With its established NHL players suffering a rash of injuries throughout the course of the 2008-09 campaign, the Colorado Avalanche received a rare – albeit, unscheduled and somewhat unwelcomed – opportunity to truly test the organization’s depth.
A total of 11 different players made their NHL debut for Colorado in 2008-09, the most in a single season in Avalanche history.
At times it seemed like a never-ending cycle. A player went down with an injury, and to fill that void another player was called up from the Lake Erie Monsters, the club’s American Hockey League affiliate.
Needless to say, the Lake Erie brass and its players had to be ready at a moment’s notice in case the parent club needed reinforcements.
Colorado lost 366 man-games to injury this season, the second highest total in Avalanche history (the 2003-04 club lost 417 man-games). That number ranked fifth in the National Hockey League this season, trailing only the New York Islanders (582), St. Louis (465), Dallas (379) and Washington (377).
The call-ups played a big role for our club when we were struggling with injuries" - Avalanche head coach Tony Granato
And it wasn’t just the number of man-games lost, but also the quality of the players who suffered injuries that had the Avalanche in a tight spot. Franchise forwards Joe Sakic and Paul Stastny
missed significant chunks of the season, while other regulars up front, including Ben Guite, David Jones
, Marek Svatos and Darcy Tucker, were also sidelined for considerable stretches. Even Ryan Smyth, who was a model of consistency throughout the year, succumbed to the injury bug and was knocked out for the remainder of the season after playing in the team’s first 77 games.
Factor in the bumps, bruises and illnesses that players experience during the season, forcing them to miss a game or two here and there, and you can see how important a team’s farm system becomes.
“The call-ups played a big role for our club when we were struggling with injuries,” said Avalanche head coach Tony Granato
. “We were able to see some kids that we wouldn’t normally be able to see, and they did a really nice job for us.”
The Avalanche showcased some of its depth in the forward ranks, with Philippe Dupuis, Chris Durno, T.J. Galiardi, Matt Hendricks, Per Ledin and Chris Stewart all making their NHL debut during the season. Stewart was Colorado’s top rookie scorer with 11 goals and 19 points, while Galiardi led the club with three goals over the season’s final 11 games.
In addition, players with previous NHL experience, such as T.J. Hensick and Brian Willsie, were called up from Lake Erie early in the season and became regular contributors.
But when players are summoned from the AHL to the NHL level, you simply can’t ask them to step into the lineup and take on all the responsibilities of a Sakic or Stastny. More often than not, a team’s AHL call-ups are asked to play a simple game, jump into the action when they see the opportunity and be strong defensively.
Colorado’s call-ups particularly excelled in the latter.
While the Avalanche suffered injuries throughout its lineup, the club’s defensive unit may have been hit the hardest and the deepest. Veteran Adam Foote missed half the season, while Ruslan Salei and Daniel Tjarnqvist both suffered season-ending injuries in March. Blueliner Kyle Cumiskey was recalled to take some of the resulting ice time and was soon after knocked out of the lineup with a season-ending shoulder injury.
And much like the aforementioned Smyth, Brett Clark missed the final six games with a hand injury after skating in each of the club’s first 76 contests. Even Lawrence Nycholat, acquired on March 4 in the trade that sent Jordan Leopold to Calgary, wasn’t immune. Nycholat appeared in just five games before being sidelined with a head injury less than three weeks after arriving in Denver.
|Ray Macias was one of 11 players to make their NHL debut with the Avalanche in 2008-09 |
As a result, the Avalanche often rolled out a defensive unit featuring two, three or even four rookie blueliners during the final weeks of the season, with John-Michael Liles and Scott Hannan providing veteran leadership to a group that included first-year players Aaron MacKenzie, Ray Macias, Wes O’Neill, Derek Peltier and Mike Vernace.
With so many young players attempting to get their feet wet at the NHL level, the entire Avalanche roster had to tweak its approach slightly, resulting in a renewed emphasis in the defensive end.
As a result, Colorado saw a marked improvement in its penalty-killing percentage and collective defensive results late in the season.
Overall, the club finished 21st in the league in penalty-killing percentage at 79.9% (254/318), the same spot it occupied in 2007-08 when it posted an 81.4% rate. However, the team was particularly strong in that area as the season wound down.
During the month of April, the Avalanche’s revamped penalty-killing unit allowed just one power-play goal in six games (21/22) for an NHL-best 95.5% kill rate. A big part of that success was a season-high streak of 19 consecutive penalty kills from March 29 – April 9.
With the youngsters filling the void caused by injuries to the club’s veterans, Colorado allowed only eight goals in six April games, a 1.33 goals-per-game average.
Whether it was a defenseman helping to stave off an opposing power play, or a young forward playing a smart positional game and back-checking hard, keeping the opposition off the scoreboard was a collective effort late in the year.
And much of the Avalanche’s success at the defensive end is a testament to the depth in the organization’s system.
Although it may have been an unwelcomed opportunity, the Avalanche was able to showcase its depth during the 2008-09 season and get a glimpse of the talent that resides within its system.