Colorado needs to get more out of Clark, a premier shot blocker who had more goals (10) and points (39) in 2006-07 than in the past two seasons combined (7 goals, 33 points).


Neither Raycroft nor Peter Budaj was consistent last season. Sherman is hopeful that his first free-agent acquisition, Craig Anderson, will solidify a position that has given the Avalanche headaches since Roy retired after the 2002-03 season.

Anderson signed a two-year contract and becomes the eighth Avalanche goalie to follow Roy. The others: David Aebischer, Vitaly Kolesnik, Tommy Salo, Phil Sauve, Jose Theodore, Raycroft and Budaj, who remains as Anderson's backup.

"Colorado was at the top of my list as an organization I wanted to join," said Anderson,  who played in a career-high 31 games last season with the Florida Panthers, posting a 15-7-5 record with a 2.71 goals-against average and .924 save percentage. “It’s a great opportunity in a great city. I was just fortunate enough that they were interested in me.”

Anderson, who has never been a No. 1 goalie in the NHL, owns a career record of 36-43-13 with a 2.87 average and .911 save percentage in 109 games in six seasons with the Panthers and Chicago Blackhawks.

"In Craig, we feel we have addressed a very important need within our organization," Sherman said. "His overall performance last year was very impressive, and he is entering the prime years of his career."

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