Though the Colorado Avalanche
barely missed the Playoffs a year ago, 2007-08 began with a wave of understandable and justified optimism. Though it ended with a Playoff berth and a series win, the air of optimism isn't there any more.
The Avalanche collected 95 points in 2006-07 and finished the regular season as the hottest team in the NHL, only to fall one point short of the final Western Conference playoff berth. Management then dusted off the checkbook and signed coveted free agents Ryan Smyth
and Scott Hannan
, heart-and-soul players to join an already skilled mix of young and veteran players.
When more help was needed, the Avalanche won the late-season sweepstakes and added Peter Forsberg
, bringing him back to the city where he helped Joe Sakic
and Patrick Roy
capture a couple of Stanley Cups. The Avs also brought back hard-hitting defenseman Adam Foote
, another Cup veteran, via a trade.
The Avs made the Playoffs and beat Minnesota before being pummeled by the Red Wings in four games, leading to a mutual parting with coach Joel Quenneville
. The next question: Where do they go from here?
The 2006-07 season marked the first time the Avalanche missed the playoffs since before it relocated from Quebec City to Denver in 1995. But 2006-07 was hardly a totally lost season. Rookies Paul Stastny
and Wojtek Wolski
made big impacts, and Peter Budaj
seemed to establish himself as Colorado’s goaltender of the future. The addition of Smyth and Hannan seemed to have set the table for a return to elite status in the NHL.
2007-08 SEASON STATS
(6th West/10th NHL)
|Change from 2006-07
(3rd West/4th NHL)
(12th West/24th NHL)
But then came an epidemic of injuries. Joe Sakic
, who never gets hurt, missed half the season with a sports hernia. Smyth suffered one serious injury after another. Stastny missed time with a ruptured appendix. Wolski and Hannan got banged up. And Forsberg, excellent when able he was to step on the ice, continued to be plagued by nagging injuries.
The big surprise of the season was how the goaltending situation played out. Jose Theodore
, who had seemed on a collision course for early retirement, recaptured his form from early in his career and wrested the starting job from Peter Budaj
Theodore’s performance was a major factor as the Avalanche was able to overcome the injury bug, return to the postseason, and eliminate the Northwest Division-champion Wild in the first round of the Playoffs. But the injuries wouldn’t go away, and the Avalanche was eviscerated in the Western Conference semifinals — they were swept by the Red Wings, with the final game an ignominious 8-2 thrashing on home ice.
"It's easy to make excuses with injuries, and you don’t want to do that," Foote told the Denver Post after the final defeat. "But what can you do? What can you say? We had the breaks go against us in that department, and we just could never get any momentum going in this series."
This will be a summer of major decisions.
One has already been made: Tony Granato
will be back behind the bench in the fall, replacing Quenneville, whose departure came as a surprise to many. But by the end, it appeared that GM Francois Giguere and his coach weren't on the same page. Quenneville wasn't Giguere's hire, and this apparently was one instance where the "mutual decision" to part ways really was just that.
Granato is replacing the man who replaced him. He coached the Avs from 2002-04 before being replaced by — and serving as an assistant to — Quenneville.
"Tony is energetic, he's passionate, he's hard-working and he's a smart hockey person," Giguere said. "I thought he was the best candidate, and I was content that this was the guy for the team."
Giguere also has to decide which, if any, of his unrestricted free agents he wants to bring back.
Theodore may have revived his career with his strong showing in the second half of the season and his performance against the Wild — but against Detroit, he looked like the goaltender who had struggled for years since winning the Hart Trophy in 2001-02. Theodore made $6 million last season and likely faces a pay cut despite his strong second half. If he isn't re-signed, does Budaj get the No. 1 job or will Giguere shop for a starter?
The Avs also have to figure out whether they want to pursue familiar names Andrew Brunette
and John-Michael Liles
. Brunette turns 35 this summer and dropped from 27 goals and 83 points to 19 and 59. Liles' offense plummeted – he went from 14 goals to six and 44 points to 32. At 27, he should be in his prime
Then there are the legends.
Will Forsberg try to continue his career? If he decides he wants to keep playing, is he worth it at this point in his career given his advancing years and medical issues?
Then there's Sakic, who's still a major contributor when he's healthy — even at age 38. He had 40 points in 44 regular-season games and 10 in the Avs' 10 Playoff contests.
It's unfathomable that the Avs wouldn't sign Sakic if he wants to come back. However, it's also not impossible that another team could pursue him — especially the Vancouver Canucks
, who might try to entice the Burnaby, British Columbia, native to complete his career at home.
There's also another possibility: retirement.
"I'm going to take some time and discuss it with my family," Sakic told the media after the Avs were eliminated. "It was a frustrating year for me."
It was frustrating not only for Sakic, but the entire franchise.